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Batman Returns

Well after a couple of Nolan's efforts it's time to go back and look at one of Tim Burton's visits to Gotham


Year of release

Directed by
Tim Burton

Written by
Daniel Waters

Michael Keaton
Michelle Pfeiffer
Danny DeVito
Christopher Walken
Michael Gough

Batman Returns


Plot - After successfully defeating the Joker the caped crusader known as Batman (Keaton) has emerged as the protector of Gotham city. And the city is going to need him, for in the depths of the city's sewers a new villain is set to emerge - the Penguin (DeVito); a deformed individual who was rejected by his parents as a baby and is now intent on being accepted into Gotham society. A possible path to this acceptance comes in the form of crooked businessman Max Shreck (Walken) who aims to make the Penguin the new mayor of the city, and manipulate events to pain Batman in a negative light in the process. Everyone buys into the tragic story of the Penguin except for Batman, who aims to uncover the truth behind his intentions. His attempts are hindered however by the appearance of another costumed figure, Catwoman (Pfeiffer).

Man I had forgotten just what an odd little duck of a movie this was. I have seen this before, several times I think, but not for many years and I really wasn't able to recall much of it. And it really was a surprise to find just how weird and bizarre a creation Tim Burton concocted here. And coming on the back of watching Christopher Nolan's Batman films it makes for a real culture shock. It's hard to believe that they could have come up with two such distinct and disparate films whilst using the same source of inspiration. In fact even if Eli Roth was to direct a Batman film, followed by an effort from Pixar, it's hard to believe they could come up with two films which are more different. While Nolan strived for reality and a serious edge, Burton embraces the fantasy element of the material, delivering something that has a tendency to move into the realm of a surrealistic nightmare. In fact there's a touch of the Brothers Grimm fairytale about the whole thing, particularly in regards to the film's villains. Both The Penguin and Catwoman are much more paranormal, elemental like creations than their comic book counterparts. And Danny Elfman's excellent, ethereal score which sounds like the soundtrack to a dark fairytale is a perfect fit for this tone.

I'm actually really stunned at just how much the studio allowed Burton to get away with. I mean this is a really dark flick. Actually no, dark isn't the right word. Nolan's Batman films were dark; this is just f*cked up!!! I mean within the first two minutes alone you've got a mother and father dumping their infant son over the side of a bridge and into a river below, seemingly with the intent of killing him. It's only through a stroke of luck that he manages to survive. So that's one twisted supervillain origin. Then you've got Selina Kyle being thrown out of a window to her death, attracting a load of cats who seemingly try and eat her lifeless corpse. Only for her to come back to life! I'm telling you, it's f*cked up!!! And that's not even mentioning some of the other depraved touches that Burton throws our way - Catwoman attempting to eat a live bird for example or The Penguin's plan to kill all of the first born infants of Gotham.

Film Trivia Snippets - The script for Batman Returns went through several rewrites; in one version it was to be discovered that Max Schrek was actually The Penguin's older brother. /// Talking of rewrites, the character of Max Schrek was a pure rewrite of Harvey Dent. As such some of the film's plot points would perhaps have made more sense if Schreck had been a District Attorney as opposed to a corrupt businessman. The explosion at the film's end was to have scarred Dent and lead to his transformation into Two-Face for the third movie, Batman Forever. Billy Dee Williams apparently took the role of Harvey Dent in 1989's Batman as he knew he would eventually become Two-Face. It is rumoured that Williams' contract to appear in this sequel was bought out by Warner Bros. at a very heavy price. /// When it came to the character of The Penguin, Warner Brothers' first suggestion was Dustin Hoffman, while other names that were considered included Marlon Brando, John Candy, Bob Hoskins and Christopher Lloyd. /// When it came to the role of Selina Kyle/Catwoman it seems that just about every name in Hollywood popped up at one point or another. In fact Michelle Pfeiffer was not the original actress to be cast. Annette Bening had been cast but was replaced when she became pregnant. Demi Moore and Nichole Kidman both rejected offers, while Susan Sarandon showed great interest in the role but was considered too old. Other actresses in the frame included Sigourney Weaver, Jodie Foster, Lena Olin, Madonna, Raquel Welch, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Ellen Barkin, Cher and Bridget Fonda. At one point, even Kim Basinger was considered despite the small fact that she had appeared in the previous instalment as Vicky Vale. /// Talking of alternates for Catwoman, here's one to get you thinking. A possibility for slipping into the film's famous Catsuit was Meryl Streep! Tim Burton rejected her however because he considered her too old for the role. The mental image that's creating in my mind isn't pretty.
Batman Returns is able to navigate two very different tones within its story. On the one hand the film feels very much like the spiritual successor to the campy delights of the classic Adam West TV show from the 60s, with much of the production design apparently grabbed straight from that day-glo world. The cronies at The Penguin's disposal in the film are the Circus Gang; a group comprising of clowns, circus performers and sideshow freaks that feels very much like the henchmen that Batman and Robin would usually dispatch on the TV show with the aid of a biff! a bam! and a pow! The Penguin's choice of transportation is a huge, mechanical rubber ducky; arguably even more ridiculous than something the TV show would conceive of. And then there's the film's conclusion. To start with there's the sight of Christopher Walken's Max Schrek being held captive in a massively oversized cage hanging from the rafters; a situation that the Caped Crusader and Boy Wonder seemed to stumble into every week. And then The Penguin's big plan consists of sending out a series of penguins with missiles strapped to their back. Yes really!

