Reviews: Batman Returns
Batman Returns: Questioning a Classic
Batman Returns does not hold up very well as a Batman movie. The biggest problem with Batman Returns is the characterization. Tim Burton has been quoted as saying "Anybody who knows me knows I would never read a comic book," and it shows with the central three characters. Batman may have the worst case with this. Here, Batman shows a willingness to murder, which is sorely out of character. People debate thoroughly whether or not Batman's no-killing policy actually helps or hurts Gotham, but regardless of philosophical opinion, it can't be argued that he has no such policy. Batman doesn't murder. This isn't the only problem; rather than the unfazed crime fighter usually seen, here he is shown sincerely apologizing after hitting Catwoman once; never mind the fact that she is both attacking him and just blew up a department store. To nail the coffin shut, he can't even defeat a small poodle with a batarang set to autopilot. The villains have it no better; instead of being the talented and self-sufficient catburglar she is usually portrayed as, Selina Kyle starts as a bumbling, na´ve fool until she is shoved out of a window. Remember, girls, you too can be smart, sexy, and independent— but only after suffering from severe brain trauma!!! The Penguin doesn't remotely resemble his original counterpart. I can understand that in a new adaptation, changes will be made, and characters can even benefit from them, but there was a severely missed opportunity by doing what they did here. Batman already has a freakishly deformed villain abandoned by his family, who lives in the sewers, and doesn't consider himself a "man" anymore; this Penguin is an unintentional Killer Croc ripoff. Acting is generally strong; the central three all hold their own, but Keaton somehow doesn't seem as "Bruce Wayne" as he was in Batman. Plot is a mixed bag; Catwoman and Penguin declare Batman "a thorn in their sides" after the former loses a single fight to him and the latter simply had a conversation with him. Additionally, the "Cobblepot for Mayor" portion of the plot felt too much like a gratuitous reference to the 60s show. Not all is bad, though. Visually, Burton's Gotham is stunning, and Elfman's musical score wows, as it always tends to do.
Batman as a Gothic Tragedy
One might wonder why this film could be singled out as gothic- after all, Batman literally lives in Gotham City, right? Well, sort of. Batman has been portrayed as Film Noir, Pulp Fiction, and pure camp, but never has it been truly gothic, save for this film. The reason I'd single this film out as Gothic is all from its heavy use of common Gothic motifs- the strangely supernatural aura the three leads have, despite no overt magic taking place, the rampant Animal Motifs, the incredible darkness of the world they live in- all of these make the story into more of a tragedy of two people (Batman and Catwoman) who cannot find their place in a dark, unwelcoming world, of a monster trying to wreak a terrible vengeance (Penguin), and of a monster that uses the facade of being a normal person to exploit these other characters, and the world around him (Max Shreck), a quasi-vampire played by Christopher Walken. What makes all this work, in my opinion, is the contrast between these characters, and the brilliant story that is told with as few words as possible. Ultimately, Batman's character arc is shown as thus- feeling lost after slaying the monster who killed his parents, bereft of purpose, he tries to drive others away by becoming more like a monster himself with killing. What he finds are two people who disrupt his view of himself as a tortured man-beast by meeting a man who is more of an outcast than he could ever be ("You're just jealous that I'm a genuine freak, and you have to wear a mask!") and a woman who is so exploited by the world that his own personal tragedy seems like a minor inconvenience. Contrasting all these deep yet bizarre figures is a character who resembles nothing so much as a cartoon villain- a man that works to ruin all three of the other characters and never shows even a hint of remorse or even acknowledges his crimes, and who paints himself as more of a personification than a true person ("I am the light of this city, and I am its mean twisted soul.") In the end, the tragedy of these figures is played out- the beast who sought vengeance has it all crash down around him, the tortured woman is left without answers, likely as lost a s our hero was a the start, and the true villain is destroyed with little fanfare, while our hero rides off into the night, as lost as he was when the story began.
Why is Batman in this movie?
