Dusting ‘Em Off is a rotating, free-form feature that revisits a classic album, film, or moment in pop-culture history. This week, Editor-in-Chief Michael Roffman returns to Tim Burton’s Gotham City on the 25th anniversary of Batman Returns.
Let’s just get this out of the way, shall we? Batman Returns is the best Batman film. Hands down. Easy peasy. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. Twenty-five years ago, Tim Burton chased American families out of the theater with his deeply disturbing and ultra cynical sequel — becoming Public Enemy No. 1 in the eyes of Warner Bros. and McDonald’s in the process — but, you know what? It was a wise decision then and it’s even wiser decision now. Simply put, he wasn’t just being honest with his own proclivities as a filmmaker, but towards the very spirit of what makes Batman such an inimitable comic book. And let’s not forget, Batman is a comic book, despite what Christopher Nolan’s (also excellent) Dark Knight Trilogy might lead you to believe.
With Batman Returns, Burton went Full Burton, walking down every murky alley he could think of, and the more twisted his story became, the more intriguing it appeared on screen. Essentially, he designed the ultimate anti-summer blockbuster: a.) it’s set during Christmastime, a season that’s apparently sunless in Gotham City; b.) much of the story deals with marginalized children, who are kidnapped by murderous circus folk toward the film’s climax; c.) it’s hyper-sexualized, at a level that makes you wonder if the MPAA even watched the damn thing; and d.) the true hero of the film is a mentally unstable female zombie, who’s prime interest is getting revenge on a corporate male dickhead that’s forever been a stand-in for Donald Trump.
Eh, let’s focus on that last part for a bit…
In the Summer of 1992, you couldn’t walk a city block without seeing Michelle Pfeiffer’s face. She was on billboards, she was on buses, she was on bus stops, she was on cups at McDonald’s, she was on movie posters plastered in alleys and gas stations, she was on television screens playing the film’s commercials. She was everywhere. Those menacing eyes, those rose red lips, that steely blue shade, and, yes, all that shiny, stitched-together leather. It was the closest America has ever come to collectively admitting their secret worship of BDSM! All joking aside, by the time the film hit theaters on June 19th, Pfeiffer’s portrayal as Catwoman was already iconic, as if Warner Bros. had consciously replaced Batman’s infamous logo.
But, boy, did she deliver. As Selina Kyle, the frazzled, stressed out secretary of the murderous, facetious Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), Pfeiffer brings all the awkward, human charm of a woman circling terror. It’s a believable role in an unbelievable comic setting that subtly comments on where so many females often find themselves amid rampant, male-dominated corporatization. From the very get-go, Pfeiffer sells her struggle, perhaps still leaning on her chops from 1991’s Frankie and Johnny, and it’s in these fragile early moments that she totally wins us over. So, when she stumbles upon Shreck’s illegal operations in his office late at night and is soon tossed out of said office, we want her revenge as much as she does — and that’s important to note.
Why? Well, one of Batman’s true conflicts is that exact grey area, where the line between right and wrong is blurred if not non-existent. It’s what he’s always struggled with, and Catwoman has long been the mascot of said conflict. Because really, she’s not that much different from him. She sees a problem in her world, and attempts to solve it herself. Bruce Wayne decided to do the same thing after he witnessed the death of his parents. Obviously, the two are miles apart in their logic, but they’re still vigilantes at the end of the day, and there are times when their interests do cross paths — both romantically and professionally. That bond has been a great resource in the comics over the years, and not a single film has captured it better than Batman Returns.
To be fair, we’ve only seen two incarnations of Catwoman on the silver screen in the years since: Halle Berry in 2004’s Catwoman and Anne Hathaway in 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises. Considering Berry wouldn’t even want us talking about her own portrayal, we’ll skip right ahead to Nolan’s film. Now, the problem with his version is that we don’t really get Catwoman, we get Selina Kyle. And while Hathaway was written all the right speeches for the Occupy Wall Street era, her drive to be Gotham’s Robin Hood falls short. Instead, she’s relegated to being one of a dozen sidekicks for Batman and a later sidepiece for a Europe-fleeing Bruce Wayne. Then again, much of this criticism has to do with the film itself, seeing how Nolan overstuffed the storyline with scenarios and characters seemingly out of line with the all-too-realistic corner he painted himself in.
