Superheroes: Batman Returns

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Like Batman, Batman Returns presents three protagonists, almost the same protagonists as the previous movie — a deformed freak of a gangster (this time the Penguin), a blonde who’s crazy about bats (Catwoman subbing for Vicki Vale), and Batman himself. In addition to its three protagonists, it offers an antagonist from outside the traditional Batman world — a ringer, if you will, in the form of businessman Max Shreck.

It would be great to report that Batman Returns takes all of these worthwhile, interesting characters and weaves them into a single, unified story, but it does not. Instead, it presents two separate stories, each compelling in its own right, and kind of sutures them together like the irregular chunks of vinyl of Catwoman’s bodysuit. As this is an unusually complicated narrative with three separate, competing plot strands which actually take place in utterly different genres, let’s separate out each character’s storyline and examine them one at a time.

First we have the Penguin, who is a classic antihero — we’re going to watch the Penguin destroy himself, and we’re going to enjoy every minute. The Penguin is born bad and is literally dumped into the sewers by his wealthy parents before the titles even unspool. This dark, twisted vision of villainy is shocking even by Batman Movie standards, and indicates that we’re headed somewhere very strange in Batman Returns. The Penguin’s parents try to murder him on Christmas, and 33 years later (Christ’s age, for those keeping score) he emerges from the sewers to wreak his revenge upon Gotham City. That’s barely even a Batman plot at all — that’s a monster movie, and it’s light-years beyond anything rolling around in the mind of Burgess Meredith. The Penguin lives in an abandoned zoo (Gotham City apparently has an abandoned zoo), has flippers for hands, a spherical head, a bigger spherical body, two short bandy legs, a beak for a nose and a filthy union suit for clothes. He eats fish and drools green spit. He’s an incredible creation, horrifying and repulsive, and it’s clear that the director absolutely loves him from head to toe.

Here’s the Penguin’s story: the Penguin wishes to wreak his revenge on Gotham, remember? Okay, so the way he goes about doing that is: he has his circus-themed henchmen stage an attack on a tree-lighting ceremony attended by Max Shreck. The purpose of this attack is to provide cover for the Penguin to kidnap Max, which he eventually gets around to in a sideways kind of way. When Max is in his clutches, the Penguin tells him that his goal is to discover his parentage and regain his place in society, and for this he needs Max’s help. Does he need Max’s help? Turns out, no, not at all — everything he wants to do, he could have easily accomplished without Max’s help. All the Penguin needs is access to Gotham’s Hall of Records, where he can copy down all the names of the city’s first-born children. Once he has that list, he can then have his circus gang round of the children and bring them to his lair. He accomplishes his entrance into Gotham society with another staged attack (he has one of his clowns kidnap a baby), except this time it is the Penguin who appears to save the day. His entrance into the overworld made, he sets about his nefarious scheme.

The Penguin’s goal — his only goal — is to round up and murder Gotham’s first born. And yet, for almost an hour of the narrative, the Penguin dallies with the notion of running for mayor, at Max’s behest, and trying to ruin Batman’s reputation, at the request of Catwoman. The mayoral-race subplot of Batman Returns and the Catwoman-revenge subplot are complete diversions, part of other plot strands which we’ll get to in a moment. For now, let’s say that the Penguin runs for mayor, then quits, then tries to ruin Batman, then fails, then goes back to doing exactly what he was doing at the beginning of the movie. He sets into motion his child-napping scheme, and kidnaps exactly one baby before Batman shows up and foils his minions. Outraged, the Penguin, like the Joker before him, then lashes out with a more apocalyptic plan — to destroy an entire neighborhood with a flock of rocket-carrying penguins. (It’s a measure of how strange and twisted this movie is that, by the time the rocket-bearing penguins show up in Act IV, it seems like the most natural thing in the world.) Batman foils this plot as well (using a bat-calling device not unlike the one he has in Batman Begins), turning the penguins’ rockets back on the Penguin, destroying his lair and sending him to a watery grave.

Look at the ark of that character — born evil, thrown out by his parents. Tries one scheme for revenge, gets sidetracked. In the middle of being sidetracked, gets sidetracked again. Is manipulated and used by others, then fails at his appointed tasks. Goes back to his original plan, then fails miserably. Decides to go out in a blaze of glory, then fails at that too. The Penguin’s story in Batman Returns is unbearably sad, and one feels like Batman is a bully for picking on this pathetic excuse for an evildoer. The Penguin has nothing, and builds an empire — Batman has everything, and picks on little people. "You’re just jealous because I’m a real freak!" the Penguin shouts at Batman at the climax, and Batman can only sigh and say "You may be right." Authenticity may be a strange thing to say a character as fanciful as the Penguin possesses, but despite his monstrousness we feel for his rage, his animalism and lust for revenge. Who among us has not felt discarded and unloved, and did not seek revenge on the world to soothe our wounded souls?

