On the other end of the spectrum, Tim Burton was telling the story of a superhero. His films were depicting the adventures of a man firmly rooted in the pulp tradition that spawned him. In the lore of Batman, his love interests were either fawning socialites waiting to be rescued or femme-fatales, with an emphasis on the fatal. He could have a boy sidekick, a rocket car, a rocket-submarine, a rocket-rocket, a life-size T-Rex and an enormous penny; all stashed in his subterranean hangout and regularly dusted by his English butler. Batman can be expected to snap a drug dealer’s wrist Monday and then find time to make Superman feel stupid on Tuesday which is when I assume the Justice League comes together for game-night and Batman just absolutely wrecks ass at Clue. Batman the superhero is not bound to any one genre and better than any character in fiction he can cross from the fantastic (punching parademons with electrified gauntlets) to the more mundane (dangling a crooked cop off a high-rise in search of a kidnapped child).
Tim Burton gave us a Batman that lived in the cardboard boxes of Happy Meals and on juice glasses destined to become collectibles. Namely, the Batman I grew up with. Fan-boys who opine about the perfection of Bruce Timm’s Batman: The Animated Series would do well to remember that it was heavily influenced by the Burton films. Oh and if we can’t agree that Timm’s Batman is the absolute perfect Batman in any medium, then we should probably part ways here. Also as a result, I now hate you. But if we are restricting this debate to the realm of live-action feature films, than I must argue that Batman Returns gave us what is arguably the best Batman film to date. (Please understand that my definition of Batman is a superhero that fights crime and therefore that is the character model I come to see when I watch a film about a superhero crime-fighter)
Over the past few years I have made it a point to watch Batman Returns every Christmas, usually in a double bill with Die-Hard. Yearly viewings began to impress upon me something I had felt but never before articulated. Simply put, Batman Returns offers us a damn near perfect representation of Batman. Gone is the strange inclusion of pop music and the wonky characters of the previous outing. The legwork of establishing the world was done in the bombastic yet flawed Batman. Now, Burton is allowed to offer us a dark, Christmas fairytale in a gothic city of stone and snow.
Burton has taken a lot of heat by a faction of the fan-base for not really understanding the character while Nolan is genuflected to as the savior of all things bat. I think Burton had a better grasp on the notion that Bruce Wayne needed to be Batman and was at best impatient and at worst uncomfortable actually being Bruce Wayne. An absolutely perfect Batman moment occurs early on in Returns when the Bat-Signal is first lit. The signal is reflected down into Bruce’s study by various spotlights positioned on Wayne Manor until it reaches Bruce. For this scene Burton bathes Bruce in shadow, portraying him as a brooding, lonely soul, but as soon as that light hits him, he is born again, as we imagine he is born anew each time the signal is lit.
Returns also shows us a Gotham that belongs to Batman. When things go awry, the commissioner and the mayor both immediately turn to Batman as though he were the city’s one man SWAT team. When the Penguin successfully frames the Batman, Gotham is shown in a real state of terror because they have seemingly lost the man on the wall keeping the forces of chaos at bay. The confidence and authority Batman brings to each of his confrontations with the Red Triangle Circus gang is invigorating and since this was before every action scene needed to be filmed with a shaky-cam and cut against five other scenes taking place simultaneously, I can’t recall an action set-piece where Batman comes off better. This is the Batman that has planned ahead, that has three moves for every one of yours.
This rare sequel is also elegantly, a film of juxtaposition. Both hero and villain are orphans yet rather than have his parents ripped from him as Bruce did, The Penguin was exiled instead by his parents. Bruce became a freak as a result of being orphaned; Oswald Cobblepot was orphaned as a result of being a freak. Another nice duality is Keaton’s Bruce Wayne being positioned against Walken’s Max Shreck in a battle of the billionaires each fighting to preserve or establish their vision of a future Gotham. Perhaps, the best oppositional dynamic is that of Selina Kyle and Catwoman. Pfeiffer ably walks the tightrope of this role showing us a victim, a predator and somewhere underneath both, a comingling that could lead to a whole and healthy woman if only fate and circumstance would allow.
If I were to run a list of what was right with this film, I could triple the size of this article. I will admit that some may feel The Penguin is too jokey and just a retread of what Nicholson was doing. While others may find the villain’s ultimate scheme with rocket bearing penguins a little foolish. But melt it down to its core and what do you have? An exiled misfit, so broken by his mistreatment at the hands of the world that has now twice spurned him, he is happily willing to snuff out the life of every one of Gotham’s firstborn sons and then some. As the film races to its end all the threads weave together; a doomed romance, a victim’s revenge and a city’s fate decided by individuals it neither accepts nor fully understands. This is a film about people so broken that not only will they not fully integrate into society, but they cannot even fit with other misfits. Only Batman in accepting that his trauma has marked him for something special can take peace in knowing that he stands out society so that he can protect it.
In closing, I will say this vision of Batman so deeply appeals to me because I do not want a Batman who wants to be free of the burden of protecting me. I invested my hopes and child-worship into him because he so willingly gave everything to make sure no child or parent suffered the fate of his fractured family. Nolan has done something special with his films and honored a character we all love with a worthy interpretation of him. Understand though, that is all it is, his interpretation. It is not the ultimate offering of Batman; it is not the final say. Ask yourself, a man who dresses up like a bat, lives in a cave, has a rocket car, a boy sidekick and can spend his weekends on a satellite orbiting the earth with demigods, how real do you want that to be? Be very careful with the realism you court, because real can often times be another word for mundane.