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Saturday, 31 December 2016

Retro Review: Batman Returns (1992)

Batman Returns
Cast: Michael Keaton, Michelle Pfeiffer, Danny Devito, Christopher Walken
Genre: Superhero 
Worldwide Box Office Gross: over $260 million 

Plot: Gotham City faces two monstrous criminal menaces: the bizarre, sinister Penguin and the slinky, mysterious Catwoman. Can Batman battle two formidable foes at once?

'Diversive Entry In The Batman Series That Will Not Appeal To All - Yet I Loved It' 

Up until Christopher Nolan's take on the Batman films, the movie series has had a bit of a rough spell in the film world; with two back-to-back offerings that were quite frankly below par and heading in a direction that rendered the franchise as something of a joke via Warner Bros but moreso Joel Schumacher in Batman Forever, and the even more atrocious, Batman and Robin. Reflecting back to a time when there was a really good, or be it great Batman live-action film, one has to go back to the year of 1992; arguably the only film that lived up to its promises and gave it as good as it can give, effort-wise, is Batman Returns

And I have to say, ever since Batman Returns was released, it is, despite how divisive it was and that it did get mixed receptions from critics and fans, in some ways this overlooked effort is also my favourite Batman film... and one I'd take over most of Chris Nolan's versions. As well as Joel Schumacher's. So what is it about Batman Returns that I loved and enjoyed that many others did not? 

Well, in watching the 1989 Batman, whilst it has its moments, as well as a show-stealing turn by Jack Nicholson as The Joker, I just felt the film needed another major star to give it another massive boost and for it being more than just a Joker vehicle, and yet it amounted to little. And Kim Basinger as Vicki Vale didn't wow me; her character came off as being too one-dimensional. Alas, it just didn't happen in Batman; but heck did it happen in Batman Returns. The phrase two heads are better than one couldn't have been more fitting in the additions or be it arrivals of the Penguin and Catwoman. Yet thanks to the efforts of Danny Devito and Michelle Phieffer, alongside Michael Keaton and Christopher Walken, as well as director Tim Burton having been given the creative freedom to do whatever he wanted with this film and going, even more, darker and at times, sinister with the story, Batman Returns is edgier, darker - which is of great benefit to the franchise itself. Not to mention it is the closest to The Dark Knight's noir-ish type feel. 

The result: an almost colder, gothic-like Halloween tone that sort of harkens back to Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas and Beetlejuice and whilst a lot of people see this as a turn-off for a film, I believe this made Batman Returns even more interesting to watch. It's as if Burton has taken elements from horror films and infused it into a comic book/superhero film. As the character of Batman, the antagonist characters, the film's backdrop, they all express that eerie, dark tone that is also mysterious and brooding in nature too. Heavily stylised, as sombre as it comes across, it is also visually artistic to look at as well. 

The backstories to The Penguin and Catwoman here are unlike any that I have seen before it, and whilst these may detract from the original origins of the comic book versions, I still think it is interesting to see these events unravel on screen through flashback scenes or moments; like when Selena gets pushed out of a window, dies - only to come back under the alias of Catwoman. Her transformation is rather startling to watch, as it all unravels within the plot. 

The casting is excellent: Michael Keaton reprises his role as the caped crusader and plays the part inside out, but also delivering another dimension to his characters in his performances that were sort of lacking in the first film: both as alter-ego Batman and Bruce Wayne. And even to this day, he just comes across in demonstrating why he has been for me, my favourite Batman/Bruce Wayne, besides that of Christian Bale. He plays Bruce like a natural and doesn't overdo it and make him look dorky or silly. He was better in Batman Returns than he was in the prequel, and having had that experience of being in the first film, Keaton looks far more comfortable and at ease here. Danny Devito is great too: virtually unrecognisable underneath all that make-up, this version of the Penguin isn't just scary and repulsive-looking, but Danny also brings out that menace, that anger, that threat that this character needs in abundance. At times, I felt pity towards him, having been rejected by his parents at birth as they dump him in a sewer and being seen as an outsider and picked on because he looked different. The scene where he eats a raw fish - and I don't mean of the sushi kind- is enough to make one throw up. 

