Batman Returns: Action Fairytale

"Monsters I believe are patron saints of our blissful imperfection. And they allow, and embody, the possibility of failing, and live."

-Guillermo Del Toro

In the post-Dark Knight comic book movie landscape, Batman has shouldered the burden of being an upstanding icon at the same time that he’s still dealing with a lot of personal issues. Like any child, he responds to the problems in his life with a hatred that he tells himself counts as vengeance (perhaps after Alfred has tucked him in for the night). He is a bedtime story with no moral, a thing of shadows and wings and little boy screams (that’s what Batmans are made of). No matter how self-aware he seems to be in later incarnations, he cannot change how scary he is, not just to the criminals he beats but to the audience meant to idolize him. He is a little boy, reluctantly in the shape of a man and willingly in the shape of a monster, and he gets littler the more monstrous he pretends to be. If any of his films capture this deep-seated anxiety of being Batman, every day, not just his origin story or his one last day on the job, it's Batman Returns.

Does Tim Burton relate to Batman more than Bruce Wayne? He’s perfect for him. They both get funnier the more serious they try to be. Burton must have been sketching Batman before he made him, at the back of the class, in swirls of claw and wing and wild hair (both the drawing and the boy). To Burton, Batman is a creature that occasionally contains himself in a human suit to blend in with the day-shift, attend meanings, go on dates, host parties. Bruce Wayne is the disguise. This is something that Burton’s Batman has in common with mythology, where the gods considered becoming mortal more strenuous than destroying (and saving) the world. It’s also something it has in common with Adam West’s Batman, who was always Batman in his spirit, even when disguised as someone who went out at night dressed as a person and tried to convince women to tell him their secrets with hot cocoa and drive-by kisses. Burton's universe is never far from being that child-like, though its estimation of childhood is much more traumatizing.

Batman crashes parties and rubs wingtips with the ruling classes in Batman Returns, while Bruce is an aloof loner, a non-entity in his own home. Women reserve their love until they recognize Batman in him. Is Batman the man Bruce Wayne wishes he was? A workout ascended into a persona? When someone sees him unmasked for the first time, they say, "Bruce Wayne ... why are you dressed up like Batman?" He even meets Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer) at a masquerade ball as Batman dressed as Bruce Wayne at a ball, which leads to the best possible mutual reveal for the star-crossed vigilantes, something which the first Burton Batman did in a vague aside without a tenth of the loving angst. Nolan’s version even recreated this scene in The Dark Knight Rises, which I've always considered a mistake since regardless of other technical comparisons, no better example exists for laying bare what Burton does best and what Nolan can never quite calculate correctly.

Batman Returns is a story of resolving one's dark duality, though there were many angry mothers with frightened children who considered it less than inspirational, as those children screamed (or else begged to see it for themselves, which to a 90s mom was probably worse). The film was burdened with being one that kids wanted to see, but it's really an all-ages Christmastime nightmare on a sprawling series of theatrical sets (most of the Warner Bros. lot was either booked by Batman or hosting his penguins, in a series of locations all composed into the frigid fantasy space of a dark city). It’s a Christ allegory with a monster fetish. It’s unsettling, delectable, colorful (bruises are too, sometimes). Not the sort of thing you expect to see in a Happy Meal. But what the moms back then didn’t understand, as they lobbied to have the passion vacuumed out of the series until all that was left was Schumacher’s amateur dress-up contests, was that the darkness in Batman Returns is the darkness that is already in children. Its happiness and even its sadness are on their level. Maybe they knew it, and that's what made them so interested.

The Penguin is a fairytale nasty, the villain of a nursery rhyme. He’s born on Christmas (and returns thirty-three years later to be crucified). His wealthy parents (look out for Pee Wee and Simone craned over his crib in horror) leave him in a river to be swept into the Gotham sewer. His fingers web together, his teeth sharpen, and he develops an unsightly habit of squawking like Burgess Meredith. His eyes are shiny beads above a hooked prosthetic nose and gratuitous gut. The character is so complete that he begs the question of where Penguin ends and Danny DeVito begins. Meredith was wily and well-loved when he took this character at his word, as an aristocrat and deformed gentleman. DeVito, an appendage of Burton, is more infatuated with the monster. His blood is gunky and blue. He wakes up with his eyeshadow already on.

Penguin’s master plan (for there must always be a master plan) is not to destroy Gotham, kill Batman, or blow something up. His plan is to kill all of Gotham’s first-born sons, as much a punishment for being mistreated as a personal penance for the crime of being born (he’s a costume party Herod). I wonder if this film would have existed if the marketers had found out ahead of time what it was about – in our modern world of moviemaking-by-marketing, it perhaps never would have been conceived in the first place since movies today come with the rioting moms and the Happy Meal deals prepackaged. I also wonder if its macabre creativity will ever resurface in comic book movies again; if it does, to the current genre landscape it will be like an unwanted child emerging from a sewer. My house is available though if it needs a place to crash its wings and claws and slimy fins for the night.

Catwoman slinks into frame in tight leather, like a vacuum-sealed doll, not deterring or helping the Penguin's plans. Each crevice is lewder than the last, stitched with haphazard purpose. Her face is bone-pale. She’s fond of licking her leather forearm, making phallic wordplay, eating birds whole, and cartwheeling into danger. Pfeiffer works so well in the part because while she is physically at ease, she is also a master at seeming spiritually damaged. Pfeiffer is not the most cat-like of all Catwomen (the honor remains purrfectly safe with Eartha Kitt). But she is the most changed, like an evil goddess, obsessed with transformation and empowerment. A wonderful room-trashing scene pits pushover secretary Selina Kyle and the memory of her hum-drummy cuteness against the Catwoman persona, utilitarian, roaring. Her costume is sewn like self-bondage, perhaps to contain the girl she now represses as a weakness (there's a lot of talk about "sexism" in this movie by name, as though the term was new). I dislike lists of “Best Movie Quotes Ever” because they don’t always take delivery into account. If they did, Pfeiffer saying “Meow” at one particular point would belong with the best of them.

