“It’s the horrible hideous penguin-man!”
Deneb’s rating: A mixed bag of dark wonders.
Deneb’s review: Sometimes a movie can change your life.
It’s not an uncommon statement. You hear that sort of thing all the time from the more artistic types – that one film, or book, or whatever, could ultimately lay claim to sending them down their current path. Sometimes it’s Fellini’s 8 ½, or Truffaut’s The Four Hundred Blows, or some such. For me? Well, read on.
I was… hmm… I’m not entirely sure, but let’s say somewhere in the neighborhood of twelve to fourteen. The time was at the beginning of summer, the place, the annual flea market held twice a year in the dusty parking lot of the local senior center. I was perusing the tattered boxes of old VHS tapes when one caught my eye. I picked it up. It was Batman Returns.
Now, up to that point I was a pretty opinionated kid when it came to a lot of things. For example, Disney cartoons beat Looney Tunes. This was A Fact, capital A, capital F, and I was prepared to take on all comers when it came to defending its sanctity (although this was largely because few people cared enough to argue the point, but still). Similarly, comics were lowbrow junk; everyone knew that. Well, OK, not all comics; I was prepared to make an exception for things like Tintin and Uncle Scrooge, but superhero comics? Feh. I was above such drivel.
Lately, though, I’d been getting curious. I wasn’t completely above the opinions of my peers, after all, and I had been known to guiltily flip through a few superhero comics from time to time. My opinion was changing, but it needed a catalyst – and here was this movie by Tim Burton, who I liked, with an interesting cover design and critics saying nice things about it on the back (although, as I would find out, those critics were far from unchallenged)…
My resolve wavered. I gave in to temptation. I plonked down fifty cents and the tape was mine.
It still is.
I’ll get into precisely why the movie changed my life in a little bit, but for now suffice it to say that it did, to the point that, while it’s been on my ‘must review’ docket for quite a long time, I’ve held off posting one because I haven’t been quite sure how to do it – in fact, I actually got about halfway through an earlier draft before setting it aside because, no. I wasn’t doing it justice.
I’m a bit more experienced now, though, and since this is my first written review posted in quite a while, I figured that just any old movie wouldn’t do. It had to be something significant. So here we go; the movie that changed my life – Batman Returns.
The movie starts on a snowy Christmas Eve, when a baby is born to the Cobblepots, a wealthy Gotham couple. Joy! Except not, because this baby is something different. This baby horrifies them so much that they commit an unspeakable act – they throw it into the river.
Cut to another Christmas season several decades later, and not one of the better ones the city has seen. Of late, it has been terrorized by the Red Triangle Circus Gang, a group of maniacal clowns, tumblers and sword-swallowers who seem to live for nothing except chaos and destruction. At the same time, the tabloids are abuzz with the latest rumors about the ‘Penguin-monster’, a seemingly mythical sewer-dwelling bird-man of some sort who has attained the status of Gotham’s own Bigfoot or Chupacabra. And while all that’s going on, the city is menaced behind the scenes by one Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), billionaire industrialist, whose plans benefit no one except himself.
Yep, good thing Batman (Michael Keaton) is still on the job. Too bad he’s a little too late to prevent the latest Red Triangle attack, during which Shreck manages to get himself kidnapped, and winds up in the clutches of the Penguin-monster himself – although he prefers just plain ol’ Penguin (Danny DeVito). Oswald Cobblepot, if you want to get technical.
You see, it turns out that the monster-baby from the beginning survived his attempted drowning, and, through the whim of fate, was washed into the penguin enclosure at the zoo. After what was no doubt an extremely strenuous upbringing, during which he spent some time out of town as a circus freak, he’s back to his old digs with a few new friends – and plans. Big plans. Plans that he needs Max’s help to bring to fruition, which is appropriate, because they, like Shreck’s, will do no one else any good.
And speaking of those plans, it seems that someone has gotten a whiff of them – namely, Shreck’s mousy secretary, Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer). Not a problem for a man without scruples; a quick murder and that’s the end of that. Except it’s not. Through mysterious (and possibly supernatural) means, Selina survives, but she is changed. She has another identity now – Catwoman – and she’s sworn revenge on her treacherous boss.
So, let’s recap – you’ve got Max’s scheme, you’ve got the Penguin’s scheme (the latter of which gets somewhat sidetracked by the former), you’ve got the Catwoman scheming revenge – it’s a scheme-a-palooza!
How will Batman clear up this mess – especially when he’s starting to get the hots for Selina, both in and out of costume, while she and the Penguin are both after his hide? One thing’s for certain – no one is getting out of this unscathed, and if he doesn’t act quickly, that may include Gotham City in general…
OK, before anything else, I should address the problems that many people have with this movie – for indeed, there are problems to be found; plenty of them. I’ll save the character issues for when I talk about the characters, but plot-wise, this is one meandering film.
Mind you, there are far, far worse out there – at least all the story arcs do eventually find closure, and they’re told in a straightforward enough manner – but on a basic level, Batman Returns is a movie that has trouble making up its mind. Is it the story of the Penguin and his sinister plans? Is it a tale of vengeance at the claws of Catwoman? Is it about Max Shreck and his nebulous plans for Gotham City – and if so, which ones?
Furthermore – and frankly, this is quite a common problem when it comes to Batman – this is a movie where the hero isn’t really a big part of things for most of the running time, to the point where you wonder why the villains are actually mad at him here, except for the fact that he gets in their way every now and then. Of course, they’re both kind of crazy, so one may assume that it doesn’t take much to incur their wrath, but for a good long while Bats doesn’t honestly do much to impede their plans at all; he mostly just mops up the damage and sits around going ‘hmm – I’ll betcha that Penguin guy is up to no good’. And lo and behold – he’s right! Go, Batman!
