Thursday, March 17, 2011

MOVIE - Batman Returns.

I've been on a Batman kick, lately.

I've assembled three out of four seasons of Batman: The Animated Series (still waiting on season 2 from Amazon), I've been keeping up on Arkham Asylum news, and it got me thinking about the 1992 Tim Burton movie - and how fond I am of it.

I remember being interested in the Michael Keaton/Jack Nicholson 1989 movie, but a lot of it felt a bit too trendy - a bit too eighties for me - even in the eighties.

Kim Basinger's big, eighties hair. That's always the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Burton's first Batman movie. I don't know why I let the lady lead define the film, but it's a standard that's otherwise served me very well.

For example, when I think of Batman Returns, this is the first thing that comes to mind.

Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman.

Hell. Yes.

She's just fantastic in it. I don't even much like Danny DeVito, but he's hugely entertaining, scary and savage as The Penguin. Michael Keaton... now that I think of it, is probably the best Batman there's ever been on film, and rounding out the cast is Christopher Walken as Max Shreck.

Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer, Michael Keaton and Christopher Walken. That's just a fabulous cast.

So I picked up Batman Returns yesterday when I was at Best Buy looking for Okamiden. It was on the cheap shelf with Batman and Batman Forever, and I gave the disc a spin last night.

* * *

Some folks complain that Returns goes to places far too dark for a Batman film - I feel the opposite, of course. No, the best complaint one can make about Returns is that Tim Burton obviously didn't spend much time with the source material. He's not one for adhering to such.

And so, you'll notice Batman doing stuff Batman would never do. He uses the rocket engine on the Batmobile to belch a plume of fire onto a pyromaniacal circus freak (oh-ho! hoisted on your own firery petard!) and sticks a bomb on a thug before tossing him down a sewer, before walking away all cool while an explosion rips out of the hole.

But Batman doesn't kill people. Well, in his original incarnation he did - the No Killing Rule was added later - but that's not all that's a bit off, here. Take Burton's riff on Catwoman, for example.

For some reason, I've always thought of Catwoman as a very intelligent, very capable, successful and comfortably powerful woman who happens to spend her nights running around in black bodysuits, stealing high-quality jewels. Just as comfortable leaping from rooftops as negotiating the perils of high society in a fine gown.

That's not Batman Returns' Catwoman.

She's a total nutcase. She's a very interesting character, and it's great to watch Pfeiffer go crazy (and strut around in skin-tight black plastic and kick ass with a whip), but this isn't the character that comes to mind when I think of Catwoman.

Such is the price we pay, for having the film directed by Tim Burton. It's worth noting that Batman or Bruce Wayne doesn't actually return in Batman Returns until a good twenty minutes into the show. Burton is much more interested in exploring the outsider origin story of The Penguin (the first scene in the movie is his birth), or Selina Kyle's disillusionment with accepted social trappings. He loves the freaks - and he likes to think of Batman as one as well, but he'd clearly rather spend his time with the villains than the hero.

We, the audience, don't much mind - because he does make The Penguin and Catwoman the most interesting, entertaining part of the show. It's still fantastic to watch Pfeiffer whip-crack the heads off four store mannequins, and do a series of backflips up to Batman and Penguin to utter a single, throaty "meow" before Shreck's Department Store blows up behind her. It's fun.

Burton's direction also pays off - in spades - in the design of the world, which works deliciously well with his rarely-changing aesthetic stylings. Batman Returns, with its looming gothic/modern art deco architecture clearly informed the seminal 90s cartoon series, with good reason. This feels like Gotham should feel, without delvolving into the obscenely over-the-top art direction of the subsequent films.

Burton's Batman movies are replete with the weirdness - and comedy - associated with the character and his rogues' gallery, but it's balanced with a darkness, a violence, a sense of emotional consequence that Batman Forever and Batman & Robin abandoned. The films that followed would crank up the weird, the stupid, the neon-glowing Batmobile and the infamous Batsuit nipples, but would ignore the beautiful, dark, human heart at the center of the story and its characters.

The Dark Knight, one must admit, is probably the single "best" Batman movie - but Batman Returns, I feel, is the most entertaining.

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