By Christian DiMartino
The Batman movies have had quite the history. Yes, we eventually got Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, work from the gods. Yet before them, we had four movies that each had an interesting place in cinematic history. To explain:
- Tim Burton’s Batman was a smash when it released in 1989, surprising the Michael Keaton naysayers and treating us to a wonderfully nutty Jack Nicholson performance. It’s fun, it’s funny, it’s dazzling to the eye, and it features a soundtrack by Danny Elfman and Prince. For whatever reason, as a kid, this didn’t interest me, but as an adult, I’m a big fan. Huh.
- Tim Burton’s Batman Returns made decent money, while also scarring your children. This film is such a 180 from its predecessor, from its grotesque characters to its sexual innuendos, that Warner Bros. gave up on Burton. Mostly because they wanted a Batman movie that would sell more McDonald’s toys. Not a joke.
- The late Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever is also a complete 180 from Batman Returns, in that it’s rather cartoonish, with bright colors and cartoony villains (some cartoony dialogue too). As a kid, this was my favorite; as an adult, the first two are obviously better. Yet they got their McDonald’s merchandise (I actually own the Mcdonald’s merchandise from this movie, so darn me for letting them win), and they got my boy Jim Carrey. Not a great movie, but it is, in my eyes, enjoyable.
- The cartoony exploits of Batman Forever were turned up to 11 for the final film, Schumacher’s Batman & Robin. Dazzling to the eye, painful to the ear, and just ghastly. Yet it is at least laughably bad, if you enjoy a good cringe (I am a sick man, so I do).
Alright, so with all that in mind, let’s discuss today’s Christmas movie, Batman Returns. Anyone trying to debunk my claims that this is a Christmas movie, ahem, there’s a giant Christmas tree in the middle of Gotham (a dumb blonde falls onto it midway through the movie) and there’s a mistletoe. Connect the dots, people.
I really, really had the itch to write about Batman Returns because it’s a film that I find so fascinating. It’s such a dark, creepy, weird, at times chilling little movie that it makes me wonder if Burton was going through some sort of depression when he made it. Though, actually, maybe it was the opposite. Maybe Burton was in his natural habitat when he made this, because this is among the most Tim Burton-y of Tim Burton’s movies, and it’s one of the best. I’ll even say this… I love it more than the original. Perhaps an unpopular opinion, but sticking to it.
There is something about this film’s existence that I will just never get over. Burton must have had all of the power at this point, because how else could he possibly get away with it? At its time, there wasn’t a comic book movie like it. Truly, there weren’t many movies like it, and even today, there still isn’t. Needless to say, I admire the hell out of it. I admire the fact that Burton appeared to truly make the movie that he wanted to wake, no matter what the public thought. Sequels are supposed to be bigger. This one certainly is, but not only is it bigger, but it’s better. But hey, that’s just me.
Within the first two minutes of this movie, chills arrive each time. We open as we see the Cobblepots dealing with their hideous baby. The baby is never seen, but he is apparently so hideous that when people see him, they run away screaming. Not only that, said baby also eats their pet cat. It’s very easy to see from these opening minutes why this movie didn’t click with everyone- all of this, set to Danny Elfman’s chilling score, is the stuff of horror movies, not Batman movies. Yet that’s what makes it so interesting. Anyways, the Cobblepots are finally sick of dealing with him, so they take the baby and chuck his crib into the river.
Some twenty years later, at a Christmas tree lighting ceremony, a big corporate goon named Max Schreck (Christopher Walken) is the target of a bunch of henchmen, all of which look like they came out of Tim Burton’s bedroom. Clowns, skeletons, you name it. Batman (Keaton) comes to the rescue, and Schreck ultimately ends up in the sewer. Or rather, the lair of The Penguin (Danny Devito), a hideous, pathetic creature (you know, from the beginning of the movie) who orchestrated the attack and needs Schreck in order to rise to power in Gotham so then he can ultimately kidnap the children of Gotham City and poison them with toxins. Fun for the whole family.
As The Penguin rises to power, Batman is onto him and sets out to bring him down. Meanwhile, Schreck’s secretary, a dork named Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer) is pushed out of one really tall building. After she is ultimately revived by cats, she dons an entirely new personality, along with a new persona: Catwoman. Catwoman also stirs up trouble in Bruce/ Batman’s life, once she teams up with The Penguin but also once she begins a relationship of the sorts with Bruce. All the while, she is hellbent on murdering Schreck for obvious reasons.
All of this sounds insane. It is, but that’s what makes this so fascinating. It’s tone is totally nuts, but I can’t help but respect what a dark, creepy journey this is. Burton was out to prove that comic books weren’t just kids’ stuff (oh, but those good ole McDonald’s toys beg to differ).
I love Batman Returns for a number of reasons. For the way that Burton could take the Christmas season and make it so grotesque. For its characters. Keaton is arguably the best Batman. Devito is having a ball, even if we aren’t always having a ball looking at him. Yet Pfeiffer about runs away with the movie. Pfeiffer is the best of the Catwomen, in a performance that is so unbelievably sexy, she could probably convert me. That voice, that vacuum-sealed BDSM outfit she skips around in. I love this film for its certain moments and dialogue, most of which are because of Catwoman.
Yet aside from Catwoman and Burton, the real star of Batman Returns is Bo Welch. Yes, this is the same man who directed The Cat in the Hat. He also did the production design here, which blew me away watching it last week. How on earth did this not at least get an Oscar nomination? Every set in this movie is to die for, especially the weird carnival/circus lair that The Penguin resides in. They could easily devote an entire amusement park to this movie alone, and I’d be all over it like white on rice.
Batman Returns may have once lived in some sort of infamy, but it currently lives in what’s left of my weird little heart. It’s the work of a creator’s full vision being brought to life, and knowing how often those dastardly studios get involved, this is certainly a rarity.