Next we have Selina Kyle. Selina Kyle is a mousy (mousy! ha!) secretary who stumbles upon an evil scheme her boss has cooked up. Well, perhaps evil is too strong a word — "unethical" is more accurate. Her boss, of course, is Max, and his scheme is a deceitful power plant, about more later. The important thing is that Selina discovers Max’s unethical plan, Max kills her for her discovery, she gets brought back to life by some cats (cats adopt Selina the same way penguins adopt the Penguin), and from that moment on is mousy no more — now she is Catwoman, a kitten with a whip with a chip on her shoulder, whose goal is to a) fight men, b) destroy Max’s department store, and c) kill Max. Once she blows up Max’s department store, she falls in love with Bruce Wayne and plots, with the Penguin, to destroy Batman’s reputation, but we see rather quickly that her heart is no longer in her Batman Villain work. As Selina falls in love with Bruce, Catwoman falls in love with Batman. The whole Catwoman plot of Batman Returns is not only independent of the Penguin plot, it’s in a different genre — it’s a love story in the middle of a superhero movie.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Catwoman plot goes like this: Catwoman is born of Max’s misdeeds, she defends a woman against a would-be rapist then chastises the woman for her stupidity, then destroys Max’s department store. Batman pursues her and fights with her, which then causes her to want to destroy his reputation (why, I’m not sure — he’s a man, I guess, and a member of the Patriarchy, which means he’s her enemy, but she’s also clearly attracted to him, and he even lets her go at one point after she’s committed a fairly serious crime — he seems to be cutting her breaks all over the place). She barely participates in the "ruin Batman’s reputation" plot at all, and by that point she’s fallen in love with Bruce/Batman and is clearly losing her mind, driven mad by the whole being-reborn-by-cats-into-a-badass-feminist-whirlwind-agent-of-destruction thing. (The plot to ruin Batman’s reputation involves kidnapping a woman and making it look like Batman did it, then hijacking the Batmobile and driving it through the streets of Gotham by remote control. Catwoman participates by keeping watch over the kidnapped woman for a bit and fighting off a rescue attempt from Batman. She’s angered when the Penguin murders the kidnappee, which was not in the plan, and repulsed when the Penguin takes the opportunity to propose marriage. She refuses, and the Penguin dissolves their partnership. So that is actually another failure chalked up for the Penguin — tempted by Catwoman, he orchestrates an elaborate scheme to discredit Batman, takes on almost all the work required to pull off the scheme, and is then rejected by the object of his affection.)

Selina/Catwoman pushes forward with her plot to kill Max, but Max is, at the crucial moment, snatched out from under her by the Penguin, who has reasons of his own for revenge. Catwoman then heads over to the Penguin’s lair, where, after the Penguins schemes have all backfired, tries, again, to kill Max. Batman intervenes, and tries to get Catwoman to lighten up a little, taking off his cowl and pledging his deeply messed-up love for her. Max takes the moment of Catwoman’s confusion to shoot Batman, then Selina herself. Selina, her personality melting down before our eyes, takes a stun gun and sticks it in her mouth while kissing Max. Max ends up fried like chicken fricasee, but Catwoman escapes to ponder love and Batman again.

So that’s Catwoman, a kind of "doomed neurotic lovers in the big city" story, which every now and then shares a thematic unity with the Penguin story, but really has nothing whatsoever to do with it.

But we’re still not done! There’s still Max’s story. The Max story goes like this: Max wants to build this power plant. The power plant is not really a power plant, and is in fact a capacitor, a power-sponge. Max wants to build his plant and seeks Bruce Wayne as an investor. Bruce sees the plant for what it is and refuses to help. Without Bruce’s help, to get his plant built Max needs something else — a new mayor. For reasons that utterly escape me, he turns to the Penguin to be his proxy in the mayor’s office. He seduces the Penguin with some raw fish and the hope of sex with many young women. (The Penguin’s frustrated sexuality is only one part of his woeful, stunted pathology, but it is significant — his anger at Catwoman and Batman is partly due to them being young, good looking and — comparatively speaking — sexually functional.) The Penguin, it seems to me, makes a spectacularly awful mayoral candidate, but who am I? (The Penguin running for mayor of Gotham is, ironically, one of the few aspects of Batman Returns that derives from the original comics.) The Penguin, sadly, knows nothing of Max’s power plant, he knows only that he will have power of his own, and many sexual conquests, once he is mayor. When Batman foils the Penguin’s mayoral campaign, Max shrugs, gives up his plan for the power plant, and goes on his merry way. The Penguin, abandoned for a second time (or third, if you count Catwoman’s betrayal), realizes he’s been wasting his time seeking power and acceptance in the human world, and goes back to his animalist plot of revenge. Max spends the remainder of the movie falling prey to those he has wronged — first the Penguin, then Selina. Batman — or Bruce, for that matter — never lays a glove on him. Others must always suffer for his crimes.

And guess what! Did you know, Batman is also a character in Batman Returns! Batman/Bruce’s plot goes like this: Batman responds to the Penguin’s initial attack on the Christmas-tree lighting (where he meets Selina), then tangles with Max, where he meets Selina again, then does a wee bit of detective work to connect the Penguin to the circus gang (I could never figure out why a circus-themed gang, except that circuses are creepy — is there a circus gang in the Batman comics?), then disrupts a second circus-gang attack (this one intended to discredit the mayor), then fights Catwoman, then falls in love with Selina, then gets ensnared in the Penguin’s scheme to ruin his reputation, then foils the Penguin’s mayoral run, then tries to talk Selina out of killing Max, then foils the Penguin’s penguin plot, then meets up again with Selina and fails to convince her to not kill Max.

As you can see, Batman is mostly reactive in Batman Returns — he’s more like a mucilage that holds all the different plot strands together. The most affecting part of his story — his hesitant love for Selina — is largely overshadowed by the Penguin’s and Max’s various schemes.

Why does the Penguin approach Max in Act I to demand his help?  To better tie together the Penguin and Catwoman stories.  There are a lot of forced marriages of plot in Batman Returns, starting with the Penguin’s kidnapping of Max and ending with — well, ending with the Penguin’s second kidnapping of Max 90 minutes later.

