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Batman Returns

August 21, 2013

Enjoyable, but not the best: 3/5

Even if you hadn’t seen his name in the opening credits, you would soon be left in little doubt as to the identity of this film’s director; Tim Burton’s sequel to the 1989 Batman (also directed by Burton) is as distinctively surreal as ever, with his unique brand of black humour running through it from start to finish.

As seems to be standard in Batman films, Batman himself is almost a non-entity in comparison to those around him. He swoops and jumps from building to building, growling and glaring at petty criminals whilst simultaneously bashing them to a pulp. Bruce Wayne blends into the background, given some character by his relationship with his butler and co-conspirator, Alfred Pennyworth, played by a rightly proper Michael Gough. Michael Keaton provides us with a harmless and sometimes sensitive portrayal of the man behind the mask, but this is not really his film. Batman Returns is all about the villains – and what villains! Danny DeVito as Oswald Cobblepot, a.k.a. The Penguin, Christopher Walken as his sinister accomplice Max Shreck and Michelle Pfeiffer as Max’s dowdy secretary turned stylish, mysterious Catwoman. You couldn’t ask for more.

DeVito’s performance as the penguin is fantastic; the penguin is portrayed as creepy, manic, sensitive and pitiful in equal measure at various points of the film and the transitions are seamless and completely credible. His character is three-dimensional and interesting if a little clichéd: deformed from birth and abandoned in the sewers of Gotham, Oswald Cobblepot returns to the surface, supposedly to look for his long lost parents and make amends with them, only to find they have died. He then teams up with Max the local millionaire (perfectly described by Alfred as “odious”) and goes on a quest to… Do lots of evil and diabolical stuff, like sending out clown goons to blow things up and kidnapping a girl to frame Batman of evil and diabolical stuff, so that The Penguin is free to keep on doing his evil and diabolical stuff that he needs to do… Because.

It is at this point where the story starts to unravel. Bruce Wayne expresses doubt as to whether Oswald ever actually intended to be reunited with his parents. This doubt is not elaborated on and the true reason for Oswald’s return to Gotham remains a mystery. Apparently, his grand plan for all this time was to kill the first born child of every family (full marks for frivolous usage of Biblical reference). This strikes as an odd goal for a man who was, himself, an unwanted first born. You might have thought that it was the possibly pampered, privileged second born children he would have a gripe with, or else, inattentive parents. As for Max, he has a secret. He has been stealing power from Gotham for his own financial gain and dumping toxic waste unsafely in the sewers. Reluctantly, he goes along with The Penguin’s dastardly plans… On the way encouraging him to run for mayor despite The Penguin’s obvious lack of charisma and popularity. Intriguing move, considering how their acquaintance with had its origins in the casual use of a severed arm as a means to blackmail Max over his past misdeeds.

Plot ambiguity aside, there is also a risky romance afoot – cat-loving Selina the secretary is pushed from a three-storey building by Max for discovering the secret of his success and awakens to find herself transformed (psychologically, at any rate) into a leather-wearing, astoundingly supple gymnastic expert and ready-made threat to society. The motivation for all her behaviour from that point on, including attacking Batman out of nowhere and initially helping The Penguin, is left to the imagination – or else explained with a flimsy “she’s brain damaged” line helpfully slipped in by Max.

The new Selina catches the attention of Bruce and they fall for each other, both trying to juggle their double lives without the other finding out their true identity… An endeavour that lasts for all of a few minutes, due to what could only be described by right-thinking people as a moment of immense carelessness and stupidity from a man who supposedly spends his life hidden in the shadows with a dangerous vigilante alter-ego. This leads the pair of them to a showdown where Batman attempts to save Max from Catwoman’s vengeful clutches, only to have Max threaten to expose Bruce as Batman after he romantically unmasks himself in front of both of them – in an attempt to appeal directly to Catwoman’s human side. Just as well that it doesn’t work and Catwoman kills Max before he can shoot his mouth off. She then disappears at the speed of light, with an ordinarily fatal bullet wound and just one of her nine lives remaining. From whence the other eight sprung is but a trifling detail not fit for explanation, we can only assume.

If you think that is a good enough finale, you are not on Tim Burton’s wavelength. Instead, the Penguin (who was disposed of in an embarrassingly short amount of time by Batman prior to Max’s death) resurfaces from the allegedly toxic waters to have another pop at Batman, only to fall flat on his face, oozing black liquid from his mouth. He is then escorted back into the water flanked by faithful penguin sidekicks performing what is presumably some kind of solemn penguin-style funeral. These penguins make several appearances throughout the movie as Oswald’s implied foster parents and henchmen, all wearing tiny penguin mind-control helmets and rocket-shaped bombs strapped to their backs. That’s gratitude for you.

Undoubtedly, Batman Returns is a suspend-your-disbelief type of film. Unlike many of the other films in the series, which have their own brand of comic-book logic and often science-fictionesqe explanations, this is pure fantasy and questions of “why” do not apply here. The real question is whether or not this is bothersome to you, or if the dark humour and interesting characters (plus the added bonus of being part of the Batman franchise) are enough to allow you to overlook points that may not add up under scrutiny. Batman Returns, interesting as it is, suffers from trying to juggle too many major issues; Catwoman and The Penguin deserved their own separate films.

It would have allowed more exploration of the relationship between Batman and Catwoman and of Oswald and Max. As it was, the film was a little too long (126 minutes) for the lack of elaboration on some conceptually excellent characters. As much as I can appreciate that lengthily back stories for the villains would interrupt flow and make for a clumsy film in the action-thriller genre, there is a middle ground and Batman Returns did not reach it. Both its predecessor and its sequel were tidier and more focused – and therefore better.

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