Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Dark Knight Rising, Part 3: Batman Returns (1992)

     Part 3 in our countdown to the release of The Dark Knight Rises, in which we make our movie darker by adding rocket-pack wearing penguins...

THE BAT-FILM: After the monumental success of Batman, Tim Burton was put up into that upper-echelon of blockbuster filmmakers. He was able to get his own passion project Edward Scissorhands off the ground soon after, and “A Tim Burton Film” became a brand unto itself. With enough clout to grant him a greater amount of creative control, Burton could now fashion a Batman film that was truer to his own sensibilities, and one that wasn’t as tied down by commercialism and product placement as the last installment (which Burton himself has expressed mixed feelings over).

    Batman Returns improves upon its predecessor in almost every way - this time Burton and Co. deliver an actual movie instead of the feature-length commercial of the last installment. It’s not without its faults (many of them stemming from Burton’s own quirks as a director), but here tells a complete story, with characters that - while still broad - are immediately more fascinating than any in the first one.

    Most improved is the main star himself, Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne/Batman. Batman takes a backseat for this installment, at times feeling like a guest star in his own movie, but it’s ultimately for the better (indeed, Bruce Wayne doesn’t really get involved in the story until about a half-hour in). Keaton’s performance is still nervous and twitchy, but here it works. It also helps that the script plays into Keaton’s wonderful comic timing, giving Batman/Bruce Wayne several amusing moments without sacrificing any of the tragedy of the Batman mythos.

    The whole film is a step up in overall quality - the direction, cinematography and editing vastly improved from the first film. Burton abandons all trace of any modern details, instead embracing the period aesthetic that Batman only flirted with - giving the film a richer, far more unique look. Bo Welch takes over from Anton Furst as production designer, and swathes the film in German Expressionism and 1939 World's Fair design aesthestics. Setting the film at Christmas time was also a wise decision, with the element of snow providing a natural visual evolution from the first film’s steamy atmosphere. The action scenes and special effects are also much-improved, mostly devoid of the clunkiness that hampered the first film.

    But the biggest improvement is the drafting of a richer script by Daniel Waters. The first movie looked like a noir - Batman Returns is a noir, with damaged heroes, femme fatales and an overall bleak mood permeating the film. Events no longer haphazardly collide into one another, and while it still has structural and pacing issues, Waters’ script feels like Faulkner when compared to the last one, all capping off in a bleakly bittersweet ending that was quite unlikely for a summer blockbuster at the time.

    Perhaps too bleak. Although the film was a success, there was a certain air of disappointment at the film’s release. It was far darker than even the last one, with the violence and sexual content verging on R-rated territory. Despite all the tie-ins and toy lines, Batman Returns was most definitely not a kid’s film, as families across the nation realized as soon as Catwoman entered the frame, viciously slashing a would-be rapist’s face before killing him by poking his eyes out with her claws.

THE VILLAINS: Following up the Joker is no easy task, but the villains here are far more rounded and focused in their portrayal.

    The Penguin overcomes his general lameness by being reimagined as deformed freak, with a beak-like nose and flippers instead of fingers. There was really only one choice in selecting an actor to protray him, and Danny DeVito goes fantastically over-the-top in his performance. Perhaps a little too over-the-top: the Penguin’s story as an abandoned orphan has the potential to be poignant, but Burton and DeVito pull away from any attempt to humanize the character. A shame, as a deeper character would have been the perfect vehicle to explore the daddy issues present in most of the director’s work - and tie in the origin nicely with Batman’s for some thematic symmetry. What we end up with is a character who alternately delivers grand soliloquies and looks like he wants to fuck and/or eat everything in sight. A little disjointed, but still fun to watch - especially with his extremely unsettling band of circus freak thugs.

    Slightly more successful is Michelle Pfeiffer as Selina Kyle/Catwoman, although she too falls into the trap of hamming it up when a slightly more serious portrayal would have been more appropriate. Still, Pfeiffer plays the part wonderfully, going from mousy to sexpot at the drop of a hat. She’s also a far more interesting character for Batman to mix it up with than Vicki Vale, never really sure which side she’s on - indeed never really sure who exactly she is. The movie also gets vaguely supernatural, as here Catwoman is somehow blessed with nine lives - a handy trick, especially considering Ms. Kyle's propensity for being thrown from great heights.

