Monday, May 15, 2006

Batman Returns (Burton, 1992)

If Tim Burton has a strength, it is conceiving and crafting an elaborate misé en scene, and Batman Returns is a wholly more garrish production than its predecessor. In some respects, it takes its silliness too far, and doesn't go far enough with its more pertinent themes. As such, it never rises above summer movie territory, albeit with a few smart laughs ("Lay off the constitution, it's Christmas"; "Sickos don't bother me, at least they're committed"), but for a minute there it gives the ol' college try.

Burton's bone to pick with corporate crime and irresponsibility, like Batman, returns, this time embodied by Walken's Max Shreck (a cinephilic nod to the actor who played not-Dracula in Murnau's Nosferatu, a film in the German expressionist tradition from which Burton seeks inspiration for his aesthetic). This remains relatively unexplored though, culminating in a brief but foiled plot to lead the first borns of Gotham's citizens into a pool of toxic waste Pied Piper style. This isn't the only thing overshadowed by the two psychopathic villains, though, as Batman seems peripheral to them as well.

It seems that Burton purported to create a sincere tragic figure in Penguin, but it's only half heartfelt. Penguin was abandoned at birth for his deformity, floated down a sewer, and unbeknownst to his parents found and raised by Gothan's burgeoning intersewer penguin population. Penguin is unique in the narrative as he is the one character in whom you get what you see, and he keeps reminding us by pointing out Batman's mask. A true outsider, unlike the other two cartoony tortured souls in the tale, who are not often taken seriously enough, the result being we spend too much time laughing at the zany psychopaths.

Batman/Bruce Wayne and Catwoman/Selena Kyle are similar in their dual natures. Bruce needs Batman as a practicioner of vigilante justice, in general Batman mythos because his parents were murdered, filling him with a sense of obligation to society (this causality is, as far as I remember, not mentioned directly in Burton's first Batman flick); Selena needs Catwoman as an outlet of sexual aggression and proto-feminist militarism. If there is an aspect that is stimulating in the film, and one that the film would most benefit from developing more and being less afraid of, it's its sexual politics. Instead, the film straddles the line between exploration and family friendly entertainment.

Selena and Bruce play cat and mouse (the sceenwriters would've worked that into the script if they had a chance, I'm sure) in and out of costume, and both modes of interaction are sexually charged. After slapping the head and hat off a bourgeoisie female mannequin in a department store with her dominatrix whip and then reminding two security guards who confuse their pistols with their pricks that they're overpaid, Catwoman bests Batman in combat only to fall off a roof and be saved by the big bad (bat)man. They then embrace under mistletow, and Catwoman goes so far as to grope his batmobile. This parallels Penguin's own fondling earlier in the film, and he is on a tangential though less direct socio-sexual odyssey himself. Selena is reversing the inferiority bestowed upon her by her position as a secretary to The Man, which she self-deceptively referred to as an "executive assistant" career. Penguin eventually comes to terms with gender equality when he plots and indiscriminate massacre, even shouting "the sexes are equal." Not subtle, but that should be expected... this is a film in which Michael Keaton dresses in a bat suit.

The Batmobile (not the one in Bruce's pants) eventually resembles the one in Bruce's pants, though theoretically larger and blacker, when he avoids cops by stripping the sides of the car and fleeing through a damp, moist corridor. Okay, I'm just speculating with the adjectives. Anyway. He speeds through the sewers in his phallicar to stop the yet-asexual Penguin from doing his Passover thing, and the four crazies all congregate here. Bruce points out that him and Selena are similar, acknowledging that they are both hiding behind masks representing ideas, and that they could live together. Selena says she'd like to live in his "castle" just like in fairy tales, but she "couldn't live with herself." This is a strong feminist statement, obviously, seeing through the fairy tale bullshit and shunning it. She then seemingly commits sui/homicide with Shreck.

The Batmobile bursts through a snow formation, and its symbolic nature can't be mistaken (my chronology of the climax may be out of order, by the way) and stops Penguin. The penguins' missiles all go off, possibly signifying male destruction to equal out the male victory that is Batman's triumph. I think it's definitely after this that the above mentioned Selena stuff happens, but I'm not going to backtrack now.

So anyway, in the end Bruce is being driven by Alfred and tinks he tees a puddy tat. He did, he did tee a puddy tat, as Selena survives. Bruce picks up a stray cat, presumably left by Catwoman, and then closes the film with the line "Good will towards men... and women," the pause signifying a glance down at the cat. What is is that spurred this alteration of the phrase to give it a more unbiased effect?

Selena's gift of pussy. Burton, you're an inspiration to feminists everywhere.


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