By contrast, Burton’s complete lack of realism is why his vision remains supreme, at least when it comes to Batman films. With the 1989 original, he had already distanced himself from any kind of reality, utilizing post-modern Dark Deco fixtures that meshed ’30s film noir with garish ’80s culture. So, when it came time for the sequel, he essentially had free reign to indulge in the fantastical, and that’s exactly what he did, capitalizing on all the larger visual metaphors that traditionally fuel the comic book medium. Look no further than how he modeled the three principal leads, embellishing their respective animalistic traits of the bat, the penguin, and the cat. It’s a move that would be construed as cheesy by most directors, but this was Burton’s comfort zone, and he totally ran with it.
It’s not at all surprising then that Penguin’s backstory seems as if it were stripped straight out of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and he plays with that notion in the very animalistic sets, costumes, and dialogue. Yes, he’s supposed to be Oswald Cobblepot, the would-be politician, but you always get the sense that he’s a monster, just as he says society views him. Hello, commentary! Catwoman, however, is the more enigmatic role of the two, and namely because you can tell it wasn’t just Burton who was invested in her character. Screenwriter Daniel Waters, who had written Heathers only four years prior, was clearly invested in her character, and her fiery brand of independence is akin to the manic chaos he wired into his 1988 cult comedy. Think hard enough and you could almost hear Winona Ryder say, “Honey, I’m home. Oh, I forgot. I’m not married.”
But why would you? Pfeiffer says it and she says it damn well, especially when she returns home as a walking corpse from Gotham’s proverbial Pet Sematary and proceeds to destroy her previous life in a fitful of rage. This is when Pfeiffer goes H.A.M., flips the script, and starts lacing every one of Waters’ lines with what can best be described as punchy malice. It’s also when Burton’s creepy, winter wonderland starts to make the most sense as any signs of humanity take shotgun to the story’s greater fiction. Because at this point, the narrative no longer belongs to Bruce Wayne, Selina Kyle, or Oswald Cobbepot, it’s in the hands of Batman, Catwoman, and Penguin, and that’s exactly where Burton wants to be. It’s a place where Michael Keaton can fly like a bat, where Danny DeVito can bite noses, and where Pfeiffer can lick herself.
Because in Burton’s world, the costumed personalities of his heroes and villains are their true identities — to varying degrees, mind you. On one end, there’s the more pragmatic Batman, who Keaton plays with unnatural stoicism. On the other end, there’s the disgusting Penguin, who DeVito plays in the most literal sense as he waddles around and viciously devours raw fish like a fucking animal. Caught between these two worlds is Catwoman, which explains why Pfeiffer delivers the most nuanced performance of the two, swinging madly from one side to the other with schizophrenic results. It also stands to reason why she’s by far the most interesting of the two; she’s unsure, complicated, grey. With Catwoman, you never really know where she stands, and that indecision is the most human trait among Burton’s creatures.
Of course, the weight of the film hardly rests solely on Pfeiffer’s shoulders. What truly makes Batman Returns such a resounding success is how nothing is an afterthought. Danny Elfman’s twinkling score is essential. The costumes are all Oscar-worthy. The Gothic set designs are ingenious. The story is gripping. Everything comes together with the utmost confidence, making this one of Burton’s most assured productions, which isn’t too bold of a statement when you recall his career arc at the time. He was only two years removed from his magnum opus, Edward Scissorhands, and was already hard at work on producing the groundbreaking adaptation of his cult children’s book, The Nightmare Before Christmas. This was Peak Burton, back when he was operating at an untouchable level, and he could ably carve out marvelous worlds that were removed from reality yet close enough to our own so that everyone could keep their bearings.
Isn’t that the point of every comic book?