33 years after being dumped into the sewers as a baby by his horrified parents, Oswald Cobblepot (Danny DeVito), a disfigured, disgusting man, wants to surface and claim his rights as a human. Meanwhile, shy secretary Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer) works for business tycoon Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), who constantly belittles her. When she discovers his plans for a power station will actually drain and store Gotham’s surplus energy, he tries to kill her but fails, causing her to seek revenge. Also, there’s a bloke going around dressed as a bat, but clearly, he’s not as important.
Batman Returns is the Christmas special Movie of the Month for the LAMB, continuing our tradition of non-traditional festive films after Die Hard 2 and Gremlins. Returns’ Christmas claim comes from the events taking place at the end of the year, and many scenes being set around a large outdoor Christmas tree, with many people walking past buying and carrying gifts, so it’s about on an equal level with Die Hard 2, which is fine. This is a film I’ve not seen in a long time. Back in 2008, just before The Dark Knight was released, I made it a mission to watch all the previous Batman films, as I’d not really watched them all properly before. Whilst 1966’s Batman: The Movie was a joy to behold, the other four all sort of blurred together, with really only their respective villains standing out. Thus, of this one I could recall the Penguin’s black, bile-spewing mouth, and Catwoman’s leather cat-suit, but not what anyone actually did in the film, so I was more than happy to be watching it again, on its own.
I watched Tim Burton’s Batman last year for the first time since that period too, and I wasn’t a big fan, but Returns is much better. For starters Prince wasn’t involved with the soundtrack, so we’re spared the music videos that made it into the narrative of the earlier film. I’m still not a massive fan of Michael Keaton as either Bruce Wayne or Batman, but I appreciate his romantic storyline with Selina Kyle, and the scene at the masquerade ball between the two of them is terrific. And yes, a lot of what happens on screen is still utterly ridiculous – the Batmobile still looks horrendous and can’t corner worth a damn, his cowl looks awful, in fact all of Batman’s design is more than a bit crap, especially the Batman logo he has on his CD drive (courtesy of one of the film’s most ridiculous moments that I won’t spoil). However, the production design stepped it up a gear with regards to the villains, more than making up for the shortcomings of our hero.
I loved everything about the Penguin. As far as I’m concerned DeVito should have been at least nominated for an Oscar for his performance; it’s fantastic, especially taking into account the heavy make-up, prosthetics and body-suit that complete his character. From the guttural grunting noise he makes when he moves to the animalistic way he bites into a whole fish with his pointy, filthy teeth, he truly is a terrific villain. During the sequence where he ran for mayor it was difficult not to draw parallels with the state of politics in America at present, especially when he gleefully discovers he can grope the young female aides, and a few lines later he says “Just the pussy I’ve been looking for!” This isn’t a political blog though, so I’ll move on.
Speaking of Catwoman, I liked her too, just not to the same degree as Penguin. Pfeiffer was great in the role, but I’ve never been as big a fan of her overall look as others, as I find the hand-sewn costume design to be a bit off-putting. Still, the performance was wonderful, and Pfeiffer gave it all she had. I’m less keen on the pre-Catwoman Selina Kyle depiction. We’re shown her to be the epitome of meekness, and if anything, Tim Burton went a little too far. I felt I understood everything about this character from her first scene in the boardroom with Shreck and his associates, when she tries to speak up but is quashed down, and later she berates herself for being too shy and not standing up for herself. Pfeiffer does such a great job of playing down her usual attractive and forthright nature that had the next scene been her next encounter with Shreck and a bout of defenestration, I don’t think anything would have been missing. Instead we get a scene at her apartment, all pastel pink and plush teddy bears, and an answer phone full of rejections and further belittlements. Also, as she walks into the door of her own place, Kyle says “Honey, I’m home! Oh wait, I forgot, I’m not married.” What is that? Is she delivering exposition to herself? Is it a joke to depress herself even more? Still, the apartment scene here allowed for a great contrast later after her transformation, so I suppose it all works in the end.
Christopher Walken often gets forgotten when this film is discussed as he seems more of a secondary villain, but I’m a fan of his so I can’t go further without saying that I had a lot of fun with his character, and was pleasantly surprised by how much of the film he is in. Elsewhere in the cast Michael Gough continues his wonderfully dry take on Alfred, and Vincent Schiavelli crops up amongst Penguin’s goons. Schiavelli sightings are rare, and this is a fun one.
As expected with a Tim Burton film, there’s a lot going on visually. The opening credits play out as we follow the bizarrely beautiful sight of a baby-filled bassinet floating down the river of a sewer, and the general staging of practically every shot is wonderful. That’s something Burton has always had an eye for, and he doesn’t disappoint here.
I ended up enjoying this far more than I should. There’s a bit too much silliness at times, like Penguin’s numerous trick umbrellas and the whole climactic sequence involving mind-controlled rocket-packing penguins is utterly insane, but this is still a great movie, and a vast improvement upon the first.
Choose Film 8/10