Batman Returns

Batman ReturnsAfter reinventing the Batman character in 1989, and introducing audiences to a new level of box office bravura, Tim Burton decided to up the ante in every way with the inevitable sequel.  But even the soulless title has overtones of what to expect here:  Batman is back, and has a new round of villains to fight.  The weird thing is, Batman never went anywhere at the end of the first film, so why did he have to “Return” for round two?  Alas, such questions will find no answer here, as the point is to simply push the envelope of good taste and cash in on a newly-minted franchise.  And while Batman Returns isn’t a complete train wreck, it jumps off the rails early on and never even tries to find its way back.

Burton’s first Batman movie, while flawed, at least provided some good entertainment and a solid hero/villain tale.  Batman was well matched against The Joker, and the conflict provided for some interesting, if not entirely quality, film making.  In an attempt to up the ante with Batman Returns, the story has two villains: The Penguin and Catwoman, neither of whom is as interesting or compelling as Jack Nicholson’s Joker.  To further complicate matters, each villain has an origin story in this movie, which means that the title character actually gets painfully little screen time.  The film begins with the grim birth of The Penguin, a child so horribly disfigured that his parents abandon him in a baby-sized river basket to float to a watery grave.  But since this is a comic book movie, this child is (of course) adopted and raised in a secret chamber inside the Gotham City zoo by a pack of wild penguins.  Years later Danny DeVito emerges from the sewers as The Penguin, ready to wreak havoc on the city.

Batman Returns: Keaton, Pfeiffer

Selina Kyle, demonstrating the newest trend in hairstyling: "The Bird's Nest."

Meanwhile, plucky do-gooding secretary Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer), who just can’t seem to catch a break, is tossed out of a window and left for dead by her evil corporate boss Max Schreck (Christopher Walken, whose unapologetic scenery-chewing is the best part of the movie).  But since this is a comic book movie, mere secretaries can’t simply die after 20-story defenestration!  No, they are brought back to life by a pack of wild cats.  Somehow.  And thus begins her transformation into Catwoman.

None of this makes any sense whatsoever, but when watching a movie about a rich dude who fights crime in a bat mask, all bets are off.  For reasons entirely unexplainable by any stretch of logic, Max Schreck recruits The Penguin to run for mayor in exchange for some political favors. Never mind the fact that just a week earlier The Penguin was entirely unknown to Gotham and had spent his entire life in a penguin-filled sewer.  (I know we live in a world where professional wrestlers can become state governors, but even this is pretty ridiculous.) And because the plot requires it, Catwoman joins forces with The Penguin to (what else?) get rid of Batman.  Because, you know, it’s a comic book movie and stuff.  In the middle of this is an awkward romance between Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle (oh, the irony!).

Batman Returns: The Penguin

The toy action figure creators really earned their paychecks on this movie.

Michael Keaton reprises his role as Bruce Wayne, either out of contractual obligation or some type of legal fine print. His blandness pervades every aspect of the character, and when he is not throwing awkward punches or delivering a menacing glare through the Caped Crusader mask, he is squirming uncomfortably in a suit or trying to warm up to Michelle Pfeiffer in front of a ginormous fireplace back at Wayne Manor.  DeVito turns in a solid performance as an aquatic terrorist, but the entire Penguin character is a disaster from top to bottom.  There is no reason for the character to exist, no reason for a conflict between him and Batman, no way (even by comic book logic) that he could have established a massive underground terrorist organization, dependent on mindless henchmen and hundreds of trained penguins, from inside a city zoo.  And somehow, wearing a skin-tight leather suit and assigning an feline-based moniker makes one impervious to the penetrating power of 9mm bullets.  The list goes on.  The entire movie is a series of face-palm-inducing moments and cheap thrills, wrapped up in a sadistically violent tale in which Batman himself is largely peripheral.  But hey, if it sells happy meals, why not?  Oh, wait.

