THE BAT, THE CAT, THE PENGUIN
Next on the list for Batman Week is the appropriately titled sequel Batman Returns, in which Batman… returns. Following the massive success of the first outing (despite some critical backlash, it took just over $400 million from a $35 million budget), Warner Bros. were understandably eager to capitalise on the public’s desire for further adventures of the Batman. Though neither one had signed on in advance, and were even hesitant to agree to a second film, both Tim Burton and Michael Keaton returned to Gotham for the sequel, bringing along two or three new stars for the ride.
It’s Christmas in Gotham City, but the streets are still plagued with crime, so there is still a need for Batman (Michael Keaton). A new threat comes to the city in the form of the Penguin (Danny DeVito), a deformed psychotic intent on being accepted into Gotham society, aided by crooked businessman Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), whom he coerces into helping him, which includes demonising the Caped Crusader. However, plans are complicated by the appearance of Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer), a mysterious figure with a serious grudge against Shreck.
When it came time to make Batman Returns, the initial steps were taken almost instantaneously. Right away the original screenwriter, Sam Hamm, was brought back to draft a follow-up script, which was apparently set to be a direct sequel, picking up where the characters and events of the last film left off, before the decision was made to realise not one new villain, but two – Penguin and Catwoman. Warner Bros. also asked for Tim Burton and Michael Keaton to come back. Burton was hesitant, saying that he would only come back if there was the chance to do something interesting with it; Keaton said that he would come back, but with a better paycheque (clearly still a little irked at the huge amount Nicholson made from the first film) and more to do. Agreeing to all such terms, Warner Bros. coaxed the two back, even demoting the first film’s producers, Jon Peters and Peter Guber, to executive producer status in order to give Burton more creative control over proceedings. Upon his return, and in a move very similar to the first film, Burton’s first act was to reject the initial script from Hamm (in which the Penguin and Catwoman went after hidden treasure), opting to bring in another writer to come up with a new direction. As such, Burton brought in Heathers scribe Daniel Waters (we’ll overlook his writing credit immediately before Batman Returns… Hudson Hawk), who decided to take a different approach.
The script for Batman Returns is actually really good. Whereas the first Batman had the villain try to take over the city, but spend most of his time being annoyed that Batman got the press coverage and the hot blonde, the villains here are driven by something different altogether. Max Schreck is a more classic real world-type bad guy, who holds himself in the public image as benevolent, charitable, a wealthy man with the common touch. However, he is a corrupt and amoral businessman with an insatiable desire for power, in this case quite literally as he plans to build a new and completely unnecessary power plant in Gotham that will drain more energy than it gives. He’s greedy, unscrupulous and, if pushed, murderous.
In the corner of more fantastical villainy, there’s Penguin. Drawn here, Penguin is a thoroughly tragic character, born to wealthy parents, but callously abandoned at Christmas because his hideous form and vicious nature are just too much for them to take. Literally thrown from a bridge whilst still in his basket, the river carries him to the sewers, where he spends most of his life as an urban legend to Gothamites, with a brief stint as a sideshow freak in a travelling circus. Looking to return to the city as a kind of long lost son, he manufactures a rescue of the mayor’s child and, adopting a humble public persona, becomes the new “Golden Boy of Gotham”. All the while, his bitter resentment and ferocious anger see him plotting against the citizens, blackmailing Shreck into helping him re-enter society, and culminating in a plan of such homicidal depravity that even his own henchmen start to question it, resulting in a swift gunshot to the gut. What’s great is that Shreck thinks he can benefit from this, believing he can control the Penguin, pushing him for mayoral election and thereby getting his power plant approved.
The one that no one really figured on was Catwoman, who effectively forces her way into the melee for her own reasons. Selina Kyle begins as the meek secretary (sorry, Executive Assistant) to the callous Shreck, but when she pokes around too much, he pitches her through an office window and into the alley below. Whether she survived or actually died isn’t terribly clear (the debate rages on today), she is revived by cats and comes around very traumatised and supremely pissed off. From here on, she assumes the alter-ego of Catwoman and sets herself on destroying Max Shreck. This puts her in the firing line of Batman and the romantic sights of Penguin; but this equally puts them in her line of fire.