Really, a lot of BR’s problems could be solved quite easily if it’d stop hopping around and commit to just one story. The chief offender here is the ending, which – and this is not a spoiler; don’t worry – features no less than two climactic Penguin plans, both of which work perfectly well with the character as presented, but one of which is not needed. Not, mind you, that one is inferior to the other; they both work fine, but the screenwriter really should have made up his mind which plan he liked best and stuck with it. Instead, we skip from one to the other without the slightest warning – and a slight warning is really all we’d need, one line of the Penguin going ‘right – plan B’ or some such. But no.
All that aside, there are some tremendous leaps of logic in just how these plans are carried out. The Penguin, let us not forget, is a crazed mutant who spent some time in the circus. Okey-dokey. That doesn’t tell us where he got roughly two-thirds of the crazy stuff he and his minions use to cause chaos in this movie. I mean, you can come up with explanations here and there, but there is only so long that one can suspend one’s disbelief. He lives in a sewer – all right, a rather spacious sewer, but a sewer nonetheless. Where does he store these things? Does he have access to one of the Joker’s unused prop warehouses? If you’re anything like me, these questions will run through your head at some point; I assure you.
Those are some of the issues I have with the movie. There are others that other people have which I’ll mention when appropriate. At the very least, it could have used a couple more script revisions. It is, there’s no denying, a flawed film.
And I don’t care. That’s right, I don’t give a fig. Batman Returns is still one of my favorite movies, and always will be.
Why? Well, for starters, it changed my life, and here’s where I tell you how.
On the most basic level, it was the tipping point that finally allowed me to get over my superhero-snobbery and start dabbling in mainstream comics. This didn’t happen overnight, mind you, but it was still the main factor that got the ball rolling. Even I, novice that I was, knew that this was not the way Batman and his world normally were – but if they could inspire something like this, surely they must have hidden depths worthy of delving into. And they did, and lo these many years later, I’m still delving.
That delving also brought side benefits, as with an interest in comics came an interest in areas of genre fiction and the like which I had heretofore barely touched. I’m sure that, given time, I would have evolved some form of this on my own, but Batman Returns was still the catalyst. It was the gateway drug, the breaking of the dam, the thing that opened my mind. It was just similar enough to things I already liked and intrinsically enough linked to things I thought I wouldn’t like to make me realize that, heyyy – this stuff is actually really cool! There was a whole darker, weirder world of fiction out there that I had kept myself separated from because… I don’t know; I thought it would scare me or disturb me or that it was too lowbrow for my refined tastes, and it took Batman Returns to make me realize that, hang on a second, I already liked most of the stuff I’d been railing against; I’d just seen it in different forms. After that revelation, well – things went forward from there.
Without Batman Returns, in other words, I would probably not be the arch-nerd I am today. I owe it a lot. However, even if this were not the case, I’m pretty sure I would still enjoy this flick, because, my shaky objectivity notwithstanding, I honestly do think it has quite a lot to offer.
For one thing, it looks great. Even people who hate it will admit that much. This version of Gotham City is still recognizable as the one from the original film, but that one was grittier and grimier, more inner city, more modern. Here it feels older, more Gothic, somewhere between neo-Dickensian and Depression-era. As in the first film, it is a city adrift in time, set in no particular period except its own, dipping into the same retro stylings which would later be used to such great effect in B:tAS.
And oh, what wondrous sights are to be seen in this burg. Everywhere there are cool things to look at, from the Circus gang bedecked in all their finery, to Shreck’s Department Store with its omnipresent (and highly symbolic) mascot symbol, to the cool Bat-gizmos we all know and love, to the Penguin’s lair, to – well, everything. This movie just drips eye candy. I wouldn’t necessarily go so far as to say this is the best-looking film Tim Burton ever directed (because then I’d have to do a compare-and-contrast with all his others, and that would take a while), but it’s certainly right up there.
Furthermore, it’s the sheer Tim Burtoniness of this film that allows me to forgive a lot of its weaknesses. Warner Brothers basically gave him free rein to do whatever he wanted with this one, and he did, and – well, what did they expect? You give someone like him lots and lots of money and resources and say ‘have at it’, you think you’re going to get something conventional? No. You are going to get something weird and interesting, and lo and behold, that is exactly what we got.
The main problem most people had and have with this movie is that they went into it expecting a straightforward Batman movie, like the original. That is not a good description of what Batman Returns is. I mean, sure, it is a Batman movie, and it uses the settings and characters of the franchise, but primarily what this is is just Burton being Burton – and what Burton primarily is (and particularly was then) is a fabulist. He specializes in dark fantasy, and that’s essentially what we’re dealing with here, a fantasy. It’s a sort of twisted fairy tale set in the strange, chaotic cityscape of Gotham, a superhero fable, if you will. You’ve got your knight in shining armor (Batman, of course), your fair lady for him to quest for (Selina Kyle, in and out of costume), and your monster in the form of the Penguin – only of course he gets more focus than the hero, because this is Burton, and monsters interest him more. And just to make things interesting, the monster inspires our pity as well as our hatred while the lady fair is maybe a bit of a monster herself, and the knight on his snorting mechanical charger has to gallop just to keep up with them.