The best part? All this plot, all these different stories, all happen within the space of about two and a half days! Check this out — Selina falls out a window, dies, comes back to life and re-creates herself as Catwoman all in one night. Then, we see the Penguin emerge from the sewers, then be accepted into society, then go to the Gotham Hall of Records to write down all the names of Gotham’s first born, as Bruce does his research on him and the circus gang. Then we see Catwoman foil the rapist and chastise the victim, and then we see Max meeting with Bruce, and Selina shows up, surprising Max, since she’s supposed to be dead. It feels like about six weeks has gone past, but in fact it’s the next day! The Penguin emerges from the sewers, is accepted into society, becomes a media sensation, goes to the Hall of Records, copies down all the names of Gotham’s first born, finds his parents and gives a press conference all in the space of about two hours! But it gets better — Bruce turns down Max for his power-plant thing, and the next thing we know Max has organized a mayoral campaign, completewith staff, banners and a promotional scheme — all later that same day! That night — that is, Selina’s second night as Catwoman, she destroys Max’s department store, blows the whole building sky-high, and yet, a night or so later, Max holds a Christmas party in the same store!

The amazing thing is, with all of this craziness, Batman Returns continues to charm and enthrall. As pungent and revelatory as Batman was, Returns is even more so, a chilly, overflowing cauldron of perversity, thrills and dark surrealism. As Burtonesqe as the first movie is, Returns offers a purer vision of Burtonism, irrational and passionate. It fails to cohere as a narrative, it’s more like some kind of nightmare dreamscape of curdled ambitions, wounded egos and bisected personalities. (Discussion of the weird Christian symbolism alone could take up another post.)  Rarely has a director been given this kind of money to be this kind of weird.


70 Responses to “Superheroes: Batman Returns”
  1. schwa242 says:

    Batman is mostly reactive

    Superheroes by nature are reactive. With great power comes great responsibility and all that. Without villains, there would be no need for superheroes. Spiderman didn’t give a damn about a petty crook until his uncle was murdered by the same guy he let get away.

    All this plot, all these different stories, all happen within the space of about two and a half days!

    Hey, in the first Donner Superman film, a whole lot happens in one night. A bank robbery is foiled, Lois Lane is rescued from falling off a building, a plane with an engine out is brought in for a safe landing, the world learns there’s some guy flying around doing good deeds, and a kitten is rescued from a tree and the kitten’s owner is slapped by the owner’s parents for telling lies. And I’m pretty sure I’m forgetting something.

    • Todd says:

      “Superheroes by nature are reactive.”

      This is true, but generally a superhero movie takes a little time to delineate what the superhero wants out of all this. Apart from falling in love with Catwoman, Batman spends most of Returns mostly dashing around town putting out fires, he has no agenda of his own.

      And while Superman has a big first night in Superman, if it had been Batman Returns it would have been Lois’s plane with the broken engine, and her kitten stuck up in the tree as well.

      • robjmiller says:

        That’s standard superhero fare. Superheroes rarely have agendas, they simply want to stop crime/evil. Their secondary motivations are usually expressed in monologues about how they can’t have love/family because of their secret jobs and the dangers it entails. This is a major reason that most superheroes are fairly boring characters who play a minimal, reactive role in their own stories. They can’t actively fight crime, they have to wait for a crime to be in progress and then stop it.

        Because of this problem, the supervillian was created. Everyone was tired of Batman and Superman beating up bank robbers every day, so they decided to unleash powerful lunatics in the comic universe. As Le Tueur explained in the finale of s3 of The Venture Bros., everyone really loves Batman because of the villians. The hero need only be a sympathetic character, the villians will always be the focus and major driving force of the plot.

        • Todd says:

          “That’s standard superhero fare.”

          It is, unfortunately. What I’m hoping to figure out is why that must be so. The first run of Batman movies fail to make Batman a proper protagonist, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to do so.

          • robjmiller says:

            The only way it ever works is for a crime to be committed without some villian in a customized zeppelin claiming responsibility, and the hero spends the first act just trying to figure out what’s going on. Perhaps if the villian isn’t even properly introduced until at least act 2.

            Now that I think about it, this is actually played out perfectly in Watchmen, where the antagonist isn’t even revealed until the very end. I suppose it’s harder to pull off with Batman, because simply saying “Batman movie” makes fans run through a laundry list of potential villians.

            • Todd says:

              “The only way it ever works is for a crime to be committed without some villain in a customized zeppelin claiming responsibility, and the hero spends the first act just trying to figure out what’s going on.”

              That’s one possibility, but is it the only one? Batman is primarily a detective, is he not? All other detective stories manage to make their detective a protagonist, why not Batman? People don’t say “Well, Philip Marlowe, he’s only as good as his villains,” but that’s what we expect from Batman stories all the time. (We say the same thing about James Bond, and are surprised when Bond is re-imagined as an actual three-dimensional character.) Detectives interact with their antagonists all the time before they get to the bottom of the case, but Batman barely interacts with his antagonists at all. Partly that’s because it’s written into the character that he’s dark and secretive, that no one is supposed to know what he’s doing, so he can’t really act as a traditional detective, showing us a society as he moves through it. But what if a Batman movie was structured like, say, The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep? Batman could “know” who was responsible for the crime, without being able to prove it, and we’d be solving the mystery along with him. Hush is an interesting model to look at along these lines.

              • robjmiller says:

                Batman can’t know who the villian is and where to find them, because he doesn’t need legit evidence. If Batman needed evidence and due process he wouldn’t be Batman, he’d be a cop.