I had an odd experience with this movie. The first time, I only watched about the last forty minutes of it. I very much enjoyed what I saw. A bleak, morose, oddly humorous atmosphere, top-tier action scenes, and effective characterization. The second time, though, I had the opportunity to watch from start to finish, and at this juncture I was disappointed. It took me a bit to realize why, but then it became obvious. Who the heck is this Bruce Wayne guy, and why am I supposed to care about him? Don't get me wrong- I love Batman, but here he has no character arc. He watches stuff happen every so often, then he punches things. The punching things part is great, by the way, but it's something any action movie hero can do. This is Batman. I expect a little more than that out of him. Whenever I see him on screen here, I just get bored waiting for one of the more interesting characters to show up. The movie was just a lot better when I came in two thirds of the way through guessing what had happened so far. This movie has a very long exposition, a very long finale, and a comparatively brief period where roughly a dozen important plot related events happen so quickly that it just gave me a bad Fridge Logic headache. The eighty minutes I imagined this movie started out with turned out to be a lot better than the ones they actually filmed. Here's what would have been better- just take Batman out of the movie altogether. Render his narrative roles to Catwoman. That would have given us a lot more time to focus on the remaining characters, and it would have given us a much more satisfying denouement. Batman manages to foil all the evil schemes in this movie through "jamming signals", which for all practical purposes is a Deus Ex Machina. He becomes a Boring Invincible Hero whose only real motivation is "be a good guy". Catwoman, by contrast, isn't invincible at all, and probably could have at least gotten some decent dramatic tension, not to mention the Character Development necessary for her to fulfill Batman's narrative roles while still keeping her own. Admittedly, this makes it not really a Batman movie anymore, but let's face it. Out of every character in this movie, his arc is without a doubt the weakest. My recommendation? Do it like I did the first time and only watch the last forty minutes. You're not missing much.
The Greatest Batman Film
I consider Batman Returns, directed brilliantly by Tim Burton, to be the best Batman film ever made. It achieved outstandingly in style and atmosphere, but most importantly was, and remains, the darkest Batman adaptation ever. Although the recent Dark Knight film comes tediously close, it fails to reach the importance and satisfication of Batman Returns. The story concerns Batman taking on the evil Penguin, who is working with the equally evil mayor Shreck, and forming a bizarre relationship with Catwoman/Selina Kyle who seeks to ruin Shreck, in doing so working with Penguin to kill the mayor and Batman. It Makes Sense In Context. The narrative is gripping and surprisingly bleak. The twists and turns are remarkably well-wrritten and well performed, making the plot fast-paced and unpredicatble right until the very end. Even the final shot was an unexpected twist. The film touches upon unprecedented themes which even the recent Christopher Nolan series has not. A lot of these are groundbreaking, and even influenced the comic canon. But by far my favourite thing about this film is it's reimagining of the characters. Unlike all other Batman films, Burton isn't tempted to make a film solely about Batman wangsting or the villians he faces. Instead he forms a suspensful web between them all, making the film feel much more complete than other Batman attempts. Penguin is perhaps the best reimagining in the film. No longer an archetype millionaire villian, he is now a ruthless disgusting creature reduced to an animal after he was rejected by the millionaire society that rules Gotham, posing an interesting issue which means that despite his grotesque acts of evil, we always feel slightly sorry for poor Oswald Cobblepots. Catwoman is also well-done. Her character has been refined and made realistic in a surprisingly dark way. Batman himself is done perfectly. Burton has no time for the unrealistic, silly ideal of Batman not killing even the most vile criminals. He is a more believable, tortured character whose belief in good and evil is blurred considerably. So is the audiences. Overall this film is what I consider to be the perfect Batman film. It is dark, fun and beautiful. 10/10
Burton goes to further extremes.
Batman Returns is a very odd film to review. On the one hand, it has the same music and is even more of a visual treat than Burton's first Batman movie. The winter motif is gorgeous, and the movie can be recommended for that reason alone. On the other hand, it takes everything that was wrong with the first movie and dials those factors up to eleven. I'll styart with one improvement. This time Bruce is socially active and not a complete recluse. That alone goes a long way towards making the character more like Bruce Wayne than just a guy saying he's Bruce Wayne. But his alter ego, Batman, is even more of a sociopath this time around. He burns people alive and even smiles at a man he has just strapped a bomb to. Then he has the hypocritical nerve to tell Catwoman that the law applies to people like them so she shouldn't kill Shrek. When you see him say that to her, remember that bomb scene. But for some reason he can feel guilt about hitting women, even one whose only actions in front of him were blowing up a store and trying to beat him up. This isn't a matter of a 'connection' between them stopping him. She's blowing stuff up! Don't apologize to her right after that! Not if you're going around setting other criminals on fire. Again, the villains' backstories either don't give them proper motivation or are just too wierd. Why does Shrek want to suck the energy from Gotham? I don't know. What does the Penguin want? I don't know. He lied about not knowing who his parents were and running for mayor was not his idea. Catwoman is the only character with any real motivation for anything she does; you just have to suspend your disbelief that going nuts gives a timid secretary acrobatic skills to fight with Batman. It didn't work with the Joker in the last movie, but I'll admit that's nitpicking. So with Catwoman being the only person with any motivation, and Batman being wildly inconsistent, there is again no plot, only a sequence of events that make little sense when put together. While I have largely criticized both Burton Batman movies, I do not think that they are bad. They are great Burton movies. But as Batman movies they fall pretty flat.