Viewed through that lens, BR makes a lot more sense. Sure, it doesn’t excuse everything, but it renders a lot of the nitpicks regarding plausibility of this or that relatively unimportant. Who cares if it wouldn’t work in reality? This is a fairy tale that just happens to also be a Batman story, and while in your average fairy tale you get magic spells and fantastic creatures, here you get freaky superhero/supervillain stuff. It’s what comes with the territory; either accept it or don’t.
So now that knights and monsters and so forth have entered into the equation, I suppose that makes it time for the characters, now doesn’t it? And a good thing, too, because we have a loooot to talk about here. I’ll save Bats himself for last, because this picture undoubtedly belongs to the bad guys.
The most significant villain, of course, would be the Penguin – and even if he were a minor character we’d still have to start with him, because of all the issues people tend to have with this film, he’s the greatest. ‘This’, they say, ‘is not the Penguin. The only thing that he has in common with the classic character is that he’s short and fat and has a big nose. The Penguin does not live in a sewer, the Penguin is not a bile-drooling mutant – this is not the freakin’ Penguin!’
And I agree, this is not the Penguin. This is a Penguin.
Really, the way some fans carry on about this, you’d think poor old Ozzie had been ruined for all time in all mediums. This is just one version of the character, people; there’s no need to think that he’s supposed to be the definitive one. It’s just Burton’s Penguin, and Burton is a weird guy. If you don’t like it, you have plenty of others to choose from.
So, yeah. This is not many people’s favorite interpretation, and in terms of the above details, it’s not really mine, either. However, I will say that, while BR Pengers may have a lot against him, he’s still a terrific character, and the film would not work one-tenth as well without him.
A recurring problem, I find, with ‘sympathetic’ villains, is that writers have a tendency to either make them too sympathetic – in which case we wonder why the nasty hero is beating up on the poor, sweet baby – or go too far in the opposite direction, in which case the soul of the character is lost. Film-Penguin has neither of those problems; he is a rather masterful balance of the two sides. He is, from the very second we encounter him, quite obviously evil – the man oozes malignancy and misanthropic rage; his ultimate plan (well, one of them), once it’s finally revealed, is, if you think about it, one of the most purely appalling villain schemes in mainstream movies, born of undiluted, all-encompassing hatred. And yet, A: he does have an uncouthly charismatic side to him at times, and B: it’s easy to understand just how the man got to be this foul to begin with.
Make no mistake about it, Oswald Cobblepot is a monster. He was born a monster, and he ultimately becomes more monstrous than it’s easy to conceive of. And yet how would you turn out, we each must ask ourselves, if you were born deformed and hideous into a world that did not love you, with parents that threw you into the river as a baby, growing up in the sewers with your only friends and nurturers a group of Antarctic waterfowl? (It’s implied fairly strongly that these are not exactly ordinary penguins; there’s a bit of magical realism at work here, but still.) The film is a trifle hazy as to just how he wound up as a sideshow freak, but that can’t have been a barrel of laughs either. It’s no wonder that his brain is a slimy little ball of festering rage – no member of his own species has ever shown love or care to him at the times when he needed them most. How different might he have turned out had he had those things, but no – he had cold water and concrete and squawking birds, and then an adolescence spent gawked at and exploited. The Penguin’s story is a tragedy on an epic scale – yes he’s evil, but after all that, what on Earth would you expect?
Furthermore, this guy just cannot catch a break. Throughout the film, he is repeatedly humiliated and frustrated in all his endeavors. He does manage to have things pretty good for a little while, but that doesn’t last very long, and he’s ultimately right back where he started. There’s a rather heartbreaking scene (not really a spoiler) where his penguins – his family, remember, the only creatures for whom he clearly holds some form of love and affection – seem to have turned against him, and the primal scream he lets out at that point is of pure pain and anguish; it’s one of ‘No! Not you, too!’
Also, if we may briefly return to the shallow end of the pool, remember all that stuff that nitpicks say he should not have? I love that stuff. Sure, some of it can’t help but set off my ‘uhhh, really?’ detector, but the gadgetry and general weirdness that the Penguin surrounds himself with in this movie is just insanely awesome. He’s got his gimmicked umbrellas, of course, a classic touch, and then there’s the Duck Vehicle! I loooooooooove the Duck Vehicle! (Yeah, yeah, I know the end credits call it the Duck Car, but I know it best as the Duck Vehicle, so that’s what I’m calling it.) It’s a giant rubber ducky that can go on land or sea! It’s a rubber ducky duck boat! How can you not love that? (I mean, I know there are many people who don’t, but something is clearly dead in their souls.) I just… enough about the Duck Vehicle, but yeah, I love the Duck Vehicle. And then we have his penguin commandoes, which, yes, make no sense but A: magical realism penguins; it’s forgivable, and B: freaking penguin commandoes! Commandoes who are penguins! Oh, it’s a glorious world we live in sometimes…
To keep myself from being completely overwhelmed by giddy joy, I should list the things about him that I really don’t like, and there are a few. I don’t like that he’s such a pervert; that strikes me as an unnecessary touch. OK, it makes sense that he’d have some pent-up sexual frustration to work through – it’s not like the sewers are an easy place to get dates – but come on, isn’t he already repulsive enough? I can understand him lusting after Catwoman, ‘cause let’s face it, who wouldn’t – but it’s really shoved in our faces that the man is creepily sex-obsessed, and that’s just… blech. I think him being an evil depraved flipper-mutant who drools brackish goo was quite enough, thank you; that extra facet to his character just didn’t add anything worth adding. (And yeah, I don’t much care for that last part either, but like I said earlier, I can handle it.)
