Saturday, December 7, 2013

Tim Burton's Batman Returns (1992)

I've already written about this movie, but that was before I started writing about All the Superhero
Movies.  I may have more to say.

But yeah, this is more of a Tim Burton movie.  With the first one, Burton proved he could make a big blockbuster on his own terms, but he did so by ensuring that it was just far enough out of the mainstream to feel edgy, but not so far as to alienate anybody.  With Batman Returns he went farther.  It's still a respectful adaptation - Burton's still taking it seriously - in fact he's taking it seriously enough to take it personally.  This is Superhero Movie as Art Movie, if there ever was one.


Part of what Burton does is weird is to destroy the classical symmetry of the Hero vs. Villain setup.  His first Batman had observed that symmetry:  Batman vs. Joker was a classic matchup, inviting us to consider Good vs. Evil in the way any ancient epic might.  This movie gives Batman two antagonists, the Penguin and Catwoman.   

One way to look at this (which is how I looked at it for the longest time) is the cynical way:  Jack Nicholson was so charismatic that it took two actors to follow him up.  Anything less would have felt like a letdown.  And I'm not sure that's a wrong conclusion to jump to:  clearly the doubling up of celebrity foes fits in with standard Hollywood sequel practice.  More is better.

Another way to look at it (which never occurred to me until this project) is that this film is just doing what the second Superman movie did.  After all, that one brought Lex Luthor back to aid and abet General Zod's team;  that, too, can be seen as destroying the hero/villain symmetry.  That is, there's precedent (not to mention pressure from the fans to bring as much of the comic book world into the film world as possible).

But now I think the best way to look at it is as Burton intentionally destabilizing the superhero narrative.  Penguin is the antagonist in the classic mold, and he functions as we'd expect him to, as a (funhouse-) mirror image of the hero, setting the hero's strengths and weaknesses in starker relief.  Burton gives us, in the Penguin, what Batman might have been, had things gone slightly differently in Bruce Wayne's life - they're both orphans, both child-men who overidentify with strange animals, both renegades who insist on living secretive lives in subterranean lairs outside of society.  But whereas Bruce Wayne was deprived of loving parents by external violence, Oswald Cobblepot was violently rejected by his parents.  And that, as they say, makes all the difference.  As adults both men have their maladjustments, but whereas Bruce has learned to manage his with severe repression (and sublimation?), Oswald has nursed his, and indulges them at every turn.  If this was all the story Burton had to tell, it would already be a sneaky, queasy subversion of the superhero narrative:  Batman isn't better than the Penguin out of choice or moral strength but simply because his mommy loved him.  And so we feel Penguin's end as tragedy (as well as being comic as all hell), which is not what we feel about Joker.

But that's too simple for Tim Burton this time around.  And so he introduces Catwoman as a kind of trickster figure.  By rights Joker should be the trickster figure of the Burton films, because that's how he presents himself - that's the source of his dark charisma - but this front is belied by the depth of his evil.  Catwoman isn't as outwardly mischievous (although she's mischievous enough), but she does come at the hero/villain duality from a decidedly sideways direction, as a trickster should.  She's not interested in Good or Evil triumphing, Justice or Self-Advancement;  she rejects the whole thing as a game between boys.  She's feminist as trickster, girl power as the ultimate destabilizer of traditional narratives.

Make no mistake, her presence deforms the narrative.  It does it in ways anyone can notice.  Every scene devoted to establishing this second antagonist (deuteragonist?) as a character is a scene not devoted to advancing the Batman vs. Penguin plot.  When we begin to see her as an enemy our focus on Penguin is blurred;  when we begin to see her as a hero our sympathies for Batman attenuate. 

Let's put it even more simply:  the film doesn't spend a lot of time on Batman's character.  It forgets about Penguin for long stretches.  It feels long and sags in the wrong places.  It doesn't have the undiluted force of the first movie.  It's a little shapeless.

But that's what makes it so deep.  Catwoman's presence exposes the boyishness of the other two characters in such a playful, winning, and gleeful way that this deconstruction (and I use that word carefully) makes it a better movie.  At first we see her as a character caught in the middle, wanting to be seduced by both sides;  but gradually we see Batman as being in that position, no less than her.  And then we're back in the first movie's territory, the hero with the dark heart, but with bonus sexual undercurrents.  We begin to get a sense of just how twisted Bruce Wayne must be to do what he does. 

All this, and kamikaze penguins.  This is a perverse movie, in that oh-my-God-I-can't-believe-what-I'm-seeing way that Tim Burton delivers, at his best and most characteristic.  Gloriously perverse.  Twisted, indeed.