Flashback! To “Batman Returns…!”

Since we’re talking about it…

I hated Tim Burton’s Batman movies.

Well, maybe “hate” is too strong a word, but I didn’t have a lot of fun watching them. The first one seemed misguided, although I must admit it was interesting to see Michael Keaton playing a jerky, distracted Bruce Wayne, and to see Jack Nicholson (unbelievably) pay homage to Cesar Romero (!).

Yeah: well, that’s about what I thought of it.

I think a lot more things about the second one, though. And why? Because there’s more in it, more to it, and in certain weird spots it almost rebounds off of its insufficiencies, and into brilliance. I believe it’s that extra-special kind of movie we generally refer to as an interesting failure, or you might call it a fairly honourable defeat, but anyway though I definitely think it’s spinach I’m not sure it deserves to be sent to hell. At least, not instantly.

So first let’s talk about what works.

…Okay, actually what works and what doesn’t work, those are really the same things. That’s my point. For example, you’ve got the crazy schizoid Batman, the crazy schizoid Catwoman, and their craziness drags them together, while paradoxically keeping them apart…and blecch, right? I know.

And then there’s Danny DeVito’s horrid scene-chewery as the Penguin…oh, god! No, no, it’s too much. It really is. I mean first of all there is nothing about the Burton/DeVito Penguin which is not at once painfully obvious, and pointlessly belaboured — this isn’t Oswald Cobblepot, this is Gollum, and it’s pretty obnoxious. And a bit puzzling why Burton and DeVito would choose to throw fifty million gallons of paint at it, when anyone who’s watched the B: TAS version of this same story could tell you that it only needs a few deft strokes to do it even nicer, and you don’t have to have the ridiculous Moses-in-the-sewer stuff, you don’t have to make it Gollum, FOR CHRIST’S SAKE JUST LAY OFF IT ALREADY, WE GET IT, WE GET IT…!

And yet, much as I hate to admit it, there’s something there. Even in the excess.

Not the occasional knowing, reflective, acute comment that comes out of Danny DeVito’s mouth. I mean, I’m thankful for those times when Smeagol — I mean Oswald — surfaces, just for a second, to say something kind of smart…but who’s kidding who, those moments come and go so damn quickly, and then you have some kind of stupid stupid stupid time-wasting my God it went on for like twenty minutes just END it already! penguin Viking funeral…


And in the end if you’re looking for the real Oswald you have to look pretty hard. You have to peel a lot of paint off. Hell, I’m not entirely sure if this Penguin really is Oswald, for some reason I’m thinking now that he just appropriated that name…

Which is kind of what starts to work. Because if the Penguin isn’t really Oswald Cobblepot, then who is he?

We’ll get back to that in just one second. First, Batman. No, first Catwoman. No!

First, Max Schreck.

I really, really hate this Max Schreck thing.

First, it’s just so goddamn ham-fisted, as ham-fisted as the soundstagey Gotham with the claustrophobically fake-looking Victorian streets…and I don’t mean fake-looking in a good way. The streets of Burton’s Gotham are as inadequate to the task of being streets as the aisles of a discount airline are inadequate to the task of being aisles…it’s like they’re primarily decorative. Well, hell, they obviously are primarily decorative, this is Tim Burton we’re talking about after all! These sets are about as realistic as the sets of the Adam West TV show, maybe even less, and they’re dressed so tackily you expect to see shoeless street urchins speaking in Dick Van Dyke-level “guvNAH!” English accents standing on all the corners…it’s that kind of Batman. You can practically hear the clip-clops. It’s excruciating.

And that Christopher Walken’s in it (why?) as the so-cleverly named Max Schrek…same. Quit beating me with those ham-hands, Burton. I mean, the name isn’t enough of a reason to have this character there, is it? And just who the hell is this guy supposed to be, anyway? He’s walking around in a red velvet cape and a silver-headed cane or something, big electroshock hair…he’s Donald Trump crossed with Leo Quintum, he is just annoying. And why is he even there? He looks like a supervillain, almost, but he’s not one. He’s just some evil businessman, he isn’t even crazy. He doesn’t even think he’s Zeus. He’s just there.

Oddly, this is where it starts to make sense. He’s just a businessman, you see. He isn’t on the same track as The Bat, The Cat, and The Penguin. He is literally just some guy.

But, he doesn’t know it!