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Batman

BatmanI was nine years old when Tim Burton rebooted the beloved Batman franchise, replacing the aging Adam West with a much younger (and, for many fans, much more controversial) Michael Keaton and giving audiences their first look at a Gotham City that was dripping with darkness.  Far from the bright palettes and cartoony enemies of the 1960’s TV show, this new Batman was grim, unflinching, and strikingly violent.  It also ushered in a new era for comic book movies and summer blockbusters, and reaping a pile of cash for Warner Brothers that continues to grow to this day.  But was the movie any good, or was it all spectacle and marketing?

The answer is a little of both.  There are few effects-heavy movies that stand the test of time; aside from the original Star Wars trilogy, Kubrik’s masterful 2001: A Space Odyssey, and classics like Jason and Argonauts, modern audiences have little patience for obvious blue-screen chroma key and once high tech effects like stop motion.  Unfortunately, Batman does not hold up quite so well, but this wouldn’t be a problem if the plot and acting were any good.  As it stands, Batman can be seen today as an average comic book film or a sub-par comic book film, but either way it’s not much use outside of a footnote in the annals of summer blockbuster history books.

I grew up on the cheesy but lovable Batman after-school reruns where Batman and Robin battled an endless array of implausible foes while spouting dialog so terrible it made George Lucas look like Shakespeare.  It was campy and fun, and you have to respect a guy like Adam West who acts so badly with such utter conviction.  Burton eschews much of this campiness, but his version of Batman is trapped in movie limbo:  despite the dark and serious tone of the film, we are nonetheless asked to accept wild and outlandish premises that only work when planted firmly in the roots of 1960’s cheese.  Street thugs, crime bosses, and city officials are depicted as two-dimensional caricatures, barking out lines of such obvious exposition that it’s like watching an eighth-grade school project.  Jack Napier, one of the higher-ups in the Gotham crime syndicate, falls into a giant vat of green toxic waste which transforms him into the venerable Joker.  And his plot to take down the city (because what else would a criminal mastermind do) involves contaminating all the city’s cosmetic products with poison that causes victims to die of laughter (no I am not making this up).

Kind of makes the idea of exploding sharks seem almost normal.

Batman: Michael Keaton

Michael Keaton is Batman...striking bewilderment into the hearts of Gotham City criminals.

As if to countermand the potential silliness of some of these plot devices, this Batman is surprisingly violent.  Almost too much for a PG-13 rating, and certainly more than what most parents would be comfortable having their kids watching.  Watching the Joker dance around the room as he gleefully pumps his victim full of lead is a far cry from the classic Wham-Bam-Pow fight scenes of yore.  It serves the character, one might argue, but to me it reeks of overcompensation.  But throughout the film Jack Nicholson’s turn as the Joker is extremely well acted and the character more or less holds his own when pitted against Heath Ledger’s masterful portrayal of the same character in 2008’s The Dark Knight.  Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the bland, charisma-draining performance of Michael Keaton.  Woefully miscast as Bruce Wayne and his crimefighting alter ego, Keaton somehow manages to pump out lines like “I am Batman” with a straight face, though probably because he does it while wearing a mask.  The romance between him and Vicky Vale (Kim Bassinger, trying her best to fend off her 40’s) is as shallow and unbelievable as we might expect from a 1989 comic book movie, and only serves to give Batman a reason to go after the Joker in the end.  After all, what better motivation could a superhero have for fighting the bad guy than to get back his kidnapped girlfriend?

I have a feeling that if Tim Burton were to be able to re-make his original film today it would be more in line with Christopher Nolan’s mature, dark, and introspective Batman Returns and The Dark Knight. But back in 1989 audiences were hardly accustomed to plausible superheroes with innter turmoil and realistic villains, and in that sense I can kind of understand the motivation for straddling the line between comic book absurdity and dark reflections of reality.  But ultimately Batman is a lot of spectacle without much substance to back it up.

