Saturday, September 20, 2014

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Batman Returns (1992)

I wasn't able to attend the Myopia: Defend Your Childhood screening of Batman due to a church social event, so I made sure to participate in the podcast focusing on Batman Returns, which I wasn't allowed to see when it came out but whatever. In this one, Batman faces two new threats--a grotesque "penguin man" who emerges from the sewers to seek Gotham's highest office and a mysterious cat burglar wearing a lot of tight leather.

Here's the podcast. And here's the review...

The Good

*One of my fellow panelists described how Batman could have had an arc from the 1989 film through this movie to Batman Forever, but this got botched. However, I did some thinking and I think there's actually one there. In the first film, Batman kills the Joker and in this film Batman kills several members of the Penguin's gang. However, in Batman Forever, Batman tells Robin that if he kills Two-Face (who had killed his parents) that won't be the end of it. It's like he's warning Robin against going down the path he's walked already and managed to get off.

(The "Fridge Brilliance" TVTropes page, which I read after I came up with theory, suggests that his getting to know Catwoman and realizing not all criminals were faceless monsters might've been the cause for the change in behavior. Considering how the early Batman would kill and the later Batman would not, this means the movies were following the comic books).

*Another area where it shines is the acting and characterization of its villains. From the beginning the audience sympathizes with the Penguin, the victim of a comically Tim Burton-esque attempt at infanticide by his wealthy parents horrified at his deformed appearance and bizarre behavior (he did attack the family cat--by dragging it into the scarily cage-like playpen he was being kept in). He starts out wanting to find out who his parents were and reclaim his "birthright," although there are some hints that the evil plan of the climax is already stirring when we see him in the Gotham hall of records. Due to his lack of socialization (he was raised by penguins before being put in a freak show), he acts like a psychotic man-child much of the time, which can actually be pretty amusing (if vulgar).

Meanwhile, Catwoman starts out as an oppressed ditsy secretary whom her boss attempts to murder for knowing too much about his own evil scheme. Her acts of villainy--which are much less extreme than the Penguin's--are driven by a desire for personal empowerment vis-a-vis a world that has disdained her (and a boss who, before trying to kill her, was rather rude to her) rather than malice per se and she's rather conflicted about the whole thing rather than being remorselessly evil. Meanwhile, industrialist Max Shreck is greedy and amoral, but he's depicted (rather thinly) as a man who rose from nothing and wants to leave something for his son.

*The absence of Vicki Vale (Batman's love interest from the first film) is noted and explained.

The Bad

*Shreck is not a particularly good villain. He's trying to convince the Gotham city leadership to allow him to build a new power-plant (even though it's made repeatedly clear the city has plenty of power), a "power-plant" that actually drains and stores power from the city grid. When his secretary Selina Kyle discovers this he attempts to kill her (causing her to become Catwoman) and he sets up the boorish Penguin as his puppet candidate for mayor (causing most of the battles with Batman) to get rid of the mayor opposed to the plan. However, he's the most thinly-characterized of the villains and is a background figure most of the time. Furthermore, how does he plan to conceal this from the citizens? He's depicted as having committed other sins as well (owning "firetrap" slums, dumping toxic waste, and even having killed a prior business partner), but those are the sort of things that are relatively easy to conceal. Building a power-stealing fake power plant isn't. And trying to make a man who is for all intents and purposes a deformed vagrant your candidate for mayor? Really?

(Granted, the ridiculousness might be explained by this being a Tim Burton film...)

*The Penguin's scheming gets more and more ridiculous as the film goes on. He's for all intents and purposes a homeless man who has a gang of ex-circus performers as henchmen, but yet he commands a ridiculous amount of resources. If it was made clear he was diverting monies Shreck gave him for his mayoral campaign into, say, creating an army of trained penguins armed with rocket launchers, that would make more sense. I know the film isn't trying to be more realistic like the Nolan Batman films (in which the "supervillains" are terrorists and mobsters rather than, well, supervillains), but one wonders how he's actually doing this. Before this, he sends a circus train (similar to the trains you see carrying around little kids in malls) to kidnap the firstborn sons of Gotham's social elite to murder them--a train seen driving around the city without opposition or even notice.

*When Selina wrecks her apartment and begins her transformation into Catwoman, she assembles her new outfit out of a leather jacket. I don't think there's enough leather in that one jacket to make a full body suit. It would have been better if she was depicted as having several such jackets. She does seem to have a lot of clothes, so it wouldn't have been that hard.

*Batman's costume is really not that good. He can't turn his head and that affects his fighting style. At one point he tears his mask off and it looks like its made of pleather.

The Verdict

It's not boring, but it's really not that good. Six out of 10.

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