Which is why it all suddenly comes together for me, because Max makes an excellent contrast to the much-hated Crazy Batman, and even though I really don’t like any of it at all, the presence of this Normal Bastard in this movie is really the only thing that makes the Crazy Batman stuff work. Because the Cat, Bat, and Penguin are all just nutso, they have all the power here; they can bend, break, and rewrite laws of biology, chemistry, and physics whenever they’re sufficiently motivated to, they’re like little gods. Little mentally-unstable gods. Their efficacy in the world of the film comes from the fact that they’re on a continuum of crazy, and this is the only time I can remember when Psycho Batman has worked for me at all, because his place on that continuum is clearly at the so-crazy-he’s-actually-quite-well pole of it, just as the Penguin is at the so-batshit-insane-he’s-utterly-irredeemably-evil end, and Catwoman is somewhere in the middle around gets-off-on-it-all-way-too-much territory. Michael Keaton, that most querolous of Batmen, tells it all straight up: he’s split, right down the middle. But he forgets to mention that both halves are extremely high-functioning, and as a result he looks and sounds totally sane, he perceives as a sane person, he feels as a sane person, he operates from a position of sanity so secure as to constitute an entirely new species of nuttery. That’s really his superpower: say what you will about this not-so-good movie, it does sell a Batman who is the same person as Bruce Wayne, who is the same person as Batman, and who doesn’t let his psychological difficulties get in the way of doing what he knows is right, even if he looks kind of ridiculous while doing it. Somehow on him, it works. Contrast this with George Clooney’s performance, in which his character was clearly neither Batman nor Bruce Wayne, but just some idiot with a big cave and a butler…

But Michael Keaton’s Batman squares the circle, just like Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman and Danny DeVito’s Penguin do.

And Max Schreck is rather left out in the cold because of it. He’s a businessman, a realist, a scumbag, and as a result of these three interlocking character traits he’s a great consolidator of worldly ways and means, and power…but he’s not crazy, and so all his power is only illusion. He hasn’t squared the circle; he’s playing out of his league. And he’s completely unable to see it. He shoots Catwoman; she responds by sticking an electrical cable in his mouth and then french-kissing it. That is power: Max flames out spectacularly in the face of super-villainy, he is caught totally by surprise, and with no defences he can bring to bear except “realism” he is simply blown right away. This stuff is just too pure for a guy like him to play with, this is uncut imagination right here, this is real hard radiation and he doesn’t have any kind of protective suit on, these people are all alive, and that means he gets dead.

Well, again: this is Tim Burton, after all. These are his themes. And they do play out in Batman Returns. I don’t like much of Batman Returns. I probably like about ten minutes or so of it in total. I like Michael Keaton and Michelle Pfeiffer’s performances, and some of Danny DeVito’s performance…see, I can’t like all of this, though, because this is where the ham-hammers really come down on my head: Burton can’t even make this movie if he can’t establish the Penguin as that other pole of the continuum of crazy, the continuum of commitment, that Bruce Wayne’s at the good end of…and that means the Penguin really has to be as obnoxious as possible, to make that work. He can’t be Oswald. Not in this movie, he can’t. He can’t really even afford to have a real name. And so he’s no one.

But still better than a businessman, and as a result when he goes out, he goes out with a twisted form of obnoxious, telegraphed, ham-fisted class. Meanwhile, I like that Max Schreck dies without it, simply because he imagines he can be in control when he can’t. That’s straightforward, isn’t it? I hate Max Schreck; I’m glad he dies.

Fair enough, Tim Burton!

So it’s not that Batman movie I would’ve made, but it’s got its points. I could write about ten thousand words on it, in fact: on its interesting failure. It’s way, way, way over-the-top stuff, and it’s annoying as hell, but I have to admit it’s true to its own ideals, and pursues its own structure with, um…dedication, anyway. With commitment, at the very least.


And now that I’ve been fairer than anyone asked me to be…

The hell with it.

(Oh, fine, if it comes on late night TV again, I’ll watch it…)


10 responses to “Flashback! To “Batman Returns…!”

  1. I liked the first Tim Burton Batman movie okay, but had no time for the second one. Haven’t seen it in years, really, and don’t want to.

    But here’s my take on what the Penguin *ought* to be like.

    There used to be a kind of character that we don’t see anymore, and the Penguin is the last survivor of them. This was the Depression-era member of the Lost generation who has pretensions to gentility but can’t put them over convincingly. Imagine the singer of ‘Big Rock Candy Mountain’ wearing a stained and torn tuxedo. The kind of guy who refers to himself as a ‘swell’. And the thing about these guys is that they’re usually pretty ruthless. At one point I had a list of about five examples of this kind of character, but they’re all gone from my mind now.

