Batman Returns (1992)

I’m incredibly happy about the positive responses we’ve gotten from last week’s Multiplicity post and we’ve had a couple requests for more beloved Keaton features. So now we proudly present a full week devoted to the cinematic prowess of the great Michael Keaton and starting off is my favorite of Keaton-related features (and continuation of my Dark Knight countdown), Batman Returns.

To me Batman Returns is the greatest of all Batman films. Even after Christopher Nolan took the reigns of the cinematic franchise I still stand by the dark, twisted macabre noir thriller that is Tim Burton’s follow-up to his 1989 epic blockbuster. As I mentioned in the last Batman post, the 89 feature came with a series of production problems, resulting in a somewhat disjointed third act. Tim Burton fully came into his own with the 1990 classic Edward Scissorhands, another box-office success and Warner Bros. decided to give Burton full reign on the production of the highly anticipated follow-up to the studios biggest success. The result is not what audiences, studio execs or advertisers like McDonald’s were expecting. Its dark, sadistic, cruel, sexually explicit, and often morally questionable. To fans of the Batman legacy or cinematic tension in general its absolute movie bliss.

Let me give you a little bit of what occurs in this film and keep in mind I first saw this opening day when I was SIX years old. The film opens with the classic Batman logo, which immediately turns to snow covered ice and slowly breaks away. Danny Elfman’s haunting score leads us into a long corridor of a Gothic mansion where the screams of a women in childbirth and the squawking of a not-so-normal sounding baby are heard. The doctor presses a handkerchief against his mouth in disgust as the father of the child (played by Pee-Wee Herman himself, Paul Reubens) rushes into the birthing room and screams in horror. The next image the mother (played by  Pee Wee’s beloved Simone, Diane Salinger) and father look on as their infant child grabs an innocent cat by its tail, pulls it into his crib and rips it to shreds. The opening sequence concludes with the parents chucking the baby into Gotham City’s river and the camera following it into the deepest depths of the sewer.

We return to Gotham City present day. The odious businessman Max Schreck (Christopher Walken at his maniacal best) is in the middle of Gotham City’s Christmas Tree lighting ceremony when the event is interrupted by Cobblepot’s Red Triangle circus gang. Here the movie fully achieves the status of Frank Miller’s vision of Batman as made famous (and ever since, essential) in the 1980s. Commissioner Gordon commands the signal. The notorious image is produced in the sky. Exterior: Wayne Manor. The signal is projected by a series of reflective surfaces and mirrors around the manor and finally the full light of the bat emblem is protruding through the main office of Bruce Wayne. Here we see Michael Keaton for the first time in the film. He’s sitting alone in total darkness. The signal beams around the room, coating him in an elegant light. He rises and looks straight ahead into the signal….straight at his calling. This IS Batman. What does Bruce Wayne do when he’s not Batman? He sits around in total fucking darkness and waits for crime to dare and show its bitch face. Sorry Schumacher, but the Batman is meant to be a freaking beast!

There’s no denying Batman is totally brutal in this film. He scorches a henchman with the Batmobile’s fire-spitting exhaust. He attaches a bomb to a muscle-bound thug, tosses him over the side of a building and walks on as he explodes into pieces in the background. This is Batman at his most interesting. Battling his inner demons and nearly crossing the line that separates himself from the criminals.

Keaton is an absolute triumph in the role. His big dark eyes have a mystery and intensity that can truly carry a film from mostly behind a mask. As Batman recoils from a bumbling Selena Kyle aka Catwoman or shrugs off a bewildered Gordon its hard not to feel scared that this man means business. His sentimental moments with Catwoman and chemistry with the great Michelle Pfeiffer escalates the emotional level of a mainstream film to new heights. When Wayne and Selina discover there true identities during a masquerade ball its truly heartbreaking.

Pfeiffer delivers a villainous portrayal that rivals Jack Nicholson’s iconic Joker. This may actually be the best performance Pfeiffer’s given us yet. She really digs deep into the psyche of the character and makes it her own. The ability to be shy and nerdy one moment, frighteningly manic and terrifying the next, extremely sexy the following and finally sympathetic and vulnerable. Its unbelievable. I’ve had many people tell me that Pfeiffer’s Catwoman is their favorite of the Batman franchise and I would have to agree. The sequence in which a back-from-the-dead Selina runs rampant in her apartment is one of my favorite scenes of all time. The way she psychotically replays the everyday monotonous routines of the day like feeding your cat or answering the phone is acting genius.

And finally let’s not forget the great Danny DeVito as The Penguin. A character this incredible actor was born to play, DeVito totally immerses himself in the role to the point where any physical or emotional resemblance to the real DeVito is unrecognizable. Thanks to dialogue from the great underrated writer Sam Hamm (who gave us the superb Demolition Man, “What’s your Boggle?”) The Penguin is a solid gold interpretation of pure evil and gives DeVito the role of a lifetime. This detestable villain is actually very human. He longs for the acceptance of his parents and the reparations for years spent abandoned in a sewer. You actually feel sympathy thanks to DeVito’s natural performance and Elfman’s elegant score when Penguin visits his parents grave. You also feel a huge sense of disturbed, morally corrupt, intensity when Penguin begins targeting the first born children of Gotham City’s elite and we see the notorious circus gang snatch innocent children from their cribs. No to mention Penguin hijacks the Batmobile and nearly careens it into an elderly woman and upon his first encounter with Catwoman exclaims – “Just the pussy I’ve been lookin for!”.

Thank you Tim Burton and Michael Keaton and thank you Batman for filling my childhood with violence, mayhem, corruption, manic performances, epic storytelling, Gothic interiors, the never-ending appreciation for Christopher Walken’s speech impediment and fast food toys. I will always cherish thee. In the words of the Penguin “Burn Baby Burn!”.

-John

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