Batman’s second outing under the joint stewardship of Burton and Keaton is also his last. Burton was not interested in doing another sequel, and Warner Bros. execs were concerned about the dark tone of Burton’s films. The impasse thus formed led to the two quasi-neo-Batmania (I did the Kenosha Kid, I can do the Popcrit too) films directed by Joel Schumacher. Would that they could have seen their Snyderian future. Perhaps some did, those poor Cassandras of the executive suite. But it’s understandable: with the first Batman a big success, Burton was granted greater control over the sequel, and all that was suggestively fairytale and carnival of that first effort is foreground and writ large here. I always liked this film as a kid, it was equal parts goofy and nasty, vibrant and sinister, a cartoonish noir fantasy of the urban Gothic. But unlike the original Burton outing it has not been a film that I have thought about much since my childhood, let alone watched. Will it hold up? Let’s find out! I wrote this introductory paragraph before I even sat down to watch the film, so I literally do not know, but of course will have known for at least day or two by the time you get to the second paragraph.
Sidestepping any pretence of suspense, I can reveal that I had a blast watching this again, it’s seriously off-the-rails, wacky, hilarious, and occasionally violent. I don’t think the executive, or indeed critical assessment that it was too dark is at all fair. In comparison to the previous film, its dark parts are darker, but its light parts are lighter. Burton managed to ramp up the expressionist inspiration of the first film by putting it everywhere, not just in the architecture, the light and the shadows, but in the comedy, in the story, in the characters. Everything is heightened, more extreme, more sharply contrasted. While many would blame Burton’s successor Joel Schumacher for turning this first WB Batman series into an over-the-top silly cartoon, in a lot of ways Burton was already there. Consider the rooftop fight between Batman and Catwoman: Batman knocks her to the floor (Catwoman was an asshole etc.), she says “how could you? I’m a woman,” Batman drops his guard with concern for her, allowing her to get the upper hand and hang him over the ledge with her whip. It might as well be Adam West’s Bruce Wayne falling for Miss Kitka in his pursuit of improving US-Soviet relations.
The set-up to the story is a bit more complicated than that of the first film. An armed gang of circus performers attacks a Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Gotham Square with the aim of kidnapping Max Shreck, a wealthy industrialist who is giving a speech there. Shreck escapes but falls through a mechanised grate into the sewer lair of the Penguin, who was abandoned by his parents as a baby and now wishes to return to human society. Shreck is eventually able to return to his office, having a made a deal with the Penguin. Upon arriving there he learns that his bumbling secretary Selina Kyle has been snooping in his private files and has discovered that his big plan, a new power plant, is actually a device by which he can suck up the city’s power for himself and hold it to ransom. To shut her up, he pushes her from a high window, killing her. Her body attracts a bunch of street cats who inexplicably bring her back to life, imbuing her with the agility, reflexes, and folkloric nine lives of a cat, as well as engendering the emergence of a dangerous new side to her personality. At another public gathering, one of the circus gang members kidnaps the Mayor’s baby and descends down an open manhole only to be “defeated” by who else but the Penguin. Ascending above ground with the baby in his arms, Penguin becomes an instant hero and press sensation, prompting Batman to investigate.
The focus of the film in the beginning is definitely on the villains. Batman shows up to fight off the circus gang at the tree lighting event, but the film wants us to know Penguin and Catwoman and Shreck. And why not? We know an awful lot about Bruce Wayne and his alter ego from the previous film, but almost everything else starts over from zero. So we have origin stories galore for each of the villains except Shreck himself. Although Penguin is this film’s equivalent of the Joker, Shreck is in truth the main villain of the story. He abuses and parasitises both Penguin and Catwoman for his own gain, and his latest business venture seeks to do the same thing to Gotham itself. Max Schreck, for whom the character was named, was a German silent film actor best known for playing the vampire in the original Nosferatu, and was even fictionalised as a vampire himself. Like Shreck’s impeccable wardrobe, the reference is extravagantly worn, he leeches the blood of the city while posing as its prime benefactor, and though the name refers to Count Orlok, the look and portrayal are definitely owed to Dracula. He is possessed of a kind of agelessness, serving as the embodiment of the concept of avarice.
