Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Film Review: Batman Returns

"Batman Returns"  *** (out of ****)

The Dark Knight is back to protect Gotham City in Tim Burton's "Batman Returns" (1992).

Watching "Batman Returns" one of the first things the viewer immediately notices is the way Gotham City is presented. It is a complete contrast in style to the gloomy character it was shown as in the first Batman (1989) movie. In the original movie, director Tim Burton created Gotham City as a gloomy, despairing figure to help visually establish the psychological mindset of its characters. It was the center piece in a story about two troubled and disturbed men; Batman (Michael Keaton) and The Joker (Jack Nicholson). In "Batman Returns" Gotham City resembles a carnival, a fun house. I called Gotham City a technical marvel in the first movie. In "Batman Returns" the city is not given the same edge.

The next thing we immediately notice is a shift in tone. The original movie was seen as taking a more mature, adult, approach to the Batman material. Back in 1989 this was considered a risky move. Viewers remembered Batman as the campy, live action cartoon show of the 1960s starring Adam West in the title role. "Batman Returns" is not campy, but, the movie has more of a comic feel to it than the first movie, which I compared to a graphic comic book written by Frank Miller. The comic approach taken in this sequel would become the dominate tone of the next two movies, which Burton did not direct. In "Batman Returns" however we see the beginning of the shift. Where "Batman" was considered too dark and violent for audiences in 1989, "Batman Returns" is at times kid friendly. The movie is laced with humor, for example, we see The Penguin travel on a giant rubber ducky.

The shift though did leave me conflicted watching "Batman Returns". Part of me felt it is a lesser film than the original yet part of me found it entertaining. I somewhat enjoyed the more comical approach to the material.

One of the elements that really hurts the movie is the villains. This time around there are three; Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer), The Penguin (Danny DeVito) and Max Shreck (Christopher Walken). What I dislike about Catwoman and The Penguin is there is not a direct link to them becoming who they are and Batman (again played by Michael Keaton). In the first movie The Joker becomes who he is because of Batman dropping him into a vat of chemicals which altered his appearance. That gave him a pretty good motivation for wanting revenge against Batman. In the case of Catwoman and The Penguin, they have become who they are because of other people not because of Batman's doing. Because of that I couldn't understand why they make Batman an enemy. They have other people to blame.

Also, the characters themselves aren't as threatening as The Joker. Catwoman and The Penguin are at times comic relief. The movie has a naughty side to how it treats them. There is a strong sexual vibe. At one point in the movie when The Penguin sees Catwoman he actually says she is "the pussy he has been waiting for". Yes, there is a double entendre because a cat is sometimes referred to as a pussycat but I wonder will young children know that or will they think The Penguin just said a dirty word? The Penguin is presented as a very horny, sexually deprived character. Again, not exactly fitting if you are trying to give your movie a more kid friendly vibe.

I found the most interesting villain to be Max Shreck, a wealthy businessman that wants to build a power plant which will drain Gotham City of all its electricity. You can always count on a wealthy, greedy, businessman to make a good villain. They are so easy to hate. Shreck is the link between all these characters.

However, "Batman Returns" does do a nice job giving us the back story to the Catwoman and The Penguin character. I found Catwoman to be more interesting. Maybe because I like Michelle Pfeiffer more or because her story is funnier and easier to relate to. She works for Shreck as his secretary and feels she is under-valued. Who hasn't felt that way towards their boss? It is because of Shreck the nice Selina Kyle is turned into Catwoman.

One of the things I do like about "Batman Returns" is Michael Keaton. In the first movie it seemed he was kind of stiff, not comfortable playing the role. I had the feeling he was restricting himself from telling a joke. This time around Keaton appears more settled into the role.

An interesting relationship is portrayed between Catwoman and Batman. Once again the idea is presented here that the villain has something in common with the caped crusader. This also allows Catwoman to serve as a possible love interest since Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) is not in this movie, though she is mentioned. I like the possibility of this romance more than the one between Batman and Vicki. What I am still on the fence about is should both characters have been so willing to reveal who they are to each other? "Batman Returns" flirts with the idea all of these characters have a hint of who they really are. This leads me to wonder, since Vicki Vale is not in this movie and she knows who Batman is, what prevents her from telling the world? After that incident doesn't Batman worry about that? Why would he be willing to have another person know his secret identity?

There are a lot of people who feel "Batman Returns" is a better movie than the original. This movie however made less money than the first one,  nearly $200 million dollars less. Box-office doesn't matter to me when it comes to the quality of a movie, but, it is interesting there was such a drop. Was there just not as much repeat business? It was still one of the highest grossing movies of the year though.

I can't help but feel "Batman Returns" is not as ambitious as the first film both in tone and style. "Batman Returns" is an interesting visual film though. The Penguin works with a circus gang (is this suppose to make us think of The Joker?) which gives Burton the opportunity to dress these characters in creative ways.

One reason which may account for the shift in tone is perhaps in 1989 the world was a scarier place. George H.W. Bush was president and the Cold War appeared to be coming to an end. In 1992 we had a new president, Bill Clinton. The Cold War was completely over. It is notable that The Penguin makes a mayoral run in this movie and is presented as a horn dog, Bill Clinton was seen in a similar light. Maybe the world could use a "lighter" superhero.

In the end I'd recommend "Batman Returns". I like Michael Keaton in the role. I find Michelle Pfeiffer fun to watch. The visual style of the movie is interesting. Composer Danny Elfman has written the definitive Batman theme. I like the relationship between Catwoman and Batman. And I liked the Shreck character. I felt the sexual vibe was unnecessary. It starts to make biblical references; the first born male child in every household will be killed which I didn't like. Still, the movie has enough moments that work.