4 stars out of 4. The Batman broods, Catwoman roars, and Penguin schemes in a beautifully realized snowy Gotham.
“You’re just jealous, because I’m a genuine freak and you have to wear a mask!”
–“You might be right”
Batman (1989) is a strange cross between a huge commercial mammoth and a quirky art movie that later came to be known as a Tim Burton film. It is this constant back and forth struggle that simultaneously harms the impact but makes the first Batman so damn interesting. However, it cannot be considered a true work of the director behind the lens, so Warner Bros. made it up to his the second time round. In order to lure Burton back for Batman II they had to offer him full creative control on a story that he liked.
Giving Burton carte blanche was one of the single best things to happen to the cinematic Dark Knight. Batman Returns is not only a staggeringly dark and adult film, it heightens Burton’s fascination with duality to such an extreme that for the only time in a live-action Batman film we actively question the nature of Bruce/Batman’s crusade in reference to our own lives. (Well, we also do this in the other great Batman film, but that’s in the next review.)
Returns is a brooding experience, a slow-burning multifaceted portrait of deeply flawed individuals who resort to using masks to conceal their true selves. Many decry the film for not featuring Batman as the prominent character, but when is that ever in any of the films? Here Burton is not afraid to go all the way in crafting a psychologically complex cast of characters that make the first film look like little more than a Saturday morning serial. Batman Returns is a haunted dream come to life.
The real villain behind it all is the aptly named Max Schreck, portrayed by Christopher Walken who is one of those rare actors with the gift of making anything better by merely appearing onscreen. He is a power obsessed manipulator who is scheming to build a power plant that will actually stockpile energy. But he is trying to find a way to get it past the stodgy new mayor.
Into his lap falls the Penguin (Danny DeVito) who is a deformed outcast determined to take his rightful place in society with the help of his Red Triangle gang. They kidnap Schreck and Penguin attempts to blackmail him with knowledge of Schreck’s shady business dealings. Schreck agrees and later convinces Penguin to run for mayor.
Meanwhile, Shreck’s frazzled and ineffective new secretary is making a mess of her job. Her pathetic life is such that she spends one night going through locked files to prepare for an important meeting. Schreck discovers her and unfortunately for Miss Selina Kyle these files happen to divulge the power plant scheme. In a great sequence, Schreck teases her death and then flings her out a window. This does not kill Selina, who is awakened by a horde of alley cats. A return home and a mental breakdown later resorts in some quick sewing work…
Batman intercedes and reacts to all of these individual plots as a catalyst. He is never ahead of the curve and instead prowls as the winged protector instead of the crimefighter. Keaton’s portrayal of Bruce/Batman is even more nuanced in Returns, so that while his brooding might have been seen or displayed in Batman, Returns features a complete obsessive and deeply broken man. his introduction into the film is made while sitting in a pitch black study inside Wayne Manor. The Batsignal is flashed into the sky, and giant mirrors on the manor track it into the study window, illuminating the darkness with the Bat insignia. Bruce stands into the light and then moves towards it in a stunning visual of embracing destiny.
Batman’s eventual meet with Catwoman is mirrored by Bruce’s immediate attraction to the now brazen and fractured Selina Kyle, who presents as much of if not more of a challenge than Catwoman presents to the Dark Knight. Both pairs share an almost animal attraction towards one another that becomes manifested in a revealing human nature during the day, and turns towards violence when they don their masks at night. Bruce/Batman instinctively desires to save both women, and then realizes his more personal feelings beyond that. Catwoman acts as the aggressive side of Selina’s psyche doing all that she could never bring herself to voice previously. Initially this tirade is seemingly an anti-male fight, but as her “first time” out proves, she is just as sick of the women too. Her weariness matches Batman’s perfectly.
Batman has grown tired of his crusade. Burton and Keaton provide glimpses into Batman’s real world, for example after his first meeting with Catwoman Batman is shown sitting down in the Batcave wounded by her nail barb. He asks Alfred for antiseptic and stares at the blade partly undressed form the costume. His eyes look off into the darkness and he murmurs Catwoman’s greeting: “meow”. Batman reacts instead of actively searching out crime, yet his mind can never stop processing his never-ending thirst for justice. Upon the Penguin’s initial mass acceptance into Gotham, only Bruce/Batman harbors a distrust that may partially be from an odd sense of what is almost jealousy. As Alfred asks: “Why are you now determined to prove that this Penguin is not what he seems? Must you be the only lonely man-beast in town?”
DeVito’s performance as the Penguin is not really a truly menacing one. In fact, the Penguin is quite sympathetic as a deformed outcast desiring to take his revenge against a society so cruel that as an infant his own parents dumped him in the sewers on a cold Christmas Eve. His manipulation at the hands of Schreck only enhances this sympathy as a man hungrily tearing away at a raw fish being catapulted into a mayoral campaign. Yet the Penguin has a knowing sense of life that belies the script’s twisted sense of humor. Not only is this a deep film for adults to consider, it’s darkly funny too.
