R0BTRAIN's Bad Ass Cinema: Batman Retuns

The new film version of Catwoman was a blight across the cinematic landscape of 2004. In a year loaded with terrible movie experiences, Catwoman was the undisputed champion of bad movies. But why did this movie become the aberration that it was? Catwoman has a pretty decent legacy in comics and even on screen, so it should have been possible to put out at least a decent, palatable film of similar quality to Daredevil or Hellboy. Instead, the reputation of one of DC Comics best femme fatales is ruined in full “Joel Schumacher-like” fashion. At least Catwoman had her moments in the sun in previous incarnations, before her nine lives ran out with this picture. The sequel to 1989’s highest grossing film Batman Returns featured the villainess in all of her patent leather glory. It is a movie that not only changed who she was on screen, but also changed the character on the pages of DC.

Catwoman was created in 1940 and made her first appearance in Batman #1, which also marked the first appearance of the Joker. She was initially conceived by Batman creator Bob Kane and Bill Finger to be a female foil/love interest for Batman. The authors thought it would be a good idea to add a little sex appeal into the comic and also thought the character would attract new female readers to the book. While not appearing in costume in her debut, Catwoman would soon dawn the familiar mask fans of the series have grown to love.

Much like Batman himself, Catwoman as a character was highly effected by the 1960’s television show. Portrayed by three different sultry women in the show’s run and spin-off movie, Catwoman was thrust into the spotlight as one of Batman’s most popular villains. One is hard-pressed to decide which of the three performances of the villainess is the best.
The first appearance of Catwoman in the series was made by Julie Newmar. Newmar brought the character to a new level of sex appeal. The form fitting costume the actress and former dancer filled out so gracefully on the show actually became the costume that Catwoman wore in the comics. Eartha Kitt’s performance as Catwoman made her much more menacing. Kitt did not fit into the costume as well as Julie Newmar did, but still Kitt’s voice and mannerisms made the character her own. The final Catwoman was Lee Meriwether who appeared as Catwoman in the 1966 Batman: The Movie. Because she made the least amount of appearances as the character she is generally regarded as the least of the three, but her alter ego in the film Comrade Kitanya ‘Kitka’ Irenya Tantanya Karenska Alisoff, is a very funny and appealing interpretation of Catwoman.

While the show was generally perceived as a detriment to Batman and comics in general, the opposite was true for Catwoman. The series was responsible for giving the character new life and helped to bring a new prominence to the femme fatale. This was not the end of the character’s evolution. Much like many characters in DCU, Catwoman was revamped in the 1980’s. Much credit goes to Frank Miller for the conceiving of a new origin for Catwoman. In Miller’s Batman: Year One Catwoman’s alter ego Selina Kyle begins as a prostitute and small time thief, who takes the persona of a cat when taking on her life of crime. This was followed up in Miller’s The Dark knight Returns where Selina is a full fledged Madame of high priced hookers. The character’s darker edge made her even more popular.

In 1989, Batman ruled the box-office pulling in $250million dollars domestically. The time was ripe for a sequel, but this film had to be even bigger than the first. From the Caped Crusader’s rogues gallery producers had already picked the Penguin to follow Jack Nicholson’s Joker as the film’s heavy. To add even more fire to this mix, a new Catwoman would also walk the streets of Gotham. The move would once again redefine the character.

Batman Returns Starring Michael Keaton and Michelle Pfeiffer. Directed by Tim Burton

The sequel begins with the birth of Oswald Cobblepot. Although usually a momentous occasion, this new life brought into the world is met with disdain. Forward to another moment as only Oswald’s hand seen sticking out of a cage fashioned to conceal the boy. The parents’ disgust is obvious as Oswald murders and eats a household pet. Finally the elder Cobblepots’ wish to seal the fate of their child is witnessed. The couple puts their young abomination into a basket and throws him into a river. Unbeknownst to the Cobblepots, the tike ends up floating into the Gotham Zoo.

Flash forward to present day Gotham and rumors abound of a mysterious Penguin man of the sewers. The rumors are confirmed when the Penguin’s gang attacks a Christmas celebration held by the Mayor of Gotham and the City’s richest citizen Max Schreck. Though the ruckus is stopped by Batman, the Penguin makes off with the wealthy businessman. Kidnapping Schreck and taking him back to the sewers, the deformed Penguin reveals that he knows of Schreck’s underhanded business practices and blackmails the Gothamite into helping him.

Upon Max’s release, he finds his secretary, the fragile Selina Kyle, rummaging through his papers. Kyle has discovered that Schreck plans to swindle the city out of millions of dollars, but upon her attempt to beg leniency from Max, he throws the young woman out of a high rise window. Miraculously, Kyle survives only to be awakened by cats that have surrounded her and attempted to nurse her wounds. Going back to her apartment, Kyle fashions a patchwork costume out of a rubber coat and proceeds to rain havoc on the streets of Gotham as her sexy (and slightly psychotic) new alter ego, Catwoman.

