This is an odd one. For a long time, it was my favorite Batman film of all time (and it still has a special place in my heart for many reasons), but re-watching it recently, I was struck by how inconsistent this one is. That doesn’t mean it’s bad. It’s got some great moments and some wonderful characters, but overall, it feels a bit overstuffed.
Part of that is because of Tim Burton who, after the studio essentially distilled his first Batman into a studio tentpole rather than a Tim Burton film, lobbied for increased creative control. He didn’t even agree to direct until he’d read a revised script that fit his vision more closely than the first draft (which would have introduced Robin). As a result, this feels much less like a superhero film and more like a stylized Tim Burton fairytale. That partly works and partly doesn’t.
Remember that this film was bookended by Edward Scissorhands, a stylized contemporary fairy tale that answers a child who asks, “Where does the snow come from?” and The Nightmare Before Christmas, a Christmas fairy tale musical that tells of a chance meeting between two of the holiday worlds of old. It makes absolute sense, then, that this film is essentially Batman: a Christmas Fairy Tale. I see echoes of this one in the Jeph Loeb/Tim Sale Batman anthology Haunted Knight which collects three one-shot Batman tales including one which is essentially a retelling of A Christmas Carol in which “spirits” visit Bruce and convince him not to let Batman take over his life.
The fairy tale structure works really well in a few instances, most notably the opening sequence which, without dialogue (unless you count screams), tells the story of how the Penguin came to be. The gorgeous Gothic stylings and Danny Elfman’s pipe-organ-and-child-choir-infused underscoring essentially scream for some sort of narration (I imagine the voice of Christopher Lee in this one) beginning with, “Once upon a time in Gotham City…” It’s a great moment, but it’s difficult to keep that kind of aesthetic going in what is essentially an action film.
The other moment is Catwoman’s creation, which is my absolute favorite moment in the whole film. From her getting pushed from the window by Max Shreck to her psychotic break in which she destroys all the childish symbols in her apartment and embraces a darker, more confident persona, the whole thing has an otherworldly quality that suggests both a tragic Victorian melodrama and a psychological journey into the underworld and back.
Both of these sequences have a singular feel to them that makes them work so well, but in the context of the whole movie, they end up making the villains much more interesting than our hero. In the first film, Batman was unbalanced and just as much of a mystery as the Joker was. The audience wasn’t sure which version of Bruce Wayne was the correct one. In this one, Bruce is a charming everyman who seems to have reconciled all his issues for the most part. He’s definitely likable, but when placed alongside the “ghastly grotesque” (Alfred’s words, not mine) Penguin and the unhinged Catwoman (who’s going through a lot of the same issues Bruce went through in the first film), Batman becomes suddenly uninteresting, which robs the film of a lot of its cohesion.
Danny DeVito’s Penguin is marvelous, but his conflict with Batman isn’t as interesting when it has to be shoehorned in among the much more interesting conflict between Bruce and Selina. Ultimately there’s so much conflict (Selina/Max, Selina/Bruce, Max/Penguin, Penguin/Batman, Penguin/Selina, Max/Bruce) that the whole thing ends up feeling a bit muddled. I think if Burton has distilled it down to Bruce/Selina/Max, it would have been much more satisfying as a plot. Max is interesting (and Christopher Walken is marvelous as the slimy businessman who has convinced himself that he’s not corrupt), but his conflict with Selina isn’t given the attention it deserves. Also, Penguin really needed his own movie to face off against Batman a la the Joker so that we could have gotten more of the duelling orphans angle that I think this film missed out on.
But with that said, visually, this film is marvelous. I like how it has a sort of Old Hollywood look to it. Gotham City has cleaned itself up a lot from the decaying grandeur we saw in the last film, and, aside from the Penguin’s abandoned zoo of horrors, it looks like It’s a Wonderful Life met a Currier and Ives print and they spent the night waltzing amidst the falling snow in a town plaza lit with Christmas lights. Part of what makes this visual style work so well is that this was one of the last films to use old-style studio set design techniques (forced perspective sets, tromp l’oeil, painted backdrops, etc.) before computer generated backgrounds took over.
The juxtaposition of images adds a lot to the film’s look. Christmas and frightening imagery have been best friends since the 1800’s and Burton is probably the most qualified person in the universe to make that work. The scene where Penguin’s evil Cirque du Soleil gang crash the Tree lighting ceremony is goofy, but a lot of fun. Watching that again, I find myself wishing Burton had directed the film version of Phantom of the Opera instead of Joel Schumacher (whom we’ll meet next week) just because I would love to see his take on the “Masquerade” sequence.
And the music. Danny Elfman is one of my favorite film composers, but in recent years, he’s fallen into rehashing a lot of the gorgeous work he did in the late 80’s and early 90’s. At the time of Batman Returns, he was at the absolute top of his game. Along with The Nightmare Before Christmas, his score for this film is one of my favorites. His Batman theme is iconic in a way that the drawn out three-note motifs so popular today could never be, and the more stylized version that plays over the opening credits to this film is one of my all time favorite pieces of his. Much of the film has the feel of a silent film, which allows Elfman the freedom to really embellish the emotion shown by the visuals. One scene in which this works especially well is the scene in which Penguin finds the graves of his parents. He’s putting on a melodramatic show for the reporters, crafting the narrative of his rise from abandonment and forgiving those who wronged him, but you can’t help but notice that this is actually an emotional moment for him, and the music captures that well.
Tim Burton makes great movies, but he’s a very visual director, creating iconic moments and characters that feel so singular that they endure for a long time after the hype surrounding the movie has faded. I think the over-stuffed script should have backed off a bit and let Burton tell a more satisfying visual story which would have allowed the audience to engage more with the hero. As is it, this could have easily been a Green Arrow story and not much would need to be changed to make it work. Batman is interesting on his own, especially since he’s more willing to explore the dark parts of his mind. This makes his conflicts with his villains that much more engaging, since he can get into their minds. This film spends so much time making the villains amazing that it forgets to give Batman the same treatment.
I still love it, though.
I’ll see you next week and we welcome a new Batman and a new director! It’ll be fun. I promise.
No, really, I promise.