TThirty years ago, audiences came out in droves to watch exaggerated political satire about a mayoral campaign for a disgusting sewer transformation — a film that also doubled as a whimsical romantic comedy about two eccentric people with mask fetish, commercial strikes, and spitting in a snowball town. Hindsight has a way of turning every box-office sensation into an eerie time capsule, allowing us to contemplate the weird attractions that used to put the ass in the seats. But through the lens of the fashionable modern machine and the dominant super-industrial complex that occupies it, Batman The reruns seem like a real anomaly, as grotesque, horny and maybe even personal as big-budget Hollywood scenes get.
It’s certainly a more special movie than its predecessor, Tim Burton’s record-breaking popcorn-themed Batman, which was released to crowded audiences in the summer of 1989. To lure Burton back into the world of the head-to-toe crusader, Warner Bros. had to offer He has more creative control over the sequel. The director was practicing it from top to bottom. Instead of the original Art Deco Noir aesthetic, Batman Returns goes for a full-on Baroque story. When the camera pans like a creature of the night through the quirky architecture of Gotham Zoo, it’s clear we’re in Burtonville, the former home of wise pranksters and lone hairdresser androids.
With Batman Returns, Burton has transformed Gotham City into the grandest of the Big, terrorized by a gang of criminal carnage and inhabited by freaks on both sides of the hero/villain divide. That includes underage billionaire Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton, slipping back into a weary head and cowl), the film’s ostensible hero, who at some point resembles himself to Norman Bates or Ted Bundy, serial killers with separate personalities or secret pastimes.
Doubling Bruce’s problems, halving his screen time. Almost everyone would agree that Joker Jack Nicholson stole the first Batman. The second immediately spotlights the hallway of the crooks, depriving Keaton of any dialogue for the opening half-hour. The movie belongs more to the disfigured Danny DeVito, Oswald Copleypot, AKA the Penguin, and Selina Kyle than Michelle Pfeiffer, who is reborn as the Avenger Catwoman.
Another thing that drew Burton back was the involvement of Heathers screenwriter Daniel Waters, who gave the material an arc, black comic flair. The absurd political angle of the plot was his idea. It’s an inspiring gag, imagining that a vulgar creature like a penguin could steal the heart of voters. In the movie’s funniest reveal, Super Villain DeVito is interrupted mid-meal, chaotically feeding on a raw fish, by new employees of customers and cheerful volunteers applauding his nomination. What seemed ironic in 1992 now seems poignantly naive. Imagine a politician dropping out of the race simply because it was taped in violation of his rule.
Waters’ plot lumps together, forcing the villains into an irrational allegiance. It doesn’t matter – for Burton, it’s just an excuse to bump into these massive cartoon characters, to build a theater stage for three tormented animal outlaws. The director alters the classic Batman theme of villains distorting reflections of the good guy to fit his enduring romance with misfits. DeVito, acting excessively under hills and hours of daily compensating work, makes the Penguin a sympathetic monster: terrifying in appearance, rotten in nature, but still a tragic character. Burton loves him as only a father loves him. He considers him a clan spirit for his arch-friend. Who is the Cobblepot but Wayne is without a franchise, abandoned instead of an orphan? “You’re just jealous because I’m such a weirdo and you have to wear a mask,” he told Batman. It’s a point the Dark Knight acknowledges.
Meanwhile, Pfeiffer, who was nabbed for the role after Annette Bening became pregnant and evicted him, introduces one of the greatest transforming movie stars in all of comic book cinema: a sneaky embodiment of a hellish attitude, no rage, toxic-sounding self-confidence flounderers and waging war on Powerful and sexist exploiters of Gotham. In both embellished performance and instantly leather-tight patchwork clothing, it could have shot straight from the source material’s panels. However, Pfeiffer also summons the raw desperation of a real identity crisis, which disturbingly comes to the surface during the brilliant alter ego, tango ballroom with the enemy in the film’s pre-climax calm.
If political contest refers to Preston Sturges’ classic comedy of superhero drag, there’s an Ernst Lubitsch touch to the romance between Keaton and Pfeiffer, as they spin each other into variations of tuxedos, concealing their double lives, secret identities and battle scars while canoodle by the fireplace. . Batman Returns is the most outlandish on-screen treatment of these characters: the ones who dare see some S&M fantasy in people burying their curvaceous bodies under rubber and leather. It’s one of the reasons parents have been so angry about the bizarre sequel, and why McDonald’s has canceled its Happy Meals line. Dialogue drips with hint. The penguin, a chatty pervert, greedily sniffs at Catwoman’s shoes and craves after his apprentices.
Remarkably, the film has a class pronoun as well. Her real villain is neither the Penguin nor Catwoman but the thief baron Christopher Walken Max Shrek, named after the actor who played Nosferatu but apparently modeled after the younger Donald Trump. It is, of course, another distorted mirror image of Batman – Bruce Wayne looking to prey on people rather than protect them. “The law doesn’t apply to men like him,” Catwoman Pfeiffer cleverly says of her boss, the man who pushed her out the window to complete her supernatural origin story. Years before Christopher Nolan sent Bane to occupy Wall Street, Burton sent a jolt of class war through Gotham City.
As an adaptation, Batman Returns plays as fast and loose as the first Batman. Burton was quick to admit, in his memoirs about Burton, that he had never been a comic book reader—a confession that emphasized his indifference to basic background and elements such as the character’s traditional aversion to murder. For some fanatics, his films about Batman are heresy. Certainly, they hail from an era less faithful or fan-pleasing than blockbuster comic books. However, their exaggerated visual pleasures and spray-painting-size displays have their own fidelity to the original medium, a kinship with the soul of the pulp. They reject realism, which might be the most appropriate way for a man in a bat story to strike at those with a similar penchant for drama.
What distinguishes Batman’s return as a product of an entirely different era of superhero scenes is the decisive victory of the authorship that Burton claims over his borrowed intellectual property. Joel Schumacher, Nolan, Zack Snyder, Todd Phillips – all these filmmakers have discovered ways to put their own brand on Batman legends. But none of them has succeeded in completely shaping it into the shape of their own interests and obsessions. Batman Returns Tim Burton movie first, Batman movie second. And watching it today, at a time when finding the directorial soul of a superhero movie often requires some real detective work, is to bask in the weirdness of its accomplishment. The bat signal can’t compete with the strange flag that flies Burton over the Gotham City skyline.