“He’s like a frog who became a prince!” “No, he’s more like a Penguin...”. And so he is, and make no mistake about it, this time around it’s his show. Although there is also a certain feline foe vying for the spotlight. Batman’s second film is undoubtedly the darkest and most (intentionally) perverse instalment in the Bat-franchise, and the one that would act as a detour spot for future entries. It’s the film that made Batman truly kid-unfriendly, and shocked parents to the point of protests and hysteria. A bubbling mixture of Freudian sexuality and deep emotional pain, the film is Batman Returns, and this is 7 Days Of The Bat – Day 2.
It’s a funny thing about Batman Returns, I vividly recall my experience watching this flick for the first time. It was the summer of grade 6 (1992), and I was at my friend Mark’s birthday party. Sitting back in my theatre seat, I was seduced by the pitch-black images washing over me. The Penguin’s bile-dripping maw, Catwoman, all decked up in dominatrix-like vinyl, lashing the heads off department store mannequins, and Michael Keaton’s Batman, a lone (and lonely) figure gazing uneasily at both foes, his siblings in emotional isolation. It was a lot for an 11 year old to take in, and indeed I remember Mark’s younger brother being led from the theatre sobbing away. But having seen the film now, oh, probably 20 times I’ve found that it still haunts me. It’s a dark shadow of a film that entices us with its sinister beauty, while making us stare directly into our own insecurities and resentments. But, oh the magnificence of it all...
Has there ever been a more visually stunning blockbuster? I can’t think of much competition. With sets laced in artifice (and created by Bo Welch), and devoid of the mechanical ugliness of Batman ’89, Tim Burton’s follow-up presents Gotham as a wintry gothic paradise, where few people seem to dwell. Indeed, look at any crowd scene and you’ll be surprised how empty it is. Maybe to emphasize the sheer solitude of Gotham’s citizens. It’s a Penguin-eat-Penguin world, and we’re all alone.
Speaking of old Bird-boy, has there ever been a more pathetic arch-villain in a superhero epic? From the opening scenes, as we watch the disfigured young baby being tossed off a sad little bridge into that icy river leading into the cold, damp sewers we’re transfixed. His inhuman cries only increase the tension. Who’s the real monster here? The physically repulsive infant or the people that would discard him with so little compassion. As we watch him float through the sewer (in a virtuoso credit sequence), underscored by Danny Elfman’s mournful score, Tim Burton sets this character apart from any previous comic-book villain. When he finally appears, coughing black ooze, peering out through bars at a city that fears him, we have to ask a fundamental question: Is he inherently evil, or has our own lack of tolerance created him. Because of this, Danny DeVito’s Oswald Cobblepot aka the Penguin is the most fascinating character in Batman Returns, and the reason that I revisit it so often. And what is with his violent sexual obsessions?
Surely Catwoman is cut from the same cloth, a meek and lost young woman who seems invisible to all those around her. Take a closer look at her introduction to the film and notice that Michelle Pfeiffer’s Selina is never seen in close-up. Even the camera isn’t interested in what she has to say. But that night, when Batman saves her from that taser-wielding clown, something is awoken. The devilish smile that passes over her face when she shyly electrocutes her unconscious wannabe attacker? That’s her transition point, the glimpse into what lurks within. The assault at the hands of her boss, Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), is only the catalyst for ultimately pulling those repressed emotions to the surface. Selina Kyle has been victimized by men all her life, and now she’s ready for payback. As Catwoman, she’s a walking, talking symbol of dominant female sexuality and control and she’s ready to roar. And what is with her aggressive sexual tendencies?
Putting it plainly, Batman Returns is a twisted journey into sexual desire and dysfunction, with Batman the neutral figure. Catwoman is in complete control of her sexuality, amused by her new-found allure and overjoyed with her ability to manipulate the minds of the men around her. Watch how she masterfully directs the Penguin’s character flaws, taunting his animalistic desires, and using him to help her sully the Batman’s name - the one person who is her equal. Observe that scene in which she seductively strokes her hand across his body, searching for the real man in the suit, stopping with her hand below camera range, a sly smile crossing her lips. Batman doesn’t quite know what to make of this, but he kinda likes it. And when, after he’s knocked on his back, she straddles him and tantalizingly licks him, we’re seeing the bizarre love connection between two eager participants. Call it sadomasochism if you like, but I see it more as two sexually repressed people finally finding liberation through a game of erotic one-upmanship. Now compare that with the awkward date scenes with Bruce and Selina out of costume. They’re uncomfortable and lifeless. These people need costumes and danger to be truly charged. They are star-crossed lovers in a reckless dance of death.