So you've got that on one had, and you then sprinkle it with a touch of Burton's unique stylings. Of all the directors out there, few have a more recognizable and unique style than Burton. And you can see his hand at work throughout the entire production. I've already talked about the darkness inherent in the film's storytelling, and the other extremely Burtonesque touches are to be found in the film's tremendous set and art design. In 1989's Batman, the Gotham that we see was much closer to that presented in Christopher Nolan's trilogy. It may have been quite gothic but it still felt like a real city. The Gotham here however is pure escapist fantasy, with German expressionism being a very heavy and obvious influence on the city's design. In fact you'd be forgiven for thinking that Batman had started fighting crime in Fritz Lang's Metropolis as the buildings stretch towards the skies, looming over him ominously and with great menace. The set design throughout the film, for both the interiors and exteriors really is fantastic in its creativity. It is made all the more expressive and gothic by a colour palette largely dedicated to blacks and greys and some great use of shadows. One thing I'd say about the set design is that at no point are you ever in any doubt that the action is taking place on a soundstage. It's obvious that none of the buildings are actually 'real' and that they have all been purpose built for the film, while the whole city of Gotham feels like it consists of just two or three blocks. I'm sure that some people may see this as a weakness as a result of some shoddy lighting, cinematography or direction that highlights these shortcomings. In general I would likely be inclined to agree but I think it really works for this particular film. Burton is attempting to tell a story that is so very, very out there that if he had set it amongst the real world there's a good chance it would not have worked. This grand, operatic stage that he has built however suits it to a tee.

Tim Burton assembled quite the cast for this sequel, arguably the most eclectic and interesting cast put together for any of the Batman films, or superhero films at large for that matter. To begin with you've got one of the most unique actors around in the form of Christopher Walken, taking on the role of business mogul Max Schrek. Of all the actors out there few seem to deliver the exact same performance more often than Walken. Time and ttime again he seems to just merely play himself on screen. But then when you're such a unique and oddly captivating individual why wouldn't you? His character is arguably the most evil of the film's villains. Whereas both The Penguin and Catwoman have tragic origins which explain their behaviour, Schrek is just a sleezy, piece of s*it politician. In the role of The Penguin, Danny De Vito is absolutely terrific. Talk about someone being born to play a specific role. With his diminutive stature and natural aptitude for playing creepy and sleezy characters while somehow still remaining funny and likeable makes him a perfect fit. Despite his wicked, villainous ways I can't help actually liking the character however. Through a combination of his tragic story and the sheer conviction with which De Vito plays the role, I find that an unavoidable sense of sympathy is created for the loveable little gargoyle. And the moment where he slides off into the water with the penguins after his demise I find to be oddly touching. The Penguin is also a fine example of great make-up and costume work. I remember when I watched this as a kid being genuinely scared of DeVito's Penguin.