    Anyway, the Depression’s over and our ideas of class have shifted, and now the Penguin’s an orphan. It happens to every character who outlives the social milieu in which he or she is created. Some adapt to whatever new era they find themselves in (many characters from the Depression/WWII era adapted quite well to the ’50s: Perry Mason, Nero Wolfe, Superman…) but some never seem quite right again (the Hardy Boys). I’m not sure if there’s a way to make the Penguin work again, but I do know that Danny DeVito’s portrayal wasn’t one.

  2. I’ll tell you what I liked about Batman Returns: it was a decidedly different movie than Batman.

    I liked Burton’s approach to Batman. I liked that he specifically sought out Michael Keaton (or someone Keaton-like) because he flatly said that he wasn’t casting Batman; he was casting Bruce “Crazy-Man-With-A-Bat-Fetish” Wayne. Anyone could be Batman in that suit. It was the character of Bruce Wayne — and the craziness that embodies — that was the challenge. And I think Keaton did a fine job on that front. (“You wanna get nuts? Let’s get nuts!”)

    But Batman Returns is a different movie. Which is a decided challenge from Burton’s POV. He essentially re-defined the Batman franchise as a franchise with the first movie, but his artistic sensibilities (read as: “I’m an artiste, so I have to do my own thing in a conspicuous way.”) bound him to avoid the very notion of franchisement. Because what is a franchise except “more of the same”? So Burton, in doing the sequel, is forced (in his own mind, at least) to make the same movie that he already made but simultaneously make a different movie. And, in that respect, I think he succeeded.

    Returns is a very different movie by design. Burton clearly made it a farce of itself. (Need I remind you of the Bat-rap scratching Keaton does on that custom bat-insignia-imprinted CD?) “Listen, dear viewer,” he says, “this is all just dog’s bollocks. It’s a remake of a popcorn movie I did a few years earlier. Lighten up.”

    So, as a comic book fan, Batman succeeds in showing me a solid contemporary-yet-timeless vision of Batman. As a member of the public at large, Batman Returns succeeds in showing me that the whole concept is just a work of fiction created to allow me to escape my own reality for a couple hours. Batman Returns doesn’t succeed in the same way Batman does because it’s trying to succeed in doing something else entirely.

  3. I liked Returns quite a bit more than I liked Batman ’89, and I’m sure that puts me in a distinct minority. I thought the first movie tried too hard and relied too much on the “it’s only a comic book” excuse to explain its excesses. The original Sam Hamm story would have made a better movie, but it got blockbuster-sized (especially with Nicholson’s involvement). All the neat little things got painted in big broad strokes, and it just became very obvious.

    So I guess I appreciated the relative subtleties of Batman Returns. I liked Keaton’s performance — certainly not Playboy Bruce, but a reasonable look at Detective Bruce, and more detective work than was shown in the first movie.

    As for the Penguin, I agree with Matthew — he’s just one of those characters who doesn’t quite work anymore. It’s more efficient for the movie to just make him a mutant, so he can be contrasted with Batman, who just dresses funny, and Catwoman, who dresses funny because now she has a cat’s nine lives.

    The Penguin’s movie rationale is still better than that line in Batman Forever about “Dad said I swooped in like a robin.” Yes, because robins are known for their bird-of-prey-style tactics.

    Anyway, I did like the big Bat-Signal moment at the beginning of the movie. I can watch it from that point until the Penguin becomes a Bond villain, and then it just gets way too silly.

  4. There used to be a kind of character that we don’t see anymore, and the Penguin is the last survivor of them. This was the Depression-era member of the Lost generation who has pretensions to gentility but can’t put them over convincingly. Imagine the singer of ‘Big Rock Candy Mountain’ wearing a stained and torn tuxedo. The kind of guy who refers to himself as a ’swell’. And the thing about these guys is that they’re usually pretty ruthless. At one point I had a list of about five examples of this kind of character, but they’re all gone from my mind now.

    Actually, I remember one now: W.C. Fields. That’s my idea for the Penguin: he’s W.C. Fields turned to crime.

