Christmas and Burton and Keaton with wings…These are a few of my favorite things…
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What I admire most about Tim Burton’s movies is not simply the fact that he utilizes dark imagery, themes, characters, etc. but that he does so with such an unbridled imagination and not just a desire to make things scary for scary’s sake. There’s always an idea or a story behind each twisted image, each outcast character, good or evil. One of the most overlooked examples of this is seen in his 1992 film Batman Returns.
While I adore his first foray into the world of Batman in 1989, I always found it to be played somewhat safe compared to his other films, mostly in regards to its supporting characters and how dark the film was given its source material. Sure, it got dark at times, visually and thematically, but I always knew Burton could do more and take more risks, be himself the way he was with his first two movies and Edward Scissorhands. He accomplished that and MORE with Batman Returns, which turns up the Burton-ness about 5 notches and embraces aspects of the horror genre in cool and unique ways.
The characters are what drive this movie beyond anything else, nearly all of them prime examples of Burtonian outcasts. There’s The Goddamn Batman himself, Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton), an eccentric billionaire who uses his parents’ murder as an excuse to dress up like a bat and fight crime at night. Yet, much like Edward Scissorhands, he’s an outsider and stays in his castle overlooking the “normal” people, until his moment to shine, that is. Catwoman/Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer) embodies this characteristic given her gender and her refusal to conform to the meek and quiet norms that the media and the male elites have forced upon her, particularly at the hands of her boss Max Shreck (Christopher Walken).
Unlike the Bat, however, this character focuses more upon her own personal wants as opposed to fighting for the greater good, treading the line between hero and villain and making the chemistry between them all the more exhilarating (in costume and out). You can see this from the tosses the frumpy secretarial getup in favor of a (fucking hot) stitched-up tight leather suit and claws. Along with Pfeiffer’s sultry and so-insane-it’s-sexy demeanor, it makes her honestly one of the most prolific “genre” sex symbols of the ’90s, hands down.
The literal ringleader of this freak show, however, is The Penguin/Oswald Cobblepot (Danny DeVito), who, like Bruce Wayne, lost his parents at a young age. The only difference is that he was abandoned by them for being deformed and chose to take his anger out on the world by committing dastardly acts, up until he blackmails Shreck into making him look like a hero by saving the Mayor’s baby and running for the job himself. Burton took serious liberties with The Penguin’s backstory, changing him from just a short stocky rich asshole to a deformed, psychotic and perverted monster, and the epitome of the Burtonian outcast.
I find myself constantly switching between whether or not I should root for him, because while he’s a tragic, demented villain who will stop at nothing for the sake of power, he’s also absolutely hilarious with his over-the-top shenanigans (the scene where he first runs for mayor is just hysterical). That, and his crew The Red Triangle Circus Gang is just funny as hell to watch, consisting of a tramp lady with a poodle, Jack Skellington’s Juggalo brother on a dirtbike, the devil (who gets burned alive by Batman, which is the coolest thing you’ll ever see in your goddamn life), a strongman, a couple clowns, and Vincent Schiavelli with a chimapznee and and a street organ that’s also a fucking machine gun. They might just be the Burtoniest “supporting cast” I’ve ever seen, especially when they troll Gotham City with their bright colorful explosives set to the Elfmaniest Danny Elfman music I’ve ever heard outside of Oingo Boingo.
In addition to the insane character gallery presented to us, Burton also invokes several of his visual niches that we’ve seen in his other movies. The constant use of coldness and winter imagery (think Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas) offers a mix of the elegant and the macabre. The Penguin’s birth, for instance, takes place around Christmas, in a gorgeous mansion with warm gold hues and the snow falling outside, coupled with a terrified nurse running from the room and the shadow of baby Cobblepot eating a damn cat.
When his parents (Paul Reubens and Diane Salinger, AKA Pee-wee and Simone) abandon him in a river at the park amid a harsh winter storm, we’re treated to his baby carriage floating through the Gotham City sewers as Danny Elfman’s score kicks in, giving us a frenetic, demented instrumentation coupled with a choir leading into the Batman score we know and love from three years prior. The combination of styles meshes together beautifully, making me almost appreciate it more than the original because of how deeply Burton-esque it really is.
Batman Returns is an often overlooked chapter of the Batman adaptations, which surprised me considering I personally find it to be one of the best movies about the character ever made, and one of Tim Burton’s very best as well. It captures everything that I admire about the director in one movie while also offering a unique, dark, but nonetheless (reasonably) silly take on The Dark Knight himself. If you feel like revisiting the early 90s, this movie’s a great place to start.Have You Read...?