It doesn’t get an origin story of its own, but even Gotham seems somewhat different this time around. It maintains its larger than life architecture and its distortions of space and form, but the overall feel is different, and it’s not just the Christmas lights. In the first film so much of the city seemed to be made up of pipes and vents, its theme was industrial sprawl, we were invited to hang around with the lowlife of the city, like rats crawling through the pipes. Jack Napier becomes the Joker in a chemical factory, Oswald Cobblepot is born the Penguin in a practically Victorian aristocratic home. The setting moves from the industrial to the commercial, to the political. This time the true villain is puppetmaster capitalist Shreck, a white collar criminal, a self-assured untouchable of the top floor penthouse class. The action takes place at political events, plush offices, government buildings, high-rise apartments, department stores, all of which tie back either directly or at least in some way to Shreck.
Cobblepot’s ambition to reclaim his birthright as an aristocrat is seized upon by Shreck, who thrusts him into a campaign against the incumbent mayor, who is having difficulty containing the chaos caused by the circus gang, which is of course being run by Cobblepot himself. This sub-plot, based on two episodes of the 1960s TV show, presents itself as Preston Sturges by way of Burtmania, and it kind of works. The big climax revolves around Bruce Wayne’s infamous CD scratching. It is actually possible to scratch a CD like a vinyl record, albeit not in the way that happens in this scene. It’s either an ass-pull or an acceptable “of course he did” as we learn that Batman secretly recorded Penguin talking shit about Gotham’s citizens during one of their encounters. Wayne uses the sound clips when he hacks into the PA system at a Cobblepot for Mayor rally, prompting everyone to suddenly produce rotten fruit and veg to hurl at him. The knowing silliness of the film is, once again, much closer to the Batmania style than many people seem to think. And I haven’t even gotten to the rocket launcher penguins yet, or the remote control Batmobile arcade ride. This film has so many wacky setpieces that it’s hard to know which to address and in what order.
Like the film itself, I’m going to suddenly veer off topic here to talk about Catwoman. She has a lot going for her over the previous female lead. Vicki Vale was kind of a one note damsel in distress despite being a war photographer. Selina Kyle is the opposite of that, well, at least she becomes the opposite of that. When we first see her she seems like a laughtrack sitcom character, replete with knowingly corny one-liners and an impossibly ditzy manner. Whe she is pushed out of the window and resurrected by the street cats, she retains this basic personality, particularly her penchant for one-liners, but she has taken on a crazed femme fatale persona with a DIY aesthetic, stapling together her Catwoman costume from a cut-up old coat and fashioning claws out of various materials she has lying around the apartment. She proceeds to wage a one woman war against her murderer, Shreck, blowing up his department store, and later plots to assassinate him at a masked ball he is hosting.
While the other villains have an adversarial relationship with Batman in the case of Penguin, and Bruce Wayne in the case of Shreck, Catwoman/Selina Kyle is presented as a mirror image of Batman/Bruce Wayne. As their unmasked selves they begin a romance, while their night-prowling alter egos clash violently atop Gotham’s high rooftops. These relationships escalate in their intensity until somethin’s gotta give, and give it do. The impossibly cheesy refrain “mistletoe can be deadly if you eat it / but a kiss can be even deadlier if you mean it” reveals the double life of each to the other, threatening to immediately throw their already quite bizarre relationship out of the frying pan and into ripping their masks off while electrocuting Christopher Walken in a subway tunnel. Different strokes for different folks. Bruce tries to save Selina from herself in the dramatic climax, but her suicidally pathological desire for revenge against Shreck proves too strong.
While Returns has never been as well received or fondly remembered as its predecessor, it does offer… and I won’t say “depth”, because there is nothing deep about it, it’s a film about people in ridiculous costumes hitting each other after all, but I think it is a richer film, with greater thematic unity and complexity than the 1989 Batman. That film, as much as I love it, is quite superficial, its conflicts basic, its characters archetypal and not much beyond that. The Joker is a villain who must be stopped, end of. Returns, through Catwoman, Penguin, and Shreck, forces Batman to reckon with possible other versions of himself. While the latter two are closer to the “must be stopped, end of” side of things, and this despite the nascent tragedy of the Penguin’s origin story, it is Catwoman who drives a sword of ambiguity right through the moral heart of the main character. While The Killing Joke propelled into the public consciousness the idea of Batman and Joker as two sides of the same coin, something that has been echoed strongly in a great many Batman stories since, Batman Returns gives a more multifaceted take on the dual nature of Bruce Wayne’s life, and how he is just a few steps removed from the villainy he fights both in and out of costume. On top of that, it’s just a big ol’ fun ol’ cartoon of a movie, and I think it’s pretty great.