batman returns revisited

I have no intention of adding to the autopsies – or vivisections, depending on your point of view – being performed on The Dark Knight in forums like Jim Emerson’s blog. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the discussions, even when they remind me of a snake biting its own tail and trying to swallow itself (minus the deep metaphysical significance), but that there comes a point where analysis turns into mere wanking. Does The Dark Knight embody the zeitgeist? Is it making a political statement? Is there too much telling and not enough showing? How about this: The Dark Knight is a movie, not a doctoral dissertation. It just happens to be rather more sophisticated and multi-faceted than your average film – a quality borne out by the fact that even critics who are less than gobsmacked by the film, like Emerson, can find meaningful, insightful things to say about it.

Yet all this talk – whether overwhelming praise or defensive dissent – leads me to reinforce my appreciation for Tim Burton’s Batman films. Anton Furst’s gorgeous set design – Gotham as a character in itself – and a phantasmogorial/psychological take on the Batman legend stands out even more in comparison to Nolan’s ultra-gritty take. A few key points:

  • However exciting and grand Ledger’s performance is, Nicholson’s portrayal of the Joker not only stands on its own but is just as true to the source material; the Joker as a prankster, remorseless killer and mass murderer, and beholden to a superficial insanity that coexists with criminal genius. And think of the great lines Nicholson gets to say, like “Never rub another man’s rhubarb.” It’s delish in a movie that has quite a few tasty lines of dialogue.
  • Bruce Wayne. I like Christian Bale’s take; simmering, secretive, with a studied insincerity that masks his inner turmoil. But Michael Keaton’s turn doesn’t get the appreciation it deserves. Keaton plays Wayne, not so much as the charmingly insincere playboy with a secret, but as a haunted man, a man adrift in the melancholy haze of memory. This Wayne is absent-minded, distant, struggling for a human connection – only truly coming alive as Batman, but keenly aware of this as Bruce Wayne. In other words, Keaton polarizes the Wayne/Batman duality while Bale is very much the Batman who puts on a Wayne mask to go about the real world, his love of Rachel Dawes notwithstanding.

But while Batman felt a little rough in some ways – the story was straightforward comic-book stuff, the sets felt a bit to constructed, some of the performances were a bit chewy – Tim Burton really soared with the technically superior Batman Returns. This was not only a Batman film, but a Tim Burton film, and the intersection between two visionary worlds clicked surprisingly well. While I initially thought, like many, that the film suffered from too many villains and not enough screentime for Batman, I’ve come to change my opinion. To some extent, many Batman stories focus on the trauma resulting from the death of Wayne’s parents – naturally enough. The typical next step, like The Dark Knight took following Batman Begins, is to focus on the challenges of being Batman. Without the need to reinvent the wheel, Batman Returns turned inward to the psychology of having a duel identity, taking the theme from Batman and expanding in richly metaphorical, introspective fantasia. Batman Returns, with all its villains, offers a kaleidoscopic view of the Wayne/Batman duality. Catwoman is the anti-heroic Wayne/Batman, suppressed by misogyny and influenced by a strained mother-daughter relationship, the rebel chafing against social rules. The Penguin is the evil Batman, a freakish outcast, the outward manifestation of how Wayne/Batman feels in a city that doesn’t know whether to cheer or jeer him.

And just as Tim Burton creates an insular world of lavish gothic cityscapes, an iconic Gotham, we are treated to iconic performances within this world. Danny DeVito is terrifically weird and menacing, every bit the grotesque of Jack Nicholson’s joker but with weightier pathology. Michelle Pfeiffer imbues Selina Kyle/Catwoman with every bit of nuance that Keaton does with Wayne/Batman, with the result being a powerful, erotically-charged, and highly sympathetic and edgy Catwoman.

Batman Returns is notable for giving us a visually tantalizing cinematic experience in which hero and villains stand in analogy to one another, playing off of each other, and adding a layer of psychological complexity that can easily be dismissed when the focus is solely on the plot. The Dark Knight stands proudly, yes, but Nolan’s achievement also reveals gaps filled in masterfully by Burton’s contrasting approach. In other words, Batman Returns, however underrated, is a masterpiece in its own way.

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