Batman Returns

Batman Returns

Tim Burton may have famously proclaimed that he didn't "get Batman," or at least read comics before being approached to make the first feature. Either way, his parade of outcast sensibility to filmmaking suits this iteration of the character and its villains remarkably well.

Upon rewatching this the other night, it dawned on me how immediate the sequence of events are. The Circus Gang attack, birth of Catwoman, and Penguin abducting Schreck all take place in the same night in about 30 minutes of screen time. Everything that follows presumably transpires over the course of 2 or so days. That rapid span of time speaks to the expressively nightmarish design that permeates the picture in a far greater fashion than the Art Deco/Noir dressing of the prior Bat-joint. It also presents an interesting way to recontextualize and internalize its often sprawling and messy narrative.

If Gotham can be perceived as an extension of Bruce's own psyche, then the three antagonists showcase distinct oppositions to his id:

1. Max Schreck, Walken's unscrupulous department store owner and real estate tycoon, bumps up against Bruce's business and public persona. He may be featured the least of the three villains, yet he's the one who incites both of their subplots, manipulating The Penguin's mayoral candidacy from the side and inadvertently creating Catwoman after killing Selina.

2. Oswald Cobblepot/The Penguin, an orphan who after decades of living under the surface bubbles up to inflict terror on Gotham, is the dark reflection of both Bruce and Batman. He romances the city with his tragic story, putting on a human face over his animal exterior.

3. Selina Kyle, Schreck's woebegone secretary and human doormat, morphs into a sexually-empowered vigilante who beguiles men both in and out of her suit. Her wildly oscillating split personalities stand out against The Penguin and Batman, both of whom have lived with their twin identities for a much longer period of time. It's also fitting that the "naked sexual charisma" that a horny-ass Penguin desires from Catwoman is, in fact, what comes up between Selina & Bruce. Their first meeting in Schreck's office, replete with Keaton's fantastic mugging for the camera and comic timing, plays like Old Hollywood screwball romance. Daniel Waters' knack for reparteé and bon mots excels between these two, though it's a close second to the first Catwoman/Penguin scene ("Ointment! Scented or unscented!").

The "villains take the front seat" criticism in the pre-Nolan pictures may still be apt, though in this case I'd argue that they factor as extensions of a firmly-rooted character dynamic. Also, the moments we have with Bruce or Batman highlight Keaton's strengths as a performer equally as expressive as the wild designs in which he inhabits. The way he reacts to Selina as noted above, how he deduces that The Penguin has an ulterior motive, him peeling off the mask in a last ditch effort to save Selina at the end... all of these moments collectively inform an internalized narrative and mystery to a character who doesn't need to have all of his motivations and thematic imperatives issued out as declarations of intent (sorry, I couldn't help raggin' on Nolan's series again).

tl;dr -- Of the live-action Batman flicks, this is the number one son, though now it's treated like number two.

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