GET OFF MY LAWN: Batman Returns (1992)

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Welcome fellow internet users! Each installment of “Get Off My Lawn” will examine a super-hero movie of the pre-2008 MCU era and this week we are going to look at a huge nostalgia favorite Tim Burton’s return to Gotham City, 1992’s “Batman Returns” starring Michael Keaton, Michelle Pfeiffer, Danny Devito and Christopher Walken.

Context:

In a post “Batman ‘89” world, the country was hungry (literally and figuratively, thanks to McDonald’s) for another trip back to Tim Burton’s vision of the Dark Knight, the only problem is he didn’t want to go! Early drafts of caped crusader’s second modern adventure were direct sequels to the first movie and Burton made it clear he was resistant to telling a direct sequel to his initial outing. Time dragged on and the studio finally acquiesced to Burton’s demands for greater creative freedom and hand in writing the final draft of the script.

After Burton jettisoned an early version of the script he was able to bring in the screenwriter who was supposed to write a “Beetlejuice” sequel with Burton but ended up collaborating on a Batman sequel instead. The result…well, it’s definitely interesting to peek inside both the early 90’s and an unleashed and empowered Burton. This movie was released in 1992, and the only other comic book movie released in that calendar year was direct to video “Dr. Mordred” distributed by Full Moon Entertainment, remember this was the time of the superhero movie drought, we couldn’t count on a comic book movie every quarter.

Story and Reception:

The second entry in the 89-90’s Batman-verse was a markedly darker story all about the team-up between the Penguin (Danny Devito) and Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) to take over Gotham City and takedown Batman (Michael Keaton) in the process. The film opens on the tragic and ultra Burton-ized birth of a deformed baby born to mega-rich mega-WASP parents. After the baby is ceremoniously ditched in the Gotham river to be raised by its sewer-dwelling penguin population we jump forward to a chaotic Christmas in Gotham. Michael Keaton has hands full as both a harried Bruce Wayne dealing with villain tycoon Max Schreck (Christopher Walken) and as Batman dealing with the threats of Catwoman and the Penguin.

As the movie goes on, Penguin and Schreck uncover the secrets of Penguin’s parents and their ties to Gotham, after which they attempt to take over City Hall with Penguin as a rise-from-the-ashes-candidate. In addition to this plot, he simultaneously teams up with Catwoman and utilizes his gang to try and both kill and discredit Batman. The whole thing ends up with a showdown between all of our principle characters with only Batman kind of making it out unscathed.

The movie was budgeted at $80 million dollars (Keaton was given 11 million to reprise his role as Batman) and went on to gross over $266 million dollars in the theater. Though the movie was a rousing financial success and a huge cultural phenomenon in 1992 it did hit its fair share of criticism and doubt from critics at large. The movie carries an impressive 81% on Rotten Tomatoes but less impressive scores on Metacritic or IMDB which factor in audience scores as well as the reception from critics, both sites had BR hovering around the 70ish or 7 out of 10 marks.

How does it hold up:

Wow, does this movie hold up and exceed what I remember from my impressional boyhood! This movie is so much darker, more violent and more sexual than my 9-year-old brain could possibly have comprehend in 1992, re-examining it today was almost revelatory. The style and noir tone of this sequel is amped up to 11 in Burton’s macabre vision of Gotham. What I remembered as ham-fisted villains are actually terrifying and awful visions of what Burton sees when he thinks of these people in real life. The Penguin and Catwoman are by far the most interesting and strongest parts of this film. The only principle character who truly falls flat is Batman himself.

I don’t really understand the nostalgia or affection connected to Keaton’s portrayal of Batman. This movie really reveals how limited his performance and the writing for the character truly are. Where Devito and especially Pfeiffer really get to stretch their characters into weird and dark places Keaton is sidelined with quips that don’t quite work as well and a suit that looks cool but gets really dated and cheesy as soon as Batman is forced into any action. By the end of the movie, I was just kind of done with “apathetic” Bruce Wayne.

Wow I mean just wow, how come nobody talks about this movie in terms of stretching the limits of the comic genre?

I have to come back to these villains. You may not remember this (or have been alive when this movie came out), but this is the movie that had a Penguin that was too dark and violent for the McDonald’s happy meals and an incredibly provocative Catwoman in a PVC skintight costume and the craziest thing is that IT ALL WORKS! These are the best comic book villains that I have encountered in a superhero movie. Both of their origins are concisely and compellingly told in this below 2-hour superhero movie and they are both unique and terrifying in their own right.

Although the image of Catwoman burned into our brain from this movie is the costume and whip, on the rewatch it’s really Pfeiffer’s Selina Kyle that draws the eye this time around. Her death, resurrection and slow unraveling throughout the film is deeper and more unsettling than just about anything we have seen in a good superhero movie in the last 20 years. MCU and DCEU (or whatever it is called these days) take note, this is where quality villains come from: interesting narratives followed by earned character growth that leads to logical and yet unpredictable ends. The MCU is lacking in the interesting narrative aspects for villains and well, the DCEU is lacking in so many things but perhaps its biggest problem is a lack of patience. Build your characters and your brand DCEU, have patience and use the journey to define your characters, you don’t need the coolest CGI or rock/pop soundtrack if you invest in storytelling and character progression.

The Penguin is terrifying in this incarnation as well. Burton goes a different route with defining Devito’s Oswald Cobblepot and really paints a complete picture of a constantly erratic and dangerous psychopath. At every turn, Penguin is both predatory and erratic, creating the perfect atmosphere for his wild turns of character and plan. Ultimately we end up at the conclusion of the movie with rich children being kidnapped by clowns and penguins shooting missiles, we as the audience are just like, “keep going, I’m in.” The plan works because the character works, the character works because spectacle has been combined with acting and storytelling to create a disgusting, sympathetic but most of all dangerous customer in Tim Burton’s Penguin.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t note the real-world parallels of an ascendant populist outsider rousing a crowd into a frenzy and shooting up the polls, but not everything is about how screwed up 2018 is and in this movie a recording of a terrible and disgusting thing an aspiring politician said did actually destroy Penguin’s career. So good job astute political observers in 1992 Gotham, thank you for being principled participants in the democratic process.

Where to find it:

Support your local library and find the DVD there but it is also for digital rental and download on Apple iTunes as well as Amazon and Youtube.