                Batman can potentially interact with the antagonist, he simply can’t know they are the antagonist at the time or he is going to take them down immediately (assuming no hostage situations or the like). A betrayal plotline has a lot of potential in that regard. However, I’d prefer to see a true noir mystery along the lines of Chinatown, where the detective and the audience essentially have no idea what is happening. Actually, The Third Man would be perfect, it even has a nefarious monologue.

                • swan_tower says:

                  It’s possible to structure a narrative such that the hero knows who the villain is and where to find them — but can’t take them out yet because of the surrounding circumstances. Mind you, I’m failing to come up with examples right now, but I know I’ve seen it done, and done well.

                  • Todd says:

                    Many Bond movies are structured just like that — Bond has early interactions with the bad guy, knows he’s the bad guy, but gets captured or simply can’t get to him quickly enough to get him.

                    • reverenddean says:

                      I always see James bond as the antagonist. He’s a tool of the government to keep the peace. His opposition are the ones that strive to change the world. Bond is simply playing the role of obstacle in the villains journey. I see Burton’s Batman in much the same light; unlike joel’s batman or even Nolan’s, Burton’s Batman is a large rock in the way path of the villain’s intent – Batman doesn’t want anything, He’s just there.
                      Joel and Nolan’s Batman are on a mission, they’re protagonists. In Forever, Batman even relinquishes his quest when he finds Chase. Nolan’s wants to settle down with Rachel; he doesn’t get to, but he plans on it once he takes care of Gotham, which the beginning of Dark Knight suggests he’s nearly accomplished the feat.
                      Burton’s Batman even says to Vicki that the Joker is “out there and [he has] to go to work.” He’s there as no more than opposition to the joker – the protagonist.

        • Anonymous says:

          I think that’s why Iron Man works as well as it does, even despite the big clunky fight scene at the end (which, alas, only suffers on repeat viewing.) Tony Stark is not a reactive protagonist; he discovers that he has created the very crime he subsequently sets out to fight, and he’s not only actively out to stop it before it can hurt more innocent people, but in doing so he’s trying to reclaim his own soul. That’s a hell of a hook for a character.

          — N.A.

  2. As Burtonesqe as the first movie is, Returns offers a purer vision of Burtonism, irrational and passionate. It fails to cohere as a narrative, it’s more like some kind of nightmare dreamscape of curdled ambitions, wounded egos and bisected personalities.

    This is exactly why I love Batman Returns, even more than Batman. It’s pure Tim Burton at his best. It makes no sense at all, but it makes a glorious nonsense. Contributing to this: every place in the movie looks like a set. Gotham never once looks like a real place where real people live. It’s more like Brazil than Batman Begins (or even any of the Superman movies).

  3. perich says:

    The Penguin emerges from the sewers, is accepted into society, becomes a media sensation, goes to the Hall of Records, copies down all the names of Gotham’s first born, finds his parents and gives a press conference all in the space of about two hours! But it gets better — Bruce turns down Max for his power-plant thing, and the next thing we know Max has organized a mayoral campaign, complete with staff, banners and a promotional scheme — all later that same day!

    … are you sure? I’ll take your word for it if you’ve seen it more recently than I, but … you’re sure?

  4. stormwyvern says:

    My guess is that, after the success of the first film, the studio pretty much gave Burton a figurative blank check for the second, allowing him to go as weird as he wanted to in the hopes that the result would be an even more successful film.

    Whatever issues the plot of Batman Returns may have, I think it does a surprisingly good job of juggling multiple villains, a major stumbling block for a lot of superhero films. Though their storylines may have parallels and points of convergence, the three antagonists manage to occupy different enough niches to coexist in one story. Penguin is the tragic monster, marked from birth by his deformities, making an attempt to join society, but ultimately unable to be anything other than what he is. Catwoman goes from being low on the societal totem pole to a powerful outsider, alluring where Penguin is repellent. Her target for revenge is understandable, even if she expands it to be somewhat more broad than is sane and she seems to have some remnant of a moral compass, getting upset when the Penguin goes beyond their original plan and murders the ice princess. Penguin’s beef is no less valid, but the people who actually wronged him – his parents – are already dead and his plan to essentially repeat his parents’ crime with himself in the role of murderer marks him as beyond redemption. Plus he’s a monster, and in many of Burton’s films, monsters turn out to be “too beautiful for this world.” So we have a sympathetic but irredeemable monster, a sexually appealing and possibly redeemable extreme feminist, and Max Shreck, the most straight up bad guy in the film. If Burton wants the audience to outright boo anyone, it’s the high society businessman who manipulates the outsiders of Gotham to his own ends. I think you could find a few people who felt a little choked up as the penguin pallbearers brought their master to his watery final rest, but I doubt anyone cared much what happened to Max Shreck.

    Up until The Dark Knight, I don’t think any Batman film managed to balance multiple major villains so well. I don’t know that even Batman Begins got it quite right. I can clearly recall most of the Ra’s al Ghul plotline, but I honestly don’t remember much about the Scarecrow beyond the ultimate effect of his fear toxin. Batman Forever started to show the strain of giving sufficient screen time to two heroes and two villains and Batman and Robin got more than a little out of control with at least three character one each side.

    • jvowles says:

      The Scarecrow was working with Ra’s by supplying the fear gas for the Big Plot to Destroy Gotham, but he’s also an actor in his own right — aiding Gotham’s gangsters in most cases, but rather famously driving some of them insane for his own purposes. He’s all about the experimentation with his fear gas.

      • Todd says:

        The bad guys in Begins are given a hierarchy — Ra’s al Ghul is the guy in charge (although we don’t know that until the beginning of Act III), Scarecrow is under him, Falcone is under Scarecrow, but they’re all working together toward the same goal. Falcone brings in the fear toxin, Scarecrow puts it into the water system, and Ghul brings in the microwave-whatsit (and the ninjas).

