Monday, April 11, 2005

Batman Returns

I watched Batman Returns yesterday, because I'm going to write a paper on it for my class on action cinema. This is the film that is #8 on my Top 100 Films list, and even I sometimes wonder what the hell it's doing there, but then I watch the film and I'm once again dazzled by just how amazing it is. I've got a 15 page paper to do on the film, so I'll be covering it pretty in depth, but there's a surplus of material there, this is a film I feel like I could write a whole book on, just because it's so deep, and yet so entertaining on the surface at the same time. Watching it, I'm at once entertained on a really superficial level, looking at stuff blowing up, but there's also a lot of really strong character stuff in the film.

What makes this film stand out as one of the absolute greatest films of all time? One big thing is that I'm a huge fan of director Tim Burton, his visual style, his themes and his collaboration with composer Danny Elfman. And this film is the most Tim Burton of all his films, falling as the dark middle act of a thematic trilogy consisting of Edward Scissorhands, this film and The Nightmare Before Christmas. All deal with characters feeling alienated from a deeply conformist society, struggling to deal with their difference.

I love Edward Scissorhands, and this film serves as essentially a darker version of that story. Scissorhands is much simpler, this film has a lot of complexity with the relationship between Bruce and Selina. Selina Kyle/Catwoman is one of Burton's best characters, and just owns every moment she is on screen. The scene where she and Bruce Wayne are dancing and realize each other's secret identity is amazing, one of Burton's best scenes.

Visually, this film is just so over the top, you could watch it without dialogue, and just the visuals and music would be enough to make a great piece of cinema. The opening sequence is so over the top icy beautiful, and the whole finale with the penguins and the zoo blowing up is just ridiculous. Danny Elfman's score here is his best, and one of the absolute best in all of cinema. It's operatic and omnipresent, informing events. This is a film where the score is an integrated part of the storytelling rather than just being background, and that's where music belongs in film. This feels like a complete cinematic immersion, something that is achieved by very few other films. Just watching the final scenes, the music alone would make it awesome.

The visuals and music are so great, they almost overpower the really witty script. There are some awful lines ("Girl talk" and "eat floor" come to mind), but on the whole the dialogue is entertaining, and full of bizarre double entendres and outlandish jokes. The film does a great job of exploring issues of duality, basically destroying conventional ideas of good and bad, replacing them with a morally ambiguous film in which the only character who is unquestionably a villain is the normal guy.

This is a film I wish people would rediscover, looking at it not as a Batman film, the title character doesn't have the most screentime, or serve as the primary narrative catalyst, but rather look at it in the context of Burton's other films, and as an unconventional character study. Yes, much of the plot makes no sense and is left unresolved, but who really cares what happens with the power plant. This is a film that is all about characters and visual spectacle, and in that sense it's really an art film.

And I feel like this film makes the upcoming Batman Begins seem so irrelevant. There's no way Nolan can top this film, and in making a Spider-Man style blockbuster out of Batman, he'll just embrace the commodification of Hollywood that is preventing really personal films from being made. Batman Returns is so unique because it's one of the most personal blockbusters I've ever seen. You can sense Burton's involvement in every level of this project, and maybe that's why the film wasn't successful. To make a film that some people will really love, you're going to alienate others. But, I'd rather have a film that a few people absoultely love than one that everyone likes.


TomGray said...

This analysis is the closest thing I've found to my own thoughts on Batman Returns in particular and Burton in general. I also apprieciate the credit given to Elfman. Burton and Elfman are by far my favorite movie making team. I could never sit down and make a list of my top 100 films but Batman Returns would be in my top 5.

Patrick said...

It's really unfortunate that the film is just kind of lost as a superhero sequel, and gets no real critical evaluation. I think it's the perfect dark compliment to Edward Scissorhands and is still easily Burton's best film. Incidentally, the 15th anniversary of its release was last week, I watched it again to celebrate and it's still great.

toothpik said...

I know this is a pre "Begins" article, but I would like to think your opinion of Batman Begins has changed since it's release. I think Begins is a far more personal film than the first and second original Batman films put together. We get a great character development of Bruce Wayne and his batman is extremely dark and pained and filled with anger. He's almost like a shadow skulking version of the Hulk. In Begins, the pain that created Batman within Bruce is very real and is shown as the driving force behind all of his actions.

This isn't to say that I don't like Returns though, as I think it's a great movie and holds quite a bit of nostalgia for me, as does Jurassic Park for that matter. I grew up with these movies and although I'll always have a soft spot for Returns. Batman Begins really was the opposite of what I expected though. I always hated the title of "Begins" and I still do, I think it lacks a lot of imagination and I was afraid this poor title choice would show through in the finished film. I know they wanted people to know this was a new creation story of Batman, but people only need to know that the first time they see it. If the movie is any good then everyone is going to remember the name in the future, no matter what it is! Title aside, Begins is a great character driven story with some top acting by Bale and especially Cillian Murphy as Scarecrow (He was fantastic, one of the best villains in recent cinema history IMO) and lets not forget Michael Caine as Alfred.

Returns had great acting too, although I find Keaton's Bruce Wayne to be a little too wooden and emotionless most of the time. Even though the scene just before Selina kills herself is really well done, Keaton still seems a little wooden, I think Selina should have let his emotional side come out a little more.

In short, they're both great films in their own right, but in my opinion - from a film and character point of view, Batman Begins takes the top spot over Returns. Hands down.

Patrick said...

I don't know, I love the moment where Bruce rips off the mask, that's a huge thing for him, and I think the whole scene plays well. I've only seen Begins once, but it just seemed to lack an acknowledgement that there's got to be something wrong with a man who dresses up as a bat and fights crime. The whole point of the movie seemed to be to make being Batman make sense, while Batman Returns is all about how Batman is just as insane as the people he's fighting.

Anonymous said...

Hey...just to let toothpik and anyone else who reads this know...Catwoman does not kill herself...she is still very much alive, which you most definitely see in the last shot of the film.

Anonymous said...

This film is CRAP. Just those with a low IQ can enjoy it.

Anonymous said...

I love Returns as well. But to compare it to Batman Begins is like comparing apples and Oranges. They are both great films. The difference is that Batman Begins is a great definitive BATMAN movie whereas returns is a great dark fantasy/comedy epic that just happens to feature Batman in the movie. Two completely different kinds of films.

Chris said...

I left this movie with one thought banging around in my brain: "Too many villains." Someday (and that day may never come) I'm going to re-edit a copy of this on my own and remove all the penguin scenes. Then I'll have a movie!