Saturday, December 4, 2021

Stubs - Batman Returns


Batman Returns (1992) Starring: Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken. Directed by Tim Burton. Screenplay by Daniel Waters Based upon characters appearing in magazines published by DC Comics Inc., and on comic book characters by Bob Kane and Bill Finger. Produced by Denise Di Novi and Tim Burton USA Run time: 126 minutes. Color. Adventure, Fantasy, Action, Crime, Superhero, Christmas

You might think of Batman and Christmas but that’s what you have with Batman Returns, at least that’s how we’re counting this entry into the Batman cinematic universe. The setting at Christmastime in Gotham City more than qualifies this for our purposes. But can you have a Happy Holiday while watching the Dark Knight?

Following the success of Batman (1989), it is no wonder that Warner Bros. would want to do a sequel and wanted Tim Burton back in the director’s chair. However, the original screenplay by Sam Hamm didn’t meet with Burton’s approval. He then turned the job over to Daniel Waters, a writer known for his well-wrought female characters, with the note that Waters should avoid making Catwoman into a sexy vixen.

Michael Keaton returned as Bruce Wayne/Batman but there was quite a lot of casting about for the female lead. Apparently, singer Jody Watley was the first frontrunner for the role, though Madonna was also interested in the role. Annette Benning had the role until she became pregnant by Warren Beatty. Sean Young made a well-publicized bid for the role but didn’t get cast. At one time or another, Lena Olin, Ellen Barkin, and Jennifer Jason Leigh were considered for the part. But in the end, Michelle Pfeiffer got the role.

The film was given a production budget estimated to be between $80-$90 million. Principal photography began on September 3, 1991 and lasted until February 20, 1992. Production took place at Warner Brothers Studios in Burbank, California as well as Universal Studios. Giant sets were built in Warner’s  Stage 16 and in Stage 12 at Universal. At one time, six additional sound stages as well as the Warner’s Ranch were left available for the production.  Eventually, sets were built on eight different sound stages on the Warner lot.

Due to a rush to get the film ready for its June 16, 1992 premiere, there was no time for any preview screenings.

In Gotham City, the wealthy Esther Cobblepot (Diane Salinger) gives birth to a very deformed baby. Apparently, disturbed by the child’s animalistic appearance, she and her husband, Tucker (Paul Reubens), unceremoniously, drop the child into an icy river.

Danny DeVito plays the Penguin in Batman Returns

Thirty-three years later, the boy has grown into the “Penguin,” (Danny DeVito), half-bird, half-man, who lives in a lair in the sewer under the defunct Gotham Zoo. Living with him are the members of the Red Triangle Circus gang, a collection of former circus performers, as well as actual penguins.

On the night of the annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony, local business mogul Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) talks to the Mayor (Michael Murphy) about a power plant he wants to build, even though Gotham appears to be a surplus of electricity. He is turned down.

The Gotham tree lighting ceremony.

Later, at the actual ceremony, the Penguin observes the occasion through a sewer grate, while the Red Triangle Circus Gang interrupts Shreck’s speech, and wreaks havoc on Gotham citizens. Police activate the Bat-Signal, a searchlight that calls for “Batman,” the caped crusader.

Meanwhile, back at home, billionaire Bruce Wayne sees the signal, and changes into his Batsuit. As Batman, he drives into the city and fights the Red Triangle gang and rescues Max Shreck’s secretary, Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer).

Industrialist Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) ends up in Penguin's lair.

Shreck flees the scene and head underground and falls into a trap door that transports him to the Penguin’s lair. Penguin accuses Shreck of hazardous business practices that poison Gotham’s water. Threatening to expose the toxic waste, Penguin demands Shreck’s help in becoming a legitimate Gotham citizen.

Elsewhere, Selina Kyle arrives home at her lonely apartment and talks to her cat. A message from her on her answering machine reminds her to pull Bruce Wayne’s file at the office, in advance of Shreck’s meeting with him with the next morning.

Selina returns to the office, and studies Shreck’s proposal for a power plant that was denied public funding. Shreck, who hopes Bruce Wayne will invest in his latest venture, discovers Selina reading. He becomes paranoid when she points out that the proposed plant is actually a capacitor designed to hoard energy.

Shreck toys with her but eventually pushes her out a window. She falls several floors, her fall broken by canopies but she lands hard in the snow.  A cluster of cats congregate around her seemingly lifeless body, and Selina is miraculously revived.

In a trance, she returns home and guzzles milk, and vandalizes her apartment to fashion a bodysuit out of a black rain slicker.