        • Anonymous says:

          Also, on a deeper thematic level, they all represent different aspects of fear that Bruce/Batman must accept and overcome. Scarecrow represents internal fears — the phobias of the mind. Falcone is external fears — corruption, intimidation, and physical violence. And Ra’s is the utter absence of fear, which in its ruthless amorality is no less dangerous than the other two. The whole film is about fear; how Bruce must learn not to conquer his own fear, but to own it, use it, and turn it against others.

          Batman Returns, in contrast, seems to be about how no one loved Tim Burton as a teenager, and man, isn’t Catwoman hot? And if you think it’s weird, co-writer Daniel Waters went on to pen a Catwoman spinoff script for Burton, in which she romances a reporter named Lewis Lane and battles a pompous superhero named Captain God. Yes, there is phallic imagery. No, it is not even remotely subtle.

          — N.A.

          • Todd says:

            Batman Begins may have the more coherent screenplay, but I find Returns to be the more compelling experience. “No one loved me when I was a teenager” is a perfectly valid reason to make a movie, provided you can form your misshapen loneliness into something as interesting as Burton does.

            • Anonymous says:

              I love Tim Burton as much as the next guy, but seeing how good he can be when he really tries — Beetlejuice, Big Fish, and especially Ed Wood — makes me less tolerant when he careens wildly into multimillion-dollar self-indulgence.

              That said, yes, absolutely — Batman Begins has the more elegant script, but it doesn’t have anything as grand or daring or just plain wacky as Batman Returns. It’s a Swiss watch, but it’s not quite a labor of love. (It also suffers, as too many movies do, from a regrettable dearth of Vincent Schiavelli.)

              — N.A.

              • Todd says:

                I’m sure Begins is just as much a labor of love as Returns is — it’s just a different point of view on the source material. Burton looks at Batman and sees the opportunity to tell his dark tale of self-destruction, and Nolan sees an opportunity to tell a complex story of society. (For the record, I don’t see Begins as an especially realistic narrative, although it certainly aims to be a more convincing one.)

            • jvowles says:

              My problem is never Burton being Burton — but he creates lovely things on his own. EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, and ED WOOD — these are proper Burton flicks.

              Burton caught a lot of grief from the fanbase for warping the character of the Penguin — not because he hadn’t created a compelling character, but because he’d broken one that worked fine as is. The Penguin is supposed to be a gentleman thief, a master of intelligently-planned capers and heists. And aside from eccentric thematic choices (umbrellas and birds), his only deformities are being overweight and having a big nose, and his only power is his intellect. And he was all about heists, not murder — not that he wasn’t willing to kill, but rather that he considered it bad form. He’s a Bond villain at heart.

              At his best, this is a character that competes with Bats on the level of intellect, and is in fact a sort of shadow version of Bruce that calls for him to match wits with the villain rather than simply beating him up.

              The monstrous but sympathetic murderer in Burton’s vision simply isn’t that man.

              • reverenddean says:

                Shreck remarks to Bruce, in regard to the Penguin, “If his parents hadn’t eighty-sixed him, you two might’ve been bunkies at prep school! I’m glad they got that little nod in to the dichotomy of the two.

  5. jvowles says:

    My big problem with this movie is that it’s a Tim Burton movie first, at the expense of the characters. The re-envisioning of Penguin as a freak simply doesn’t work; it’s not what that character ever was in the comics. The Catwoman story could have been fertile ground for a much better movie; instead, it’s shoved into a muddled mess. Or better still — nearly every one of Penguin’s lines would have worked for any one of Batman’s established “freak” villains, but most notably Two-face (if we wanted a better tie-in to Max’s dirty dealings) or, god help us, Killer Croc (if we wanted a true animalistic sewer-dwelling angry freak monster man).

    And like every movie in that series that followed it, the problem is twofold: it’s too crowded, and it allows style to trump substance.

    • Todd says:

      It is true that Burton’s Penguin is a radical re-imagining of the comics’ Penguin, but face it, the real problem is that the Penguin doesn’t work in the comics. He’s no match for Batman — he’s a short guy with a monocle and a trick umbrella. He doesn’t have Joker’s pathology or the Riddler’s gimmick. Burton took a character that was never very interesting and made him extremely interesting. Especially for someone like me, who had never read a Batman comic before Burton’s movies came out.

      • Anonymous says:

        The Timm/Radomski/Burnett/Dini Batman animated series borrowed Burton’s designs (at least initially), but wisely found its “way in” to the character by emphasizing his desire to be accepted socially. By making the Penguin an uncouth thug who dreamed of living the high-class life among the swells, they lent the character even more relevance and sympathy than Burton did.

        Burton’s take on the character should have worked a lot better than it did, considering he’s the true mirror image of Bruce Wayne.

        — N.A.

        • Todd says:

          I know that Timm bristled at WB’s insistence to tie their animated Penguin to Burton’s cinematic one, and it’s true that the deformed-monster Penguin does not fit in with Timm’s imagining of the Gotham world, which still stands, even today, as the most true to the source material.

          • jvowles says:

            Bingo — and even then, when they redesigned the series, they fixed Penguin. More importantly, the characterization worked.

            It’s been suggested that, should the Penguin appear in the Nolan Batman series, he’d probably be envisioned as an arms dealer or middleman — though I quite like the idea used in the Animated Series and comics where, having failed as a colorful supervillain, he turns to more lucrative and less dangerous work running a nightclub (and information source). He still schemes and he still double-deals, but he’s no longer willing to risk his life or serious jail time.

