Well, Christmas is over. The gifts have been unwrapped. The pretty paper’s gone into the garbage. The tree’s starting to shed dead, dry needles. The lights are coming down (or at least they will sometime in the next month or two). And when the rush wears off, we remember that we’re still in the middle of the cold, dark winter. Two months of preparation and that’s it?
Call it post-seasonal depression, but isn’t this whole Christmas thing kind of depressing anyway? A holy day, a time to commune with God, turned into a hypercapitalist spendathon? And isn’t the two-month-long barrage of Christmas decorations and music, whether you believe in that God or not, as oppressive in its own way as the dark and cold?
Tim Burton seemed to think so, and at the same time he was producing the story of Christmas cheer enlivening the monotony of Halloweentown in “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” he was directing one of the coldest, darkest Christmas movies Hollywood ever produced. After the improbable blockbuster success of Batman — already the kind of dark, weird, personal film that normally sends mass audiences for the hills — Warner Brothers let their golden goose do whatever the fuck he wanted to recover the magic. And even more improbably, that’s just what this even weirder, darker, and more personal film did. Of course, getting asses in seats doesn’t guarantee they’ll like what they’ve seen once the lights come up, and the backlash against Burton’s catalogue of kinky and disturbing images meant his bosses would go for a more tractable director moving forward. But hey, no such thing as a free lunch.
Free or not, Burton made a meal of Batman Returns, and we’re lucky he did. Burton was able to get into Batman and the Joker by departing from the clear-cut hero and villain he grew up with on TV to explore their deep loneliness and alienation, and by digging into the idea that people are freer to be themselves when they’re disguised as someone else. With two more costumed freaks in the mix, Burton gets to dig deeper into these themes. He was never a man for subtlety, so of course the climax kicks off at a masquerade ball. And of course, Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle are the only ones not in costume — because they’re themselves in costume as Batman and Catwoman, but they have to disguise themselves as normal people in public.
This interest in what he calls “psychological profiles” led Burton to depart radically from the characters’ traditional, simplistic interpretations. Catwoman is no longer a cat burglar, but a woman living a life of quiet desperation until her boss confirms once and for all how little she matters by shoving her to her apparent death without a thought. I never really understood why so many people (including the writers of the Catwoman solo movie) thought the alley cats that meet her on the pavement bring her back to life. Since I first saw this at thirteen or fourteen, I took it for granted (and still do) that the awnings slow her fall down just enough to make it nonlethal, and that the cats nibbling at her are the final indignity that shocked her into consciousness and her rebirth as Catwoman.
Of course, my interpretation is only superficially more realistic than the supernatural one — a fall from that height’s gonna kill you at any speed. But that’s the world Burton’s created. Screenwriter Daniel Waters laughed off complaints that Batman shouldn’t kill. But he admits he was disturbed at a scene Burton added over his head where Bats casually dispatches an evil clown with an anachronistic bundle of dynamite, all with a shit-eating grin on his face. It’s strange that someone who worked so closely on a movie could misunderstand it so thoroughly. Batman Returns runs on all kinds of logic — comic book logic, cartoon logic, dream logic — but never real-world logic. This burst of cartoon violence doesn’t make Batman a sadistic killer any more than Bugs Bunny tossing an anachronistic bundle of dynamite at Elmer Fudd. It’s not for nothing an extra in one scene has the Dodo from Porky in Wackyland on his jacket.
Just look at the rest of this thing. Burton’s star production designer Bo Welch, who created the Neitherworld of Beetlejuice and the candy-colored suburbia of Edward Scissorhands, took the urban nightmare Anton Furst built for Batman and pushed it even further into unreality. Furst’s Gotham extended in all directions, choking its citizens in, and he modeled every riveted girder and steam-belching pipe. Welch said he emphasized the “verticality” of the city and took it in a much simpler, even more stylized direction. Batman’s Gotham locks you in. Returns’ Gotham looks down on you. Welch also cited fascist architecture as an inspiration for this oppressive backdrop, and you can see that influence most obviously in the enormous, faceless statues that loom over the various press conferences in the square. One thing remains consistent, though. Gotham is still unstuck in time, combining the most beautiful and hideous aspects of Batman’s 60 years of existence into one timeless nightmare. And its awesome. Why isnt the default option for “updating” age-old stories?
