VHS Revival continues its exploration of the Batman series with the, darkest, most twisted of them all
How do you follow up a film like Batman? Well, one thing that was inevitable was that it had to be followed up — the character and everything around it had been utterly revitalised thanks to Tim Burton’s blockbusting 1989 original. Just the one film would never have been enough; the vision that Burton and his remarkable crew of talent had unleashed on the world was too exciting, mysterious and magnificent not to return to. Cue the inevitable Batman Returns, one of the most artistically, emotionally and perversely satisfying sequels ever made, and an astonishing step into delectable darkness that few, if any, major-studio films have ever equalled. I have rarely, if ever, seen summer blockbusters with the same degree of eroticism and sensuality as this.
Admittedly, on many levels Batman Returns is a cog in the Hollywood machine — it is product, it is commercial, it is a guaranteed money-spinner. It had tie-ins, toys, a pop video, major stars, top-of-the-line special effects, the whole works, and it was Warner Bros.’ biggest intended success of the year. On the other hand, it is remarkably beautiful, poetic, twisted, kinky, personal, melancholy, erotic and haunting, and remains Burton’s most fascinating film because of how it treads the line between commercial demands and his own artistic flair. There’s a particular thrill in watching him go as far as he does here. Like the first film, there’s an edge that’s not explicitly adult, but nevertheless loaded with tension. The dialogue crackles with innuendo, the threat of violence is palpable (but not nastily so) and the whole thing plays out like a twisted, grim fairytale, and although its PG-13 and 12 certificates, in the US and UK respectively, are suitable classifications, the film still feels deliciously risqué for its rating. It takes all the strengths of the first Batman film and expands on them, delivering deeper, darker, stronger and more dazzling thrills.
It really was the most bizarre of cinema visits, seeing a film set at Christmas during summertime in 1992, experiencing a film so dark, both literally and tonally, whilst the weather was baking outside. There have been few films where I felt like I’d truly stepped into another world by the time the Warner Bros. logo appeared, and just like before, the familiar blue sky background behind the WB shield gives way to darkness, and this time with added snow. Immediately we’re somewhere else entirely, and the film left an extraordinary impression on me. It weaved a remarkable spell that left me utterly enraptured, like stepping into a never-never land. Leaving the cinema afterwards was a disorienting experience. The real world seemed so much more mundane.
It was also my first ’12’ at the cinema, seen when I was still eleven. It was therefore the first film I had watched at the cinema when I wasn’t legally allowed to. This lent the actual cinema visit an illicit thrill that was only enhanced when the film started. It was one of the first sequels I had seen at the cinema (prior to this, there had been Back to the Future Part II, Ghostbusters II and er…Teen Wolf Too) and as such an early example of a film where I had a pre-conceived idea of what to expect. Jack Nicholson’s Joker was yesterday’s news. Now it was the turn of the Penguin and Catwoman, two villains that we all knew about from their previous incarnations, thanks to the likes of Burgess Meredith, Julie Newmar, Eartha Kitt and Lee Meriwether, but we hadn’t seen anything like this before onscreen. The Penguin looked truly grotesque and scary, borderline animal, while Catwoman looked like a S&M fantasy come to life. There have been fewer films more amusingly at odds with their concurrent Happy Meal promotions than Batman Returns.
A new threat is terrorising Gotham — the mysterious Red Triangle gang, made up of circus performers who love nothing better than wreaking havoc upon the city. Their latest attack occurs during the lighting of Gotham’s enormous Christmas tree, resulting in the kidnapping of the city’s ‘own Santa Claus’, Max Schreck (Christopher Walken), a much-loved entrepreneur who is secretly an absolute shit poisoning the city with toxic waste and who also has a tendency to kill off anyone who stumbles onto his plans. The leader of the Triangle Gang is the Penguin (Danny DeVito), a malevolent, freakish (he was born with flippers for hands) but lonely and lost soul who’s been living in Gotham’s sewers and is planning, with a blackmailed Max’s help, to return to the surface in the hope of finding out who his parents were and to reclaim his place amongst society. There’s also another plot he’s got kept close to his chest that’s far more sinister, but we don’t find out about that until later.
Then there’s Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfieffer), Max’s burned-out, put-upon and patronised secretary, who discovers his dastardly plot and is thrown out of a window for her trouble. Surviving her murder attempt, Selina suffers a breakdown/release and adopts a new persona — Catwoman — seeking to wreak chaos and make men who think they’re hot shit suffer the consequences. Oh, and of course, there’s Batman/Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton), now fully established as a protector of the city (although nothing a treacherous bit of framing can’t derail) who seeks to learn the truth about the Penguin, as well as seriously meeting his match both in Catwoman and a revitalised Selina, with whom he begins a romance, although neither knows about the other’s costumed alternate identities.
