Sunday, December 25, 2016

Batman Returns: A Review


Welcome to Rick's Texan Reviews Annual Christmas Special.  Every Christmas Day I review a Christmas-related film.  This year, I decided to take the opportunity of working through my Batman Retrospective and my annual Christmas film by reviewing Batman Returns.  It has a Christmas setting, which is good enough for me to make it this year's Christmas film. 

Therefore, Batman Returns is our Christmas Film for 2016. 

It is no surprise that after the financial and critical success of Batman there would lead to a sequel.  Batman was a tremendous success, down to winning an Oscar for the Art Direction (though its failure to receive Cinematography, Make-Up or Original Score nomination is puzzling).  Perhaps the thought was, 'if one villain was good, then two is better'.  Batman Returns has the Dark Knight facing off against two of the most famous of the Rogue's Row of the mythos: The Penguin and Catwoman.

It is Christmas season in Gotham City, but the sins of its past and present are going to visit our fair city.  From the past comes a strange being, long rumored to live in the sewers.  The Penguin-Man is said to lurk there, and we find that the rumors are true.  The Penguin (Danny DeVito), is a short, fat man with a beak-like nose and disfigured hands which look like flippers.  Penguin comes out thanks to an encounter with villainous tycoon Max Shreck (Christopher Walken).  A 'carnival of crime' so to speak has attacked the Gotham City Tree-Lighting ceremony, and while Batman (Michael Keaton) was able to stop it, Shreck in the chaos was taken by Penguin.

They strike a nefarious deal: Shreck will help integrate Penguin into society and help locate his parents in exchange for Penguin's silence on Shreck's evil plans (including the death of Shreck's former business partner...whose hand Penguin finds in his sewers). 

One scheme Penguin isn't aware of involves Shreck's meek secretary, Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer). She discovers Shreck's plan to manipulate his hoped-for power plant which he plans to use to take power out rather than in.  To stop this nobody, Shreck has no problem pushing Selina out a window to fall to her death.  However, she manages to survive, revived when a group of cats begins gnawing at her.  In her newly-empowered body, she has a total breakdown from her old meek self and fashions herself a new identity: Catwoman.

Penguin discovers his true identity (Oswald Cobblepot) and yearns for respectability, which he should be entitled to as a scion of one of Gotham's wealthy families.  Shreck wants Bruce Wayne's help with his power plant, but Wayne thinks it is a front.  Shreck is also astonished to find Selina, very much alive and kicking in more ways than one.  Wayne, for his part, finds Selina sexually intriguing, but she's non-committal.

Now Shreck devises a new scheme: join forces with Penguin to have our fowl-feathered friend become Mayor and split the city among them.  Penguin agrees, and then has a caller: Catwoman.  She finds that Batman will be a difficulty for both of them and suggests they join forces to defeat him by framing him for crimes. 

The plan is set in motion: frame Batman for the killing of the Ice Princess (a model that lights the Christmas Tree).  Catwoman thought they were going to use the Ice Princess for bait, not flat-out kill her, but Penguin won't be denied.  Penguin's overtures are rebuffed by Catwoman, who struggles with her attraction to Batman, and Penguin tries to kill her.  He forgot: a cat has nine lives.

Things come to a head when Penguin takes over the Batmobile, using it to try and create chaos while Batman cannot at first control it.  He does regain control, and even manages to record Penguin's anti-Gotham City comments, which he eagerly plays when Pengy has a press conference.

Enraged, Penguin abandons his efforts at respectability (and Shreck abandons him).  Penguin's first monstrous plan is to kill the first-born of Gotham's elite who are the Max-Querade Ball (Shreck's annual party).  As Selina and Bruce dance together at the ball, they realize who the other really is.  Before anything can be worked out, Penguin literally crashes the party and announces his King Herod-like plan. At first he plans to take Chip Shreck (Andrew Bryniarski), but is convinced to take Max instead.

Batman foils this scheme, and a more enraged Penguin opts for Plan B: unleash his army of penguins to launch rockets onto Gotham itself.  This too fails, and a final battle between Batman and Penguin takes place.  Catwoman, for her part, seeks revenge against Shreck, who genuinely is puzzled as to why Bruce Wayne is dressed like Batman.  "Because he IS Batman, you moron," the equally unmasked Kyle snaps.  A final battle between the three of them takes place now, with Selina disappearing and Shreck dead.

