In honor ofThere BatmanWith this week's opening, we're rerunning some of our favorite features about the Caped Crusader. This article originally appeared on March 23, 2018.
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George Clooney's Batman costume is up for auction
In 1992 it seemed ridiculous: the idea of a misshapen, roaring maniac running for higher office while barely bothering to hide his own painfully obvious, bordering on theatrical creepiness. Would anyone blink these days? In fact, the biggest difference betweenBatman returnsand our own impossible reality today is what happens when the candidate in question is caught saying bad shit on tape. in theBatman returns, Oswald Cobblepot lost so much public sympathy that he didn't even bother to continue his campaign! And Cobblepot ran just formayor! When it came out, a lot of people thoughtBatman returnswas too dark. It turned out that maybe it wasn't darkenough. Whether Donald Trump loses his candidacy for re-election in 2020 and our streets are suddenly full of penguins with rockets on their backs, we cannot sayBatman returnsdidn't warn us.
sure,Batman returns wardark. It wasridiculousdark. With hisfirst Batman film, Tim Burton had tremendous blockbuster success when he introduced a Joker who boasted about being "the world's first fully-functional murder artist". Upping the ante from there can't have been easy. And yet, Burton pulled it off, introducing a drooling, deformed sex frenzy from a villain whose ultimate plan is to drown infants in toxic waste. When a character comes up with Lex Luthorian's beautifully ridiculous plan to build a fake power plant that would steal and hoard Gotham City's electricity instead of generating it, he's just the secondary villain, a total afterthought. And that's not even getting into all the sex stuff.
And there isso muchsex stuff. As Catwoman, Michelle Pfeiffer speaks almost exclusively in ambiguous catchphrases. She's wearing a shiny vinyl catsuit that Pfeiffer found almost impossible to wear. (I love how the character was supposed to make the costume by repurposing an old shiny raincoat while the real piper had to be helped and then sprayed with silicone to make it shine.) The costume is pure BDSM, something that needs plenty is evident even before Pfeiffer cracks the whip for the first time. And both she and Danny DeVito's penguin turn innuendo into fine art. (My favorite phrase is DeVito gasping over an image consultant, "I want to fillsheEmpty! Teach her my French pinball trick!")
And yet, Burton managed to pack all that filthy meanness into an utterly children's film. Really enjoyBatman returns, which isn't exactly difficult if you indulge in your triumphant silliness. Before a single word is spoken in the film, we see a baby penguin eat a cat while Pee-Wee Herman himself, Paul Reubens, takes a long, resigned sip. Selina Kyle, in her pre-Catwoman form as a harried secretary, has a giant pink neon "Hello there" sign in her apartment - something that could only exist for her to smash a few letters and twist in her transformation into the "hell here". When Christopher Walken's Max Shreck is electrocuted, he looks like an Iron Maiden cover. There is nothing about itBatman returnsit even goes in the general direction of realism, and that's why the film is great.
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Much more than the firstBatmanand possibly more than any other film Burton has ever made,Batman returnsis driven by some kind of magical, dream-like logic. It's set in a world where Oswald Cobblepot can be raised by real zoo penguins without a single human - not even a zoo keeper - knowing about it. In this world, Cobblepot manages to organize, train and costume an entire circus gang of criminal marauders before his existence is more than rumor to the surface populace. (The gang members are so ridiculous, in fact, that even the evil clowns don't conjure up memories of the previous film's Joker. Jack Nicholson's Joker, a hurricane of Hamminess in the first film, is too grounded a character to even make senseBatman returns.) In the same world, a herd of street cats can revive a dead lady, and Catwoman's whole nine-lived thing moves from a mid-fight banter to an actual plot point; She tracks them helpfully for us.