“Where does he get those wonderful toys?” the Joker muses as Batman uses his spiffy grappling gun to escape him. We never got an answer in that movie, and the sequel is even more profoundly uninterested. The Penguin lives in the sewer, but that hasn’t stopped him and his goons from accumulating an arsenal most armies would kill for, not to mention his barrel full of logic-defying trick umbrellas (one turns into a helicopter!). Burton doesn’t waste time explaining this — he probably couldn’t if he wanted to — let alone why the Penguin needs a grocery-store-kiddie-car Batmobile to hijack the real thing remotely, let alone how he turned his namesakes into a remote-controlled army. Penguins controlled by little metal caps going out to destroy the city with candy-striped fireworks is exactly the thing a guy who doesn’t read comics would think a comic book movie should have. And I mean that in the best possible way.
I recently said David Lynch is one of the few filmmakers who can take the uncanny beyond imagery into dialogue and performances. Burton’s one of the others, and that turns the comic-book cheesiness of Waters’ script into a virtue. The weirdos surrounding Michael Keaton’s stoic Batman are all deliciously camp, of course. But you really see the uncanny effect in the bit players: the Red Triangle Gang’s poodle trainer giving a dead-bored play-by-play of the rocket-packing penguins’ process, or Andrew Bryniarski’s hilariously flat line readings as Chip Shreck, who, as Comics Alliance pointed out in their otherwise deeply wrongheaded review, is doing a Christopher Walken impression right in front of the man himself.
Burton had little patience for literal-minded critics who refused to get on his wavelength. “People would pick on certain things, like, ‘What’s that black stuff coming out of the Penguin’s mouth?’ I would say to them, ‘I don’t know, but I can send it and have it analyzed. He’s filled with bile, he’s a dark little character and he got a lot of things inside him, but I can get a chemical breakdown if you like.’” The closest he comes to conceding to real-world logic is when the Penguin gets pelted with groceries after Batman plays Oswald’s hot-mic confession over his speech. “Why is there always someone who brings eggs and tomatoes to a speech?” he asks. But he never gets an answer, and the eggs and tomatoes are still there.
Speaking of the Penguin, trying to get inside his head led Burton to the movie’s most total overhaul of the source material. Up until that point, the Penguin was just a little man who liked tuxedos and umbrellas. As played by Danny DeVito, the character gets upgraded from merely funny-looking to full-on deformed. That’s no cosmetic change — it becomes the basis for his whole character. His rich-asshole parents lock him up in a cage instead of giving him a crib and finally dump him in the river. He’s eventually picked up by a freak show, then forms a criminal syndicate with his fellow performers before the legal heat drives the circus out of business. He becomes a kind of urban cryptid until he blackmails Max Shreck into bringing him into the high society he takes as his birthright. How much of that was taken from existing sources? Zero.
Burton approached this material from a place of love — there’s a reason he worked the Batmobile into his first feature, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, long before any producer would even conceive of handing him the keys to the franchise. But he also dismisses any question of faithful adaptation. Oswald tosses away the trademark cigarette holder and the lavender gloves from the show that the image consultants for his mayoral campaign try to foist on him. While the comics Penguin got his name from his dapper dress sense, the movie Penguin spends most of his time in filthy long underwear, with only a dicky as a concession to his classic image.
Comics love stealing from their own adaptations — the first Batman had already brought Batman’s grappling gun and the anachronistic vision of Gotham to the page — but, predictably, they didn’t know what to do with the ideas Batman Returns introduced. It would be over a decade before the comics Catwoman would trade her very un-feline purple tights for the black color scheme Michelle Pfeiffer adopted, and you can forget about the goth-y, fetish-y touches like the corset and the staples barely holding the whole suit together. Her movie origin was briefly introduced to the comics in 2012 and immediately forgotten.
The Penguin fared a little better. He’d always had childhood bullies in his backstories, but later comics would work in DeVito’s grotesque appearance and the more serious prejudice the character would face as a result. And I’m fairly certain the fur-lined overcoat you see him wear in so many newer comics was a Burton invention. But by and large, comics writers recoiled from the radical reshuffling Batman Returns engaged in. And maybe that’s not for the worse — the Penguin was already an overstuffed concept with his alternating bird and umbrella gimmicks, and adding the circus-themed henchmen on top of that was probably a little much.