Also, I really, really don’t get the decision to have his default outfit be… well, I won’t give it away, but you’ll understand it when you see it. It’s especially a shame because I do like his other look – the flamboyant Victorian gentleman thing works well for the character, and is something I wouldn’t mind seeing more of in the comics – but that… thing… Icch. I’m no fashion-conscious gent, folks, but that’s just nasty.
Still, that last part aside, I do on the whole think that BR Penguin is a worthy adversary for the Bat. Danny DeVito gives what is probably his defining performance for most people, and in the context of the film, everything levels out. Outside of it is a different story, but if comics creators could bring even a fraction of the sheer style this version has to their own depictions, I’m guessing ol’ Pengers would be a lot more popular these days.
Speaking of actors giving their all, that brings us to Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman, and uh… wow.
Seriously, this character is complex. The Penguin has hidden depths, but he’s still pretty straightforward; Catwoman, on the other hand, is a great big slinky bundle of complexities.
To start with, she may or may not be some sort of zombie – that’s interesting, isn’t it? (And no, I’m not explaining that; find out for yourself.)
Yes, the magical realism is strong with this one, so that’s probably a good place to start. We’re never told in so many words, nor do we ever discover, exactly what Catwoman is. Is she simply a deluded survivor of a murder attempt, or did she, in fact, return from the dead as some sort of karmic avenger? It can be read either way, and there are reasonably strong arguments for both. Myself, I lean towards the latter, but that’s just me. You can make up your own mind on the subject.
What is certain is that, whether surviving victim or resurrected agent of fate, the experience has severely messed her up. Selina Kyle pre-murder was clearly not having a very good time of things anyway – she was a rather extreme example of a ‘good Catholic girl’ type, painfully shy and repressed, oppressed and marginalized at work, a classic ‘wound too tight’ scenario in progress. Catwoman is every pent-up, primal urge that her alter ego ever possessed – she’s a sexually adventurous seductress, responds to everything she dislikes or finds inconvenient with either violence or the threat of violence, and, of course, has a serious mad-on for Max Shreck. She’s as athletic and impulsive as her namesake, leaping and backflipping everywhere she goes, doing things seemingly at random purely because she feels like it. She is the Hyde to her old self’s Jekyll, every denied whim and frustrated ambition since childhood exploding into maniacal, latex-clad life.
And yet – and here’s the interesting part – like Jekyll, the old Selina Kyle is still there. It’s never made completely clear just what, if any, actual division between the two there is, but regardless of the actual nature of her psychosis, she’s clearly aware of it, and it’s putting a severe strain on her mind. The word for her is ‘conflicted’ – she is split between order and chaos, with neither one being an attractive prospect. As Catwoman, she’s a psycho; as Selina, she’s a doormat – must she choose just one, or is there any hope for a happy medium?
All this isn’t helped by her love/hate relationship with Batman, who she clearly recognizes (and who recognizes her) as a kindred spirit. I’ll get into that a bit more when I talk about the Bat himself, but it’s not hard to imagine how a creature of pure aggression might find herself a little, shall we say, divided when finding herself attracted to a creature of pure pacification (theoretically, anyway). There is white-hot sexual heat between the two, and as Catwoman that’s enough for her, but as Selina she wants more, and senses there is more – and yet, she’s afraid of it. What will it mean for her if she goes forward with this? She can’t go back, and yet… where is she going?
Like I said, complex stuff. It’s a good thing they picked a good actress, because Pfeiffer nails it. She has stated that it was the most challenging role she’s ever played, and I can definitely see that, because she’s clearly working hard. She has so much stuff to take on here, going from extreme to extreme along with everything in between, and she sells every little bit of it. It is not the slightest bit surprising to me that, for many people, she is still the Catwoman. (And yes, she does look very fetching in her catsuit. Ship that launched a thousand fetishists, that thing is.)
Finally, so far as villains go, we have Max Shreck. (Well, there’s also the Red Triangle goons, but apart from looking nifty and acting crazy, they’re basically just your average thugs.) Shreck inhabits a rather unique position in Bat-movie lore, in that he’s one of only two filmic Bat-villains who were created specifically for their respective films (the other one being the Phantasm from Mask of the Phantasm), and is the sole live-action character to claim the post – and to be perfectly honest, I’m not at all sure why this is.
Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with him. Christopher Walken delivers his usual Walken-ish performance, and does manage to make Shreck a legitimately (if a bit cartoonishly) boo-worthy cold-blooded creep who genuinely deserves every bad thing that comes to him – if anything, this is actually slightly overplayed, because when humanizing moments come along, we don’t really believe them. (The fact that he constantly looks like he’s about to boot out Oliver Twist from the orphanage doesn’t hurt.) He’s a fun character, but he really only exists as a catalyst for the other two villains – in and of himself, he’s not really needed in the film. Sure, he has his contributions; I like Shreck’s Department Store, I like what he brings to Catwoman’s character; he has some good moments with her and the Penguin – but in terms of plot, his role could easily have been either filled by someone else, or excised entirely. I’m fine with him being there, I’m just not sure why he is.
Which, at last, brings us to the Dark Knight himself.
Some have argued that this fails as a Batman movie because it’s not about him; it’s about almost everything but him. And, true, it’s about quite a lot of other things beside him, but as for that last part, I don’t agree.
