Chaos in the streets! Sewer mutants running for office! Zombie secretaries in skin-tight vinyl out for revenge! Crushing loneliness! In 1992, Tim Burton unleashed a sequel to Batman and left audiences with a bad taste in their mouths. The film is an ice-cold exploration of damaged humanity, and inadvertently serves as the perfect Christmas movie for the sick, sad year that is 2016. It’s Burton at his most fetishistic, throwing out the source material and laying his id bare on the screen, conjuring up a nasty, nihilistic Christmas movie where peace on earth and goodwill toward men (and women) is in short supply.
After the blockbusting exploits of 1989’s Batman, a follow-up was inevitable, but Burton had his doubts. He was dumbfounded at the concept of making a sequel. Warner Bros, desperate to bring Burton back for more bat adventures, gave the director an offer too good to pass up: he could go wild and give the film his own personal stamp of weirdness.
Burton’s first foray into the superhero genre found the director doing his best to put his own spin on the story, but there’s a stiffness to Batman that’s only elevated by Jack Nicholson’s over-the-top Joker. Whatever Batman does right, one can’t help but sense that Burton doesn’t truly have a grasp, or even understanding, on any of his characters. That’s the complete opposite with Batman Returns: free to do as he pleases, Burton thrives by making all of his main characters as freakish and damaged as possible. And for all their tragic flaws, it’s clear that Burton cares about and understands his three main leads, the animalistic trio of Batman, Catwoman and the Penguin.
The set-up: it’s Christmas time in Gotham. The expressionistic architecture looms, the snow swirls, the citizens go about their shopping, and chaos is on the cusp of boiling over. The only hope the city has is its morose, manic-depressive defender. In Burton’s hands, Bruce Wayne, alias Batman (Michael Keaton), is a man who only comes to life when he’s dressed up in black rubber and beating the piss out of people. When he’s not at his vigilante work, Bruce Wayne sits in the dark in his cavernous mansion, semi-comatose until the bat symbol blazes through his windows and revives him.
In the 1989 film, Bruce Wayne was depicted as an enigma: a traumatised orphan seeking justice and vengeance. In Batman Returns, Burton and Keaton give the character a different spin. For starters, Batman actually smiles here – and he does so while dispatching bad guys. As a character Batman may have become defined by his strict rule against killing, but here the Caped Crusader has no qualms about strapping a ticking time bomb on a burly thug and flashing a grin before kicking him into a hole. Here is a Batman who nonchalantly spins his Batmobile around in order to belch fire at a crook and set him ablaze. He’s also a Batman with a sex drive. Through most of the Bat-files, the Dark Knight, for all the girlfriends he’s had, seems borderline asexual. In this film, he finds outright lust when confronted with the stitched-up visage of Catwoman. The ghost of a grin crosses his face as she feels along his sculpted torso, looking for a weak spot to dig in her claws.
Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy may lay claim to being the first “realistic” take on the Batman mythology, but as this dumpster fire of a year draws to a close and the holiday season chills its way into everyone’s bones, it’s pretty clear that Batman Returns is the most true-to-life take on superheroes and supervillains. At the centre of this action movie about a man dressed up as a bat is a political campaign put-up job – a subplot involving a corrupt millionaire with weird hair attempting to break into politics (sound familiar?). While Danny DeVito’s grotesque, black-goo Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer’s slinky, possibly supernatural Catwoman are on hand to be the then-latest entries in Batman’s rogues gallery, the true villain of Batman Returns is Christopher Walken as Max Shreck.
A thug with a New York accent and a penchant for erecting tall buildings that bear his name, Shreck has corrupt business dealings and a murderous temperament. When his secretary Selina Kyle accidentally uncovers his illegal activities, he pushes her out of a skyscraper window – an event that backfires when Selenia is resurrected from death as Catwoman after a horde of feral cats swarm over her lifeless body. Shreck, meanwhile, hatches a plot to take over Gotham by putting The Penguin into the mayor’s office. Abandoned as a child for his deformities, The Penguin has spent his life in Gotham’s sewers. Once The Penguin steps out of the shadows and into the limelight, Shreck sees opportunity. He concocts a smoke-and-mirrors political campaign wherein the Penguin struts out before the electorate and essentially promises to Make Gotham Great Again, without giving any real insight into how he plans to do this.
Batman Returns’ tone is steeped in darkness and cynicism, but it has more faith in the populace than perhaps warranted. After Batman records, and then leaks, damming audio revealing how corrupt and vile the Penguin is, the citizens turn on the candidate and pelt him with rotten tomatoes. It’s a nice thought – that once confronted with the truth, the voters will wise up. But as 2016 painfully proved, this notion is more fantastical than that of a man dressed up like a crime-fighting bat. Perhaps even more unrealistic: a glimmer of good things to come. Because when the dust settles and Batman Returns draws to a close on a snowy Christmas Day, there’s a modicum of hope. “Well, come what may. Merry Christmas, Mister Wayne,” says Batman’s trusted butler Alfred. “Merry Christmas, Alfred,” replies the haunted, scarred Bruce Wayne. “Good will toward men…and women.” We should all be so lucky.
Published 18 Dec 2016
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