Jun 19, 2017

Why "Batman Returns" is One of the Greatest Batman Movies at 25 Years Old

Scene from Batman Returns
In today's modern era, it's tough to think of a Batman movie as being a rare commodity. In 2017 alone, there will be two featuring the caped crusader (The LEGO Batman Movie and this Fall's Justice League). However, things were different for director Tim Burton in 1992. While his original take on Batman revolutionized the industry and called for darker superhero movies, nobody could predict how demented his take on Gotham City could go. On the 25th anniversary of Batman Returns, it's important to remember how bold and insane the sequel was, and how it manages to be one of the best Batman movies, even if there's little that looks like popular canon or had the same audience approval of the original. Still, it's the rare sequel that not only tops the original, but gives Batman his most unique and inspired cinematic take ever - and that's saying a lot.
Returning in the role of playboy millionaire Bruce Wayne is Michael Keaton. Having helped to make the character into a darkly comic figure in the original (he does sleep upside down like a bat, after all), he perfects him here Gotham has not only become a place with more crooked crook, but the German Expressionism crossed with Burton's Gothic tendencies help to create one of the most animated live action superhero movies in history. The villains have an almost ridiculous dance to their fight skills, and Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman is equally slinky and seductive. Her Frankenstein-like costume may be the most demented sexuality that Burton has added to any of his movies. Unlike Batman, Batman Returns has a sense of danger that is just as entertaining to watch. Even if it made the Bob Kane character more mainstream, it was the vision of a still deviant artist who could turn a character like Edward Scissorhands into the most sympathetic character of the 90's.
It is a bold move, in part because of how defiant Burton was to initially do the movie. Considering how the 1989 original was a box office sensation with billions in merchandise revenue, it only made sense to strike while the iron was hot. Still, it took awhile to convince, and even then wouldn't be any more conventional than Batman's dual Danny Elfman score and Prince soundtrack. Elfman returned with an even bigger score that was almost longer than the movie. Along with bigger sets, Batman Returns was the closest vision of Burton making a film that was equal parts passion as it was disdain. He publicly admitted to not liking comic books, and instead applied traditional Greek tragedy archetypes to his stories. For Batman, it was The Joker and Batman being kindred spirits. For Batman Returns, it was the flaws of a tragically ugly and mean spirited Oswald Cobblepot, a.k.a. The Penguin (Danny DeVito). Despite being the Gentleman of Crime in the comics, he was now a pale, decaying, balding short fat man who added to Burtons' grotesque imagery. 
Even with The Penguin being the central villain, he was also a misunderstood outsider that fit into Burton's general mold. The thing that makes this era of Batman different from most before and after is that he is equal parts comic as he is a deeply tragic figure. He fits within the confines of comics, but still manages to gaze into a deeper and more existential meaning. It personalizes everything into a very specific and influential tone that many would imitate. This Batman was dark not because he was more psychopathic than the Adam West era, but because the world he embodied felt more real and corrupt. It was in large part influenced by the late 80's seediness where greed and corruption were rampant and made people like Gordon Gecko into iconic villains. Burton would play it up in ways that were visually escapist but deeply rooted in something more personal and indicative of the time.
It also helps that as of 2017, it remains the only big screen depiction of The Penguin. Even if he is visually inaccurate to the comics, DeVito gives the role his all with a great third act featuring villainous penguins charging to destruction. With this said, there are currently rumors that Josh Gad will play him in an upcoming movie. Though will it be enough, considering that his powers otherwise are largely as primitive as Batman's? Nothing can capture the nastiness of Batman Returns' villains in part because Burton's concepts work in a 1950's B-Movie manner where the uglier you are, the eviler you are. Even then, the real star of he film is Pfeiffer's Catwoman, whose iconic look defined the character as a literal sex kitten for a generation. She was so popular that Burton considered making a Catwoman solo movie. He never got his chance, as he left directing duties after this movie. Instead, the studio released Catwoman starring Halle Berry, which was so bad that the actress accepted her Razzie Award in person.
This era of Batman was short lived. Despite it inspiring the great TV series Batman: The Animated Series and the superhero movie genre in general, the studio would take the wrong notes from the film. Along with being less of a success than Batman, it would mark the end of Burton's work in superhero cinema. While he produced the sequel Batman Forever, his mark on the films were deflated. Director Joel Schumacher took the series in a more confectionary direction with brighter colors and more inane stories. While it could be seen as a post-modern neon-colored ode to the 1966 version, its deeper roots in commercialism to hock more toys replaced any deviant story telling methods. While Batman Forever at least had Burton's stamp of approval, it didn't have any key actors returning. It wouldn't be until a reboot with director Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins that the franchise was seen as reputable again. Even then, its dark gritty reboot showed how the times had changed. It was allowed to be demented, but not nearly as comic. 
It's because of this that Batman Returns stands out even more as a sore thumb. As suggest by the recent film Batman v. Superman, there's no chance that studios will make anything as crazy as Burton's two films ever again. Gone are the days of crazy Catwoman slinking and making your villains as ugly as they are evil. It's likely the last time that we'll ever see penguins with rockets strapped to their back as well. There's so much that is wonderfully specific to the 1992 film that few directors could capture. Not even Burton these days could have the demented creativity to make something as strange, perverse, and specifically what made it so wonderful: being Burtonesque. Many have aped his style, but none did it like he did. It's not likely that anyone will give blockbuster money to make a movie like this again in the proverbial golden age of superhero cinema. It's a shame, because it's the perfect tale of one of pop culture's greatest outsiders. 

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