Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Batman Returns

  I never enjoy this one as much as I always like to think I do. Yet, of all the times I've seen it I think I've enjoyed it most this time. Burton's sequel to his own smash hit is something of a head scratcher though. It's too funny, and not in a good way. The humor is bleak and nasty, even gross and unsettling. This isn't Batman. This is Tim Burton. The climax of the movie has Danny Devito's Penguin, directing an army of literal penguins- all with missiles strapped to their back to go and blow up Gotham City. I still to this day can't swallow that. It looks silly, it is silly, it breaks the movie for me. Yet on the other hand, we have the best on screen portrayal of Batman and Catwoman together in the same movie. Do you hear me Dark Knight Rises? Do you?

  Unfortunately, this is more the Penguin's movie than it is Catwoman's, which is even stranger to me because the only real reason to have a secondary villain in any movie with Catwoman is so that we can have a larger scale danger behind Catwoman, and maybe include a subplot where she struggles between teaming up with Batman, or you know... killing him. Yet this movie has the spotlight on Penguin, something like... 75%? It's not pleasant, but I don't imagine it was supposed to be. Let me stress this though, it's really uncomfortable to watch. The Penguin waddles around in leather work boots, and the filthiest long johns you've ever seen, complete with sweat stains, and what I'm 90% sure is skid marks. I don't even want to know. This is a far cry from the monocle-wearing, suit-clad Penguin we all know that goes wuaghhhh wuaghhh wuaghhh. This is a disgusting sewer cretin that's more mutant than mob boss.

  It doesn't work for me. Not a bit. I heard that at one point Christopher Lloyd was being considered for the role, and thinking back to him in the Addams Family movie... I would've preferred him. Not that Devito was bad, but casting Devito lent the role to a nastier tone. Can anyone see Christopher Lloyd being asked to do the same things? I have no doubt the role would've reverted more to 'mob boss'. Yet, that isn't Tim Burton. Burton wanted a cadre of characters who are strange and weird and genuinely freakish. Batman included. Speaking of, he's better this time around. I can't put my finger exactly on how, but off the top of my head... improved fight choreography, new gadgets, tweaks to the costume, et cetera... Keaton is as great as ever and seems to have real chemistry with Michelle Pfeiffer.

  The two have sparks between them (or maybe just a lot of rubber and latex) in or out of costume. Pfeiffer is a great Catwoman, sexy, scary, unnerving. She's not a thief though, not that I recall. I remember her causing a lot of mayhem, trying to get revenge... but no stealing, per se. Wasn't that Catwoman's whole thing? She was a cat burglar! Hence the literal cat motif.  Alas, it seems the writers and Burton are less concerned with faithful adaptation and more with just creating really frightening characters. In fact, the movie was so violent and sexual that McDonalds backed out of a happy meal toy deal. Damn. Batman and Catwoman's scenes together play out like a... gothic leather/latex fetish reel. Not saying that's bad, clearly we've finally found out what turns Batman on.

  As for the violence, Batman still kills people. He straps a bomb to a bad guy's chest and drops him down a manhole or something. Boom. Batman struts away, off to punch another henchman or something. Yet, he protests when Catwoman wants to kill the man who's been trying to murder her the entire movie. Whaaaat? Also, Penguin pretty much bites a guy's nose off, complete with on screen blood spray. All these things... just add up to a movie that doesn't quite feel right. Penguin doesn't even seem all that evil until the end, Catwoman just seems like a crazy lady with an identity crisis, and Batman just seems confused a lot. These villains are nastier than they are evil, they feel weird for the sake of being weird.

  Batman takes a backseat to pretty much everything else going on in the movie. I'm also pretty sure Christopher Walken as the evil industrialist Max Shreck gets more screentime than Keaton as Bruce Wayne. In the end, this is a hurried movie. Yet, just like it's predecessor, Batman Returns has pacing issues. It has fits of intensity then long moments of characters just being... odd. Plotting, planning, sitting around in dimly lit rooms, brooding. This is the stuff the Tim Burton Batman movies are made of. You either dig, or you don't. I dig. Yet, while this one was a much bigger effort, with a lot of the rough edges from the last one sanded down, I don't feel like it's necessarily better. It's good, but not great. The tone and the weirdness almost put me off entirely.

  Batman himself is still great though. The gadgets, the fighting, the brooding. All of it. However, in a franchise that focuses more on it's villains than it's hero, you wonder if that's enough. Everyone distinguishes the movies by the villains. "Is that the one with the Riddler?" "Nah man, that's the one with the Penguin." "Oh, yeah that's right." Nobody says "That's the one where Keaton's Batsuit looks a little better." It just doesn't happen like that. If only the villains were on par with Batman himself, this one had the potential to surpass the last one, but in the end... it's content to simply be... weird, dark, and gross. It's one ultimate saving grace is the fact that after spending so much time with such disgusting and strange villains, you want Batman to swoop in and save the day, and isn't that the whole point? To have villains you want the hero to stop? Thus making the movie incredibly watchable, but... little else.

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