It's not hard to transition from Catwoman trashing her human room to an idea of Batman, to ask what urges he's keeping at bay by containing them in leather wings. Catwoman has no plan but to get revenge on the man who created her, perhaps for the sin of doing so. Slithery businessman Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) has something to do with that. But Batman gets in the way, being tall and handsome, yes, she could get over that, but so dark? She just wants to sink her claws into him (so did Burton). The film gives the impression that she struggles to entice him while hoping not to fall for him. She wants to have him because she doesn’t want to want him (that’s what pathetic Selina would have done). She resembles the shadow that Batman sees in himself, down to the repression of his human personality beneath leather folds and stitching and a strategically selected small mammal, so much so that Batman loving her becomes intense yet non-romantic. It's as exposing as masturbation. I'm guessing that Alfred (Michael Gough), who wishes Bruce would get out more instead of just Batman, would hardly be surprised.

Three villains all swirling in this broody melancholia are enough to make any fan of modern comic book movies squirm: it’s well-documented what Spider-Man 3, Batman and Robin, and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 all failed to accomplish with an overabundance of adversaries. But where those antagonists had to all unequally share one idea of villainy, Burton and screenwriter Daniel Waters coordinate Batman's baddies into symbolic parts of a complete picture. By re-evaluating them and their relation to Batman, Batman Returns emerges as more than an action blockbuster sequel. By playing off the franchise's symbols in Burton’s imagination, it becomes a modern fable.

This is how the story begins. Bruce Wayne was filled with childish emotions when he lost his parents. He hated himself, his city, his world. He hated the kinds of people who ruined his life. He probably vowed to kill them before he came up with something much crueler: he vowed to make them afraid to be alive. This anger is not unique; it is based on emotions that anyone would have. But the persona that entered the real world (or Gotham’s facsimile of it) out of the shell of Bruce Wayne could have taken many forms. Batman Returns offers four possibilities.

Like the Penguin, Batman could have remained an orphan, monstrous in isolation, lonely and vengeful. Like Max Shreck (whose name you may recognize as the actor who played the vampire in Nosferatu, confirming the allusion), he could have become sterile and cruel in grand Gothic offices behind monolithic nameplates, sucking the life from the city. Or like Catwoman, he could have been consumed by the night, becoming a spirit of alteration, all vigilante and no man. “We’re the same,” he tells her, “split right down the center.”

As in a fairytale, these are not movie characters as much as stand-ins for a feeling. They are Batman’s eventualities. During his acceptance speech for The Shape of Water at the Golden Globes, Del Toro spoke of monsters in a way that Batman Returns visualized. The existence of its villains is proof of what Batman could be; that they die is proof of his humanity but also of their monstrous similarity. The sum of them is terror, fluttering in the mind of a little boy whose world came down around him. Removing them leaves only Bruce Wayne – he is the climax, not just the cause, of Batman Returns. When he tears off the leather bat in front of everyone and speaks, for the first time, as himself, the film questions if Batman will ever be the same, now that he has the capacity to fall in love and come crashing down and finally reveal the person in the monster's heart. Has he destroyed the monsters, or finally accepted being one? It will always be a broken promise to see this Bruce and Selina again in the unmade third film in Burton's series, abandoned to please the angry mom mob. But perhaps no greater ending is possible than for them to embody failure, look out across the city at Christmas from different points of view above and below the skyline, and live.

This Batman is like the architecture of his city enchanted to life. He is content in his shadow. Michael Keaton is his perfect vessel not because he is the most imposing actor possible but because he is the most vulnerable in being imposing. This Batman is in torment; even his civil acts reveal the depressed child in him. When he's toughest as Batman, he's also most exposed as Bruce. What would make someone endure this contradiction? Batman Returns is asking this question constantly, even when Batman is not on-screen (though since the villains are forms of his personality, he is always on-screen, in a sense). He deposed himself from being happy but accepted being the twisted king of a fairytale. Danny Elfman scores it in a way no less haunting and slanted than his mind, which is so broken that it resorts to heroism as a form of self-harm. Remember when Adam West needed to get in the Bat-Cave and pushed a button under the head of Shakespeare? The door to Keaton's Batcave is an Iron Maiden.

I can't imagine a better site for this transformation than the Gotham City confected by Burton and production designer Bo Welch. It’s a place where gargoyles live, where matte paintings and slanted shadows and studio snow exist as they do in dreams. Batman Returns is stage-like in the best imaginable way, as only the tactile props and screens of analog moviemaking can be. And the stage reflects the players. As in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, there is a distinct reaction in physical space to the mental state of its inhabitants. It's revealed in a cold and cavernous penguin lair, full of manic toys, or in the slanty dominance of the skyscrapers and their hard shadows, or in a moody-repressive Batcave full of devotion and self-harm and unintentional awe. This space is a perfect framework for a performance of change and its melancholy bliss and weird terror. Modern Batmans have been tempered, as you might take molten material and hammer out one sheet of cold blue metal from it. They've become industrial, which may suit their unique intentions, but I've never stopped longing for that Gotham out of time, that tortured fantasy of pain and power that Burton made from sex and longing and a touch of Christmas, as only a little boy could, for the secret joy of helping the rest of us see how dark the world seems to them.

Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Warner Bros.

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