Monday, 14 December 2020

Batman Returns

What A Feline

Batman Returns
USA/UK 1992 Directed by Tim Burton
Warner Brothers Blu Ray Zone B

Batman: You know, mistletoe can be deadly if you eat it.
But a kiss can be even deadlier if you mean it.

Okay, so my second Christmas movie of the year is Batman Returns, the only sequel that Tim Burton made to one of his own movies (reviewed here), so far. This one retains Michael Keaton, Micheal Gough and Pat Hingle as Bruce Wayne (Batman), Alfred the butler and Commissioner Gordon respectively but also welcomes a whole new cast of actors/characters into the mix. This was the second time a cinema released Batman movie had teamed up super villains to try their luck against the central protagonist, following the 1966 movie starring Adam West. This time around he goes up against Danny DeVito as Oswald Cobblepot, aka The Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer as Selina Kyle aka Catwoman.

The look and feel of the movie is fantastic, far surpassing the first film (which I reviewed here) in pretty much every way. Everything is dark and cold but the way its designed and lit harkens back to, in some ways, a German Expressionist film with, also, a smattering of Russian architecture thrown in, if I’ve got my eye in. It’s also very Christmassy, not just with Gotham under heavy snow in both time settings covered in the film (pre-credits and then the main body of the film 33 years later) but because the whole film is heavily infused with Christmas iconography... mistletoe, Christmas parties, a Christmas tree lighting ceremony and even Michael Keaton’s last lines in the film... are all about the greetings of the season.

So, yeah, out of this loosely fitting tetralogy of movies, it’s this second one by Burton himself which I think is probably the best, although some of the staging and pausing to give various characters big visual moments does seem a little less subtle and inappropriately indulgent by today's standards, perhaps.

The architecture in this is not the only thing that’s post-modern either. The whole film is chock full of references to other things. For instance, Max Schreck’s company cat logo. I mean, I get it, it’s where Selina Kyle is working when she’s ‘killed’ and resurrected as the Catwoman but, honestly, why did they have to use the exact same logo as Felix The Cat. It’s one of a few things which completely popped me out of the movie, continually (because it’s used a lot) when I first saw it. I kept assuming a character would walk on at some point and explain how Felix The Cat was somehow connected to the Batman universe... pretty much expecting this culturally iconic visual theft to be somehow admitted and explained during the course of the film. I guess I was more naive in those days, expecting movie producers to acknowledge it when they outright stole something.

And talking about Max Shreck, here’s was this 24 year old sitting at the cinema, confronted with this movie, wondering why the heck the third of the lead villains, played by Christopher Walken, has been given such a famous name, that of the actor who played the title character in the famous German Expressionist movie Nosferatu - A Symphony Of Horror. I’m there in the audience thinking to myself how cool it is and waiting for one of the characters to explain that Walken’s playing some kind of ancestor of the real life actor but, no, it’s just an outright steal again. It’s been said the look of The Penguin also owes a debt to the look of the title character in the first German Expressionist film The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari and, looking at it now (and especially on some of the posters marketing the film), yeah, I think that might be right... there’s a smattering of  the look of the make up of Werner Krauss in that movie maybe rubbing off in the film here but, I think the look of Walken’s Schreck could also be said to have some similarities. It’ hard to tell for sure but, yeah, like I said... the film more than enters the realm of post-modernistic entertainment.

The chemistry of all the actors in this is great and the performances are... I dunno... maybe slightly dated but very watchable. The film starts off strongly with a set piece backed by a kind of extended 'Christmas jingly lead in' to Danny Elfman’s re-orchestrated Batman theme, which totally plays out the origin of The Penguin before the film has even started properly and one of the things the film does very nicely and quickly is to draw out all the new characters in a brisk, efficient manner. So Walken and DeVito get very quick character sketches which more than do the job. Pfeiffer gets a slightly more protracted story to show the contrast between the shy, ditzy secretary who gets transformed into the full blown super villainess (of a kind, she's not really a bad person) and this kind of approach usually works well. The post death scene after she’s resurrected by cats and wrecks her apartment, before becoming focussed on the extent of where her unhinged mind wants to take her and she transforms herself into Catwoman, is one of my all time favourite 5 minutes of film... with a beautiful introduction of her theme by Elfman which is also one of his greatest pieces of music.

