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Dissecting 'Batman Returns'

Why It Is a Poor Film

What if I told you Tim Burton's Batman Returns is not just a bad Batman film, but just a poor film in general? I feel as if some people give this film too much credit to this day. Of course, it is no The Dark Knight but some people still hold a place for it in their heart. I believe part of this comes from just pure nostalgia and admiration for the 1989 film. For many people, Tim Burton's Batman starring Michael Keaton was and is their Batman. It was either their introduction to the Batman or what they finally wanted after all the camp and silliness of decades prior.

Another problem is what came after Batman Returns. People see and know know what Joel Schumacher's Batman films are, therefore Batman Returns appears like Citizen Kane next to Batman and Robin. However, this is hardly objective criticism or a professional reviewing process in just comparing it to a similar film. We need to look at it as its own film.

Looking at Batman

For a film titled Batman Returns, Batman does not return to his own film until roughly fifteen minutes in. What is interesting is that the original script had much more dialogue from Bruce Wayne/Batman but was omitted by Michael Keaton himself. In addition, Tim Burton follows a perspective of the character similar to The Killing Joke artist—Brian Bolland. According to these two, it is best to treat Batman as something of a horror movie monster. The less you see of them, the more scary, mysterious and intriguing the character is. Unfortunately, we get to know very little of the film's character. A horror monster I dare say is more of a plot device, rather than a fully, developed character. Hence, this take does not really work.

It is the lack of screen time, dialogue and overall content of the character of Bruce Wayne/Batman that it is hard to even find him appealing. May I ask what is the Batman's arc in this film, if any? His first scene shows a rather sulking character just waiting for something. Look back at Tim Burton's Batman and you will find that Batman is rather reactive character. Our hero seems more interested in physically fighting crime rather than stopping it. One scene has him not intervening to stop a mugging, he just waits until the victim is off the screen and the clowns see him. Another scene has him throwing Catwoman to the ground, getting the advantage and what does he do? Bring her in? No, he flees the scene! He has no interest in saving the Gotham citizens from hordes of bats or attempting to contain the situation. No, instead he just runs! So in a sense he has no interest in even stopping crime and sentencing criminals, save for the routine murder here and there. No, he just wants to hit them. This makes Batman less of a hero and more of just some bully, or a drunkard looking for a fight.

There is his "relationship" with Selina Kyle/Catwoman. His desire for her comes from a thinking or understanding of her dark side, at least we think. Nothing is ever concrete for his attraction to her. Although, what is strange, is how he is willing to send Max Shreck to jail, but every other criminal is killed. Why this peculiar double-standard? There is this possibility because he knows that killing the person that caused you pain will not make things better. Hence, he would rather save Selina Kyle/Catwoman than torture. The Caped Crusader killed the Joker, the murderer of his parents in the last film. One would think maybe now he can put his past behind him, with his parents' killer finally in the grave. It is possible he sees this fate for Ms. Kyle. Yet, the film and Batman himself fail to communicate if that even is the reasoning. Instead, Batman says we're not going to kill him because... reasons.

Looking at the Penguin

Never has a villain had a complete lack of goals and motivations. They expect to create The Penguin as something of a sympathetic character. Yet, he talks about groping people, how he'd like to "fill her void," refers to his penis as a parasol, plans the death of innocent children and is overall a grizzly, disgusting character. Yes, he grew up in the sewers and with a circus. The Red Triangle Circus gang may be criminals, but couldn't they still teach him basic manners? 

Going back to his goals and motivations, we realize they are all over the place. Originally he states he wants to ascend, find his birth name and his parents. This is accomplished but we still see him hard at work with documents. It isn't until the end or a second viewing that all of this is build-up to the killing of the first borns of Gotham City. Instead, Max Shreck rocks the boat by trying to run the now Oswald Cobblepot for mayor, in a recall campaign. The Penguin will accomplish this by increasing  the crime rate in Gotham City with his cronies. Plus, he plans to make the Batman look bad, the sworn defender of Gotham which the police department have fallen on. Once this all goes down hill he plans to kidnap and drown the first borns. Wait, this plan is interrupted within mere minutes and now he just plans to level all of Gotham with missile equipped penguins.  

These plans come off as being hatched one by one accidentally and as last minute ditch efforts. However, no real planning went into them, they are not contingency plans but thoughts The Penguin had at the moment because he was pissed off. What does The Penguin want then? Well he wants to find his parents, but he also wants to kill people but he also wants to be mayor, acceptance and in his perverted mind to get laid. Sure, you can have character flaws and quirks, but when you make a sympathetic character with such perversion it is hard to stand behind them. The Penguin's motivations are all over the place, more so than a attention deficit teenager. 

