Thursday, October 27, 2005
In the month leading up to the release of Batman Returns in 1992, I was pretty much incapable of thinking about anything that wasn't Batman-related. Rewatching it last night for the first time in years, I was pleasantly surprised with how well it had aged. Most people prefer either the first Batman or Batman Begins, and I can see why; both have more in common with the character as envisioned by Bob Kane and Frank Miller, respectively. But my favorite moments in Batman are the most Tim Burton-esque - the Joker trashing Gotham Art Museum to Prince's "Partyman," the crazy commercial for Joker-brand products, etc. I love comics, but I'm a movie nut first and foremost, and not only is Batman Returns the most auteur-driven Batman movie, it may be Tim Burton at his purest.
Every frame of this movie is crammed with lovingly crafted bits of insanity - the Penguin's duckmobile, the crazy-kitty Shreck logo, the army of penguins, Vincent Schiavelli avec monkey - that turn Gotham City into its own self-contained, demented universe. Batman Returns was also a gateway movie for me in a lot of ways. Reading articles on the movie before its release, I would come across references to directors like F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang as influences; seeing their films opened up my mind and let me to other films like The Third Man, which led to Citizen Kane, and so on. I think I spent a lot of my childhood pursuing filmic influences and origins the way many of you followed music, and while I can't tell you much about bluegrass or Manchester, I still look back on those days with great fondness. Also, this was the first time I saw Christopher Walken in anything; it says a lot about Walken that anytime he shared the screen with a penguin man, I was thinking "Wow, who's that guy with the white hair? He's creepy."
The best thing about Batman Returns is clearly Catwoman, who singlehandedly brought an end to my latency period. The scene where she returns after her transformation and just wrecks all of the quaint little knicknacks in her apartment should be required viewing in every feminist theory class. When she saves a woman from an attempted sexual assault and then mocks her helplessness - "I am Catwoman. Hear me roar." - eight-year-old me didn't quite know what was going on, but he liked it. It's hard to believe now that Michelle Pfeiffer was ever this kickass, but I think Catwoman would force Nietzsche to give women a lot more credit. When she and Batman realize each others' identities at the Christmas party (great use of Siouxsie and the Banshees), she's at once the vengeful, righteous warrior and the vulnerable "executive assistant" who just wants a decent boyfriend, and she's unapologetically both. And it's fantastic. Incidentally, Catwoman is one of several female protagonists, along with Lydia Dietz, Cathy Wood, and the Corpse Bride, that leads me to believe that Burton and I dig a lot of the same things about women.
It's interesting that Burton doesn't extend his empathy for his masked protagonists to the penguin, who is viewed as an abused but still essentially corrupt grotesque. His death inspires pity, but we can't relate to him, and perhaps neither could Burton. So he pushes the Penguin to the limit - a sleazy, grunting, kitten-eating, undersexed blob. This, coupled with all the surprising S&M business between Batman and Catwoman, apparently led to a lot of crying kids. And really, that just makes me love it more. How the hell did this creepy, kinky little big movie sneak through a studio system preoccupied with toy and cheeseburger tie-ins? This is really a remarkable superhero picture, one that is worth revisiting. But for now, I got badder fish to fry.