Christopher Walken was not bad as Max; that character didn't make a huge impression on me and on the film, as one would have expected. The film could have easily functioned without Max. And finally we come to the lone female character, Catwoman aka secretary Selena Kyle, who though is perceived as a villain-ness, she comes across more as an anti-hero in Batman Returns, than as an outright evil bad girl. Michelle Pfeiffer, at the height of her career at the time, was fantastic and her turn is probably my favourite out of the main 4: over-the-top, but never making Catwoman more outlandish and silly looking, with a highly sexual charged appeal by her donning the catsuit, whilst also evoking empathy, it seems as though she was the one who had the most fun on set, and in watching her performance and her character having the most interesting story arc, I can see why. Pfieffer's take on Catwoman is still unrivalled. 

The team-up of Catwoman and Penguin worked wonders compared to Schumacher's overly camp, Riddler and Two-Face and Mr Freeze and Poison Ivy. 

Though it is less so a Batman film and I do understand it if people think that too much onus in this film is placed on the villains and more specifically, Selena Kyle and The Penguin/Oswald and less on Bruce Wayne/Batman, given it is more about the villains. Still, I actually think this take by Tim Burton made it interesting to watch, as well as appealing to me personally. 

Just like with Batman, Tim Burton has a way of approaching antagonists and villains and handling them with an exquisite touch that also lends itself to its dark undertones that underpin it, whilst at the same time, not make them too cartoon-ish that in turn it makes it difficult for us to take them seriously as villains. Which also relates to Joel Schumacher's failed and botched attempts with the Riddler, Two-Face, Mr Freeze and Poison Ivy. The difference here is that Burton has always seen the antagonists as the crucial piece of the Batman puzzle and that the films cannot fully operate, without them. So, therefore, he makes the most out of their inclusion and in the best ways possible. Whereas with Schumacher, it appears he doesn't treat the franchise the respect it and the fans themselves deserve, and because of that, his takes on the characters are child-like, almost bordering on a joke and a travesty. & to think of what he has done to the Batman series of films, they were botch jobs.

The violence here is not suitable for younger children - the scene with The Penguin biting the nose of some guy and blood is spurting out is rather shocking, and whilst a lot of parents had complaints about this, I thought that violence, that level of violence and the tone of it, sort of resonated to the type of Batman film Tim Burton was trying to get across that parents and families, and even Warner Bros just didn't quite understand. This is not a Batman film ideally recommended for children under 10 years of age.

But the score is terrific: atmospheric, yet bold and captivating in certain scenes. 

The only thing that baffled me was right towards the end when Batman takes off his mask in front of Selena/Catwoman. I didn't understand why he needed to do that. It just seemed so 'off'. 

Final Verdict: 

Batman Returns has lost none of its charm and individuality as a film that although it is a lot unlike many other Batman films prior to and after it, it also a Batman film that is way superior to Batman Forever and Batman and Robin. The first film didn't strike a chord with me as much, but this follow-up practically blew me away & credit to Tim Burton for going all out. 

Not only does it look visually impressive but the characterisations and through them and the performances really upped this offering. It is also much more dramatic and way more satisfying than the prequel, as a lot more effort was being put in by both the actors involved and director, Tim Burton. Also, even with the darker tone, it feels slightly looser and with the characters; you get a better observation and insight into their individual story arcs, as well as the main plot.

Thinking back to the negative reactions and uproar this film faced, it kind of puts a smile on my face knowing that this film still was presented as it was and that it still made a great impression on me. And that's despite the mixed reception it received in 1992. 

The abominations that are of Batman Forever and Batman and Robin are so deeply entrenched in the minds of certain people; some of whom brainwashed into thinking Batman films overall have been nothing more but awful, up until Christopher Nolan came along & resurrected the franchise, that I'd say by going into Batman Returns with an open mind and watching it with observation they will see to it that Tim Burton has given it that magic yet dark touch this franchise deserved and needed. 

Some will say this is almost as good as say Christopher Nolan's Batman films, but I personally prefer this over Nolan's incarnations, and way beyond that of Joel Schumacher's attempts, Batman Returns is a Batman sequel effortlessly and skillfully handled and with creative flair and vision under Tim Burton's trademark dark style that truly doesn't hold back. 

A lot of people may not have enjoyed it for various reasons; I for one count myself as an exception to this rule. 


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