To start with, Michael Keaton has developed his performance in a number of ways since the last movie. In that one, we were finding out who (this version of) Batman is, so he played things very tight and mysterious; here we know who he is, so he’s free to loosen up a little. He’s got more of a sense of humor here; he trades battle-banter with the villains and the occasional dry barb with his butler (and incidentally, Michael Gough is still awesome in that role; he doesn’t have a whole lot to do in this film, but he remains my favorite live-action Alfred). Out of costume, he’s still kind of charmingly awkward as Bruce Wayne, but he’s a bit better adjusted now; clearly still a pretty solitary dude, but not the rarely-comes-out-of-his-shell recluse from the original. (Also, this is one of the few versions of Wayne I’ve seen where he genuinely is just being himself when the cowl’s off, and not simply play-acting the ‘wacky zillionaire’ routine.)
Secondly, a number of different reviews I’ve read have suggested that the villains Bats faces here are actually reflecting different facets of his character. I hadn’t really thought of the movie in those terms before, but – yeah, that makes sense. The Penguin is a twisted reflection of Bruce’s moneyed heritage (in fact, he’s almost a direct flip-flop – instead of a man who became a ‘monster’ in order to fight crime after his parents were killed, he’s a monster who turned to crime after his parents tried to kill him), Schreck reflects his public identity as a billionaire industrialist, and Catwoman’s quest for vengeance is a warped version of his own caped career. Going by that logic, one might almost call the whole movie a sort of therapy session, getting inside Batman’s head and wrestling with his nightmares.
Speaking of which, let’s talk about that last nightmare for a second, because if the Bat/Cat relationship is hard on Selina, it’s downright perplexing for Batman. Catwoman, you see, is the aggressor here; whether trying to kill or seduce him, she comes on hard, and he’s really not sure what to make of it. She has an uncanny ability to catch him completely off-balance – it’s implied that this is because they’re on the same general wavelength somehow; they fit together, and she doesn’t hesitate to take advantage of that.
The result is, bar none, the most interesting Bat-romance yet shown in a movie, and I dare you to prove any different. Most of the other love interests in Batman’s two cinematic universes to date have been of the average ‘superhero’s girlfriend’ sort – this, on the other hand, is a meeting of equals, a clash of wills, and a classic example of ‘opposites attract’.
(Oh, and regarding the whole ‘Burton’s Batman kills’ thing, I know this is a turn-off for a number of people, but personally, it doesn’t really bug me that much. It’s a reinterpretation anyway, so I’m fine with the notion that this Batman does some things that comics-Batman wouldn’t do.)
Really, I’m not sure who I’m writing this review for. I mean, it’s about a Batman film, so, controversial reputation or not, most of you reading this will probably have seen it. That being said, if you haven’t, you should. It’s not for everyone, true, and it wears its flaws on its sleeve, but it’s dark and campy and beautiful and tragic and funny and stands up very well to rewatching. (It even counts as a rather twisted sort of Christmas movie.) It may not be everything that a Batman movie should be, but it does show a great deal of things that a Batman movie could be, and it’s truly a shame that the series never got a chance to explore those possibilities further.
Anyway. That’s my two cents, and even if you loathe Batman Returns with a passion, it’s an important movie to me, and I’m glad I had a chance to ramble on about it with y’all.
Err… how to end this… ooh, yeah, penguins! RAAWK!
Kyle’s rating: Essentially, this is the story of my life. I’m Batman!
Kyle’s review: On the surface, Batman Returns is more of a true comic book superhero adaptation than Batman. Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) is still the ultra-brooding Batman, protector of Gotham City. When he is called into action by the batsignal, he finds he now has a cadre of villains to deal with. Oswald Cobblepot (Danny DeVito), the Penguin to his friends, has just emerged from his childhood home in the Gotham sewers with a deadly scheme and a gang of circus goons under his control. He soon joins forces with literally power-hungry Max Schreck (Christopher Walken), and they start trying to take over Gotham politically as well. Throw in the seductive but murderous quasi-feminist-in-skintight-latex Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer), and Batman has his hands full. It’s a great comic book movie, if that’s what you’re looking for. Go rent it!
The absolute genius of Batman Returns is that it’s so much more than just a superhero action movie. Tim Burton directed it, so there is plenty of mood and gloom, as well as sweeping overhead shots of twisted black trees and stained gothic skyscrapers. Gotham City is the same dark city it was in the first film, cleaned up a little thanks to Batman and looking a little more hospitable thanks to the snow covering everything. It’s still not even a nice place to visit, though. Just send me a postcard, thanks.
To me, this is a big tragic love story, a version of Romeo-and-Juliet full of batarangs and black rubber. Wayne falls for newly empowered Selina Kyle (Pfeiffer) at first sight, while Batman falls because of Catwoman many times. There is attraction on ten levels, conscious or otherwise, and we the audience desperately want these tortured souls to just take a batboat to a deserted gloomy isle and live happily melancholy for the rest of their lives. Ah, love!
It helps that once again everyone involved is totally awesome. DeVito is sympathetic and malevolent all at once, and you could have a long talk at any respectable coffee house about how the Penguin didn’t necessarily have to be a monster, even though he was born to look like one. Throw in the irony of Schreck growing up to be a true monster, even though he looks like… scary Walken. Woo. Michael Gough and Pat Hingle are great again, and all the Penguin’s henchmen are fantastic. The look of the film is fabulously unique and the direction is fancy-crisp (go Burton go!) and the script is witty and fun. Batman Returns is fantastic…
…and it’s Keaton who makes it happen. Apparently, there were those back then who doubted him as Batman, and there are those that still do. Whatever. Some people only want pineapple on pizzas: it’s just one of those things we normal people must grin at and ignore. Keaton is incredible. He’s moody, he’s edgy, he’s driven, he’s dark . . . yet he’s got a sense of humor (him dealing with the batmobile not immediately turning into the batmissile is fabulous!). And he goes after hot girls like the smokin’ hot Pfeiffer! You go, boy! But as Batman, he’s not about to second-guess a villain, even if she is the smokin’ hot Catwoman. Okay, he second-guesses in hindsight, but I doubt he’ll do that again.
