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What ‘Batman Returns’ Tells Me, 26 Years Later

What’s going on, kids?

My mind is wiped. Lots of chaos in the news, in the country and in the world amid these Trump times. The news alert machine’s barrages and social media psychological retooling are getting to me, for real. I spend more time offline; we can’t even call it “the real world” or “in real life” anymore, can we?

So pop culture these days has helped me step away from the crazy ride for a while, or to rethink and process it all differently. And that includes going back to some of my favorite things.

One of those things is Batman Returns, the 1992 film by Tim Burton in which Michael Keaton’s Batman squares off against Penguin (Danny DeVito) and Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer).

Rewatching the film recently, I had these thoughts about it.

 

It’s entirely extra, because why not?

Tim Burton was at the top of Hollywood after the pop culture phenomenon of 1989’s Batman, which he got after the success of Edward Scissorhands came the following year, then Batman Returns in 1992, and Ed Wood in 1994.

In other words, Burton was really feeling himself at this time, the height of his powers. He shoves Batman into a Freudian work of German expressionism for the 1990s. He turns Penguin into a monster, shows a killer circus run amok, has a dog steal a Batarang, casts Pee Wee Herman and Simone the waitress as Penguin’s parents, lights up a Christmas tree full of bats, resurrects Catwoman with actual alley cats. A band plays “Super Freak.”

 

Catwoman is everything

I sincerely mean that. So weird, odd, sexual, calculating, vengeful. She’s a perfect anti-hero, an exquisite foil to Batman.

This version of Catwoman shows where Bruce could have gone wrong as Batman, focused on revenge. In the first film, Bruce gets his reckoning with his parents’ murderer by total accident. Nothing in the text of the film says he became Batman to seek revenge.

While Batman is cool, Catwoman runs hot. While Batman fights with minimum flair, Catwoman is elaborate kicks and flips. Batman’s tools are quiet, and Catwoman’s whip makes a literal sonic boom. Batman speaks with a hard edge in his voice, and Catwoman picks a warm, seductive tone. Batman’s costume shows controlled, sculpted lines, and Catwoman is literally coming apart at the seams. Batman is restraint in the face of trauma, while Catwoman is an unleashing of righteous resentment and vengeance.

 

How physically painful is Penguin’s existence?

You never can discount how chronic pain can define someone’s life. I grew up with my father suffering from chronic pain in his back, knees and shoulders from several accidents, and that’s before the rheumatoid arthritis entered his life. He basically willed himself to stay upright because he didn’t want his children to see him laid up and hurt. Or consider the case of basketball hall-of-famer Bill Walton, whose back pain was so debilitating that he contemplated suicide, and credits an innovative surgery with saving his life.

When I look at Penguin in Batman Returns, I wonder how much his physical deformities hurt him physically and how that also informed him emotionally. In a behind-the-scenes featurette, a producer discussed how physically uncomfortable the heavy, silicone body suit was for Danny DeVito. But he also said DeVito loved it acting-wise, because the discomfort put him in such a foul mood that he could sink more deeply into the Penguin role.

Hurt people hurt people, as they say, and that can be physically as well as emotionally.

Part of Penguin’s look was this dark green bile forever on his lips, staining his sharp teeth, as if he had some kind of chronic bile reflux. He likely felt as hideous as he looked, the physical pain adding to his misery.

Occasionally the movie gets snarky and salty about itself, and I enjoy it even more now.

After Penguin frames Batman for the Ice Princess’ murder, he goes one step further by rigging the Batmobile. Of course, his gang has experience as carnies, so they built Penguin a mini-Batmobile that looks like one of those rides outside a supermarket.

But it’s also a good dig at all the toys and merchandising, which only got crazier for this movie. I remember the hologram decals of authenticity on all the clothes, after so much bootleg merch got sold for the 1989 film. My sixth-grade teacher, a woman in her 60s who looked and sounded like Judge Judy, came into class one day sporting an official Batman Returns embroidered leather jacket.kkmmmmmmmm

There’s also the killer bit of Bruce razzing Alfred for bringing Vicki Vale into the Batcave. Never mind that Bruce himself tried to tell her he’s Batman before, and Alfred knew Bruce would punk out and lose a shot at happiness. That’s right, Alfred was looking out for you, Bruce!