    The real villain here is Christopher Walken as the slimy Max Schreck (named after the actor, bringing the German Expressionism ties full circle), Bruce Wayne’s number one corporate rival. Walken looks like a mad scientist who just walked out of an old silent film, with his shock of grey hair and lanky, pale features. He also refreshingly plays Schreck relatively low-key - Schreck’s a character who doesn’t need to raise his voice to be threatening. It's all there in his eyes.

    The script finds some convoluted and not-so-convoluted ways to team up the three villains, as all Batman films do in the end. The benefit of the allegiances constantly changing always ups the stakes, as each villain double-crosses the other at one point or another. It certainly never gets boring.

    All three villains aren’t always successful in their on-screen portrayals, but provide a nice threat on all fronts to Batman - from the personal in Penguin with his family heritage, to the sexual flirtations with the dark side in Catwoman and the overall threat of Max Schreck to both Wayne Industries and the city of Gotham as a whole.

THOSE WONDERFUL TOYS: The bat-suit and Batmobile return relatively intact, although streamlined as with the rest of the film. The outfit has been changed slightly to resemble an actual suit of armor instead of the sculpted muscle suit of the first film, also with a modified cape that looks much better when it‘s outstretched for gliding. The Batmobile has a few modifications, such as the nifty feature to shed its skin and become a slender Bat-missile - perfect for navigating narrow alleyways. Batman also gets a new vehicle in the Bat-skiboat, which doesn’t really get to do a whole lot, but looks cool.

    Rounding out Batman’s gadgets are his ubiquitous batarangs, this time with a nifty computerized targeting screen. Batman also uses what looks to be a capsule of bluish acid on Catwoman, burning her arm in the process. Which is rather sadistic, all things considered.

    The Penguin gets just as many gadgets, like his impressive collection of gimmick umbrellas. He also gets about the sewers in that large, bizarre rubber ducky, and let’s not forget the actual penguins - helmeted and rocket-packed, they are gloriously stupid.

THE BAT’S IN THE DETAILS: I feel like there’s a bit of commentary on Burton’s own career with Penguin’s rise and subsequent fall from fame - both are outsiders who somehow became celebrities, but plagued to be only defined by their weirdness.

    One of the defining character traits of Batman is that he does not kill. This hasn’t always been in place (in his 1939 debut, Batman routinely shot criminals with his trusty sidearm), but has become a staple of the character in recent years. The Burton films pretty much eschew this, as in the first film where Batman didn’t try very hard not to knock thugs from tall heights to their screaming deaths. And in Returns, Batman gets downright sadistic: he torches a flame-breather with the turbines of the Batmobile, and stuffs an explosive down a thug’s pants before dropping him off the side of a building.

    Robin was a part of the script up until the very last moment, but was dropped before filming began due to the film already being overstuffed with characters. Marlon Wayans was originally cast in the role, which would have seen Robin reimagined as a young African-American mechanic.

    This has probably the most absurd set-piece ever filmed for an action blockbuster, as a legion of penguins descend upon Gotham City with rockets strapped to their backs - proof-positive that Burton’s Batman films really aren’t all that far removed from the 60’s show they desperately wanted to distance themselves from.

    Is there anything creepier than a traveling circus that kidnaps children in their sleep? No. There is not (I know I’m not the only one who had nightmares of this as kid after seeing the movie).

    Pfeiffer in the form-fitting outfit and whip must have kick-started several male puberties at the time. Not that I'm speaking from experience or anything... *twiddles thumbs, nervously looks at ground*

    Burton reunites with two of his Pee Wee actors, as Paul Reubens and Diane Salinger cameo here as the Penguin’s parents.

    Andrew Bryniarski decides to forgo the whole acting thing as Max’s son Chip, instead settling on a half-baked Christopher Walken impression.

    Michelle Pfeiffer actually put a live bird in her mouth in the scene where Catwoman tries to eat Penguin’s canary. That’s dedication for you.

    Michael Keaton scratches a CD like it’s a record, as if to remind us that, yes, this was made in 1992.

BEST QUOTE: When Alfred asks if Batman's in pain after an encounter with Catwoman, Batman smirks and says, "Not really."

THE LAST LAUGH: Although a Batman movie that doesn’t have a whole lot to do with Batman, Tim Burton’s Batman Returns is much improved over its predecessor - a dark, fairy-tale noir with a cast of tragic, fascinating characters.

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