Ideally, Batman Returns should be called Batman Totally Awesome. The movie is sad, dark, uplifting, funny, disturbing, and consistently entertaining. Every confrontation Keaton has with anybody is bristling with wit and supercharged. The first Bat-Cat-Penguin meeting is especially unforgettable. There’s the usual twisted undertones, with much more explicit sexual content. You might be turned off by the darkly moody take on everything, or you might be a comic-thumper who can’t get over Batman being a guy who can crack a joke, get a little emotional, go after a hot girl, and possibly blow up a henchman with a big bomb. I personally love Batman in the era of Burton and Keaton, and I wish we had more. But there’s always the future, thank goodness. Let’s see what Christian Bale can do.
Nancy’s rating: Four out of three times I’ve debated calling Christopher Walken and asking if he would please push me out of a window. Please.
Nancy’s review: Well, well, well.
A long time ago, months even, I wrote a review for Batman. I was labeled as a fangirl and rightfully characterized as insane from that point on. And ya know what? I’m okay with that. Although the image of me jumping up and down screaming “Batman Rules!” until I hit my head on the ceiling fan is embarrassing, it’s also pretty accurate. But this time, instead of screaming “Glory Hallelujah” at the mention of the Bat, I’m just going to brew some tea, take a deep breath, and try to be calm when I talk to you about Batman Returns.
I have to at least try to be calm. For the sake of my keyboard, which is still recovering from how rapidly I typed back at the Batman review. But this is even more dramatic, because there is this huge war inside of my soul over which one I like better. I can’t even talk about it. I cannot even talk about it. The second I lean towards Batman, the image of Catwoman pops up in my head. And if I think for a second how sleek and cool Batman Returns is, all I see is the Joker smashing art to the tune of Prince. It’s not just a case of the two coolest villains in history starring in two different movies. No, there’s a certain grime and mobster grit feel to Batman that gives it its incredibly eerie nature, and I can’t pass that up. And yet, the addition of Christmas, the torrid love affair, and the concept of an underground lair where a team of circus clowns lurk with a mutated penguin boy, well kids, that just blows me away.
The Penguin also manipulates the media! Ya gotta love that. You have to love a little social commentary thrown next to tonight’s serving of superhero. Before I get to Batman, let me talk about Danny DeVito here as the Penguin. Although he is known for playing unfavorable roles, here he is downright unrecognizable. He is so grotesque; before I had watched this eighty thousand times, I was even known to wince when he devours fish. He scurries about, doing his little evil bidding and manipulating Gotham City from the inside out. He makes them turn against their beloved Batman. Holy crap, I forgot there was a penguin army!!! Okay. Okay, sorry, I’m calming down.
Let me try to approach the subject of Catwoman calmly. She is by far the coolest image I can imagine. Not only does she evoke the same tough and strong aura that Batman does, she also has a few pros Batman does not possess. Not saying I’m not devoted to Bruce Wayne, but there are a few Catwoman qualities he can’t pull off. One is that he’s not a lady. And with her little jumpsuit, Catwoman is by far the sexiest icon in American culture. At least by my standards. She is the ultimate of what I want to be. Now, I shouldn’t talk, because I stayed far, far away from Catwoman – The Dirty Movie. But I hate Halle Berry. I really, really do. And I feel bad that more people now think ‘Halle’ as opposed to ‘Michelle’. Because Michelle Pfeiffer is downright incredible, embodying a nerd girl turned Gotham City underground terrorist with a confused heart of gold. Oh man. I’m taking deep breaths but it is just so difficult not to hit ‘shift’ + ‘1’ and have this entire review be six paragraphs of exclamation points.
All anyone talks about these days is Spider-Man being the nerd transformed into hero. Every now and then I feel a little guilty. Because, you see, I love the nerds, and I’d rather be on their side. Yet I’m always rooting for the smooth and sturdy bat, and sometimes I feel a little guilty. I feel like I should push up my taped-together glasses, snort and say “Go Spidey!”. But I just love the Bat for unexplainable reasons. And now I realize, Selina Kyle, at least in Batman Returns, is by far a nerd. And she is more my type of nerd. She’s awkward, she has messy curly hair, she works as a secretary and doesn’t get enough respect. Guys, she’s me. She’s really me. And then after being betrayed for the umpteenth time, she gets to turn into a dangerous and beautiful vixen, and also gets to kiss Batman! I’ve finally figured out this problem that has plagued me, about how I am most certainly a nerdy girl and yet I root for Batman over Spider-Man. It’s Catwoman. It’s Selina Kyle. I am Selina Kyle.
Ya know, if I hadn’t written this review, I might have never know this about myself. I wonder if every mutant has a moment like this…
Hey, it’s just cool.. It’s the epitome of all cool. It’s sleek, it’s crazy, it’s funny and it’s great. The entire movie would be great, even if it wasn’t about Batman. I mean, the acting, the cinematography, the directing, the set, it would all piece together to something amazing, even if it just so happened that this movie wasn’t about my favorite cultural icon. Now, that really says something. It’s just the most fun you can have sitting down and watching a movie.
Courtney’s rating: With all these threats of a polar icecap meltdown, I wouldn’t really be surprised if armies of penguins started blowing us up.
