It could be worse...Appellate Judge Michael Stailey's nose could be gushing blood.
The Bat, the Cat, the Penguin
With only two features films under his belt—Pee-Wee's Big Adventure and Beetlejuice—director Tim Burton was handed the keys to one of Warner Bros. most valued and underutilized properties. He responded by impressing diehard fans, newcomers, and skeptics alike. Three years later, following completion of a heartfelt coming-of-age tale, Edward Scissorhands, Burton returned to Gotham…discovering a very different world than the one he left behind. Box office success breeds skepticism, contempt, and greed. Everyone and their brother wanted in on this action, hoping to ride the Dark Knight's cape-tails to fame and profits. Yet, even beyond the invented drama and hair-pulling frustrations of marketing, product placement, and merchandising tie-ins, Burton and his team found themselves in the unenviable position of topping their original work with a new chapter in the Caped Crusader mythos—the expectations of which proved a more formidable adversary than any member of The Batman's rogues gallery.
Facts of the Case
The holidays have arrived in Gotham City. The air is crisp, the snow is falling, the festive streets are lined with holiday shoppers, and the Midnight Circus Gang has turned the Mayor's tree lighting ceremony into a terrorist nightmare. Ah, but in actuality, this is little more than a well-played diversion. It's not wanton mayhem they're after. The real prize is department store magnet and cutthroat businessman Max Shreck (Christopher Walken, The Dead Zone).
The mastermind behind this Christmas crisis is a repugnant elf calling himself The Penguin (Danny DeVito, Mars Attacks!). Disfigured at birth and abandoned by his affluent parents (Paul Reubens and Diane Salinger, aka Pee-Wee and Simone), Oswald Cobblepot was raised by a family of Emperor penguins, far beneath the decaying facade of the derelict Central Park Zoo and Amusement Park. The Penguin has plans for Max and coerces him into joining forces in destroying Gotham. Then again, an end game like that requires very little arm-twisting.
Meanwhile, back at the office, Max's dowdy put upon administrative assistant, Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer, The Witches of Eastwick), stumbles across a little too much information in the form of details on his energy-sucking power plant. Now she's a liability and must be let go…from the window of the Shreck Building's penthouse offices. Luckily, this cat lover has nine lives, the second of which—clad in a patchwork vinyl catsuit, accessorized by a lovely woven bullwhip—turns out to be far more liberating than the first. It's amazing how motivating a change of perspective can be.
Thankfully, Bruce Wayne's (Michael Keaton, Johnny Dangerously) dance card is open, because this three-way tango is about to get interesting.
As with the 1989 release of Batman, I was at the midnight showing with every other comic book geek in the Chicago suburbs. Yet, the feeling I had leaving the theater early that morning was profoundly different. To be honest, I didn't know what to think. Batman Returns was unlike any other film I'd experienced. If I had to think of four words that night to describe it, I'd have chosen…
I wasn't the only one perplexed. Leaving the theater, it wasn't hard to overhear fellow audience members toss around phrases such as "I hated it," "That wasn't Batman," and "See, I knew they'd screw it up." Even though I was experiencing strong emotions, contempt wasn't one of them.
Now, having seen Batman Returns more than a dozen times over the course of the past 13 years, I firmly believe many films cannot be fully appreciated after only one viewing. Oh, and those feelings I was struggling with on opening night? I now recognize them as…
Awe—at the world Burton and his creative team created.
Reverence—for peeling back and delving deep beneath the surface layers of these decades old characters to discover their humanity.
Am I gushing? Perhaps…but not without good reason.
Whereas other comic book films—X-Men, Fantastic Four, Spider-man—have taken the explosive, CGI, Jerry Bruckheimer route, Batman Returns is subtle, grounded, and real. Batman is a human consumed by the desire for justice. He has no super-human abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Batman's arsenal is made up of exceptional observation skills, a sharp intellect, finely honed physical skills, and the innate ability to emotionally detach from a stressful situation. Burton exploits this humanity as the foundation upon which the film is built.