Batman himself could be thatat leastridiculous character inBatman returns, and the film makes the wise decision to downplay it wherever possible. Michael Keaton reportedly asked screenwriter Daniel Waters to shorten most of his lines, and Keaton had the right idea. This Batman works best as a quiet, sinister presence, something for DeVito and Pfeiffer to play with. He's only in the first half hour of the film. I like how Burton introduces him to be motionless, staring into space, like he'll just turn off when the bat-signal isn't shining through his window. One thing that hasn't aged particularly well is how happily he kills people - he lights up an evil clown, straps a bomb to someone else's chest before smilingly shoving them down a hole. That's exactly what happened back when non-comic people were encouraged to make comic book movies. (There's also a scene where Batman plows through pedestrians in the Batmobile. It's not his fault — Penguin controls the car with a remote control — but that doesn't make it much easier to see post-Charlottesville.)
Keaton turned the film over to Pfeiffer and DeVito, who would always dominate it anyway. It's confusing to think we almost had a world where Pfeiffer didn't get the part. Annette Bening was originally cast and only dropped out after she became pregnant, and Sean Young famously attempted to confront Burton on the Warner Bros. premises while wearing her own homemade Catwoman costume. But Pfeiffer owns the role entirely and stalks the film as if she thought she was sex personified. She steers into the campiness of the role, purring and growling and licking her lips and at one point putting an actual live bird in her mouth, something that wasNota special effect. It's one of the greatest comic performances of all time, still amazing in its engagement, and I wish it had at least been nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. (Marisa Tomei won that year forMein Cousin Vinny, and that was really Pfeiffer's achievementthemuch dumber?)
As great as Pfeiffer is, DeVito could be even better. He transforms into something so disgusting he's barely human, while still eliciting a bit of pathos from the penguin's tragic backstory. His lumpy and misshapen body, black drool covering his teeth, DeVito probably could have brought out his character's weirdness without the daily four-hour makeup job. When not speaking, he grunts and growls and breathes heavily. And he savors his most over-the-top lines: "I played this stinky town like aharpouthell!” He's less of a comic book supervillain and more of a fairytale witch, and he's a joy to watch.
Burton even went for the crazy set design, which was probably the best thing about the first Baman. By playing the film during the Christmas season, it was able to use festive decorations that made its looming German Expressionist Gothic architecture appear even darker and more imposing. He placed a giant spinning Nightmare Felix the Cat head on top of Shreck's department store and gifted Penguin with a giant, inexplicable rubber duck boat that also converts into a hydraulic elevator. Even Christopher Walken's hair has its own absurd Gothic architecture.
Batman returnswould collect $267 million worldwide. That was good enough to make it the third highest-grossing of 1992 (behindAladdinandHome Alone 2: Lost in New York), but still far from the firstBatman. In response, Warner Bros. practically chased Burton out of the franchise and instead gave it to Joel Schumacher, who turned it into extreme day-glo silliness. So even though it's a sequelBatman returnsstill feels like a glorious one-off. Today it plays out as a very personal and special take on the superhero movie that barely cares about its hero. Goth superhero movies likeThe crowandbladewould follow, but I can't really say thatBatman returnswas influential. Instead, it's a lively and wacky oddity, a vision of a path uncharted for the genre.
Other Notable Superhero Movies of 1992:Shame on the folks at Marvel who just couldn't figure out how to turn their heroes into movie characters. Consider Albert Pyun's almost impossible to miss versionCaptain America, filmed in 1990 but not released direct-to-video until two years later as Turkey. There's some funny stuff in the film; I like the makeup job on the Red Skull after the plastic surgery of the past few days. But the film's cheaper costumes and effects, its deeply wooden performances, and its seemingly genuine disinterest in the mechanics of thrilling filmmaking mean it's not even fun as so bad it's a good watch. (Some little things: Ned Beatty, who had played a bumbling villain henchman in the 1978sSuperman: The MovieHe also played a clumsy do-gooder as a reporterCaptain America. I'm pretty sure that makes him the first actor to have roles in DC and Marvel movies.)
1992erDoctor Mordridis another great example of Marvel's early cinematic haplessness. The low-budget fantasy film was originally intended as aDoctor Strangeadaptation, but the producers lost the rights to the character when the film was about to go into production. Instead, it's bare and obviousDoctor StrangeRip off, right down to the astral plane projection and the ornate Manhattan apartment and the fluttering sleeves. It's pretty fun! There's a stop-motion animated fight between a T. rex skeleton and a mastodon skeleton that's way better than anything else in this originalCaptain America, anyway.