For one of the most iconic pop cultural characters of the twentieth century, Batman can be tough to pin down. The basics are easy enough: cape, pointy ears, Batcave, Boy Wonder, colorful rogue’s gallery in ridiculous clothes. But who is he? To some, he’s The Caped Crusader, a dashing, square-jawed detective with an improbable array of bat-themed gadgets. To others, he’s The Dark Knight, a brooding, tortured anti-hero barely more stable than the psychopaths he lives to thwart. His filmography is similarly scattered, ranging from hilarious whimsy to grandiose chaos to an unwatchable mass of rubber nipples and ice puns.
Then there’s BATMAN RETURNS, which manages to fuse all of these elements together. Even in a world where summer blockbusters can be headlined by a talking raccoon and a tree, it stands as possibly the weirdest superhero film ever made. It also might be one of the best.
In 1992, Tim Burton could do very little wrong. A former Disney animator, Burton had made his name with such singularly cockeyed features as PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE and BEETLEJUICE. In 1989, he became Warner Bros’ unlikely pick to helm their blockbuster adaptation of BATMAN – a risk which paid off handsomely when that film proceeded to own the world (picking maverick auteurs to helm superhero films has become something of a curious tradition, with multi-billion dollar franchises being handed to the likes of Sam Raimi, James Gunn, and Joss Whedon). Following BATMAN’s success, Burton seemed to realize that he could do whatever he wanted. And boy, did he.
There’s no way to sugarcoat this: BATMAN RETURNS is fucking nuts. Danny DeVito plays The Penguin as a deformed sewer monster who somehow launches a mayoral campaign from his abandoned carnival headquarters (his character design owes less to the dapper millionaire of the comics and more to Dr. Caligari and Burton’s own imagination). He’s joined by Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, whose stitched-together catsuit is a costume design for the ages (and, yes, okay, really freakin’ hot). Christopher Walken plays a fright-wigged executive named Max Schreck, because why not. Also, there’s an army of killer clowns, a second army of penguins wearing rocket launchers, a gigantic rubber ducky tank, an impromptu PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE reunion, a spin doctor getting his nose casually bitten off by Louie from TAXI, and Batman’s butler Alfred “scratching” with a CD. It is at this point that I feel I should mention that BATMAN RETURNS was the first live-action movie I ever saw in the theaters; that it didn’t scar me now seems faintly alarming.
Oh, and did I mention it’s also a Christmas movie? Like many summer Hollywood blockbusters of the ‘80s and early ‘90s, BATMAN RETURNS is inexplicably set during the holiday season. Whether this phenomenon is a product of Reagan-era cynicism, or potential Christmas VHS sales, or simply the fact that exploding Christmas trees look neat, the result is a film that can end on a note of sentimental holiday cheer less than twenty minutes after a black-toothed ghoul attempts to murder every firstborn baby in Gotham. Much like its central character, BATMAN RETURNS is many things – chief among them one of the most whacked-out studio film in Hollywood history. Merry Christmas, Alfred.
BATMAN RETURNS (1992) dir. Tim Burton
Friday, 12/5 & Saturday, 12/6, 11:59 PM
Also screens on 12/22 at the Brattle Theatre.
Coolidge Corner Theatre
290 Harvard Street
Brookline, MA 02446