One of my odd quirks is that I remember what year people were born based on movies that came out the same year. My Grandma shares a birth year with the original 'King Kong' for example, and I have a brother who is quite proud of the fact that he was born the same year 'Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom' was released. Thanks to 'Batman Returns' the ol' Geekboy can also remember when HE was born.
'Batman Returns' is a follow up to Tim Burton's 1989 'Batman'. Like the '89 Batman, this movie spends most of it's time focusing on the bad guys. '89 Batman only has one main villain however, the Joker, whereas 'Batman Returns' has THREE villains. Penguin, Catwoman, and a sleazy businessman named Max Shreck who is pulling all of the strings in this puppet-show. As you may guess, Bruce Wayne/Batman once again gets a little lost in the mix, particularly since he didn't have the focus and character development he deserved the last time around.
Visually speaking this is an all-out Tim Burton movie, and the visuals are the strongest part of the movie. Burton ditches the Noir/Gangster inspiration from the last time around in favor of Gothic/German Expressionistic style costuming and architecture. The German influence is evident as Penguin's look is clearly modeled after the titular villain of 1920s 'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari' AND Max Shreck is named after the actor who portrayed the Vampire Count Orlok in 1922's 'Nosferatu'.
So, let's take a look at the villains of the film. They're clearly the characters Tim Burton was most interested in anyway. We start off with the birth of the hideously distorted Oswald Cobblepot, an infant with a taste for any sort of raw meat he can catch. He is quickly abandoned by his high-society parents and ends up in the sewers of Gotham where he is discovered and raised by sewer penguins. No, I am not making this up. Tim Burton is the one making this up, because that's not Penguin's canon comic book origin.
Two minutes on Wikipedia will tell you that Penguin was bullied as a child for his strange looks. He was raised by a very human mother and he fixated on her pet birds. There's nothing in there about sewer penguins. That said, I do enjoy Burton's take on Penguin. Burton took a villain who is rather hard to take seriously, cast comedic actor Danny DeVito to play him, and turned him into a truly terrifying figure lurking in the sewers and devouring raw fish.
It's Christmas in Gotham City, and as this is a Tim Burton movie, Christmas is the most scariest time of the year. LAST year I actually watched this on Halloween. It works well for either holiday. Businessman Max Shreck is doing great humanitarian acts to schmooze up to the mayor so that the mayor will approve of the new power plant Shreck wants to build. The power plant is important. The power plant is what motivates Max Shreck, and Max Shreck is what - in one way or another - motivates all of the other villains in the story.
Penguin wishes to return to his rightful place in society. He kidnaps and blackmails Max Shreck so Shreck can help Penguin with his goal. Shreck reluctantly agrees, but he has plans to use Penguin for his own agenda.
Meanwhile Shreck's timid and mousy secretary Selina Kyle accidentally discovers Shreck's real plans for his so called 'power plant'. He wants to build a gigantic capacitor that will steal electricity from Gotham for some sinister purpose that is never fully explained. To shut her up Shreck pushes Selina Kyle out of a skyscraper window. But because Selina had been shown as being nice to alley cats, the cats are in turn nice to Selina. Selina is brought back to life by the cats, and now somehow has nine lives. She's also rather mentally unbalanced and out for revenge on Shreck.
Just like Penguin, this portrayal of Catwoman has very little in common with her comic book counterpart. She's an ordinary cat-burglar in the comics. There's nothing supernatural about Catwoman, She doesn't have nine lives, and she's one of the few sane members of Batman's rouges gallery. These changes to Catwoman are less easy to justify than the changes to Penguin. I personally don't think they add that much to her as a character. I'm personally left scratching my head as to how somebody who adapted Joker's origin faithfully to the comics in the previous film would take so many liberties in the follow up movie.
I would like to point out that by the time all of the villains are introduced and their motivations are set up we are half an hour into the movie and Batman has only been in one scene and hasn't yet had a single line of dialog.
Max Shreck hatches a plan to make Penguin into a local hero. Penguin 'rescues' the mayor's son after first faking his abduction. Shreck then talks Penguin into running for mayor of Gotham, thinking he can use him as a puppet and get him to approve of that oh-so-important-to-the-plot power plant I mentioned earlier. They plan to make the old mayor, the city's law enforcement, and Batman look completely incompetent in order to obtain this task.
So. Catwoman teams up with Penguin to discredit Batman even though Penguin is already clearly working with her arch nemesis Shreck. Huh? The two of them frame Batman for kidnapping Gotham's 'Ice Princess' a bubble-headed blond who is a big part of the Gotham City's tree lighting celebration. While Batman is occupied with trying to rescue the Ice Princess, Penguin's henchmen hijack the Batmobile. Penguin then frames Batman for murdering the Ice Princess - causing Penguin and Catwoman to have a falling out - and then he takes over the Batmobile by remote control.
The part where Batman is trapped in the Batmobile as Penguin is controlling it is actually my favorite part in the entire movie. It's a very Pulpy/Cliffhanger Serial idea - careening through the streets at high speeds and trying desperately to regain control of the vehicle. Penguin plans to kill two birds with one stone - eliminating Batman and showing him to be a reckless driver to further discredit him.
But Batman escapes and manages to turn the tables on Penguin - revealing to the general public that he is truly monstrous not only in look but in deed. And at this point the movie falls apart structurally speaking. The first half of the story is pretty good. The plot to discredit Batman is interesting and well done. But like the '89 Batman, after the bad guy's first evil plan fails the story just becomes a series of backup evil plans.
Remember Max Shreck's evil power plant that has been the driving motivation of all the characters in this story? This plot thread goes no where. After the plot to make Penguin the new mayor is thwarted Shreck is demoted to a really minor villain. Even though he was the driving force of the entire story up to this point. Now Penguin is somehow the main villain and the plot quickly degenerates from something as sophisticated as framing Batman for murder to strapping missiles to an army of remote control penguins.
My consensuses? This is a very flawed - but still enjoyable - movie. It takes a ton of liberties with the source material - particularly with Catwoman's character - doesn't deliver on plot threads that we are tricked into believing are really important from the very beginning of the story, and Batman is once again barely in his own movie. But when all is said and done I actually like this movie a little better then Batman '89. Unfortunately that only makes the weak parts of 'Batman Returns' all the more frustrating.
I may be in the minority, but I personally believe that 1995's 'Batman Forever' is the best of the pre- 'Batman Begins' Batman movie. Next time I blog Batman you should find out why.