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Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

I really liked Batman: The Animated Series when I was growing up.  It was a cartoon that dealt with some very weighty subjects, was not often played for simple laughs, and pushed the limits of what could be seen on afternoon network TV in terms of violence and thematic material.  But woe to the concerned parent who confuses violence with bloodiness, as the animated bullets were rarely the cause of death, and Batman himself was never one to go around shooting people or even killing his enemies.  In fact, the show was more of a morality play than anything else, and certainly dealt with mature life-and-death themes than anything else on TV at the time (think Power Rangers and Animaniacs).  But despite my affinity for the Animated Series, I never got around to watching the bigscreen incarnation of the show until just this past week.

From what I could tell before watching Phantasm, it was set to offer more of what made the Animated Series so great:  weighty subjects, conflicted heroes, and a world that was far more grey than black-and-white in terms of the good guy/bad guy vignettes that played out in similar TV shows and movies.  And while the movie does have these elements, it is also lacking in the sort of grandiose presentation and storyline that I had hoped from a cinematic adaptation of such rich source material.

The story purports to be multi-layered, and in some ways it is, but again, not as much as I suspected it might be.  Batman is once again fighting villains, both internal and external, and faces off against one of his longest-running foes as well as a new one, the Phantasm referenced in the title.  Local underworld bosses and masters of organized crime leaders are being offed by the Phantasm, a shadowy ghostlike figure impervious to bullets with the ability to appear and disappear at will.

The Phantasm.  Has Batman met his match?  Tune in next week...same bat-time, same bat-channel!

The Phantasm. Has Batman met his match? Tune in next week...same bat-time, same bat-channel!

Trouble is, the public is led to believe that Batman is the one doing the killings, and even good ol’ Commissioner Gordon finally turns on our intrepid hero.  Bruce Wayne, meanwhile, is reintroduced to his old flame Andrea, the woman to whom he was once engaged before beginning his days of crimefighting.  This type of relationship, the genesis of which is told through a series of flashbacks, is endemic to the series as a whole, as it presents serious themes of desire, longing, and the chasm between reality and the carrot that is perpetually just out of reach not only for Bruce Wayne but for many of us as well.  The one thing that will bring the most happiness to Wayne is the one thing he can’t have, and this realization is what leads him to ultimately shut himself off from the real world, and real relationships, and take on a secret identity of reclusive crimefighter.

Origin stories are nothing new to theatrical adaptations like this, and I appreciate that instead of seeing another recap of how Bruce Wayne’s parents were murdered, we see what is essentially the cliffs notes version of Batman: The Teenage Angst Years.  Seeing Andrea again brings all these long-buried questions back to the surface for Wayne, and it casts Batman in a different light that I find particularly refreshing and altogether human.

However, the creators bring the ever-present Joker into the mix, at which point the storyline devolves into a more-or-less typical after school Batman episode.  Joker is once again running amok in the city but this time the mysterious Phantasm is also trying to thwart his criminal exploits.

Bruce Waynes old flame, Andrea Beaumont.  But is there more to her than meets the eye?  Hmm...

Bruce Wayne's old flame, Andrea Beaumont. But is there more to her than meets the eye? Hmm...

The identity of the Phantasm is thus another layer to the plot, but it’s not too hard to figure out and the reveal is somewhat of a predictable letdown.  In fact, the climax of the movie has a girl in distress whose only hope is to be saved by Batman.  Holy déjà vu!

While I appreciate the effort to flesh out some of the Bruce Wayne/Batman persona, I wish this movie wouldn’t have fallen back on some of the tried-and-true tricks of the trade.  I also find the (forgive the expression) cartoonish lack of explanations for various elements frustrating.  The Phantasm is, of course, a real person and not a ghost (anyone who’s ever seen an episode of Scooby Doo will know this immediately) but their (and I use the improper plural pronoun on purpose) ability to absorb bullets and disappear in a puff of smoke is never explained.  The ending chase/rescue is a bit much to take even by cartoon standards.  On a side note, however, it was nice to hear Mark Hamill back at his blood-curdling evil-villain-laughter best once again.  :)  All in all the movie is decent entertainment, but not as good as it could have been given its wonderfully brilliant pedigree.

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