The plot is, on many levels, and putting it mildly, eccentric, but such is the power of Burton and Co’s spell that the film exists perfectly within its own logic. This is a film where the Penguin’s final plan is to destroy Gotham with a barrage of missiles that are to be fired by his own personal army of penguins. This is where Catwoman really does seem to have nine lives. This is where the Penguin is an actual genuine mayoral candidate, who at one point says, without irony, ‘get in the duck!’ It doesn’t matter. None of it matters. Even more so than in the first film, Burton has created a magnificent fantasy world that plays by its own rules and unfurls like the best fairytales. The very beginning is remarkably dark when you think about it. The Penguin’s parents (Paul Reubens and Diane Salinger, reunited from Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure), appalled at the appearance of their newborn baby Oswald, proceed, on Christmas Day, to throw him and his crib into a river, leaving him at the mercy of the movie’s subterranean elements, and of course, a shedload of penguins. It’s thanks to Burton’s skill that he pulls the viewer in instantly with the sweep of his tragic, ghoulish vision. Credit must also be given to Heathers (and Hudson Hawk, lest we forget) writer Daniel Waters (and an uncredited Wesley Strick), working from Sam Hamm’s original, mostly rejected storyline, who does a grand job in infusing all of this madness with a wicked streak of humour.
Of course, a great sequel should explore territory that the first one didn’t, and in that respect Batman Returns is a success. The most overt new element here is the sexual one. Bruce Wayne enjoyed a romantic (and even immediately sexual) relationship with Kim Basinger’s Vicki Vale in the first film, but it’s no surprise that she’s not in the sequel. Their chemistry was cute but lacking the passion or fire better suited here, whereas Selina Kyle/Catwoman not only provides Wayne with a more exciting romantic prospect (it does help that Pfieffer has a hell of a lot more to work with here) but also adds a kinkier, more exciting charge to Batman’s own adventures. Their relationship throughout the movie is a masochistic, violent and yet almost playful sparring match, trading one-liners and vicious injuries one moment, then another having Catwoman confess that Batman is like ‘catnip’ to her, before proceeding to lick his face underneath the mistletoe in one of the film’s best moments. Yeah, as an eleven-year-old I don’t think I’d seen anything this sexualised within the context of a genre that I’d previously only considered as child’s play.
As the film progresses, the stakes get more and more intense, both on a large-scale regarding the Penguin’s dastardly plot, and on an intimate one regarding Bruce/Batman and Selina/Catwoman’s dual relationships. The ending is absolutely remarkable, a truly haunting, downbeat and surreal affair that reaches its climax as Batman and Catwoman (who know each other’s identities by now) face each other as Bruce and Selina. When first seeing Batman rip off his mask to reveal his true identity underneath back in 1992, it felt like such a watershed moment. In Selina (and yes, in Catwoman) he has found someone who he wants to be with – ‘we’re the same; split down the middle’, he confesses, and for a moment I really believed that the two could find happiness together. But it wasn’t to be. Selina is too tortured by her actions to surrender herself to a life in a castle like some kind of fairytale, and proceeds to kill herself by taking Schreck down in spectacular, suicidal fashion. When you realise that the film’s final shot of a still-alive Catwoman looking at the Bat signal was added post-production, you realise just how bloody tragic this ending really is.
I was utterly heartbroken at the time, was so distraught that she and Bruce never got together. Not that I’d have signed a petition demanding re-shoots or anything like that. As sad as this ending was (even with Catwoman still alive, it’s a melancholy climax), it nevertheless felt right, and I was so moved by the culmination of events that I left the cinema utterly satisfied and blown away. Hey, love hurts, and this was one of the first films I watched that taught me such a lesson. Maybe some of it was also to do with transference — I wanted Bruce to be with Selina because as a viewer, I wanted to be with Selina, and yep, Catwoman too. I must add that as well as being darker than the original, this sequel is far warmer. Burton has a real empathy for his characters here, even more so than he did the first time round.
Speaking of which, Michelle Pfieffer is the ultimate Catwoman. I’ll be honest, when I first saw this film I was utterly, instantly knocked out by her performance. It probably helped that I already had a cine-crush on her after watching her steal the show in Grease 2 (sigh), and in this? My gawd, I was totally spellbound and hopelessly head over heels for her. The camera absolutely adores Pfieffer here. Giving it everything with one of her strongest turns, she in effect gives three different performances: Selina Kyle, Catwoman and the all-new Selina, who comes home after being pushed out of the window. She’s a brilliant Selina Kyle to begin with — ditzy, sad, frustrated and mocked by her dickhead male superiors, but also funny, sweet, resourceful and yes, curious. And we all know what that did to the cat.
Her transformation sequence remains one of the most thrilling, sexy and exciting (yet simultaneously disturbing) adoptions of a new persona in any comic book movie ever. Walking, dazed and damaged after her attempted murder, she goes through the same motions she did earlier on in the evening, calling out ‘honey I’m home’ to a non-existent husband, feeding her cat, playing her answering phone messages, but this time she snaps, wrecking her cutesy, pink home, spray painting it black, destroying her cuddly toys, smashing the neon sign that reads ‘Hello There’ so that it now reads ‘Hell Here’, and of course, creating her iconic, black leather costume. And it’s a great costume, clearly handmade and realistic in that you can see all the joins and stitches, yet also a fantastical look that’s pure cinematic sex fantasy. As one of the bumbling cops who tries to apprehend her later says, ‘ I don’t know whether to open fire or fall in love’. Yet Burton never objectifies Catwoman — yeah, the camera takes her in as one would a work of erotic art, but she’s also a terrific, strong character, totally in control and hell, if you do find her sexy, then she’s sure as hell going to use that against you, as many a sap in this film finds out.