Wayne, still in mourning for his vixen, thinks he sees her, but perhaps it was not her.  In the end, as we see the Bat-Signal, and a feline figure watching it in the night.

Batman Forever is certainly darker than Batman and miles away from the camp fun of Batman 1966. You have very suggestive dialogue (when seeing Catwoman in his bed, Penguin says, "Just the pussy I've been looking for", which I hope went over kids' heads.  In terms of the violence we do get a bit more than a film with a strong following with kids.

We see Penguin bite someone's nose off, one of the Red Triangle Gang members set on fire (the fact that said criminal was dressed like Satan not helping matters), and two women falling to their deaths.

That being said, I didn't find it as violent as I was lead to believe.  The violence I found tolerable, not grotesque.  In truth, I think it's not as violent as some other films.  Then again, this is not a film I would recommend for younger children, no matter how much they may love Batman.  Some scenes might be too hard for them (even though no baby is actually drowned in Batman Returns, the suggestion might be already frightening enough to cause them a few sleepless nights).

In terms of performances there's good and bad.  The good is the villainous duo of DeVito and Pfeiffer as Penguin and Catwoman.  DeVito relishes the role of evil, monstrous Penguin.  He manages to sneak in some quips that are appropriate to the character (in using a spinning umbrella on Shreck, the evil billionaire sarcastically remarks, "Is that suppose to hypnotize me?", to which Penguin snaps, "No, just give you a terrible headache".

DeVito gets the fact that Penguin is evil but has a certain panache to his villainy, one that fits into this world of masked heroes and deranged super-villains.  When is supposed to be dramatic and play for our sympathy, however, I felt he was a bit too dramatic, as if overplaying things.  I think it might have been deliberate, but it still comes across as going a bit overboard.

The sensation of Batman Forever is Pfeiffer as Catwoman/Selina Kyle.  Unlike DeVito but like Keaton, she has to play two to three roles: the meek Selina, the more empowered yet conflicted Selina, and the powerful anti-hero Catwoman.  She makes that evolution more than believable, being wicked when needed, but also torn between taking revenge and following her more compassionate side.  She struggles in her attraction to Batman as Catwoman, and in her attraction to Bruce Wayne as Selina Kyle.

Christopher Walken was Christopher Walken, all curious cadences and solid acting.  His name was an obvious nod to Nosferatu actor Max Schreck (as a quick scene at the Masquerade Ball where we see a nod to the silent version of The Phantom of the Opera, not overt but not subtle either). He was openly sleazy and wicked, and unapologetically so.

In the bad, however, was Keaton.  He hardly was bad in the dual role of Bruce Wayne/Batman: I still think he is exceptionally strong as the torn hero.  However, he seemed a bit diminished whenever he had to share the screen with DeVito or Pfeiffer, as if he were slipping into supporting rather than lead character.  He was just there, almost because he had to be there.  He didn't do that much investigating, he didn't pursue them specifically unless drawn out by them, and he kind of was just there when he needed to be.  There was a shift in attention from Batman to the villains, and this is something that should be noted.

A lot of Batman Returns is deliberately grand, almost epic-attempting.  The various sweeping shots (even of model sets), the music of Danny Elfman, and the various shout-outs to other stories (Penguin's origin story taking a cue from the Moses story in The Book of Exodus, the attempted 'slaughter of the innocents' from the Gospel of Matthew).  It's as if Batman Returns wants to call attention to itself, to its various images, to be iconic when maybe pulling back a bit might have worked better for it.

There's certainly an epic feel to Batman Returns, but it's not an epic.  It is a good movie, enhanced by the great performances of Michelle Pfeiffer and Danny DeVito (in my view, no other actress playing Catwoman before or since has equaled her performance, and only Gotham's Robin Lord Taylor has topped DeVito, though they play different versions of Pengy).

Batman Returns is as good a sequel as the original Burton-Batman films were likely to get.  Not the greatest Batman film, or even the best Batman sequel.  However, it was well-acted, well-made, and well worth the time...which maybe can't be said for those that follow Batman Returns.


Next Batman Film: Batman Forever


2015: A Madea Christmas
2014: Prancer
2013: A Christmas Carol (1951)
2012: Arthur Christmas
2009: A Christmas Carol (2009)
White Christmas

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