Gotham City is stunning to look at just like the first one was. The switch from the massive Gotham set built in England to soundstages on the Warner back lot sounds like a budget cut at first thought, but the production design actually goes beyond Anton Furst’s sprawling dingy Gotham to create a snowy oppressive landscape that seems to leap right out of Detective Comics. And snow. Did I mention the snow? In Batman Returns, it’s always snowing in Gotham. The use of refrigerated sets for the penguins allowed for use of actual snow in L.A. of all places. This wonderfully chilly atmosphere lends an air of dreamlike reality to the proceedings s much that at times one feels as if you’ve fallen into a dark snowglobe.
Danny Elfman’s score is much improved as he no longer is forced to rely on the heavy heroic theme and gets freed up to be a bit more operatic. There is always a note of tragedy in each character’s theme and this is no more apparent than in the conclusion where the music becomes Hermann-esque. The script is endlessly inventive and interesting, as the massive subtext that is so interesting in Batman is no longer “sub”. Returns is all subtext and truly fascinating to delve into. The gloom and sense of tragedy combine into what can truly be considered a form of operatic narrative.
It is this theme of duality and outcasts that further separates Returns from all the other Bat-films. Combined with the stupendous production design of a wintery Gotham, an actual adult witty depth far beyond the first film and a bold style from a director unafraid and not limited on self-creativity this time around; Batman Returns is not only the best live-action Batman film to this day, but is also the best and most fully-realized of all Burton’s films.
Oh, and this Batman kills. Keaton punch.
EDITIONS: The first film given a wide release in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound, Returns quickly debuted on VHS and Laserdisc. It follows the pattern of the other three Batman films in the franchise by seeing an early DVD release featuring image manipulation, slight cropping, artifacts and all the fun stuff. Then it was treated to a 2 disc Special edition like the others in 2005, from a new HD master. 5.1 mixes are presented in both Dolby and DTS, with the DTS being far superior due to bitrate. Of the four, it has the best presented image and this comes out further on the Blu-ray release. This Blu-ray is a direct port of the same master to 1080p. Audio is present in Dolby TrueHD 5.1. However, there are still some issues with the image that distract my eyes as on the other three films based of this HD master. There still seems to be signs of grain reduction and image manipulation as on the ’05 SE DVDs, which prevents these from being definitive. Audio packs a bigger punch at about double the bitrate of the DVD’s DTS track.
Also, why do people feel the need to crop films composed and shot for 1.85:1 to 1.78:1? So what if your precious HDTV has two tiny miniscule black letterboxing bars? You’ve cropped the sides off! All four Batmans are cropped this way from their original 1.85:1.
Due to my love of the first film’s Dolby Stereo mix, and after noticing that the credits only list Dolby Stereo, I’m more than curious about the Laserdisc PCM surround. I’ll update comments here when I find a rot-free copy.
Notes: My only problem with this film is that Selina suddenly becomes quite adept at fighting and her other Catwoman activities. Where did all this skill come from?
-You know this film is going to be better when the soundtrack switched from cheesy Prince to Siouxie and the Banshees.
-Returns is beautifully self-aware:
Alfred: Let’s not forget about repairing the Batmobile. There’s certain security to consider. It’s not as though we can take it to any old “Joe’s bodyshop,” is it, sir?
Bruce: Security? Who let Vicki Vale into the Batcave? I’m sitting there working and I turn around, there she is. “Oh hi, Vick – come on in.”
EDIT 7/1/13: After listening and comparing the Laserdisc’s PCM version of the Dolby Stereo mix and the initial 1999 DVD with a 384 kbp/s Dolby 5.1 track, I’m convinced that they are the theatrical mixes from 1992. Both use the same video master and share the same mix qualities, with the matrixed surround having great midrange but the 5.1 having the superior highs and deeper LFE due to the discrete channels. Both completely outdo the remix struck in 2005 for SE DVD and Blu-ray which had loudness compression in addition to noise reduction. (Both theatrical mixes have very light tape hiss which the later mixes have erased.) Additionally only 11 theaters in North America were equipped for Dolby 5.1 in 1992 for the release of Batman Returns, so 99% of audiences experienced the Dolby Stereo mix. Judging from the sound, I’m pretty sure the initial mix was done in Dolby Stereo as it is very similar to the mix on the first film but with enhanced detail from being three years younger. Then I assume the go ahead was given for the usage of Dolby SR-D (as it was known at the time) and the mixers took the pre-existing 4 track master and maximized the detail inherent. Also, in addition to opening the film to 1.78, the color timing has been changed to make the film bluer in keeping with modern tendencies on the later transfer. In other words, I highly recommend the outdated LD and old DVD if you like this film as much as I do.