Out of Focus
Batman Returns is a classic. It was one of the first films I remember seeing when I was a kid, and even though most of it was lost on me back then, I still hold it in that special regard. Nonetheless, my review will touch on the quality of this mega-budget sequel, how it lost Batman, and how it has affected other films (and their sequels) of its genre.
When a corrupt energy tycoon's plans of expansion are challenged by the Mayor of Gotham City (Michael Murphy), Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) strikes a deal with the wretched Penguin (Danny DeVito) to literally steal power from Gotham's figureheads. But as the pair’s evil deeds grow out of their control, Batman (Michael Keaton) swoops in to save his city.
Tim Burton had a host of experts at his disposal. Costuming, score, make-up, and of course, the set design… all top notch. Even his actors give the studio a run for their money. There are some masterfully shot sequences of Gotham’s snow-covered cityscape that greatly contribute to the rich (and decadent) social caste, as well as leave you in awe. You have Burton’s trademark shocking simplicity where anything can happen without a moment’s notice to anyone - Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) will stab Batman should she feel like it, Penguin will clip a trick umbrella around Catwoman’s throat should she reject him, and Max will shove his secretary out of a perilous window should she discover his sinister plans. Also worthy of admiration, is the pacing with which the story is told… scenes don’t cut away when their purpose is served - they expand to reveal the creatures lurking in the shadows, the madness behind smiling faces, and just how ready the characters are to lose control of themselves. The cast give great performances, some more amusing than they probably should have been, but still fun to watch.
This is a Batman movie that scarcely involves Batman. He’s more of an afterthought to all the characters involved in the story, that when the Penguin and Catwoman mention his name, it’s only because they have to. Playtime is over, so I guess we should talk about how we’re going to get rid of Batman. Now granted, we already saw an origin story in the first movie, leaving less to be desired on that end, and more action almost promised. And there is a good deal of action invested within this sequel. Unfortunately, a good deal of these scenes, though well staged, have some awkward editing. Batman was just framed for killing “the Ice Princess”, and only a moment later, he’s on his back flirting with Catwoman. Or how about his entrance in the film? The one where he foils a few terrorists in his Batmobile before homing in on a clown threatening Selina Kyle. Afterwards, it’s just assumed that he mopped up all the bad guys with the camera-shy Commissioner Gordon (Pat Hingle) patting him on the back.
There are a lot of important ideas in this sequel that went to waste. At the end of the first film, Batman is elevated (or demoted, is it?) from his outlaw status and declared a public hero/servant who is to be summoned through the use of the bat signal. Penguin’s idea is to make the people of Gotham fall into desperation by destroying Batman’s image, pushing himself up to the stand as a newcomer. When Penguin’s idea works, the idea is treated like a throw-a-way: executed, and never made mention of again. There is no evidence afterwards to suggest that Batman is ever redeemed when Gotham rejects the Penguin, and it doesn’t even concern Batman that he’s been framed for murder and made public enemy number one. The take could have been that he would bask in that notoriety - that since Batman doesn’t consider crime-fighting a popularity contest, he would take advantage of this greater fear spread throughout Gotham. Instead, during a fight with the Penguin, who declares: “you’re just jealous because I’m a genuine freak and you have to wear a mask!” Batman replies: “you may be right.” Indeed, apart from the Penguin and Catwoman, the only people Batman devotes his fists to are the Penguin’s circus goons. The story is quite shallow and compressed, serving up as an inconsequential popcorn flick, and little else.
Some people denounce the campy dialogue and the overall silliness that exacerbates any pun attempted. While some is quite cringe-worthy, it is an adopted style, not exclusive to Batman Returns. The last problem I have is with the various “adaptations” of each character in the film. The Penguin is not meant to be a mutated “birdman” that lives in the sewers, and there is nothing mystical, blond, or super-powered about Catwoman in the comics. Since these characters bear little semblance to their comic book counterparts, and because the movie seems more devoted to them than the title character, this might as well be something completely original and not affiliated with Batman. Therefore, you have to force yourself to regard this as Tim Burton’s imagining coupled with Sam Hamm and Daniel Walters writing, rather than an actual adaptation of Batman. If you can reconcile that, then you will have fun. If not, you will be disappointed.
As I said earlier, this film formed the mold for “too many characters”, or at least, that scapegoat. In reality, there are only three villains, one of which is created exclusively for the movie, but the problem is the focus. Neither Batman nor Bruce Wayne speak until half an hour into the movie. The character seems to strictly be a vehicle for action scenes, and little more. There are extensive origin stories birthing the Penguin (literally) and Catwoman that steal most of the attention away from the title character. Looking at other films of this superhero genre, such as Batman Begins, you can see that there are five villains from the comics in that monster, but the movie is still able to balance them all out while focusing mainly on Bruce Wayne AND Batman.