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Batman Returns (1992)

by on 2010/12/20

“I wish I could hand out world peace and unconditional love …wrapped in a big bow.”

* * * *

Snow falls on a stone mansion. A rattling cage under a white Christmas tree. The household cat dies bloody.

Murderous parents. Screams in the night. Long stroller rides down deep, black sewers. Candy cane-striped missiles. Killer clowns that belch forth from exploding Christmas presents.

This is Christmas …by Tim Burton.

As far as unconventional Christmas movies go, this 1992 classic is right up there. There’s always a spot in my black, black heart for Tim Burton Batman movies. In fact, Batman Returns is my very favourite of the entire collection, one of the darkest of the dark.

In this film, even the penguins look like black ravens – harbingers of death.

In a truly creepy stand-out performance, Danny DeVito plays Oswald Cobblepot, the abandoned child of wealthy Gotham elite parents. After he’s chucked into the sewer by his martini-swilling mom and dad, he is raised by penguins, joins the freak show and generally fails to come to terms with his fairly significant issues. Now an adult, with a legion of criminal circus performers at his command, Oswald Cobblepot the “Penguin” returns to exact revenge on Gotham City days before Christmas.

The always-fascinating Christopher Walken plays corrupt Gotham mogul Max Schreck. Playing a character named for the renowned German actor Max Schreck, Walken’s performance shares much of the same unblinking reptilian grace of the Nosferatu (1921) star.

Now Max just might be one of the worst bosses ever, something I know a thing or two about. In this case, Max doesn’t suffer the mousey foolishness of his secretary Selina Kyle much at all. A word on the brilliant film-making at play here, they actually make beatific Michelle Pfeiffer seem drab – coke-bottle glasses, brown suit, sensible shoes, orange lipstick. Simply amazing.

When her twitchy conscientiousness – uncovering secret files while prepping for Mr. Schreck’s morning meeting –  ticks off her spooky boss for the last time, Schreck heaves Selena out the window. That beats all of my bad boss stories hands down.

The Catwoman origin scenes, bar none, are worth the entire price of admission of this entertaining film. Pale, prone and unconscious on the back alley pavement, Selina’s brought back to life by hordes of bitey felines. Pfeiffer is simply amazing in her transformation from mousey to murderous lioness.

Returning home to crush her answering machine filled with messages from her nagging mother, spray-painting her sad pink apartment black, shoving her sock monkey and teddy bears down the garberator, she sheds the mewling Miss Kyle identity for the snarling, hissing Catwoman persona. Pfeiffer is divine in her new shiny, cross-stitched leather.

Turns out Max Schreck, in addition to being a bad boss, is a pretty terrible human being in um, general. The things he’s been hiding have been amassed as a rather significant body of evidence (literally) against him. And black-ooze drooling Oswald’s got his number.

As Oswald vividly explains: “What you put in your toilet, I put on my mantle. …What you flush, I flaunt.” The shredded files and dismembered body parts that Mr. Schreck has flushed are enough to convince Schreck he has no choice but to rehabilitate Oswald Cobblepot’s public image in exchange for the fat Penguin’s silence. Using Max’s significant resources and connections, a sham kidnapping of the mayor’s baby is manufactured, Oswald waddles into the rescue and is immediately heralded as a city hero.

Only Bruce Wayne/Batman (Michael Keaton) is wise to Oswald’s scam. Michael Keaton was a very interesting Batman. He has absolutely none of the rugged physicality and gravitas of Christian Bale. Keaton was the wiry, self-doubting, neurotic Batman. Therefore, he’s my Batman.

Batman plays sleuth, uncovering the Penguin’s nefarious plans and foils this villain’s attempt to become mayor. Batman alternately battles the Penguin and the lovely Catwoman, trades quips with Alfred (Michael Gough) and becomes smitten with Selena Kyle doing her day job. There’s never a dull moment in Batman Returns.

Darkly comic dialogue, brilliantly acted, and filled with eccentric and clever action sequences, this Batman is the perfect antidote to too many sugar plums this Christmas. Cut through the treacle this holiday season with Mr. Burton and Batman Returns.

* * * *

126 minutes

PG-13 for brooding dark violence, particularly the scene where the Penguin bites a marketing flack’s nose. But who hasn’t wanted to do that at least once?

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