Monday, January 18, 2010

Movie Monday - Batman Returns, 1992

So after Burton's "Batman" tore up box-office records, the same Bat-fans who had once howled in dismay at the idea of Tim Burton directing Michael Keaton as Batman now adamantly declared that no one else would do. If Warner Brothers made a sequel, Burton and Keaton had to be the ones directing and starring in it.

And three years later, in 1992, that sequel materialized--"Batman Returns," directed by Burton and starring Michael Keaton, Michelle Pfeiffer, Danny DeVito, and Christopher Walken.

In interviews given before the movie was released, Tim Burton talked about what a nightmare the first "Batman" was to make, due primarily to studio interference. He said that his greater clout after the success of the first one had allowed him to pursue his own vision more clearly in the sequel.

But if you thought that this meant the cartoony silliness of the first film would be gone, the very first scene will disabuse you of that notion. Remember when I mentioned that Bat-fans were apprehensive before Burton's first "Batman" came out because he had previously directed a picture starring this guy?

Well, here you go.

This wealthy gent, played briefly by Paul Reubens, and his wife spawn a horrifying mutant baby that they abandon to the sewers. Thirty years later, Gotham is terrorized both by rumors of a vicious Penguin-Man (DeVito) living in the sewers and by a gang of criminal circus performers.

Meanwhile, as Christmas approaches, rich department store owner/industrialist Max Shreck (Walken) is fighting for political favors so he can build a power plant. His secretary, Selina Kyle (Pfeiffer), discovers a dark secret behind the plant, so Shreck kills her.

Or thinks he does. She wakes up to find cats gnawing on her fingers and remakes herself as Catwoman before setting out to take revenge on Shreck. She battles Batman after blowing up Shreck's department store and falls from a high rooftop, only to land in a dump truck full of kitty litter. That's two deaths she's survived so far.

Meanwhile, the Penguin, who it turns out is leader of the circus gang, kidnaps Shreck and makes a deal with him. Penguin will keep mum about Shreck's dirty dealings (which Penguin has proof of) if Shreck helps reintroduce Penguin to polite society. Penguin spends weeks combing the city's birth records, ostensibly to learn the identity of the parents who abandoned him, but Batman fears a darker agenda. As a result of Penguin's newfound celebrity, Schreck convinces him to run for mayor, hoping to get the political favors from Penguin that the current mayor will not give him.

Penguin and Catwoman team up to destroy Batman's reputation before killing him, even as Selina Kyle and Bruce Wayne may be falling in love. But the two villains fall out, with Penguin trying (and failing) to kill Catwoman for her third time.

Batman crushes Penguin's political hopes, and then foils Penguin's consecutive plots to kidnap all of Gotham's children and destroy the city with penguin-bombs. But in the end, he fails to stop Selina from killing Shreck and dooming herself to life as a fugitive.

The film had a darker tone than the first "Batman," but it was was also sillier in many places. In many ways, it's a very flawed film, but overall, and it pains me to say this, it's a better film than the previous one. It's not as incoherent as the first film. There are no odd pointless scenes that appear improvised, the dialogue is better, and thank God, there are no Prince songs. The performances are better overall.

But the inclusion of basically three villains ends up creating an overstuffed plot with scenes and characters that are only hastily sketched. It's both too complex and too simple at the same time.

Michael Keaton is a lot better this time as Bruce Wayne.

He's more self-assured and confident in this one, which is good. He's not as bumbling and absent-minded this time around, and there are no disastrous improvs in this one like that scene in Vicki's apartment in the last one, though he sometimes loses track of which face he's supposed to have on ("Sorry, I mistook me for someone else.").

Danny DeVito is just... weird as the Penguin.

He does a good job in the role. But I don't really like Burton's take on the character that much. I don't mind the flippered fingers, but the black slime constantly dripping from his mouth, the soiled longjohns he wears in most scenes, his gang of circus clowns (shouldn't the Joker be the one with the circus-themed gang?), all just rub me the wrong way. I understand that they were trying to get as far from the 60's television version as they could, but even at that, so powerful was Burgess Meredith's influence that DeVito's laugh as the Penguin sometimes sounds like Meredith's distinctive wak-wak.

And his story never really comes clear. Apparently, his scheme all along is to kidnap the children of Gotham and kill them because of his resentment of the "normal" people who made him an outcast. But there's so much else going on in his story that that part of it is never made clear. He's been hinting at this mysterious plan he has involving lists he made from the birth records, but when he actually announces the plan, it seems so over the top that you just can't believe that was his real plan.