Later, a Red Triangle goon steals the Mayor’s baby during a televised speech. The kidnapper disappears down the drain with the baby. All seems lost, and no one really moves to chase after him. But the baby is delivered back to the Mayor by the Penguin, who emerges from the sewer as if he just rescued the child, when in fact, he was in on the kidnapping.

Despite his freakish appearance, the crowd is won over. When Penguin announces to the pubic his desire to find his birth parents, Bruce Wayne is skeptical. He investigates the Penguin’s past, discovering that as a young boy he spent time in circus freak shows, but disappeared around the same time as many other performers. The coincidence links Penguin to the Red Triangle Circus Gang and confirms he is really a threat to Gotham.

Meanwhile, in her black bodysuit, Selina prowls Gotham as “Catwoman,” her powerful alter ego. She even saves another woman who is being accosted by an assailant.

Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) takes his meeting with Max Shreck.

The next morning, Bruce Wayne has his meeting with Max Shreck. Arguing that Gotham has a power surplus, Bruce denies him funding for the “power plant.” A newly confident Selina Kyle interrupts, startling Shreck, who, of course, thought she was dead. However, he dismisses her as harmless.

Desperate to get public funding for his power plant, Max devises a mayoral campaign for Penguin, even though the election is far off. Penguin now goes by his birth name, “Oswald Cobblepot.” But as they try to come up with a new look for Penguin, he fights back, even biting one of his handlers in the nose.

While Batman (Michael Keaton) confronts Penguin, Catwoman destroys Shreck's department store.

As Catwoman, Selina destroys Shreck’s Department Store, while Batman is confronting Penguin on the street. Catwoman interrupts them, and Batman chases after her. They tussle on a rooftop, and she punctures his Batsuit with one of her “claws.”

Later, Penguin announces his bid for mayor.

Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) rejects Penguin's sexual advances.

In their next meeting, Catwoman rejects Penguin’s sexual advances, but offers to join forces with him against Batman. He welcomes her assistance and shows her the Red Triangle gang’s plans to turn the Batmobile into a bomb.

Catwoman, however, insists it would be more effective to frame Batman and together they scheme to lure Batman into the town plaza the following night for a “re-lighting” ceremony of the Christmas tree.

The next day, Bruce runs into Selina on the street and invites her to an early dinner at his mansion. Even though she has “other” plans, she agrees to meet him. There, Selina asks about Bruce’s personal life. He remains vague, but confesses that his ex-girlfriend, Vicki Vale, had trouble reconciling his “duality.” They kiss, but the date is cut short when a television news reporter announces that the “Ice Princess” who was supposed to re-light Gotham’s Christmas tree has been abducted.

Both Selina and Bruce concoct excuses to cut their date short and use Alfred as the go-between. In her car, Selina fumbles for her Catwoman suit, while Bruce retreats to his Batcave.

In town, Batman attempts to free the Ice Princess, but Catwoman drags her to a rooftop. Batman gives chase and finds the Ice Princess free but tottering on a ledge. Penguin releases bats that cause the Ice Princess to lose her balance and fall to her death. When Gotham citizens look up, they spot Batman on the roof, and he is assumed to be responsible.

Later, Catwoman reprimands Penguin for killing the Ice Princess. He tries to retaliate by strangling her but she manages to free herself.

Batman loses control of the Batmobile to the Penguin.

While he’s been busy, Penguin’s goons have sabotaged the Batmobile, which Batman discovers on the way home. Penguin remotely takes control of the vehicle, and taunts Batman over a Batmobile screen as the vehicle plows through Gotham, seemingly out of control. Batman manages to regain control just in time to jettison the sides of the Batmobile and squeeze through a narrow alleyway.

Soon, Penguin gives a speech in the plaza, but Batman disrupts it with an audio recording of Penguin’s menacing threats.  The crowd turns on the Penguin and boos, as well as throw food. Penguin retaliates by attacking them with his parasol that doubles as a firearm, and then retreats into the sewer.

In front of his gang, he vows to take revenge against all of the first-born sons of Gotham. When one of the gang has second thoughts about killing babies, Penguin kills him.

Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer) dance at a costume party.

Later, Bruce sees Selina at a costume party hosted by Shreck, they are the only two not in costume, as it turns out. She reveals her plans to kill Shreck, but Bruce discourages her. They kiss under the mistletoe, and Selina quotes something Batman said to her. In turn, he quotes Catwoman, and they simultaneously register each other’s secret identities.