Film Trivia Snippets - According to the book 'Movie Magic' by 'Robin Cross', Penguin's army consisted of real penguins, actors in glass fiber suits, animatronic puppets controlled by puppeteers, and computer animation. A technique called flocking was used where several penguins would imitate a master penguin, allowing control over large numbers. /// There's quite a noteable scene in the film where Catwoman grabs a pet bird belonging to The Penguin and attempts to eat it. Michelle Pfeiffer did actually put a live bird in her mouth and hold it there for the scene, greatly impressing Tim Burton. /// David Bowie was actually the first choice for the role of Max Shreck, but turned it down in favour of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Christopher Walken was subsequently cast and it's not the first time Walken has beneffited from Bowie passing on a role. The role of Max Zorin in Bond flick, A View to a Kill, was also offered to Bowie first. Incidentally Bowie had also been considered to play the Joker in Batman. /// Burgess Meredith, who saw memorably played the Penguin in the 60s TV show, was asked to play the part of The Penguin's father in the film's opening but he was unable to due to illness. /// Michelle Pfeiffer became such a sex icon thanks to Catwoman's iconic PVC suit that she actually caused a crime wave. Warner Bros. had to constantly submit new Catwoman posters for various cities as so many of the bus stop ads were being stolen. It soon got so bad that police officers had to patrol bus stops in order to catch perpetrators before they could break the Plexiglas containers. I don't really like to think what the thieves where using the posters for. /// Batman Forever and Batman & Robin come in for a lot of grief from fans, but it turns out that they could actually have been a lot worse. As inconceivable as it may seem Marlon Wayans had actually been signed to play Robin in both this movie and Batman Forever. It had even gotten to the stage where he went through costuming for the movie. When the script was rewritten the character was dropped, and when Joel Schumacher took over as director for Batman Forever the role was instead given to Chris O'Donnell. Wayans was still paid for both movies.
As awesome as DeVito is however, the most iconic element of this film inarguably belongs to Michelle Pfeiffer and that outfit. That leather/PVC suit that she wears really is quite something, pushing the kinky/BDSM nature of the character right to the limit and creating an image that was seared into the minds of pubescent boys the world over. Beyond the suit however there is still a great deal to enjoy about her performance. Pfeiffer really goes for it, following the character's initial geekiness she delivers a terrifically sexy, sultry and alluring performance. It's enough to get the Bat hot under the collar, and I'm guessing every red blooded male watching was in a similar predicament. Her Catwoman is just so much more interesting than the rather flat creation that Anne Hathaway got lumbered with in The Dark Knight Rises. Up against all those strong performances and colourful characters Batman himself actually fades into the background a touch and struggles to make anywhere near the same kind of impact. There's almost a sense that Burton was bored with the goody-two-shoes character, instead devoting the large majority of his time and creative juices to the villains. As a bit of conjecture perhaps the studio told him that Batman was off limits, he couldn't mess about with him, so instead he decided to have his ghoulish fun with the villains. I mean there's one point where I noticed the running time (I think it was around the 35-40 minute mark) and realised that Bruce Wayne/Batman had only featured for a total of about two minutes up until that stage. I may have put Michael Keaton's name first in the credits but it really is only out of courtesy. He would come very low down on the list of things that you remember from this film. While I know that he has quite a number of fans for his turn as Batman I don't find him all that special, but it's not really his fault. Neither of his films really gave him enough of a chance to shine and create a character. The first was dominated by Jack Nicholson's Joker while this sequel was also all about the villains. That said he still does a nice job and does admittedly have some great chemistry with Pfeiffer.

For all of his fans, Tim Burton also has a great number of critics. One of their main gripes is that too often he allows his films to slip into the trap of being very much a case of style over substance. And while Batman Returns is undoubtedly stylish, these characters that I've been discussing also allow the film some of the substance that those critics accuse Burton of being incapable of finding. All three of the main characters (Batman, Catwoman, The Penguin) were created through tragedy; their lives were destroyed and forever changed by the cruel society in which they live. The Penguin was abandoned as an infant by his parents; Batman was robbed of his parents due to senseless murder; and Catwoman was first oppressed and trodden upon by her male superiors, before being killed by said oppressor. These traumas caused a split in all three characters, creating dual personalities. In particular the characters of Batman and The Penguin are very similar. Both have suffered traumatic experiences in their childhood related to their parents. The difference comes in their reactions. While The Penguin seeks revenge against the society that inflicted this pain upon him by targeting the innocent, Batman has vowed to protect the innocent from men like The Penguin. In Star Trek there was something called the mirror universe; a parallel world where everyone and everything where the exact opposite of that in the 'normal' universe, so good became evil and vice versa. In a way The Penguin acts as the dark reflection of what Batman could become if he were to allow his sense of justice and vengeance to get the better of him. He could easily become the kind of criminal that he is seeking to stop with temptations frequently presenting themselves to him. And in this case the temptation comes in the rather comely figure of Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman. Following her apparent death a new side to her character is born. Alongside the meek secretary that was Selina Kyle there is now the supremely confident and vivacious Catwoman. As Selina struggles to reconcile these two wildly different personas, so too does Batman struggle to resist her enticing and seductive ways.

Conclusion - Several times on here I've stated that I'm not a particularly big fan of The Dark Knight, citing its darkness as being the main reason. So it might seem rather odd and even hypocritical that I'm such a fan of Batman Returns. While this film is just as dark as TDK, if not even more so, it's a different type of darkness; it's a ghoulish and playful kind of darkness compared to TDK which I found to be dark in a very dreary, grim manner. This one is just so much fun though with some wonderfully inventive set design and costume work, and some great performances. By far my favourite of the original Batman films, and second only to Batman Begins as my personal favourite.