Looking at Catwoman

Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman is still beloved to this day. I believe this is due to a plethora of reasons. First, this one generation's introduction to Catwoman on the big screen. For others, they prefer this again over the camp they are used to. Secondly, people who lived through this and more are quick to compare it to Halle Berry's Catwoman and Anne Hathaway in The Dark Knight Rises. However, these are two completely different characters. Halle Berry isn't even Selina Kyle. Whereas one may argue Anne Hathaway is hardly Catwoman, she isn't even credited or called that in the film. Instead, she is Selina Kyle and Selina Kyle in action scenes, due to Christopher Nolan's immense realism he must immerse his world in.

With all of this said, there is something of a bias to this portrayal of Catwoman. I do believe part of it also stems from a collective, male lust for the character. We see Selina Kyle in the archetypal female role as secretary, pink apartment with a cat and doll house. She comes off as this prototypical 50s housewife minus the house and family. Then that all changes as she trades it in for this shiny, black gimp suit more or less. No longer is she looking to settle down, she is looking to have fun! 

But what are her motivations and goals? In her first scene alone she stops a man from mugging and possibly sexually assaulting a woman. Therefore, she is a hero like Batman, but playing on the gender roles. Yet, Catwoman then gives her lip for waiting for some Batman to save her. Then she is female empowerment... I guess. Her next stop is blowing up a Shreck's department store. It makes the papers, but we never see Max Shreck upset about it. Therefore, if this was her way to get back at him, it did not work. Batman intervenes after she destroys the store, fighting her and knocking her off a building. Catwoman's new goal is to get back at Batman. So Catwoman's entire motivation is getting back at men who wronged her somehow? That does seem like the underlying theme, but I think it was done accidentally and not truly thought about at all.

She joins with The Penguin in framing Batman and later turns down his sexual advances. Finally, she makes it abundantly clear at the party when she pulls out a gun, crying "this and Max." Now, this motivation makes all the sense in the world! It appears she had it out for Max when she blew up his store. Yet, she allowed Batman to get in the way, a mere thorn in her side. Keep in mind, this is a reactive Batman, he was not prowling the streets for her the very next night. Why not continue your path to bring down Max Shreck? Not only that, but your his secretary/executive assistant, just poison his coffee or something! 

Looking at the Film in Its Entirety

The characters are summed up for the most part. As we can see bad characters with no real structured development. The writing is all over the place, as well as the tone. We get goofy things like The Penguin in little kiddy car version of the Batmobile, a poodle with a grenade, cat jokes then scenes about killing babies and sexual assault. Who is this film for really? It comes off more as a Tim Burton film for Tim Burton. He has no interest in actual fleshed out characters or a coherent story. He just wants freaks, monsters and weirdos. Danny DeVito's Penguin may as well be Edward Flipperhands. 

Even on a more technical level, the film is quite a web of debauchery.
  1. The film is shot on a set, which is fine, but it feels so much like a set. We keep seeing recognizable parts. Not once do we ever see the sky in Gotham City really. Our setting feels like an actual set, populated by less than fifty people, max. Gotham City does not feel legitimate at all. Why not just shoot in the real world?
  2. During the fights between Batman and Catwoman the choreography and setting of their fight makes no sense. One moment we see Batman falling, the next thing we know is he on a higher setting than Catwoman and pulling her up. The geography is extremely off!
  3. Recall that scene when Batman rips off the cowl? For a quick second he does not have the black make-up under his eyes and it is glaring! Why not get a quicker cut or shoot it from the back and wrap-around to his face?
  4. Do you for one moment buy those penguin pallbearers? Stan Winston, rest his soul, has done better work than this. Those are obviously people in costumes
  5. Why the Christmas setting? Is it really needed? 

    And this is only the surface of the film's ills. It is hard to truly say what the film is about or what it is trying to say. It feels as it some of the characters are mouthpieces for Tim Burton in we are weirdos, feel bad for us and the shame the normal people. Yet, how can we when the characters you make are chaotic and lack any basic human manners? I dare say they are near bi-polar due to the incoherent story telling. Odd, how the film has an 81 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Then again, RT is hardly that objective but it does give us some idea. With the changing culture perhaps in time more people and the next generation will look at the film in confusion and disgust, rather than just sheer nostalgic awe for the hell of it.
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