Caped Crusader Cinema: Batman Returns (1992)

In Retrospect

With the first Batman having joined the Star Wars Trilogy and others in my pantheon of childhood defining movies, I was now a full-fledged Bat-fanatic. But my Batmobile and Batwing models were starting to gather dust, and I was anxiously anticipating the next installment, Batman Returns.

Once again, I eagerly consumed the movie tie-in cereal. I was hoping for a return of the Captain Crunch bat logos, but instead, the Batman Returns cereal was frosted Chex and various bat-shaped marshmallows. Was this a subtle indication of the changes that were in store for the franchise? Maybe I am reading a little too much into breakfast cereal. Or am I?

I went to see Batman Returns with some of my new mates in the Deacon's Quorum, and I loved every minute of it. Having the mindset of your typical twelve year old, I wasn't really all that aware of the parental backlash against the film for being inappropriate for kids. Instead, I was more aware of how awesome it was when Batman lit a guy on fire with the Batmobile's afterburner. For Halloween, I found a rubber cowl at Kmart, and my mom sewed me a custom cape, complete with felt bat insignia. Still, I think my friend Richard Allred topped me with his monster mask and sailor hat combo.

Critical Analysis

Like their breakfast cereal counterparts, Batman Returns is very much a different experience than the original Batman. When starting on the sequel, Tim Burton was seeking for a way to reconnect with the material, and the success of Edward Scissorhands likely gave him the confidence to push his modern expressionistic style even further. While the original more or less takes place in some semblance of reality, Batman Returns wastes little time casting realism completely aside. To channel movie trailer voice guy, it takes place "in a world where the humor is delightfully twisted, and the characters are quirky outsiders."

The film's rather loose narrative is more or less an excuse to pile on the symbolism through the outlandish visuals. Burton makes extensive use of mise en scène, a cinematic technique where a character's internal state of mind is represented visually, rather than through the spoken dialogue. In the case of the principle villains, their costumes become a part of their personalities. Catwoman, who has been transformed by a fragile pscyhe, wears a costume that is literally coming apart at the seams. The Penguin is a hateful "man-beast" that spews mysterious black bile. And Max Shreck, the corrupt, power-hungry businessman has an untamed mane of white hair. Each villain also mirrors a specific part of Bruce Wayne's personality, and represents what he could become if he were to fall into darkness. Catwoman: masked vigilante. The Penguin: orphan. Max Shreck: wealthy industrialist.

In many ways, Batman Returns is more complex and rewarding than the original. But it is also unabashedly weird and macabre, which makes it a very polarizing film. While universally lauded for its pitch-perfect portrayal of Catwoman, many purists were unhappy with the unconventional approach taken with The Penguin. And with the surplus of villains, Batman seems to be taking a backseat to the ongoing "freak show". Some also find the ending to be something of a downer, but I have always felt that it really captures the bittersweetness of the best Batman stories. In fact, I find it to be the best ending of any of the live action movies. Of course, this opinion is subject to change, pending the rapidly approaching release of The Dark Knight.

Indeed Batman Returns is a love-it-or-hate it affair. As you might have guessed, I am firmly in the "love it" category, and have often wondered what Burton would have done with a third crack at Batman. Unfortunately, the ensuing backlash led Warner Brothers to take the Caped Crusader in a new direction. Specifically, a "nipples on the batsuit and plenty of flamboyant neon" direction, but we'll get more into that next time. I go back and forth as to which is my favorite of the Burton Bat films. At this particular moment, I am slightly favoring the first one.

Grade: B


ScottBoomer said...

This movie was a little more "Tim Burton" then I wanted. It seems like its just weird for the sake of weird. I think they all went down hill after the first one, that is until "Batman Begins".

Ben said...

This was another one I wasn't allowed to watch when it came out, so when I finally saw it, it had an increased newness and weirdness factor. I put it up there with the first Batman as well...because c'mon, it's got Bruce Dickinson. Yes, THE Bruce Dickinson. The one who makes gold records.

Dave said...

Thank you my friends, your comments perfectly illustrated my point about the film being polarizing.