The true power of Batman Returns is found in the character relationships…
"After dark all cats are leopards."—Native American Proverb
Selina and Max
"Every bird loves to hear himself sing."—Italian Proverb
Max and Oswald
"He who plays with a cat must bear its scratches."—Chinese Proverb
Penguin and Catwoman
"The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not twist them to fit our own image. Otherwise, we love only the reflection of ourselves we find in them."—author and monk Thomas Merton
Catwoman and Batman
"Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within."—playwright James Arthur Baldwin
Bruce and Selina
Beautifully written and skillfully portrayed, Batman Returns showcases an ensemble par excellence. Michael Keaton returns to the role—somewhat hesitantly, as the story goes—giving Bruce depth of character and emotion. Often times, no dialogue is required to receive the volumes of subtext coming through loud and clear. Michael Gough (Sleepy Hollow) is once again by Keaton's side as Alfred Pennyworth—surrogate father, confidant, and voice of reason. Danny DeVito is brilliantly unrecognizable as Penguin, the grotesque chief denizen of Gotham's literal underworld. Michelle Pfieffer gives a career making transformation from the hopelessly awkward Selina to the supremely commanding Catwoman. Christopher Walken once again brightens the screen with yet another masterful, smarmy psychopath in the body of Max Shreck. Let's face it, you will not find a superhero film with more depth of performance authenticity than is captured here.
Burton and company seal the deal with production values grander than the character's 75-year history. Shifting locations from London to Los Angeles, production design Bo Welch had 16 of Hollywood's largest soundstages upon which to build and chill a brand new Gotham. More creative control—earned through the enhanced box office respectability of Batman and Edward Scissorhands—gives Batman Returns the director's unique visual stamp. Like the cross section of a grand old tree, Gotham's history can be seen in its conglomeration of architectural styles—neo-classical here, art deco there—merging together to show it's innate ability to survive despite the decades of moral and spiritual degradation that has overtaken it. In essence, the city becomes as important a character as those who populate it.
With design as the infrastructure and story/acting as the building blocks, the heart of the film belongs to composer Danny Elfman's magnificent score. With more than twice the music of an average film, Elfman uses the holidays to underscore the character's conflicted emotions and dastardly manipulations. His themes will stay will you long after the final credits roll.
Presented in a brand new digital 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, this is the finest the film has ever looked. Sharper and more vibrant than the 1997 DVD release, the color palette of deeply muted blues, greys, and blacks, offset by blood reds and circus yellows, paint a bleak portrait of a dreary Great Depression as if it had occurred after WWII instead of before it. Without even a hint of edge enhancement, digital artifacting, or aliasing, you'll be hard pressed to find fault with the visuals. The same holds true for the audio. Dolby 5.1 and DTS tracks provide enough resonant action to keep any surround system busy for more than two hours. The dialogue is clean, the effects are biting, and the music is lush.
Warner Home Video blesses this special edition with a Bat Cave full of bonus materials. A brand spanking new commentary with director Tim Burton is well worth a listen. Granted, at times, he has trouble completing thoughts, but when he does the stories are marvelous. The whole Annette Benning/Sean Young situation is great fodder for a number of stories from Burton and others. A new "making of" featurette splices together old production footage with new thoughts shared by Burton, producer Denise Di Novi, writer Daniel Waters, an exuberant Danny DeVito, Michael Gough, and various members of the creative team. Sadly, there are no new interviews with Michael Keaton, Michelle Pfeiffer, or Christopher Walken. Take a trip down memory lane with the late Robert Urich as he hosts a televised behind-the-scenes look at the film, as a promo piece for the film's release. For those of you into the process of filmmaking, a wealth of material can be found in the "Beyond Batman" section—from art design and music, to makeup and penguin wrangling. Heroes and Villains profiles continue the featurette goodness with closer looks into how they developed from concept meetings to the final film. Finally, you can round out your experience with a look at the original theatrical trailer and the music video for "Face to Face" by pre-goth/post-punk band Siouxsie and the Banshees. This two-disc set is Christmas for Batman fans.
Before Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins, Batman Returns was the crown jewel in this hero's filmatic crown. Even now, it stands the test of time as one of Tim Burton's finest films and a character drama all comic book adaptations should aspire to. If you haven't seen it, now's the time.
Batman Returns is free to celebrate the holidays (and every day) in its own unique way for generations to come.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Director Tim Burton
Review content copyright © 2005 Michael Stailey; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.