Batman Returns (1992, Tim Burton)

BatmanReturns

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Corrupt industrialist Max Shreck manipulates the Penguin, a former circus performer with a grudge against Gotham City, for his own ends – and also injures his secretary so much she ends up transforming into Catwoman.

Good guys: We first see Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton again) sat alone, brooding in the dark. Aside from this moment and a short action scene that follows, he’s not in the film’s opening 34 minutes – and not a huge amount afterwards. It’s hard to imagine a title character getting less screen time in a superhero movie. In a nice touch, Bruce is initially sympathetic towards the Penguin because they’re both orphans. He refers to Vicki from the previous film and tells us their relationship petered out.

Bad guys: There are two Big Bads. Danny DeVito is terrifically freaky and unhinged as the Penguin, aka Oswald Cobblepot. The character is born in the opening scene, but then abandoned by his parents because he’s deformed. The child ends up in a sewer and is adopted by some penguins. Thirty-three years later, he orchestrates mayhem from his hidden lair in Gotham Zoo; when he kidnaps businessman Max Schrek (Christopher Walken, uneven), the two end up joining forces. The Penguin wants to come out of hiding, find his parents and learn his real name. He knows about Max’s dodgy dealing because of the evidence Max throws away: “You flush it, I flaunt it!”. With Max’s help, the Penguin runs for mayor of Gotham, but when the population turns against him, he plans to kill every first-born child in the city (a knowing reference to King Herod: the film is set at Christmas). Schrek himself has mad hair, wears leather gloves to business meetings, is well liked by the public but is blackmailing the incumbent mayor. He wants Bruce Wayne to invest in a plan to build a new power plant, which will actually steal energy from Gotham City; he later learns that Wayne is Batman but is then electrocuted to death.

Other guys: A victim as much as a villain, Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman is the star of the show. The character starts out as Selina Kyle, Schrek’s lowly secretary (“Lowly assistant,” as she puts it), who gets caught up in the opening action scene and meets Batman. She owns a cat called Miss Kitty and has an unseen boyfriend who abandons her at Christmas. “I guess I should have let him win that last racquetball game,” she laments. After she finds out about her boss’s evil plan, he pushes her out of a skyscraper window. She lands in an alley, cut and bruised but alive, where a pack of cats swarm around her. Heading home, she goes through some kind of psychotic episode: she trashes her flat, constructs a tight-fitting, black, leather outfit and creates a new persona: Catwoman. As her alter ego, she clashes with Batman and teams up with the Penguin to get rid of him – but at the same time, Selina is attracted to Bruce Wayne. Annette Bening was originally cast in the role, but then became pregnant. Sean Young campaigned for the job, famously turning up unannounced at Tim Burton’s office in a homemade Catwoman outfit. But Pfeiffer got the call, and she’s sensational as both the dowdy Selina and her erotic alter ego. Returning from the preview film are Michael Gough as Alfred and Pat Hingle as Commissioner Gordon, while the most notable member of the Penguin’s gang is played by an underused Vincent Schiavelli (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ghost, Tomorrow Never Dies, the Humbug episode of The X Files). Pee-wee Herman cameos as the Penguin’s dad, reportedly replacing 1960s Penguin Burgess Meredith, who was too ill.

Best bits:

* The baby Oswald, unseen in his cage, pulling a cat through the bars and presumably eating it.

* Another masterpiece of a score from Danny Elfman.

* Selina meekly pouring coffee, and trying to not get in the way, at the board meeting.

* The Batman logo shining through the window at Wayne Manor.

* Vincent Schiavelli and the collection of macabre, grotesque henchmen dressed as skeletons, devils and clowns.

* A goon holding Selina prisoner. Batman fires a dart attached to a wire at him, which imbeds itself in the wall. “You missed!” the bad guys says. Batman pulls on the wire, detaching a huge chunk of masonry, which clobbers him.

* Selina finding a taser and testing it on the unconscious henchman.

* Selina enters her flat. “Honey, I’m home!” she shouts. Then, to herself: “I forgot, I’m not married.” She then listens to her answerphone messages. The fourth one is: “Hey, Selina, this is yourself calling to remind you, honey, that you have to come all the way back to the office unless you remembered to bring home the Bruce Wayne file because the meeting’s on Wednesday…”

* Selina, after her accident, returning to her flat and – in a daze – going through the same motions as the earlier scene.

* The Penguin, on his parents: “I was their number-one son and they treated me like number two.”

* The first appearance of Catwoman. “Be gentle,” she says to a mugger she’s confronting. “It’s my first time.” She beats him up, then says: “I am Catwoman. Hear me roar.”

* The Penguin, huffing and wheezing and eating a raw fish, being introduced to a room full of election campaign staff.

* Catwoman going mental in a department store – using her whip to first knock the heads off mannequins, then as a skipping rope.

* Catwoman back-flipping up to Batman and Penguin and saying, “Miaow…” The building behind her then explodes.

* Batman knocking Catwoman off a roof… and her landing in an open truck full of kitty litter.

* The Penguin finding Catwoman on his bed. “Just the pussy I’ve been looking for!”

* Catwoman straddling Batman and licking his face. Oh, my.

* The Penguin taking remote control of the Batmobile.

* Bruce chastising Alfred for letting Vicki Vale into the Batcave in the previous film – a scene that feels like it was included to explain away a plot hole.

* While dancing at a party, Bruce and Selina each figure out the other’s secret identity. “Does this mean we have to start fighting?” Selina asks.

* The Penguin’s army of actual penguins.

* Max pleading with an angry Catwoman: “I don’t know what you want, but I know I can get it for you… Money? Jewels? A big ball of string?”

Review: What an odd film. It often feels like key bits of it are missing – especially when it comes to dramatising events and explaining characters’ motivations. But maybe that’s just because the film isn’t too concerned with story. The plot is simply a fake Christmas tree to hang some nice decorations on. Those decorations are the film’s design work and its guest characters. The former is dazzling. Sets, props, costumes and lighting are simply glorious. We get hints of German Expressionism mixed in with a bizarre fairy-tale world. It’s even more heightened and surreal than the preceding film. The villains, meanwhile, take all the focus. The Penguin and Catwoman form an entertaining double act about halfway through, while Batman himself is generally sidelined. It struck me, actually, that there was a massive missed opportunity here: to do a superhero film totally from the villains’ point of view. We do get close to that, but I suspect not on purpose. Also, the lack of any roots holding up the tree – no genuine emotion, no rigorous plotting – is a serious problem. The dialogue falls flat more often than it takes flight. And the longer the movie goes on, the less it all means. While watching the opening half-hour or so, I wrote ‘8?’ down in my notes as a score out of 10. A little later, I crossed that out and put ‘7’. By the time the movie crawled to an unengaging climax, I’d changed it to…

Six references to The Cabinet of Dr Caligari out of 10.

Next time: Batman goes animated.

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