And Batman foils it in about five seconds, off-screen. At which point Penguin decides to bomb Gotham with remote-controlled penguin cyborgs or something, but Batman foils that one pretty easily, too.

But the funny thing is, as ludicrous as this movie's Penguin is, and as ultimately pointless as his story turns out to be, he has ended up influencing the later Penguin depictions, just because he is more interesting than a simple fat dude in a tux.

Meanwhile, you've got Michelle Pfeiffer doing the movie's real star turn as Selina Kyle/Catwoman.

Pfeiffer has a field day with both the mousy Kyle and the sensuous Catwoman. And in scenes like the one above, shows Kyle grappling with her own mental disintegration, fearing it, yet unwilling to stop. The screenplay was by Daniel Waters (with story co-credits given to Waters and Sam Hamm), who had previously written "Heathers," and Selina's scenes show his deft touch. After this movie came out, Waters went on to do what looks like script doctoring on two of the biggest mega-flops of the 90's, "Waterworld" and "Demolition Man," and then he mostly disappears from IMDB. A cautionary tale, and a shame, because there's some really good stuff in this script.

The shot above is from what I think is the best scene in the movie, where both Selina and Bruce have shown up to Max Shreck's costume ball (where Catwoman and Batman are the only two people in the room not wearing costumes while the chamber group plays Rick James' "Superfreak"). They dance and talk, and Selina seesaws from flirty to scared to vengeful to desperate and afraid, at one point laughing and crying at the same time. It's a powerful scene, plus there's a Siouxsie and the Banshees song, so it's all good.

Meanwhile, as Catwoman, Pfeiffer is slinky and nuts. I don't know that I love the concept of the patchwork costume they designed, but at least it's interesting to look at. One of my favorite bits of business happens when Selina first designs her Catwoman costume. She has a neon sign on her wall that says "Hello There," and as she walks past, she breaks the "o" and "t" so that the sign now says, "Hell here."

Funny thing is, although the publicity for the film revolved around the Penguin and Catwoman, neither of them is the central villain. That role is saved for Shreck. It's his lust for power that leads him to ally with Penguin and murder Selina, and both villains end up revolving as much around him as they do Batman.

But at least for me, after the film was over, I forgot that Christopher Walken was even in it. I forgot about much of Penguin's political campaign, or the excellent scenes of Pfeiffer as Selina Kyle. The weirdness of the two characters, Penguin's flippers and black ooze and Catwoman's patchwork costume, overwhelmed everything else in the movie.

Oh yeah, and in case you were wondering, yes, even though everyone raved about how wonderful and perfect the production design on the first Burton "Batman" was, they redesigned everything for this film.

Batman's costume is pretty much the same, although they stylized the muscle sculpt, flattening some of the curves to make it look more like high-tech body armor.

They also seemed to refine the mask. The nose is a straight, sharp line, like the prow of a ship, or a bird's beak.

Perhaps it was to emphasize the duality of Batman's personality, because when you light it from one side, that sharp nose neatly divides the face into light and dark.

The Batmobile is largely the same, but with a bunch of added gadgets. But the Batcave is new, and better.

And Batman has a new toy, a jet-powered boat he rides through the sewers (sorry for the blurry picture, but it is never seen clearly in the film--it never gets a hero shot).

Oh, and we get a new method for Bruce to get down to the Batcave. Instead of a secret passage through a grandfather clock, or sliding down a pole behind a bookcase, Bruce climbs into an Iron Maiden and slides down a chute.

Visually impressive, but weird.

Which you could say about the whole movie, really. But I said before that it pained me to admit the strengths of "Batman Returns," and you may be wondering why.

It's just this: everyone in Hollywood had come to see Batman as a wacky comedy property, and fans of the modern comic were dying to see Batman played straight. The first film got us closer than we had ever been, but was fucked up by studio interference, Prince, and bloody Nicholson.

Now along comes this cartoonier version of Batman, with Penguin riding around in a giant duck-car and using a supermarket kiddie ride to remotely control the Batmobile.

But at the same time, there was a backlash against the film from parents, saying it was "too dark." Once again, the weirdness just overwhelmed all the good stuff in it.

So by the time the third film came around, the reaction from the studio was, "Keep the funny, tone down the dark." And once again, villain casting ended up warping the film in some very bizarre ways.

But that's next week, when Madmartigan faces off against Ace Ventura and Agent Kay. See you then.

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