Bruce Wayne/Batman himself is put under some stresses as he attempts to stop Shreck’s crooked deal in business, investigate the origins and motives of the Penguin, put an end to Catwoman’s destructive spree, and engage in a romantic relationship with Selina Kyle. It all becomes more complicated when he is framed for a woman’s murder, turning the city against him.
Yes, there is actually a lot going on in this movie. Characters and motivations are played against one another really nicely. Allegiances are made carefully and enemies are made recklessly, with the regular thematic concern of false personas, split identity and the masks worn for nefarious purposes or self-preservation. There’s also the concern of where the line is between hero and villain. In the beginning, the people of Gotham love and trust Shreck, are hesitantly thankful for Batman, are unsure of the existence of Penguin, and have no idea who Catwoman is. Over the course of the film, Shreck’s credibility will be built and diminished, Batman will be demonised, Penguin will be exalted and cast away, and Catwoman always rests in the zone between hero and villain (her first public act is to save a woman from a mugger, only to then attack the woman herself). All the while, for all of the immorality of their actions, the sheer horror of their plans, we are always given a chance to understand why they do what they do. The Joker was someone who liked to create chaos and terror because he enjoyed it; the villains here have much more relatable concerns, even if they appal us.
Tim Burton, having been given a bigger budget and more freedom to work, has gone wild with grim Expressionist flair. Shreck is a direct nod to two different villains of German Expressionism, with his name coming from the actor who first portrayed Nosferatu, and his look coming from the titular character from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. And though the city no longer exists in the filthy shadows of the first film, it has been replaced with a look that’s brighter, but no less dark for its eerie implication and starkness. I said in the Batman review that he had, in Gotham City, created one of the truly great cityscapes of cinema. The city of Batman Returns is equally impressive, with a thick layer of snow peppering the air and covering the dirt. It’s almost like the city itself has adopted a seasonal mask of snow in the hopes that the citizens will forget the unsettling truth beneath the surface.
He’s also crafted some genuinely affecting moments between these characters. The realisation between Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle of their respective identities as they dance is nicely underplayed, and the final scene with Penguin is, despite him being a monster, achingly sad. And his cast do a great job in capturing these moments. Keaton seems more comfortable in his dual role here, still able to be badass, but human as well. Michelle Pfeiffer is absolutely superb as Selina Kyle/Catwoman, beginning so meek and awkward before tearing through with a confidence and swagger that is seductive as all hell, and without screaming as regularly or as pointlessly as the last film’s heroine. Christopher Walken is an unsettling presence as always, mainly because whenever you look at him, no matter what he says, you know something isn’t right with him, that’s he’s not to be trusted. And Danny DeVito is… okay, before I make my point, I’ll just say this. For his performance in this film, Danny DeVito was nominated for a Golden Razzie, the anti-Oscar, as Worst Supporting Actor. Personally, I think that’s a damn travesty, because he’s brilliant as the Penguin. His physicality, his emotionality, his voice, that vicious streak, that angry stare, there’s not a moment when he’s not convincing… that’s not anti-Oscar material, that’s Oscar material. Damn Razzies.
Danny Elfman even ups his game with the score to Batman Returns, from his already excellent work on the first film. There’s still the dark drive and swell of the music that we had become familiar with, but it’s all become so much grander, with things ranging from the hugely operatic to the quiet delicacy of a trinket box or, more appropriately, a musical snow globe. It is a fine soundtrack that rests underneath all of this.
Honestly, I think Batman Returns is better than Batman. The script is stronger, the pace is improved, the action is handled better (although action scenes were never really Burton’s forte), there’s some actual attempts at depth and subtext in the story and characters, and, although I still really like the dark and grimy look of the first film, I much prefer the look of this film, which has a eerily beautiful, almost elegiac tone. It’s more involving, more eerie, more horrific, more tragic… yes, I prefer the second to the first in almost every way. In fact, this is one of two films that are the contenders for my favourite Tim Burton film ever. Oh, yes.