            • I like the characterisation of the Penguin as the closest thing Gotham City has to a “traditional mobster” in the era of freakish villains. The guy who takes over from Carmine Falcone and Sal Maroni once guys like the Scarecrow and the Joker start appearing.

              Which is not to say that I think he’d work in the next Nolan Batman film, if there is a next Nolan Batman film; it’s just something that does work pretty well. Especially if you combine it with the “low-class thug trying to pass as respectable” schtick mentioned earlier.

              • Anonymous says:

                I see no reason why Penguin has to be a freak at all. In the Nolanverse, Oswald Cobblepot could just be the new mob boss of Gotham. And he’s nicknamed “Penguin” because he usually wears a tuxedo. And maybe he owns a bunch of birds or something, but he doesn’t pull bird-themed heists or dumb shit like that. He wouldn’t even have to be fat or ski-nosed, necessarily. I think David Paymer would be an awesome Penguin.
                -Doctor Handsome

                • Todd says:

                  One of the problems with the Penguin, and the reason he sticks out in Batman’s rogue’s gallery, is that he is neither a monster, like Clayface or Killer Croc, nor a twisted psychological nutcase like the Joker or the Riddler or Two-Face. Unfortunately for the Penguin, if you take away his birds and umbrellas, he’s just a short guy with a long nose and a pot belly — there’s nothing remotely interesting about him.

                  • stormwyvern says:

                    I think that’s true so far as Penguin being an interesting antagonist for Batman. Clayface and Killer Croc make good villains in part because their monstrous bodies give them unique abilities, making them threat to Batman an making his fights with them unique You could take an episode from the animated series and replace the villain with a stick figure and still no one would mistake a fight with Killer Croc for a fight with Clayface (or Bane or Man-Bat, etc. etc.). Joker, Riddler and Two-Face are interesting because their particular brands of crazy lead them to commit particular types of crimes. So ever if their fighting styles don’t end up being as distinctive (if they exist at all), their schemes are. Being neither a powerful monster or a colorful nutjob, the Penguin does need his various gimmicks to make his encounters with Batman interesting.

                    But if you look at the Penguin just as a character, I think the “gentleman thief/high society aspirant” angle has a lot of potential. If you take that the most effective villains somehow “speak” to who your hero is, running parallel and perpendicular to their main adversary at the same time, then Penguin actually works pretty well. Oswald Cobblepot lives among thugs and criminals (for whatever reason the backstory of the day goes with) but sees himself as a cultured gentleman. What he really wants is to take his place in high society, to enjoy the finer things in life. Not just money, but the fine arts, intelligent conversation, the best high society has to offer. Bruce Wayne has absolutely everything the Penguin desires, yet he willingly gives it up every night to put on the cape and cowl and descend into the world of thugs and criminals that the Penguin can’t seem to escape. Couldn’t that make for some interesting stories?

                    Weirdly enough, it seems like the argument you make could also be applied to Catwoman. She isn’t a monster, most portrayals of her don’t tend towards the insane. She may have her personal causes, but mostly she’s a cat burglar who take the term a bit too literally. What’s made her interesting from what I’ve seen is her tendency to walk the line between light and shadow, never totally embracing either Batman’s virtue or the full on villainy of guys like Burton’s Penguin.

                    • Todd says:

                      Plus, Batman wants to screw her. The same cannot be said for the Penguin. Although thanks for putting that image into my head.

                    • stormwyvern says:

                      No, you did that all on your own. So thanks for putting that image in my head. And probably everyone else’s. Though I’d actually be surprised if it’s not on the internet already. (Not that I’d look.)

                  • robolizard says:

                    There was a fantastic comic in the series ‘Joker’s Asylum’ this year which is worth checking out, about how the Penguin falls in love with a showgirl, takes her to all of these fine restaurants, and in one of them he sees the chef laughing, the Penguin assumes he’s laughing at him, but the showgirl tells him not to do anything to the man. Instead he kills his parents, makes him lose his job, and gets his best friend convicted as pedophile. In the end of the issue, the girl finds a scrapbook filled with articles obsessively tracking the chef.

                    The character, in order to work, needs a drastic reimagining, and the pathological desire to be accepted works best for the character, and I think it was first introduced here. Penguin worked great as a slapstick character in the 50’s, which is basically what the comics were back then, but also maybe he’s a good character who just cannot realistically stand up to Batman. He’s been written as crazy in a good way, but also as a coward, and Batman’s Rogue’s Gallery has really no room for those.

    • stormwyvern says:

      My first impulse at reading your comment was to pull out my usual argument about superhero films: that most superheroes get touched by a lot of comics creators so that by the time you get to the movies, there really isn’t a single definitive version to take and faithfully reproduce on screen. But upon more reflection, I started wondering if I would have liked the Burton Batman films as much if I’d known much of anything about the characters before seeing them. I’m still not terribly familiar with Batman’s comics history. Most of what I know about him and his world comes from sources other than comics (I’m just more of a Marvel fan, I guess.) But I have developed a pretty definite idea of who these characters are since I first saw the Burton films and if that had been the case when I saw them, maybe I would have had some of the same issues that you do with them.

