Sunday, March 13, 2016

Batman Returns

Back again with another FlashBack Friday entry not being released on a Friday! This time I'm reviewing the sequel to the highest grossing film of 1989, Batman Returns. After the original film made bank at the box office, it seemed inevitable that a sequel would be made. Fans were already calling for Penguin to be the villain, with Danny DeVito even being rumored to star. However, Tim Burton's return didn't bring with it the family-friendly entertainment that Warner Bros was expecting. In fact, they were hard-pressed to find any merchandising opportunities, and the even darker tone made it difficult to convince parents to bring their children to the theaters in 1992. As for me, if Batman was forbidden for me to see as a child, then Batman Returns was downright contraband in my house. Of course, this made it even more appealing to me, and I spent a fair amount of time trying to sneak into the room whenever my older siblings would watch it after I went to bed. Just like with Batman, however, I surprisingly didn't see this movie in its entirety until much later, and I only fully paid attention to it during this viewing. So what was it that made my parents so apprehensive for me to see this film? Let's get into the plot.

Oswald Cobblepot was born with a defect fusing his fingers into a flipper-like shape. His wealthy parents are ashamed of their monstrous child, locking him up and eventually dropping him into a river. 33 years later, Gotham is under the protection of Batman, though he may not be the only mysterious force vying for control of the city. Plotting to capture and eventually kill all of the first born children of Gotham's elite, Cobblepot (aka, Penguin) puts his plans on hold when industrialist Max Shreck endorses the sewer-dweller for mayor. Meanwhile, Shreck also takes his secretary, Selina Kyle, to task for speaking out of turn, forgetting to give him his speech, and snooping around his plans to siphon energy from the city in order to gain even more profit. After a failed murder attempt, Selina returns in a leather outfit to seek justice for her employer's crimes. The Catwoman eventually teams up with the Penguin, making Batman's job of keeping the city safe more difficult than ever.

Something that became glaringly apparent to me when watching this movie is the fact that director Tim Burton really doesn't give a bat's behind about our titular hero. Batman's presence in this film feels like a reluctantly fulfilled obligation from Burton, who's clearly far more infatuated with the bizarre and deranged villains than he is with the somewhat bland (by comparison) Bruce Wayne. Admittedly, the freaks Batman has to go up against are far more complex and interesting, so forcing Burton to focus more on the hero of this story would probably do more harm than good. While the Joker was more or less the star of the previous film, this time Batman plays third fiddle to Penguin and Catwoman, both of whom are more sympathetic and complicated than the caped crusader that audiences came to see. Last time we at least got a (somewhat unsatisfying) backstory to Bruce that made him marginally relatable, but in Batman Returns he only ever reacts to what the real stars of the movie are trying to accomplish.

Having said all that, the performances of Michelle Pfeiffer and Danny DeVito are exactly what we were hoping they would be. While DeVito might feel like stunt casting to some, he brings an animalistic mania to the Penguin while also making us feel a twinge of sympathy for his tragic childhood. That's not to say that his character is great. On the contrary, I think he's unnecessarily vulgar with his blatant double entendres and stomach churning eating habits. Not only that, but his circus gang is so irritating and non-threatening that I literally rolled my eyes and let out an audible sigh every time they showed up. A lot of that had to do with Danny Elfman's uncharacteristically dull score, which sounds more like a demented carnival than ever... and not in a good way. Anyway, while Penguin was intentionally portrayed as misunderstood and pathetic, he never had the menace that I wanted to see from the supposedly formidable character.

Still, he isn't my least favorite villain... I'll get to him in a moment. First, I want to bring up my favorite character of this entire movie - Catwoman. Her origin might be a little strange, but her love story with Bruce is far better than the previous film, not to mention her fight against Batman is probably the best moment of this entire film. Pfeiffer gives the iconic character a plausible fragility that eventually gives way to incredible strength and ferocity. It's a broad range of emotional beats to hit, but she does them all beautifully. Sure, even she has some truly uncomfortable moments that I wish were cut from the film (like licking herself clean... while she's wearing a leather outfit...), but I think this film would have been so much better if she was the primary villain. Instead, we're left with a truly terrible performance by Christopher Walken. Playing the literally power-hungry Max Shreck, Walken is as forgettable and wooden as his wig is distracting and ugly. His plot is half-baked to put it mildly, and the amount of time we spend on his uninteresting character is crippling to this movie's enjoyment.

Obviously this movie has a lot of flaws, but it still looks great. So much so, that I think it would work far better as a photo-real comic book than a motion picture. The character designs are creepy and incredibly memorable, which was one of the reasons I wanted to feast my eyes on this movie so much as a child. However, the story doesn't have enough substance to justify the haunting beauty of Tim Burton's Gotham City, and with a greatly diminished presence from our hero and unforgivable inconsistency with the omnipresent villains, I can't give this the same endorsement as 1989's Batman. This definitely isn't a bad movie. In fact, it's most likely heads and tails above the next two films in this series. But with all the flaws and missed opportunities here, I have to give Batman Returns two and a half stars.

BATMAN RETURNS is rated PG-13 for brooding, dark violence