Just then, an explosion sends partygoers flying marking Penguin’s entrance. He has come to abduct Max Shreck’s son, Chip (Andrew Bryniarski), but Max insists he be taken instead. Back in his lair, Penguin traps Shreck in an oversized birdcage, and announces his plans to drown Gotham’s children in toxic sewer water.

But Batman thwarts the mass kidnappings. When Pengiun finds out he amends his plan to attack all the city’s children. Strapping missiles to his army of penguins, he sends them into the plaza for a mass explosion.

Batman interrupts Penguin’s radio signal and directs the animals back to the Gotham Zoo, where the missiles misfire. Batman arrives as bats attack Penguin, and Shreck manages to free himself from the birdcage. When Catwoman joins the fray, she and Batman remove their masks, revealing their identities to each other. Batman tries to stop her from killing Shreck, suggesting they turn him in to the police instead.

But Shreck shoots them both. Selina retaliates by electrocuting him. Penguin emerges from the water and tries to shoot Batman, but selects the wrong parasol. He topples over and dies, and penguins collect his dead body.

Later, as Alfred drives Bruce home through town, Bruce sees Catwoman’s shadow. He gets out of the car but he can’t find her. Instead, a black cat approaches, and Bruce takes it with him.

Back in the car, Alfred and Bruce wish each other a Merry Christmas, as Catwoman stands on a rooftop and peers at the Bat-Signal in the sky.

If it sounds like the set up for a sequel you wouldn’t be wrong. But it wasn’t another Batman film. In fact, the plan was for a Catwoman sequel starring Pfeiffer in a return engagement. That film would run into issues when Pfeiffer had other interests. Ashley Judd would be cast in her place but the final film, Catwoman (2004) would star Halle Berry and be both a commercial and critical disappointment.

The Batman franchise would continue but without Keaton or Burton. Despite the film’s $282.8 million box-office take, Warner Bros. decided to go in a “lighter” direction. Burton had no interest in returning to direct a sequel, but was credited as producer on Batman Forever (1995) with Val Kilmer taking over the role as the Caped Crusader.

As a sequel, Batman Returns tries to be bigger than its predecessor, throwing two villains at the Caped Crusader, rather than just one. However, bigger doesn’t always mean better. I will admit that I liked this film a lot less than Batman. There is something cynical about the filmmaking that suggests that people would vote for an evil mutant that they knew literally nothing about and who had the manners of an untrained dog. Maybe you can get away with that in a comic book or even an animated feature but I honestly expect more with a live-action film.

I also expect more, like in more people in crowd scenes. Ceremonies, like tree-lightings, in large municipalities would attract more than a few dozen people. Anytime there is a crowd sequence there seems like there would still be plenty of parking available. For a big budget film, they seemed to really scrimp on the extras. While we’re on the subject of production design, Gotham has some of the scariest Christmas decorations I have ever seen. This is clearly a sign that Burton was putting his stamp on the Batman legacy but they give you a real sense of the dystopia that Gotham is depicted as in the film.

One of the other things the film doesn’t do well is explain Selina’s transformation to the Catwoman. If we’re supposed to see that she somehow got her life force from the stray cats that really isn’t done effectively. She comes across as someone, who didn’t even break a fingernail after a multi-story fall out of a building, who got up and, in a daze, created a Catwoman character, for no real discernible reason. Since this is supposed to be her origin, it gets underplayed too much. And, while she does eventually kill Shreck, you would have thought that would have been job one for Catwoman. Instead, she destroys one of Shreck’s department stores and joins forces with Penguin to discredit Batman.

I know Danny Devito got a lot of positive reviews for showing his acting range. Up until then he was best known for playing Louie De Palma in the television series Taxi (1978–1983). There is nothing in that run that would prepare you for his depiction as Penguin. If you’re not supposed to like Penguin, then he does a good job. However, the depiction has not aged-well, which is true for the film itself.

Michael Keaton returns as Batman and after this film it shouldn’t have been a surprise that he chose not to return to the role. He is still likable as an actor but this time through the acting seems a little more labored. No one seems to be really having fun in this film and that starts with Batman on down.

Michelle Pfeiffer does as much with the Catwoman character as the story would allow. I liked her as much as I could though, as I wrote above, I have trouble with the characterization. You can’t act an origin story if it’s not in the script.

I would not recommend Batman Returns unless you’re either a diehard fan of Batman or of Tim Burton. Burton certainly puts his mark on the legacy though I don’t think it is better for it.

To read reviews of other Christmas films, please see our Christmas Review Hub.

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