Max is shocked when Selina shows up for work the next day, but has more pressing concerns with other plans in front of him. First, he must try to convince Bruce Wayne to push forward his proposal for a new power plant, which is really a plan to suck power from the city. Second, he must move forward on the plan of his new partner, Oswald Cobblepot, to get the Penguin elected to office. Caught in the middle is Batman, who must now contend with two new costumed villains running loose in his city. The Penguin and Catwoman team up to try and frame the Dark Knight, but Batman manages to turn the situation to his advantage and cost Cobblepot the election. To make matters worse, Bruce Wayne has fallen for Selina Kyle, but suspects she has a darker side she is not showing him.

The remainder of the film is a plot of betrayals, revenge and action of Shakespearean proportions as Cobblepot takes his revenge on the wealthy citizens of Gotham by kidnapping their first-borns, Catwoman conspires to take retribution on Schreck, and Batman must stop an entire army of cyborg penguins.

Few people argue that Batman Returns is better than its 1989 forerunner. The film has much more of a comic book feel than the original Batman which is both a good and bad thing. Director Tim Burton seems to burst at the seams with creativity and let’s nothing hold his vision back. Any other film that featured an army of penguins would feel absolutely ridiculous, but Burton seems to hold the picture together with his combination of quirkiness and atmosphere.

Helping Tim Burton with the look of the film is new production designer Bo Welch. Welch’s sets have a funhouse look that works for most of the picture. Most effective is the Penguin’s lair inside the Gotham City Zoo, which serves as a huge amphitheatre for the Penguin’s musings. The film’s biggest problem is that it seems harder to take seriously because it seems less real then the previous entry. The Gotham of Batman was an extreme gothic look at a dark and dingy city, but the city seemed like a real place. There are just times in this sequel where the sets look and feel as if they’re on a stage.

Just as Nicholson’s Joker stole the show in the first film, Returns belongs to Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman. The actress totally becomes Selina Kyle in this film for the sexiest role of her career. Pfeiffer is also successful in creating a lot of pathos for the character as she is undeserved of her fate and her quest for revenge seems justified. Pfeiffer’s Catwoman is now the premiere performance of the character and should have provided a blueprint for the 2004 movie, but instead the character was made a mockery of and a spin-off franchise was killed before it even reached theatres.

Danny DeVito is the darkest look at the Penguin ever. Those audience members looking for a simple reprisal of the character portrayed by Burgess Meredith in the TV show were most assuredly shocked to find what Burton and DeVito had devised for the character. Penguin is the embodiment of the dark underbelly of Gotham City. The character had never reached the depths of DeVito’s performance on television or on the pages of DC, and probably never will again.

Much improved is Michael Keaton’s Batman. This time out, Batman is given a sharp wit and much more humor is injected into his scenes. This is much more in tune with most versions of the Dark Knight. Keaton does a lot less brooding, but puts enough distance between himself and everyone else to stay true to the character. Unfortunately once again, Batman himself is the odd man out as the story is filled with so many villains that the film leaves little room for the title character. In his defense, Keaton makes the most of all his scenes in the movie.

The funniest role in the film belongs to Christopher Walken as Max Schreck. The role is just so absurdly out there that Walken seems to fit right into it. The whole “Santa Claus” speech seems like it was tailor made for Walken’s speech patterns. The character is also an homage to the actor Max Schreck, who played the vampire in Nosferatu. The only unfortunate thing about the role is that it was originally intended to be Harvey Dent, who was played by Billy Dee Williams in the first movie. The role has many political implications and would have been an amazing transition for Harvey Dent turning into Two-Face. This would have gone against continuity, but as it turned out in Batman Forever when the role went to Tommy Lee Jones, Two-Face was merely remade into a Joker clone instead of the strong mirror image of Batman that he is in the comics. Continuity or no, Billy Dee would have been able to separate himself from Jack’s Joker and brought something original to the series instead of just another cookie cutter madman. On the positive end of the Schreck role is Andrew Bryniarski who plays Schreck’s son, Chip. Bryniarski mimics Walken’s voice cadence in the film, which ends up being an absolutely hilarious send up of the actor’s style. Bryniarski went on to play Leatherface in the new version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but his impression of Walken in this film is the best thing he’s ever done.

As expected, Batman Returns was a huge hit and was the biggest film of 1992. Two more sequels directed by Joel Schumacher would follow, but they would only squander the momentum and success built by Burton’s films. The film’s biggest triumph was probably the evolution of Catwoman, who is now bigger than ever in the DC storylines. Because of the success of the film and Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, the character received her own title and it is still running strong today. Unfortunately, the character will have to rebound again after the disaster of Halle Berry’s movie, but somehow the character will endure. Through sheer persistence or perhaps just nine lives, Catwoman will be back. Just you wait.