      On the other hand, it’s possible that the Burton films still wouldn’t have bothered me. With big name superheroes, I’m OK with people doing their own takes on the world and the characters because that is pretty much how it happens in the comics themselves, as long as there’s version out there that I feel is a definitive version of who I believe the character to be. (With more obscure superheroes or indy comics characters, who are unlikely to get more than what shot at fame, I’m a little more picky about faithfulness to the source material.) For me, the Batman version of that is the animated series and its various direct sequels. When I think of Batman without any other context, that’s usually what’s in my head. So because that exists, every other take on the character is pretty much free to be whatever it wants. I was kind of iffy on “The Batman.” I really like “Batman: The Brave and the Bold” (which featured one of the most heartbreaking versions of the murder of Bruce’s parents I’ve ever seen). And both of them are fine doing what they do because it’s a different take on the character and I’ve always got my one perfect Batman show. If Batman and Robin proved anything, it’s that the concept of Batman is far too strong to be killed by a disaster of a movie. We’ve had some top-notch Bat-stories in various media since then and I have no reason to believe we won’t continue to get more in the future, even if there are some more missteps along the way.

  6. chronoso says:

    until TDK, Batman Returns was my favorite Batman movie, possibly tied with the zaniness of the adam west movie.

    as far as Batman being passive/reactive, one of my favorite portrayals of him is in the beginning of the comics The New Frontier and the middle third of Identity Crisis. he exists only in the shadows and the characters whose perspective we see only see the results of his actions. he is an urban legend and we the reader are never sure he’s even really there.

    but those are big crossovers. in a batman centric story, batman, i suppose, should be front and center. but as you have pointed out in the past and as schwa242 points out above, heroes are reactive by nature, which makes creating a narrative with them as main protagonist quite a challenge.

  7. rjwhite says:

    You’re going to skip the next two, right?

    I mean, we all kind of remember and don’t really need to live through that dark chapter in our nation’s history again.

    • stormwyvern says:

      But cinematic train wrecks are just so much fun.

    • You’re going to skip the next two, right?

      No!–I’m really hoping for one of those posts where we’re all expecting him to bash the film, but then he notices one or two quirks and ends up defending the whole thing–and we all think he’s crazy, but Jackson Publick’s the only one to call him out!

      • Todd says:

        Oh, I hope for that too.

      • laminator_x says:

        I’m still hoping he does Mask of the Phantasm next, which came out between Returns and Forever. (Pretty please, Todd?) The animated DCU’s visit to the big screen remains my favorite cinematic take on the character. It’s a shame they lost half-a-million on it, dooming any further such endeavors.

        • Todd says:

          It’s my understanding that Mask was never meant to be shown in theaters — it was made for TV and upgraded to feature status in a hasty, poorly-planned promotional push. I know Timm felt that it was rushed and haphazard, and would have gone about it entirely differently if it had been planned for theatrical release from the beginning.

          None of that precludes it from analysis, of course.

          • stormwyvern says:

            Indeed it does not and if you’re going to restrict yourself to theatrical release Bat-films, I hope you do consider analyzing Mask of the Phantasm if that’s the only way we’re going to get the animated series some well deserved props in this Bat-nanza. (I do intend to bring up “Robin’s Reckoning” once we’re on to discussing Batman Forever, Assuming you or someone else doesn’t beat me to it.)

  8. jkcarrier says:

    “The Penguin running for mayor of Gotham is, ironically, one of the few aspects of Batman Returns that derives from the original comics.”

    It’s also the plot of one of the more memorable episodes of the ’60s tv show. Another one features the Penguin stealing the Batmobile, although in that one it’s Batman who takes over by remote control. See also: The Joker’s rampage through the art museum in the first movie. I’m convinced that Burton and co.’s vision of Batman came almost entirely from childhood memories of Adam West, with maybe a sideways glance at Frank Miller.

  9. misterseth says:

    The Penguin, it seems to me, makes a spectacularly awful mayoral candidate, but who am I?

    The same thing could be said about McCain!

  10. djscman says:

    So would you say that the two stories in BR were 1)the Penguin tries to kill Gotham’s babies, but fails and 2)Catwoman is born, tries to love, and dies?

    Screenwriter Drew McWeeny, then “Moriarty” of Ain’t It Cool News rated Batman Returns as a runner-up in his Best Films of 1992. (Starting in 2000, McWeeny began summing up the previous decade’s best films and performances. It was a great read that sadly fizzled after he reached ’96.) His spot on Batman Returns is quite a bit longer than the other movies on the page, which leads me to think that this was an essay he needed to get off his chest, and not having an appropriate place to put it, he cut and pasted it into his wrap-up on 1992. He wrote: “A common criticism of the film is that it’s not really about Batman… but that’s not true. Not at all. In fact, every character in this movie is in some way a dark, perverted mirror of the various fragments of Bruce/Batman’s shattered personality.” You might find his essay interesting; it’s quite a ways down on this page.

    • Todd says:

      The two stories are the tragic mess of the Penguin’s life and of Selina’s really-messed-up personality. They could have been two different movies, and maybe they should have. Max figures as a centerpiece in both stories, and for that matter he could have if they had been two movies — it’s not like his treatment of the Penguin infringes on his treatment of Selina.

      As for Mr. McWeeny, it is true that all the characters are versions of Batman/Bruce, but that’s true of any professionally-written screenplay. People objected to Batman Returns for the same reason Michael Keaton objected to it — Batman is kept at arm’s length in his own movie, upstaged by a bunch of freaks, one of whom isn’t even in the comics.

  11. Anonymous says:

    weird Christian symbolism

    A post on that would be fascinating.

    • Todd says:

      Re: weird Christian symbolism

      Burton obviously sees the Penguin as some strange kind of Christian martyr, or Christian devil anyway. He’s born on Christmas and re-emerges 33 years later to die again.

