In 1989, a little would-be blusterous rabble-rouser who fell deeply in love with classic genre film history made a little independent film about an inconsequential twerp of a hero named Batman. And he just about conquered the world in doing so. Problems aside – namely the fact that it wasn’t much of a Batman film – it was a competent bit of Gothic blockbuster fluff and well-deserving of a sequel by the same filmmaker. And, with the sheer quantity of money the film brought in, Warner Bros. wasn’t about to go and deny the opportunity for another several hundred million dollars their way.
Now. There is an old saying about what happens when you give hungry, passionate directors too much money and they become stagnant and bored with their success. That happened with Tim Burton, just as it always happens with unique voices of his sort in the all-devouring Hollywood machine. But it didn’t happen with Batman Returns. Correction: it absolutely did not happen with Batman Returns, one of the dreariest, gnarliest Hollywood blockbusters ever released, and dare I say one of the most anti-blockbuster.
For Batman Returns is very much not a case of a director becoming acquiescent and conforming to Hollywood norms. With its Gothic dread, weird ramblings that focus on villainous scheming rather than the titular character everyone wants to see, and a glorious descent into Burton-esque horrific opulence and melancholy, it is most certainly not the film Warner Bros. was expecting. This is a heaving beast of a film, assembled with patchwork care and precision from demented parts from Hollywood’s past, but it is not in any way an audience-pleasing blockbuster. Batman Returns is the sight and sound of Burton doubling down on his newly perfected aesthetic and pushing it full sail into the realm of commercial entertainment. It is by no means his best film, but dare I say it may be his most dangerous.
Right off the bat (forgive me, I couldn’t resist), the most notable thing about Returns is that Batman is almost a non-entity. He doesn’t show up often, when he does his appearance is unceremonious, and the most notable thing he does in terms of shifting the plot around is swapping a political candidate’s speech out for another message. That’s right; the most important thing he does to shift the narrative of the film involves him sitting in a chair and hitting a switch, and what’s more the film is so divested in this action it doesn’t even mention it before-hand. It just sort of happens. And the same happens throughout the film; Batman is a perfunctory character, coming and going as he chooses and often seeming bored when at it. For all Batman, with its clear investment and passion for Jack Nicholson’s Joker, lost the way whenever it tried to find Batman himself, this one cares even less. It doesn’t get lost on the way; it simply doesn’t try.
However, Burton is clearly more excited to be filming when either of the villains is on-screen. They have the two best arcs (Batman himself barely qualifies as a character; he’s more like a plot machination so that Burton can bother the villains with conflict and give them something to emote about). And he greets them with the majority of the screen time. The fact that the film seems rather bummed-out to have to focus more on Batman himself in the latter portions speaks to how it loses a good deal of care in itself as it rushes toward its conclusion (almost as if solely to get to a beautifully aching shot of one of the villain’s demises).
Speaking of the villains, Burton’s two most effectively adorned sequences are the two villain introductions, both lovingly expressionist monstrosities of pure craft and dark energy perfectly fitted to Burton’s aesthetic. Catwoman, played with lurid, ferocious, unkempt energy by Michelle Pfeiffer and clearly inspired by Val Lewton’s I Walked with a Zombie – another film about a woman transfixed – is absolutely demented, and her introduction is openly horrific. As is her role in the film, as a temptress who plays all sides and exists less as a villain than an anti-hero to screw with Wayne with her more unrestrained attitude toward criminal punishment. She takes great joy in every scene she appears in, and Batman is off sitting around brooding a little. Between the two, who do you think Burton focuses on?
Simply take a look at Michael Keaton’s introduction as Bruce Wayne/ Batman. When things go awry at a Gotham Christmas ceremony (and Burton lets loose with some wonderfully devilish clown designs), we cut unceremoniously to Keaton in his finest bland every-man clothing looking off in the distance with a broody model face thinking about how to best position his finger on his lips to look cool in the moonlight. The shot is categorically unexciting, seemingly intentionally so, and has the effect of making us absolutely want to return to the clown mayhem and the lush Gothic imagery rather to see Wayne or Batman, ostensibly the star of the film, in the first place.
Even more telling, the introduction for The Penguin/ Oswald Cobblepot (Danny DeVito) thematically doubles as an intro for Wayne, what with an aristocratic child losing his parents at a young age and being left to fend for himself in the darker, more worrisome corners of the urban hell-space that is the recesses of his own mind. It is as if Burton is making his own Batman story by using The Penguin as Batman and positing another life for him, a life Burton clearly cares for and enjoys depicting. Thus, The Penguin is nasty and dark and vicious but clearly sympathetic throughout, a victim of society lost to his own alienation and rendered hellish monstrosity– not unlike Catwoman, or Batman. But while Burton devotes scene after scene to characterizing The Penguin as a lost soul intermixed with a grossly fleshy, mischievous animal, Batman just sort of shows up and leaves from time to time. The fact that DeVito plays his role with a joie de vivre lacking in Keaton’s aloof portrayal only adds to the contrast (which seems intentional, given that Burton privileges DeVito in shots at the expense of Keaton, and that Keaton seems to have been told to give Batman a distant, amused tone as if he was an audience member reacting to all the zaniness around him).
The film isn’t all villains though; they are merely one portion of the larger Burton-esque tapestry on display for us the ever-loving audience. Everything that made early ’90s Burton so lovely and giddy and devilish is on display in Returns: a sentimentalism toward grotesque social outcasts, a genial mocking of suburban consumerism and good cheer, a love of playing with classic film, and a particularly Halloween-y version of the jolly holiday of Christmas. This is not to mention the look of the whole thing – harsh angles and half-remembered childrens’ nightmares coming at us like madcap, slap-happy ghouls straight out of a Mickey Mouse version of a noir. Batman Returns is quite clearly the Tim Burton show, simultaneously alienating and off-putting and lovely and dreamy. It is absolutely the most perfect execution of the idea of “a Tim Burton” movie in a film that still vaguely resembles a summer tent-pole, mixing whimsy and a crippled dark heart to the point of self-destruction.
Truly, it’s not hyperbole to claim that Batman Returns may be the loopiest, most demonic, and most joyfully twisted carnival gag of a summer blockbuster ever released. Honestly, and I’m sure Burton would appreciate the comparison, the only film I can really think of to compare to Batman Returns is James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein, another famously weird, kitschy blast of filmmaking bravura and singular directorial vision at the expense of narrative sense given to glorious excess after producers gave an untamed director almost total creative control of a sequel to a first film that director had headed to great monetary success. Batman Returns is no Bride of Frankenstein, nor does it center an astoundingly mature, inquisitive, existential reflection on the nature of human sexuality, but the energy, the camp, and the off-kilter bag-of-horrors carnival one-man-show in the space of a blockbuster tent-pole spirit is alive and well. Both films are undeniable messes, but they are both all the better for this fact. Batman Returns is nothing less than the sight of Burton taking Hollywood’s money, cavorting like a child in the biggest damn toy store in the world, and just having the giddiest time of his life.