Thursday, November 11, 2021



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, sociological*

(Interesting trivia about the one-sheet above: though it shows the Penguin smoking a cigarette in a holder, I'm reasonably sure that the character in the finished film never smokes anything.)

During Tim Burton's commentary on a BATMAN RETURNS DVD, the director notes that he might not have savored his own "return" to the DC franchise had he not recharged his creative energies by diverting to the production of EDWARD SCISSORHANDS. Indeed, I speculate that some of the fairy-tale aspects of SCISSORHANDS may have influenced the ways in which Burton and his collaborators orchestrated Batman's interaction with three equally important villains. 

As I argued in my review,  the first film profited by emphasizing "adult" levels of violence (and a modicum of sexuality) in the context of a superhero film. To accomplish this, the script by Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren grounds the operatic battle of Batman and Joker within the mundane world of organized crime. From the first scenes of BATMAN '89, Gotham City's people seem to have become complicit with the crooks, allowing them to corrupt most of the cops. Thus, when Joker appears in reaction to Batman's personal war on crime, the villain feels like an extension of the noir darkness dominating the metropolis-- which, I also noted, strongly resembles aspects of Frank Miller's THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS.

In contrast, though the final script of RETURNS is credited to both Sam Hamm and Daniel Waters, Hamm asserted on the DVD that most of his contributions were left out. It might be fair to venture that the script represents a different approach to the Bat-mythos, more in line with Burton's enthusiasm for fairy tales with a grotesque spin. Thus both the prologue and the main body of the film take place close to Christmas, full of yuletide imagery with transgressive twists. This Bat-cosmos is more overtly rooted in myth-tropes, from the abandoned baby raised by a flock of penguins to a woman who survives a fall and seems endowed with a cat's nine lives.

RETURNS also set a precedent that many later superhero films followed to bad effect: that of pitting the main hero (once again played by Michael Keaton) against more than one villain. The Waters-Hamm script makes this trope work reasonably well by linking the introduction of the two comics-derived villains, Penguin (Danny DeVito) and Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer), to a third evildoer, original film-character Max Shreck (Christopher Walken). As the Joker in the first film was something of a funhouse-mirror reflection of Batman, Shrek-- though originally intended to be a counterpoint to Penguin-- ends up being more of a mirror-image of Bruce Wayne, with Wayne as a "silver spoon" aristocrat while Shrek is a self-made (but ruthless) success, and he seamlessly takes the place of the simple avaricious career criminals who dominated BATMAN '89.

Shreck is named for the actor who portrayed the king-vampire in the 1922 silent horror classic NOSFERATU, and in a few lines, his likeness to a vampire is underscored, particularly with regard to his "feasting" on the energy-sources of Gotham. Yet in his narrative function Shreck bears a closer resemblance to another silent-film character: Joh Frederson, the righteous overlord of Fritz Lang's 1927 METROPOLIS. Though Shreck is evil while Frederson is merely misguided, both figures preside over a city whose splendor masks the grimy inner workings that keep the metropolis functioning. More importantly, Frederson has a servant, the mad scientist Rotwang, who does the mogul's dirty work for him. This seems not dissimilar to the way in which the freakish Penguin, who was raised in the sewers beneath Gotham by zoo-penguins and (maybe) circus-folk, begins to work hand-in-flipper with Shreck. Indeed, when Shreck gets the bright idea to run the Penguin as a mayoral candidate, the millionaire encourages the villain to make the current mayor look bad with an increased crime-wave-- a strategy that Shreck compares to dirty political campaigns like "the Gulf of Tonkin incident."

I won't pursue any METROPOLIS-parallels between the female characters of the Lang film and the fragmented "leading lady" of RETURNS-- though the silent movie does include a female character whose innocence is reverse-mirrored by her evil robot doppelganger. Where Catwoman is concerned, the writers were more likely influenced by a belated Catwoman origin-story published in a 1950 Batman comic. In that tale, the Princess of Plunder is given a Jekyll-and-Hyde past, in that she was once Selina Kyle, an amiable stewardess, who hit her head and transformed herself (for no clear reason) into a cat-themed criminal. 

In any case, Burton and his writers turn their version of Selina into a critique of overly passive femininity. Selina, personal assistant to Max Shreck, endures a life of quiet desperation, her apartment filled with mementoes of her pre-sexual girlhood. Only by accident does she rebel against Shreck's authority, when she makes the mistake of poking around in his encrypted files. Shreck responds by tossing her out a high window (though strangely, he never sends anyone to dispose of the body). Selina not only survives, she seemingly comes back to life thanks to the ambivalent ministrations of some alley cats-- and afterward, she channels her trauma into the identity of Catwoman. Her first act is to save a female mugging-victim, and then to excoriate the woman for expecting a "Batman" to save her. While Penguin makes (temporary) common cause with Shreck, Catwoman seeks to avenge herself on her murderer.

While Shreck and Penguin provide as much violence as the Joker did in the previous film, Catwoman furnishes RETURNS with a lot more transgressive sexuality than Vicki Vale could have ever brought off. Catwoman shares Batman's desire for vengeance, and though his desire has been diverted into the socially redeeming goal of protecting Gotham, the Female Feline poses a distinct threat to his heroic integrity. All of the battles between the hero and the villainess are staged to reflect "the war between men and women," and even the less violent encounters between Bruce and Selina are filled with their own dark undercurrents.

All of the classic comics-characters are well and truly Burton-ized. If Keaton had not already played the role of Bruce Wayne in a noticeably twitchy manner, here he worries that being too assertive may cause Selina to think him as either the fictional psycho Norman Bates or the (considerably more handsome) real-life killer Ted Bundy. This Catwoman certainly has no interest in cat-burglary, given that she's defined by her lust for vengeance, but not a few later iterations of the character took influence from this transgressive version, who talks about feeling dirty at the thought of "busting Batman." In contrast, the Penguin only works within a Burton cosmos. Through the intensity-- albeit not the subtlety-- of DeVito's performance, one can more or less believe in a Penguin who is both a clever manipulator and a ravening animal. But in later iterations, most creators have leaned toward the idea of a Penguin who's smart rather than a nose-biting looney.

I didn't mind a lot of the minor plot-holes in RETURNS. I don't care how the penguins survived to raise the Penguin given that their above-ground complex was supposedly defunct. The only things that really bothered me were (1) Selina getting kickboxer skills out of nowhere, and (2) the fact that Penguin frames Batman for a murder, and that, although Batman ruins the villain's mayoral campaign, the hero NEVER un-frames himself! All that said, I could wish that the majority of later films with the Caped Crusader had incorporated more of the Burton touch, rather than framing the hero as a hyper-violent vigilante who just happens to wear a bat-outfit. 


  1. I was disappointed in this movie. Some good bits, but overall an awful sequel. And the next two in the series were worse.

  2. Do you think it would've been better with no Penguin?

    1. It would've been better without the absurd 'origin' story of the Penguin, as well as his bizarre appearance. What did it for me though, was the way in which Selina Kyle's motivation was revealed, with her basically saying aloud how she felt about her boss, Max Shreck, rather than it being portrayed in a more subtle and realistic manner. And her thing with the cats was daft too; there was nothing realistic or logical about it. It was as if the whole movie had been adapted from a poorly written comic, rather than being carefully crafted (if that makes any sense) in a way that was believable. Just too over the top I thought.