This new Penguin does some truly heinous things to get revenge on the world that’s wronged him (“I mean, killing sleeping babies? Isn’t that a little…”). But when those wrongs run so deep, isn’t he justified?
For such an undiluted personal vision, Batman Returns is awful muddled on this point. Burton empathizes with the sad, forsaken little man beneath the monster. The film suggests he’s been unfairly maligned for his appearance, but in the end, he’s exactly what he appears to be. The way he treats women makes it a lot harder to see him as the antihero he sometimes seems to be. But let’s give Burton some credit — he may have known what we’ve all been forced to confront in the Incel Era, that lonely, disenfranchised men are more likely to take out their frustrations on women than the systems that disenfranchise them both. Burton’s certainly incisive in both this film and Edward Scissorhands that the mainstream is less likely to reject freaks outright than performatively celebrate them and then turn on them the minute they have an excuse. Even his “friends” in the Red Triangle Gang abandon him once they know Batman’s on his way, and the montage of them disappearing into the shadows is both poignant and terrifying.
It’s a facile, even cliché, observation that Batman’s enemies act as his reflections. But what the heck, it was probably still new in 1992. Burton and Waters certainly explore it more thoughtfully than most writers, if not more subtly: Alfred makes sure everyone gets the connection when he asks Bruce, “Why are you so determined to prove this Penguin is not what he seems? Must you be the only lonely man-beast in town?”
There’s a beautifully understated melancholy that I’m not sure I picked up on before in the way Bruce Wayne gets choked up seeing the Penguin searching for his parents and quietly says, “I hope he finds them.” That, more than Alfred’s blunt summary, unlocked the characters for me. Of course the Penguin is Batman’s shadow-self. They both come from old money, but instead of being violently, unwillingly taken from him, Oswald’s parents willingly abandon him. Instead of dressing up like an animal to scare people, Oswald’s born looking like an animal and raised living like one. There’s something a little disingenuous about a rich, white, straight, etc. man like Bruce (and let’s be honest, Burton) declaring himself an outcast freak, and the script tackles that contradiction head-on. “You’re just jealous because I’m a genuine freak and you have to wear a mask!” the Penguin spits at him, and Batman doesn’t try to deny it.
And that points the way to the real villain of the piece, Christopher Walken’s Max Shreck, another great idea that Burton’s successors sadly abandoned. Batman, the Penguin, and Catwoman are made monsters by trauma. But Shreck has everything anyone could ever want, and he’s a bigger monster than any of them. And while the others are pure comic book fantasy, Shreck, the owner of the massive department store that seems to have bought out Christmas, with its inimitably Burton/Welch mascot, a supposedly cute kitty frozen in a monstrous, bug-eyed Cheshire-Cat grin, is the kind of untouchable white-collar criminal who’s all too real. (If you can get past his ludicrous plan to build a fake power plant that siphons energy off all the existing sources.) The Penguin claims they’re both perceived as monsters, but there’s never any indication that anyone but Bruce and Selina sees through his reputation as “Gotham’s own Santa Claus” — and look what he does to Selina when she finds out. Even in his most humane moment, when he sacrifices himself to the Penguin to save his son, Walken’s readings are unnervingly flat and insincere
He’s the scariest thing Burton can conceive of — a normal person (this being a Burton film, “normal” is extremely relative).. Better yet, this is how Burton sees his corporate bosses. If that seems a little unkind in light of all the freedom they gave him, it’s worth considering the biting satire was only possible because they let Burton off the leash and that when they saw the results, they cut him loose entirely. Corporate bad guys are boilerplate Hollywood material, of course, but few films make the obvious leap that if corporate culture produces so many bad apples, the whole bunch must be rotten. What Batman Returns has in mind is dangerously close to a systemic critique. Remember how Selina justifies her decision to kill Shreck: “The law doesn’t apply to people like him.” People like him. There’s always more.
Isn’t that a cheery thought for a cozy December afternoon?