And only in recent years did I come to understand that the whole “Penguin runs for mayor” plot was in an episode of the ’60s TV show. At the time, Adam West’s “Bright Knight” was considered poison, to the point of drastically reimagining Penguin and Catwoman into much edgier creatures. And yet the writers cribbed a bit from Burgess Meredith’s heyday.

 

Batman will kill you

There’s no easy way to say this. Batman, the dude created by the killings of his parents, known in the comics for ages for his no-killing rule, sure does kill people in his movies.

This came up in arguments against Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, like this is new for cinematic Batman once Ben Affleck stepped in.

And, look, unpopular geek opinion: I don’t really mind Batman killing in movies. He’s an action hero, and I’m used to the hero killing the bad guys when said bad guys are trying to kill him. If we accept that from soldiers and police officers, then we can accept it from superheroes, right?

Superheroes don’t kill in comic books because these are ongoing series and it’s easier to go monthly if you can keep bringing the villains back. Movies lend themselves to feeling more permanent and needing more finality to them, so death is on the table.

Anyway, I’m largely OK with Batman killing in movies. He murks a lot of people in Batman Returns.

To be fair, Batman also killed in the first Burton movie. He threw the one henchman down the church tower, let alone his passive-aggressive killing of Joker that still plays out as the Clown Prince of Crime doing it to himself because of his hubris.

(And what about Batman’s “I won’t kill you, but I don’t have to save you” bit with Ra’s Al Ghul in Batman Begins? Oh well.)

Not only does Batman kill his attackers, sometimes he does it with glee..

In Returns, the Dark Knight starts his body count early when the Red Triangle Gang attacks the Christmas tree lighting ceremony. A fire breather confronts Batman by blowing some flames at the Batmobile. What does Batman do? Oh, he just rotates the car on a pylon, ignites the exhaust port, and SETS THE DUDE ON FIRE. My father and I laughed at that bit like it was Looney Tunes.

There’s another Looney Tunes bit in the middle of that scene, when Batman fights the Strongman. Of course the dude dares Bats to hit him, and makes a show of how each punch to the jaw has no effect. But then he hears a ticking, and notices Batman looking down. Strongman sees his fellow henchman’s time bomb stuck to his belly, his eyes turn to saucers.

Batman sports a mischievous smile as he knocks him into an open manhole before the boom, which sends smoke and some debris up through the hole into the air, like Wile E. Coyote.

In the theater, that bit killed.

Frankly, I’m surprised there were members of the Red Triangle Gang left. When he stops Penguin’s Child Murder Choo-Choo Train, and he sends the Organ Grinder’s monkey with the note for Penguin, is that because the monkey is the only one he left alive?

 

A relationship hitting right in the feels

The Bruce/Selina and Batman/Catwoman relationships combine for one hell of an arc. When the film first finds Bruce, he’s sitting in the dark of Wayne Manor’s library, literally staring at nothing. When the Bat-Signal is turned on, reflectors activate and shine the Bat-symbol into room, and Bruce comes alive.

But when Selina shows up in Max Shreck’s office, Bruce is immediately disturbed in attraction the same way he was when he first laid eyes on Vicki Vale. But Bruce also is taken with Selina’s dark vibe, only to have their lives as Batman and Catwoman get in the way.

Then you have the scene at Shreck’s costume ball, when Bruce and Selina finally figure out who they really are. The lighting, score, and acting all hit as one. Bruce is so messed up and alone by his trauma that in Selina he finally finds someone just like him. And then she turns out to be Catwoman!

Yooooooo … !!!

Bruce finally has met his true match. “Can’t you see, we’re the same,” he says to Catwoman near the film’s end. “Split right down the middle.” He’s met someone as messed up as he is, and he’s so convinced that if they have each other, they can thrive. He wouldn’t need to be Batman anymore to fill that hole in his soul, and in a stunning moment he tears off the cowl, a literal rendering of both people in one body.

Sadly, Catwoman rejects him and his fairytale ending. She’s consumed by rage and vengeance, which she then carries out on Max Shreck.

Wow, what a scene.

 

Alas, back to reality

Sadly, not even the dark, expressionist fantasy of Batman Returns could keep me away from the chaotic news alerts for too long.

Because, as Penguin’s recall campaign for mayor plays out, I had a thought?

Remember when it was only in fiction that a mobbed-up, lecherous, boorish freakshow of the privileged set could run for public office? And, sadly, now only in fiction could a horrific audio recording undo a monster’s campaign.

Waugh! Waugh! Waugh!

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