And the Penguin? He hates women. All of them. Yet he craves their touch, and hates himself for exposing that vulnerability. Watch how Shreck is only able to convince Penguin to go along with his plans after promising him “unlimited poontang”. Or how he luridly eyes his poor image consultant (Jan Hooks). It’s hard to tell whether he wants to sleep with her or murder her. Maybe both. Or watch the viciousness with which he strikes the vapid Ice Princess with that sharp batarang. He expels his hatred for the humanity that turned on him through misogynistic fury. The scene where Catwoman (“Just the pussy I’ve been lookin’ for!”) finally declares her disgust for him is equally telling. His turn from lust to spurned anger to homicidal rage is frightening and gripping. For a character so violently driven by sexual desire, it’s amusing that Penguin is the only one who never has his needs at all met. His final scene, where he fails to kill Batman because he grabs the harmless umbrella, the definitive manifestation of his own impotence? Or perhaps sometimes a parasol really is just a parasol...
It’s these subversive themes that make Batman Returns so entertaining and memorable. Sure, there are thrills, such as Batman’s street fights with the Red Triangle Circus Gang, the rooftop scuffles with Catwoman or the Penguin’s penguin army (roused with the most wicked ode to Patton ever put on screen). But they are accentuated with the dark erotic themes that color the rest of the work. Is it at all curious that Penguin plans to have an army of bird shower phallic missiles down on the people of Gotham, after deliriously ordering them to blow Gotham’s citizen’s “erogenous zones sky high”? Or that Batman can only escape a tight spot by altering the Batmobile into giant phallic symbol, that then shoots down a narrow alley way? Hitchcock knew what he was doing when he attached the shot of a train going into a tunnel in North By Northwest, and I suspect Tim Burton did here too...
But oh, how gorgeous it all is. There’s a sweeping model shot, zooming through Penguin’s remote Arctic World hideout that is hypnotically dazzling. Or the art-nouveau look of Max Shreck’s department store, with its all-seeing Cat orb clock staring ominously over the clueless citizens below. Also, the icy remoteness of the Penguin’s hideout, where in an unforgettable scene following Cobblepot’s dreadful, pitiful death, a small band of penguins guide his lifeless body into the dark depths of the sewers. It is a mournfully affecting moment that exemplifies why Batman Returns is the most artistically wonderful Bat-film of all: It embraces its themes through poetic and imaginative ways, instead of literality. Tim Burton, in the spirit of the Penguin, has glanced upon the acceptable concepts of blockbuster entertainment, shouted “Burn, baby, burn!”, and delivered an open wound of a film, which favours childhood hurt, adult sexuality, repression and personal isolation. And he’s done it all with a sick smile and an artful understanding of black humour. No wonder Warner Bros. didn’t invite him back for round three...
Best Batman Dispatch:
Blasting a fire-breathing clown with the Batmobile’s rear flamethrower.
Selina giving Shreck a truly charged kiss.
Runner-up: Penguin biting the nose of a smarmy image consultant.
Best Batman/Bruce Wayne Lines:
"Mistletoe can be deadly if you eat it..."
"You know what, I mistook me for somebody else. "
Best Villain Lines:
“I am Catwoman, hear me roar!” – Catwoman
“Meow!” – Catwoman
“You think you can go fifteen round with Muhammed Shreck?” – Max Shreck
“You don’t really think you’ll win, do you?” – Penguin
“Gotta fly!” – Penguin
“I played this city like a harp from hell!” – Penguin
Best Iconic Bat-shot
Bruce Wayne, alone in his study, rising purposefully as the reflection of the Bat signal fills the room.
-Max Shreck's name - Taken from Max Schreck, the star of the classic horror film Nosferatu.
-Paul Reubens & Diane Salenger, stars of Burton's Pee-Wee's Big Adventure as Penguin's parental units.
-Bruce scolding Alfred for letting Vicki Vale in the Batcave. A favorite fanboy pet peeve.
-The famous "Wilhelm Scream" audio sample when Batman hurls Penguin's thug over a railing.
“Eat floor! High fibre!”- Batman, possibly channelling a Joel Schumacher Bat-flick.
Bruce Wayne DJ scratching a CD
Success As A Batman Film:
3 out of 5
Success As A Film:
4.5 out of 5