As for the Penguin, Danny DeVito transforms himself utterly to become a fascinating villain, at once to be pitied and to feel sorry for, yet so twisted by the society that rejected him that he has become a monster, and eventually one fully accepting of his status, cleverly paraphrasing The Elephant Man’s protests by saying ‘I am not a man! I am an animal!’ and intending to wreak vengeance on Gotham in hideous fashion by murdering the city’s first-born sons (as I said, this film is dark). He’s grotesque, and often pretty repulsive, but it’s huge fun to see him trick the sappy electorate with the help of Max, or biting the noses of toadying mayoral aides, or attempting to have his way with a strictly non-interested Catwoman (‘I wouldn’t touch you to scratch you’ is a classic rebuttal), or having an absolute whale of a time remote-piloting the Batmobile. Yet like the Joker before him, he’s a pretty terrifying villain, especially in the shocking moment he executes on one of his minions for daring to suggest that murdering children is a little extreme. Still, he gets a strangely moving death, with his pet penguins acting as pallbearers, leading him to his watery grave.
However, the worst villain of the lot (and that’s saying something) is Max, beautifully played with dry, urbane cool by Walken and a ruthless, callous bastard who may love his son Chip (awwww) but on every other level is a prime shit, and of course a magnificently entertaining villain because…. well, it’s Walken, isn’t it? The only thing he does better than playing good guys is playing bad guys (well, he dances beautifully too, but not in this film, sadly), and with his frightful grey wig (another classic hairpiece for the actor) he makes for a tremendous antagonist, be it sparring with Bruce Wayne (‘Muhammad Shreck’, indeed), intimidating Selina Kyle (scary scene, this) or pep-talking The Penguin to political office, he’s the best supporting character in any of the Batman films, and he gets an incredible, literally shocking exit too, resulting in one of the most ghoulish and macabre shots of a dead body I’d ever seen in a film. It freaked me out at the time.
Visually, of course, the film is superb, even more so than the first Batman. Burton and Christmastime are a match made in heaven, and he really manages to bring out an innate spookiness to the season (emphasised even more in The Nightmare Before Christmas, which he produced and was based on his story and characters). Like before, Gotham City doesn’t look like a fun place to live in but for two hours it’s an extraordinary world to experience, and Burton, cinematographer Stefan Czapsky and production designer Bo Welch (alongside the many other technical and artistic talents on board) have conjured up a remarkable nocturnal winter world, with cameras gliding though Gotham’s abandoned zoo and skyrocketing to the peak of Schreck Tower (with its insane cute-cat revolving sphere) to dizzying effect. Everything feels even more so this time round — so much richer, more velvety, more colourful, more….well more.
Danny Elfman returned for music duties, and aside from the very welcome return of his main Batman theme, he delivers a magnificent series of new themes, all with that Christmassy element that he’s known for. His theme for when Selina becomes Catwoman is probably my all-time favourite piece of music by him, alongside the original’s main theme, of course. There are no Prince songs this time either. Instead we get just one pop song, and it seems more in line with Burton’s vision than stuff like ‘Trust’ or ‘Partyman’. Of course, it’s Siouxsie and the Banshees, delivering the erotic, luscious ‘Face to Face’, which plays out over one of the film’s best scenes, where Bruce and Selina, at a masked ball of all places, discover each other true identities and realise they may now have to become enemies.
With all these magnificent elements working in perfect harmony, and with momentum already engineered by the phenomenal success of the original, it was no surprise that Batman Returns ended up being a big hit — of course it was; it even broken opening weekend records at the time — but ultimately it didn’t match the commercial success of the first film. How come? Well, not everyone was like me and thought it was the best thing ever. Maybe word-of-mouth spread that it wasn’t too suitable for younger viewers (remember, the PG-13 certificate in the US would still allow a child under that age to attend if accompanied by an adult). Maybe the novelty factor of a Batman movie had dulled in the three years since the original. Whatever the case, the series would undergo a substantial, intensely more commercial overhaul for the third entry, which is so different in tone, approach (and yes, quality) that I’m loath to even consider it a third instalment, more a straight-up reboot. Only Michael Gough and Pat Hingle’s returning appearances (and Burton on co-producing duties) link Batman Forever to its two predecessors. Aside from that, they’re completely different. And completely inferior. Still, maybe a different tack was inevitable. It would have been interesting to see what a third Batman film directed by Burton would have been like, but I’m not sure if he’d have been able top this, his masterpiece, the most luscious comic book movie ever made and a wicked, beautiful flirtation with darkness.