      To make things stranger, Burton fashioned the Penguin’s look after Nazi propaganda caricatures of Jewish bankers, complete with bald head, fur-collared coat and monocle. He then put the Penguin in cahoots with a character named Max Shreck, whose namesake is the German actor who played Nosferatu. What he’s getting at is anybody’s guess, but clearly this all means something to Burton.

      • curt_holman says:

        Re: weird Christian symbolism

        Christian or Jewish? (Or both?) Don’t his parents send him down the sewer on a little basket/boat, like baby Moses? And doesn’t the kill-the-first-born thing one of the plagues of Egypt?

        You know what I think the weirdest thing about Batman Returns is? When Bruce Wayne pulls off his bat-cowl in front of Selina (and in front of Max, Jehovah knows why), and it kind of peels off in two separate pieces, instead of just coming off like a garment. It’s like his cowl, and presumably the rest of his costume, isn’t made of black leather or rubber, but some kind of LICORICE.

        • stormwyvern says:

          Re: weird Christian symbolism

          Let’s call the whole thing biblical?

        • Todd says:

          Re: weird Christian symbolism

          Christian or Jewish? (Or both?)

          Well, Jesus was a Jew, if memory serves me correctly. But yes, the basket in the reeds, and the plague of the first born. I was connecting the Penguin to Herod, but you’re right, the plague of the first born was Moses’s cross to bear (so to speak). Which would make Max, the guy whose name is German for “fear,” the Pharoah, with his pyramid-shaped “power plant.”

          But then, the whole story keeps coming back to Christmas, and tales of re-birth and redemption. So you tell me.

          • curt_holman says:

            Re: weird Christian symbolism

            I think I can only make it work if the Penguin is the Moses/Jesus/Messiah figure for penguins as a “tribe,” but I don’t think the film supports it. If Oswald Cobblepot led the penguins to the promised land, or died to secure their salvation, then we’d be onto something.

            As much as I enjoy the art direction-type elements of the Burton Batman movies, I don’t think the action scenes are very good, and part of me always thinks that good superhero movies should have good action scenes.

            Incidentally, I thought your observation that Burton’s films are often (to paraphrase) strong in theme but shaky in narrative was very well put. (With notable exceptions like Ed Wood and Sweeney Todd.)

  12. marcochacon says:

    I remember watching this and just giving up on trying to figure out what was going on–or why. It was like having that condition where you have only short-term memory so everything kinda makes sense but you only have the last 15 seconds worth of recall.

    I think one of the reasons this works at all (if, indeed, it works) is that the characters are so iconic that so long as they are doing the things that fit with their personas (the Penguin schemes and is small and bitter, Cat Woman is sexy and fixated on someone, Batman is being cool fighting crime or something) then we don’t have to follow the plot.

    I think this works for other iconic super heroes as well–and the fact that it works hurts a lot of super hero movies because they can kinda-sorta work if they move from set-piece to set-piece … and so they do.


    • jvowles says:

      I think it maybe *used* to work, and that doing more or less expected stuff with unexpected style is the only thing that these movies really had going for them.

      I actually feel empathy for the Burton Penguin, and I don’t fault Danny Devito for playing the loathsome little guy as written and directed.

      But this movie managed to disappoint me (after the success of the first one) and the more I thought about it even then, the madder I got.

  13. craigjclark says:

    Rarely has a director been given this kind of money to be this kind of weird.

    The only other example I can think of off the top of my head is another Burton film and that’s Mars Attacks! (which I think is just grand, by the way).

  14. lupa says:

    No circus gang in Batman, though there WAS kind of one in Wonder Woman. 🙂

  15. glumpish says:

    Yeah, it’s a mess of a story, but it’s got a lot of wonderful things in it.

    I firmly believe that Penguin = id, Catwoman = ego, and Batman is obviously superego. As you noted, Penguin is impulsive, lustful, and greedy. Catwoman is all about personal power, and a lot of her lines are about how she feels about herself.

    The other thing I was struck by at some point is the way all the characters wear gloves. If I remember right, Max is almost always wearing gloves, even when he’s indoors, which is why I think it’s not just about the temperature. The first thing Selina sews isn’t a mask; it’s a glove. Penguin covers his pink flippers with black gloves that make him look more penguin-y. And then there are the Batgloves.

    I can’t remember who it was or where I read it, but someone observed that BR had captured the essence of Batman in the quick shot you see of Bruce at home just as the Batsignal goes on. Apparently when Bruce is left to his own devices he just sits alone in a dark room, doing nothing at all. Creepy!

    • reverenddean says:

      I learned a long time ago that in character design, specifically the art of their costume, the only way to connect a figure to their humanity is to give them a face and/or hands. Those two items are the most recognizable to us as looking at other things and recognizing that they’re human.
      Masks and gloves conceal separate them from us.

  16. therrin says:

    It has been a long time since I have seen that movie, but wasn’t there an entire Selina Kyle subplot about how cats (and Catwoman) have 9 lives and watching her die and survive it in various ways? I seem to think she died like 7 or 8 times in the movie to leave that last out life for Batman in a next movie?

    • Todd says:

      She “dies” eight times during the movie. Bruce/Batman kills her twice, Max shoots her five times, and she kills herself once when she kisses Max with the stun gun in her mouth. That leaves one life, which she says she’s saving for later.

      • reverenddean says:

        I didn’t buy any of her death’s during the movie, especially being shot at by Max. Each bullet cost her a life? I always gave her a few more lives at the end. Is she really able to judge how many lives she’s used? She’s no doctor.

  17. buzzmo says:

    “The amazing thing is, with all of this craziness, Batman Returns continues to charm and enthrall.”

    Man, are you generous. 🙂