Courtney’s review: Okay, I need to come clean about something. I prefer the Burton/Keaton Batman over the Nolan/Bale Batman. I understand why the new films are so much more popular. And yeah, Heath Ledger is pretty much the best Joker on the planet. But everyone seems to think Batman Begins and especially The Dark Knight are perfect, and I can’t help but wonder why I seem to be alone in my penchant for the ’89-’92 flicks. Nolan’s Batman franchise is more realistic and relatable and human and blah, blah, blah, but I don’t care about any of that. When I see a superhero film, I want 2 hours of pure fun, not 3 hours of depressing. I want snappy banter, not overly profound monologues. And, damn it, I want my love interests to be 3-dimensional characters I can actually care about, not underdeveloped plot devices!
But can I say that the Burton Batman films are better artistically? Yes, and I think I only need to cite one scene that defends that opinion. In the scene before Schreck pushes Selina out the window, she’s sitting at a computer and he’s standing next to her. The light is set up just perfectly so that when she looks up to talk to him, her glasses cast a shadow across her face shaped like the Catwoman mask. It’s genius, I tell you! Pure genius! Nolan can’t touch that!
And seriously, folks: Keaton is the best Batman ever. Bale might be pretty, but Keaton completely pwns him with a single dark glare. I could type 20 pages explaining this, but I’ll spare you. Just know that my boy Mike’s the best. “I’m Batman.” Yes sir, you most definitely are!
As much as I love Keaton’s portrayal of the caped crusader, the best element of this movie, hands-down, is the villains. Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Christopher Walken were each born for their respective roles. This movie is a highlight in all of their careers. Catwoman and Schreck are made of awesome, and I really love how they characterized the Penguin here: he’s so creepy and vile, yet you still feel just a shred of sympathy for him. You almost want him to win, and then you remember “Oh, yeah! This guy wants to kill babies. That’s not kosher.” I don’t read too many comics, and I don’t care that in the few I have, the Penguin isn’t really a disfigured orphan who breaks noses with his teeth. But the guy in this movie is my Penguin, and he may be one of my favorite movie villains ever.
The best scenes in the film are absolutely any time that Keaton and Pfeiffer are together. I mean, talk about chemistry! You can really believe that their characters should be with each other, even though they can’t.
I just want to touch on a couple more aspects of the film before I end this. The cinematography is simply beautiful and haunting, just as it should be. Stefan Czapsky is a master, and he and Burton know exactly how and when to make a scene claustrophobic and when to give us some air. They’re a fantastic team. The set is glorious – this movie really is in a world parallel to ours, but so much edgier and more exaggerated than anything we’ve ever seen. The costumes are decadent and fit perfectly in this setting. The score is… well, it’s Danny Elfman. You tell me.
I can’t think of any one place where this movie truly falls short, so I’ll just use the super-nerd discrepancy. I do get a bit bothered when Batman is shown killing a random henchman. I can accept a hero who doesn’t mind killing if it’s necessary, but that’s not Batman. However, it surprises me how many people use that as their one reason for not liking this film at all. It’s one itty-bitty bad thing versus an entire movie of awesome. If the purists would let go of that, then they’d see what I’ve already accepted and embraced about this movie. It’s darn-near purrfect! (See what I did there? Clever, right?)
- This is – no lie – one of the most influential Batman movies ever made. It introduced the ‘Penguin as mutant’ concept (which would subsequently be reinforced by B:tAS), led to Catwoman getting her own book a year later, and still receives nods and references even today – the Lego Batman Penguin has an army of mechanized penguin servants, and a recent set gave him his very own Duck Vehicle, which also popped up as an Easter Egg in Arkham City. (The same game features a number of sculptures scattered around Gotham that look suspiciously similar to a certain department store logo…)
- Michelle Pfeiffer did all of her own whip stunts as Catwoman – she was trained on-set by a professional.
- The woman who delivers the ‘frog turned into a prince’ line during the newspaper-reading scene is Elizabeth Sanders, then-wife of Bob Kane, artist and credited creator of Batman. She would later have a role in the Schumacher Bat-films as society columnist Gossip Gerty.
- According to Danny DeVito himself, there is a reason for the odd grunts and squawks that the Penguin makes – it’s his breathing. ”Part of it was trying to find out what his deformity was, and it came down to the fact that breathing for him wasn’t a natural thing like it is for all of us. He had to force himself to breathe, like a concentration where he’d have to push the breath in and out in order to keep himself alive. He was constantly battling to stay alive.”
- The character of Max Shreck is a direct and deliberate reference to Max Schreck, the German actor best known for playing Count Orlock in Nosferatu. This was firstly due to Tim Burton’s well-known fascination with German Expressionism, and secondly because screenwriter Daniel Waters thought the character was “vampiric” in that he was sucking the city of Gotham dry.
- Alone out of all the Penguin’s devices, the Duck Vehicle actually does get an origin of sorts. During the ‘Old Zoo’ sequence, we get a brief glimpse of a derelict cable car with the ‘cars’ in question being shaped like outsized rubber ducks. Presumably, the Duck Vehicle has been scavenged from this and repurposed.
- Michelle Pfeiffer had to be sewn into the Catwoman suit every time she put it on, after which it was vacuum-sealed onto her. This made it so tight that she could only wear it for a few minutes at a time before getting light-headed and passing out.
- Despite the fact that he is shown with the character’s trademark cigarette holder in a number of promotional materials (and on posters and such in the movie itself), the BR Penguin is a non-smoker.
