Buddhi Free
Enlightenment under the Buddhi Free
Batman Returns
Categories: Movies

All sane people loath Batman & Robin, love the Nolan Batman movies, casually appreciate Batman Forever, and admire Burton’s Batman. But, no movie from the Batman canon polarizes opinions as much as Batman Returns (1992). No two people in a random room-full of people have ever seen eye-to-eye on this one. Radicals call it Burton’s wet dream, some call it the bastard child of Bob Kane and Tim Burton, and people like me call it the definitive version of the Batman mythos. Yep, right up there with The Dark Knight, if not greater. Why exactly do I like it?

  1. Bruce Wayne/Batman: No other depiction of the character has painted Batman as the struggling loner he is in Returns. TDK hinted at that angle, but it got lost amongst all the other plot threads. Surely a person who’s witnesses his parents’ death and dresses up like a bat, roaming streets at night, will be emotionally scarred. Those scars have never really been explored on film. Instead, we get a glib playboy in all incarnations of the Bruce Wayne character. Burton had earlier set up a good platform for this theme in 1989’s Batman, but had failed to leverage it the way he does in Returns. Sure, it makes Batman come across as just another stock character from the Burton oeuvre, but the whole emotionally scarred angle is an important part of the character. Divorce the maker’s oeuvre from the character to gain an unbiased perspective.
  2. The Villains: Burton introduces and invests the viewer in the arc of not just one villain, but two. Catwoman and Penguin make other one-two villain combos like Two-Face and Riddler (Batman Forever); Mr. Freeze and Poison Ivy (Batman & Robin) look like popsicle dust. Nolan did a decent job of managing the two-villain conundrum (Scarecrow and Ra’s Al Ghul in Batman Begins), but his short coming was that he failed to establish the villains as humans. Burton establishes both of them as humans with really rotten luck. Humans, nonetheless. Yes, even the goo-spewing Penguin. Which is what makes their arcs even more tragic. Sure, Burton got blamed for devoting more screen time to the villains than the hero of the piece, but his decision pays of in the end. During the finale, when Batman is thundering down the sewers rushing to thwart the Penguin, I felt a tinge of sadness for Penguin, but at the same time cheered Batman on more than I did in the finale of the much more conventional Batman Begins.
  3. Christopher Walken/Max Shreck: Trust him to take as thankless a part as the secretary-murdering, corrupt Max Shreck, and still be all shades of awesome. What was the need for the whole Shreck plotline? Ha! He’s what I call the surrogate villain of the piece–he sets up the arcs of the two main villains. In a field full of grey characters, he is the absolute black against which all others get their color. When Catwoman kills him at the end, it rounds off her redemptive arc. His pushing and prodding is what turns Penguin so diabolical.
  4. Character moments: Bruce Wayne’s intro half an hour into the movie. The Bruce Wayne-Selina Kyle dance under the mistletoe. The rooftop encounter, and subsequent sexual undercurrent between Catwoman and Batman. Penguin at the cemetery. Selina Kyle with the tazer. Selina Kyle coming back home. Burton made sure to give each character nice little moments and scenes. While Nolan creaked under the pressure of keeping the plot machinations moving along in TDK to give any character room to develop, Burton developed each character while also keeping the plot highly kinetic.
  5. The Soundtrack: In Batman, Danny Elfman introduced many stubs of themes. But it was here, in Returns, that he properly utilizes them. The writing is more assured, the orchestra more bombastic. The Batman theme, which sounded a little too pleading in Batman, sounds heroic in Returns. Catwoman’s theme instantly brings to mind an image of a cat meowing. Penguin’s theme can be regal, it can be tragic, it can be desperate. And when two or more of these three main themes collide, (Rooftops, The Final Confrontation), it’s sheer bliss.
  6. Mature Tone: This is a much darker, more mature film than Batman ever aspired to be. While TDK approached similar levels of thematic maturity, the emotional maturity on display in Returns is unmatched. Like I said earlier, Returns is a great example of a character piece masquerading as a superhero movie. While Spider Man and X-Men are cited as starting the era where superhero flicks moved beyond their genre trappings, both of those also do owe a huge debt to Returns.
  7. Gotham City: The city, as on display in Returns, is the decadent city where scum lives. It’s the city closest to the city depicted in the comics. Burton’s earlier depiction of Gotham in Batman was too Soviet. Schumacher’s Gotham in Forever and Batman & Robin was too circus-y, and Nolan’s Gotham is too familiar (in that it looks like just about every other metropolis). In Returns, Burton and Production Designer Bo Welch create a city like no other. It’s a murky, murky place to dwell in. True, it looks too cramped, but that just adds to the claustrophobia of the town, adding another layer to it.
  8. The Actors: If you thought Jake Nicholson owned his role in Batman, then wait till you see Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman! Whoever Nolan casts (if he decides to go with Catwoman in Batman 3), is going to have a tough time filling those shoes. She not just nails Catwoman, but her bumbling alter ego Selina Kyle. Not to be outdone is DeVito as Penguin. And Keaton finally comes into his own. Probably because of a much better written role.

Now, I’m not dissing other Batman movies, I admire all of them (except, of course, Batman & Robin), but I’m just trying to make a case for Returns as a very misunderstood movie. Much like Bruce Wayne himself. Ha! I love the movie even more now 🙂

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