  5. I was going to write a lot here, but…W.C. Fields, you got it in one, Matthew. I was musing a little bit on the Penguin today, or at least on our modern version of the Penguin…

    I was thinking about our modern-day Joker, too…no longer the big tough unsentimental thug…

    …And I think a modern Penguin just has to be distinguished from the other Batman villains in the way Englehart did it: he’s smart, sane, he’s got a big ego, and he’s ruthless. There you go. That’s pretty simple. But it’s that ruthlessness that makes it for me, that ties him to that old 20s character-type you describe. Because the Joker isn’t ruthless, and neither is the Riddler, and neither is Two-Face, but the Penguin’s a real hardened nut under all those ridiculous affectations, and I think that makes him valuable. The B:TAS Penguin story I referenced above definitely worked, but then so did the Two-Face story and the Mad Hatter story, and all three of those are just “takes” made for TV, so in a way it doesn’t quite count. Only Mr. Freeze really counts, and possibly Harley and Ivy. It’s still very nearly the best Batman ever, and I love Paul Williams as Oswald more than I can say…but it’s just a take.

    In the privacy of my own head, I imagine an original Penguin story (which never happened, of course) in which Oswald starts out as an extremely successful fraud, who’s then busted by Batman, and it turns him a bit tough after a while. This would still work well for me, today — Penguin as fraudulent showman with larger-than-life personality, deliberately copping that W.C. affectation, and then he hangs onto the trappings as things go on, as a bit of irony. It’d be interesting to let Batman have a classic villain again who wasn’t crazy and wasn’t damaged, who was instead merely very smart and self-aware, and I think the Penguin could fit that bill.

    Also I’m going to tentatively agree with Sean, although it’s true I’ve got no time for Batman ’89…I’ve got no problem seeing Batman Returns as a retread, although strangely I’ve never thought of it that way before at all. Hey, maybe it was! I always thought Burton wanted to do another little auteur-ish Batman movie, but if he really wasn’t that interested that would explain a LOT! Even to the penguin Viking burial.

    Was Peter Parker “going bad” in Spider-Man 3 not just like one big long penguin Viking burial?

  6. That’s my idea for the Penguin: he’s W.C. Fields turned to crime.

    Oh, well done! “You, sir, shall never know me as an habitue’!” The hauteur! As he passes out on the pavement.

    Oliver Hardy would also make a good Oswald. You watch him trying valiantly to keep up the standards of refined behaviour, this great walrus with such delicacy of movement.

    What I think is the real irony, though. Alfred Pennyworth, last of the Servant Class, is also the last master exemplar of high-class polish and civility. And he gets to be played by Michael Caine. Who knows where justice will strike next?

  7. You really never know what’s going to impress people around here.

    Anyway, I thought of another member of what we might call the Penguin Club, one who should be familiar to all us comic book types. He might even be another one who survived to this era, although not as prominently as the Penguin did:

    Popeye’s friend, J. Wellington Wimpy.

    Now, Wimpy seems nicer… or is he just less ambitious?

    (Other comics characters who are in the right demographic to fit into this group, but aren’t part of it for other reasons: Popeye himself, and Mr. Lodge of Archie Comics. Popeye never puts on that genteel act, on one side. On the other side, it’s not an act for Mr. Lodge, but he’s a tough mug anyway. When Swee’Pea is old enough to date, her boyfriends are going to have just as much trouble with Popeye as Archie does with Mr. Lodge. Anybody know the song ‘On Wolverton Mountain’? Popeye is a Clifton Clowers waiting to happen, and Mr. Lodge is Clifton Clowers with money.)

    I am contemplating whether George Clooney’s character from O Brother Where Art Thou? is in the Penguin Club or not.

  8. I did think of Wimpy, but he’d just never be that ruthless. Mr Path of Least Resistance. But then again …

    “Ain’t seen Snorkels McGee round jes lately.”

    “Shhh. It was [—>] him.”


    “Lissen, he asks ya for burger change, don’t give him no lip, just pay up. Snorkels didn’t.”

    “Excuse me, my good man, but I will gladly pay you Tuesday for the price of a hamburger today!”

    “Ooh … err … yessir”

    And the operation snowballs from there, running on our man’s brazen, oblivious self-assurance. Even Batman wouldn’t actually be able to catch him at anything.

    But I’m sure Swee’pea eats her spinach, and after a certain age it’ll be, “Wimminks, ya can’t tells ’em nuttin!”

    You know, sometimes I think the Twenties were the peak of civilization, because that was when muscles and brains were most nearly in balance. Mostly when I’ve put Bix Beiderbeck on the player, pulled out my volume of Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy and downed a few glasses.

  9. Ah! Downing a few glasses! Sounds like an excellent idea!

    Now if you gents’ll just give me a minute to find some clean glasses and a couple of coasters…

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