However, it has to be said that her character is one of many ‘classic’ DC characters which have been fairly tampered with in terms of who they are. For instance, Selina Kyle was always more of a bad girl and in no way shy when it came to the original comics in the 1940s (heck, some of her origins in the strip in later incarnations even place her as a sex worker), so as brilliant a change it is in her character here, which really works in the film, it’s not really true to the source. That being said, one thing they stuck to was the underlying romance of her character as far as Batman was concerned... she was always using his attraction to her to get an advantage and even in the first time they meet in the comic, he kinda ‘accidentally’ lets her get away at the end of the story, if memory serves.

Similarly, The Penguin is a greatly changed creation and really nothing like The Penguin at all. Especially in terms of his deformity with fused fingers which form flippers here... that was never a part of Cobblepot’s character although, it was played out in comics at least once after the release of this film.

One of the things which is evident though, with all these new characters being developed, is that Bruce Wayne as a character is hardly expanded on at all and, despite Michael Keaton finally getting top billing in this Batman movie, he has much less to do... although pretty much all his scenes here are absolute gold and, frankly, he’s easily one of the greatest Batman actors we’ve had on screen. That being said, the romance between him and Michelle Pfeiffer is short but nicely played and it feels like a lot more than the screen time would be able to accommodate.

One bizarre character loss was the non return of Billy Dee Williams from the first film as Harvey Dent. Dent was originally supposed to be the Max Schreck role and when Walken came along, the names were changed and the character very slightly re-written. In fact, when Walken’s character has his come uppance at the close of the movie (in a scene I won’t describe here because I want to make this review relatively spoiler free), the original outcome of what Catwoman does to him was to scar him on one side of the face, thus fully bringing on his transformation as Two-Face with Billy Dee Williams heading up the next movie (Two-Face did appear as a lead villain in the third one but Williams’ contract was bought out and somebody else played him... I’ll get to that when I re-watch it and review it). I think maybe they should have just kept Dent as the villain here, all things considered... although Walken is great as Shreck.

There are some bizarre things in it too which either don’t make sense or are just a turn off. I was hugely angry at the sequence when The Penguin manages to take over the Batmobile as, at the time it just seemed so out of place tonally and something which wouldn’t be likely to happen anyway. That being said, I’m more comfortable watching that sequence now so, yeah, while parts of the movie have aged badly, others have become more palatable over the intervening years. Although, in terms of the whole script, the film seems to have a lot of highly sexualised dialogue... far more than I think a superhero movie would get away with today. It feels bizarrely out of place now and, well, just way too over the top for the mpre general approach to the material.

Also, I am still absolutely puzzled and confused as to how Danny Devito can lay flat on his back on his bed, flap his hands together right in front of his chest and... somehow make a shadow bat directly on the ceiling above him. I mean, for goodness sake, where the heck is the light source supposed to be coming from, his chest? And furthermore, I remember at the time wondering what the heck was going on when Michael Keaton takes his mask off at the end. It’s quite obvious from looking at him that Bruce Wayne blacks out areas around his eyes to hid his eyelids etc when wearing the Batman cowl. So when he takes this off then he should look like a panda or a racoon... instead, the shot cuts as Keaton takes his mask off and all of a sudden he’s got a completely clean face. I remember raving at the time about this at the cinema and, I think I was similarly offended on the opening sequence of Spectre for making a similar mistake when Daniel Craig pulls his mask off.

The best thing about the movie though, far more than the quite captivating (if predatory) art direction, is Danny Elfman’s fabulous score. Although the Batman theme is quite present, this isn’t just a do over score and the various new leitmotifs created for the other characters and some frenetic action scoring (with a lot of musical Mickey Mousing at times) is just generally a fantastic backdrop to the whole experience. It always bothered me that the original CD release of this film sounded kind of muted (a complaint I heard of from a number of people... it’s not just me) but this was finally corrected by LaLaLand records a few years ago with their deluxe, remastered and expanded reissue of the score. Also, the Siouxee And The Banshees song co-written by Elfman, Face To Face, is sadly underused (until the end of the end credits) but it’s a good one and Elfman manges to quite subtly weave a minimalistic version of his Batman theme in among the lyrics (it’s so well done that a lot of people at the time didn’t seem to realise that his main theme was even in the song). It’s a shame this wasn’t more of a hit in the charts because it’s one of my favourites of their songs (although nowhere near as brilliant as Peek-A-Boo, for sure).

And that’s me done on my second Christmas movie of the year, Batman Returns. It was nice seeing it and it’s easily the best of that particular bunch of films but I’m not sure I’m going to be re-watching it again anytime soon. It’s definitely entertaining and fairly easy on the eye though so, yeah, possibly even Tim Burton’s most interesting movie, I suspect.

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