By Daniel Dockery
Batman Returns Just Turned 25, And Has Only Become More Interesting
Today, the idea of Tim Burton creating two blockbuster Batman films sounds like a parody. It sounds like something you’d chuckle about while fan casting Johnny Depp as Bruce Wayne and Helena Bonham Carter as Alfred. And that’s not totally unwarranted. In the last decade and a half, Burton’s output has included two great movies (Frankenweenie and Big Eyes), two very, very decent movies (Big Fish and Sweeney Todd), and a bunch of misfires, movies destined to be remembered by their art on the t-shirts in the Hot Topic clearance bin.
It’s also hard to find exactly where Tim Burton’s Batman films fit into the grand scheme of Batman’s cinematic legacy. The backlash to the Joel Schumacher films are what eventually gave us the Christopher Nolan films. And the remarkable success of those films is probably what led to the current mindset in the DCEU that shoving Batman into things will provide a quick band aid to problems like uneven tone or a complete lack of direction. But Tim Burton’s Batman proved that…superhero/Batman movies could make a lot of money? In a world where superhero films make a lot of money, that seems like a given. Of course they’d make a lot of money, because look at how much money they’ve made!
It’s because of this, and many other reasons, that Batman Returns only gets more damn interesting with time. When Tim Burton’s Batman came out, it immediately established itself as the superhero template film, a “How To” list that would be edited by other superhero template films like Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, Iron Man, The Dark Knight, and The Avengers. But Batman Returns is only a little like the movie that it’s a sequel to, and absolutely nothing like any superhero film that’s come after it.
Burton’s overwhelming love for his characters, his “freaks” is evident throughout it. Superhero film antagonists, especially modern ones, often feel very replaceable. They’re an array of lasers and armors, and are characters that don’t really challenge the hero in any other way than physically. They don’t force the hero into any kind of emotional quandary outside of very basic “Now the hero is sad, because you hurt his friend/pride/expensive outfit” or whatever. They’re there to provide the threat of a bigger explosion than any other explosion that’s previously been in the movie.
Batman Returns is a relatively small film. What gets destroyed at the end isn’t a city, but an abandoned, arctic-themed amusement park. The plot isn’t about some new, absurd technology that might incinerate mankind, but the Pengiun’s quest to become Mayor. And so the “freaks” become the centerpiece, and they emotionally challenge the hell out of each other.
The Batman that we see at the beginning of Returns is a far cry from being a Caped Crusader. Sitting in his office in a mansion like a bored king, he waits around for the Bat signal to light up so that he can have some sort of purpose in his life. His fighting style isn’t that of the efficient ninja of Batman lore, or even the brawling average guy that he was in the first film. Instead, he lights men on fire with his car, attaches bombs to people with a smirk, and can barely be bothered to chat with Commissioner Gordon when the rampage is over. Keaton’s Batman is a moody sadist that seems to have resigned himself to saving the city because he has nothing better to do, and because he really, REALLY likes punching clowns.
His spark is re-ignited when the Penguin and Catwoman show up. The Penguin, abandoned at birth and having built an empire of sideshow performers and penguins, reflects Batman in a way that seemingly excites Batman. And Catwoman, a lost soul that, through death and reawakening, finds that her true passion is causing mayhem and threatening security guards, reflects Batman in a way that definitely excites Batman. Thus, a trio is born, with each character playing the third wheel at different points in the movie.
There is no real hero. Batman comes closest, but that’s just because his name is in the title. And there’s no real conclusion as to who is right and who is wrong at the end. The Penguin was killed simply because he was never given a chance to be raised as anything other than a perv-ey asshole. Catwoman disappears because, while she’d love to hang out with Batman, she’s too “full freak” to fit into his half-and-half life. And Batman survives to stand vigil at the funerals of both.
Batman Returns isn’t about a hero that overcomes the latest in a line of freaks and comes away undamaged because his definition of “freak” is the right one. Instead, it’s about a hero that learns that, maybe, he should’ve loosened up his definition of “freak” when he had the chance. He would be way less lonely if he had.
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