- During the promotional campaign for the movie, bus-stop ads featuring Catwoman had to be replaced on a semi-regular basis, as they were constantly being stolen. Because of this, these posters are now quite valuable.
- During their final encounter, Catwoman scars Batman in a similar way to how she scars the Roman in Batman: Year One.
- While in costume, both Michael Keaton’s and Michelle Pfeiffer’s masks were tight enough against their ears to effectively render them deaf. Because of this, verbal exchanges between the two of them were difficult, as neither one could hear the other without shouting; they had to depend upon practice and lip-reading to get their lines right.
- The note that Batman writes to the Penguin was actually written by Bob Kane, who was a consultant for the film.
- Paul Reubens and Diane Salinger from Pee-wee’s Big Adventure reunite briefly at the beginning of the film as the Penguin’s father and mother.
- It appears in one scene as if Batman sticks a live bomb to the stomach of a fat goon and then knocks him into an open sewer to explode (thereby killing the goon). Some say that when the explosion goes off and a shower of red confetti explodes up out of the sewer, that means that the bomb was a fake and Batman knew all along, so Batman is still the upstanding moral guy he is in the comic books. Others say that it’s more fun if Batman is willing to use the criminals’ tools and tactics against them, even matching them kill for kill. You will have to decide which you prefer…
- Burgess Meredith (the Penguin from the ‘60s Batman television show) was asked to play the Penguin’s father at the beginning of the movie and accepted, but due to an illness had to back out.
- Supposedly the role of Max Schreck was originally written to be District Attorney Harvey Dent. The explosion at the end was only to scar Dent, which led to his becoming Two-Face in the third movie. Also, most of Schreck’s plot points and political aspirations would make more sense if they came from a D.A. rather than a department store owner. Reportedly Billy Dee Williams took the role of Harvey Dent in the first Batman movie because he knew the character would eventually become Two-Face. Rumor has it that Williams’ contract to appear in the sequel was bought out heavily by Warner Bros.
- In Kyle’s opinion, the first time we see Bruce Wayne in the movie, where he’s brooding in a chair and waiting for the batsignal to shine through the window and jolt him into bataction, is the coolest movie scene ever! When I bring a date home, I’ll conveniently have Batman Returns in my DVD player so I can flip to that scene and be like “That’s me, babe, I hope you can understand that,” and see how she reacts. Stellar!
- Drew, putting together the retro review, wonders if that ever actually resulted in Kyle getting action, and is willing to bet not.
Penguin: Gentlemen, start your screaming!
Selina Kyle: How can you be so mean to someone so meaningless?
Penguin: They wouldn’t put me on a pedestal, so I’m layin’ ’em on a slab!
Catwoman: You and I have something in common.
Penguin: Sounds familiar. Appetite for destruction? Contempt for the czars of fashion! Wait! Don’t tell me! Naked sexual charisma!
Acrobat: It’s the horrible hideous penguin-man!
Penguin: I was their number one son, and they treated me like number two.
Max Shreck: I don’t know what you want, but I know I can get it for you, with a minimum of fuss. Money – jewels – a very big ball of string…
Penguin: I could really get into this mayor stuff! It’s not about power – it’s about reaching out to people! Touching people! Groping people…
Catwoman: I am Catwoman. Hear me roar.
Bruce Wayne: I mistook me for somebody else.
Penguin: ‘You’re doing great, Mayor Cobblepot!’ ‘Your table is ready, Mayor Cobblepot!’ ‘I need you, Oswald; I need you now!‘ That’s the biggest parasol I’ve ever seen…
Catwoman: I don’t know about you, Miss Kitty, but I feel… so much yummier.
Ice Princess: The tree lights up, and then I push the button. No no, waitwaitwaitwait; I push the button and then the tree lights up…
Selina Kyle: I’m listed.
Bruce Wayne: I’m tempted.
Selina Kyle: I’m working.
Bruce Wayne: I’m leaving!
Penguin: I believe the word you’re looking for is ‘AAAAHHHHHHHHH!’
Pedestrian #1: He’s like a frog that became a prince!
Pedestrian #2: Nah, he’s more like a penguin.
Catwoman: You’re catnip to a girl like me – handsome, dazed, and to die for.
Penguin: Oh, but you can. Oh, but you will.
Catwoman: You poor guys. Always confusing your pistols with your privates.
Penguin: Ah – the direct approach! I admire that in a man with a mask!
Penguin: A lot o’ tape and a little patience make all the difference.
Catwoman: Life’s a bitch – now so am I.
Teenage girl: Mr. Cobblepot, you are the coolest role model a young person could have.
Penguin: And you’re the hottest young person a role model could have.
Catwoman: Four, five – still alive! Six, seven; all good girls go to heaven…
Penguin: You’re just jealous because I’m a genuine freak, and you have to wear a mask!
Batman: You might be right.
Selina Kyle: It’s the so-called normal guys who always let you down. Sickos never scare me – at least they’re committed.
Penguin: Why is there always someone who brings eggs and tomatoes to a speech?
Catwoman: Did somebody say ‘fish’? I haven’t been fed all day.
Batman: Eat floor. High fiber.
Penguin: Rats with wings, do your thing!
Max Shreck: I am the light of this city, and I am its mean twisted soul.
Penguin: Odd as it may seem, Max, you and I have something in common. We’re both perceived as monsters – but somehow, you’re a well-respected monster, and I am, to date, not.
Penguin: Burn, baby, burn!
Batman: Selina, don’t you see? We’re the same. We’re the same – split, right down the center.
If you liked this movie, try these:
- Edward Scissorhands
- Phantom of the Opera (Lon Chaney version)