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…)