by Steve Habrat
While I credit Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman for shaping me into the hardcore fan of the Caped Crusader that I am, my favorite Burton Batman film is without question the bizarre 1992 sequel Batman Returns. Darker, uglier, and meaner than the 89’ original, Batman Returns is a macabre circus of freaks that goes right for the jugular in more ways than one. Burton punches up the violence, the gore, and the sexual innuendos that would make overly sensitive young children cower in fear and nurse scars for life. Burton still makes the grave mistake of putting more emphasis on the formation of the foes rather than Bruce Wayne/Batman’s demons that plague him but Keaton does still get the chance to elaborate on the classic character, giving him more depth here than in Batman. Criticized by many critics and fans for putting more thought into the gothic world of Gotham City than the storyline, Batman Returns does have an even more flamboyant style than the original film but with this style, Burton piles on a sense of dread that practically snaps the film in two. With Batman Returns, Burton goes full goth on the viewer and I love it.
Batman Returns flashes back thirty-three years and ushers us in to a the lavish home of the Cobblepots, a wealthy couple who has given birth to a deformed child that they quickly smuggle out into the snowy evening and dump into the Gotham City sewers. The film jumps to present day with the deformed Penguin (Played by Danny DeVito) readying his plot to reveal himself to the world. It is the Christmas season and hundreds of Gotham’s citizens have gathered in Gotham Square for the Christmas tree lighting ceremony held by the Mayor (Played by Michael Murphy) and crooked businessman Max Shreck (Played by Christopher Walken). The Penguin unleashes his merry gang of freaks onto the city as a diversion so he can kidnap Shreck and blackmail him into helping him re-emerge into the world. Shreck, meanwhile, takes out his frustration with the incident on his timid secretary Selina Kyle (Played by Michelle Pfeiffer) by threatening her and then shoving her out of a window in disgust. She survives the fall and in the wake of the accident, she takes to the streets as a mysterious leather-clad vigilante who enjoys helping women in trouble while also leaving a trail of destruction across Gotham. As the violence escalates, Commissioner Gordon (Played by Pat Hingle) is forced to call upon the mysterious Batman (Played by Michael Keaton) to protect the city.
You’d never guess that Burton was hesitant to return to the world of Gotham City because Batman Returns comes at the viewer like, well, a bat out of Hell. The film begins with the disturbing images of a horrified couple dumping a baby into frigid waters and then quickly shifts over to the Penguin unleashing the Red Triangle Circus Gang on the city to commit mass murder. He cuts the scene up with the Batsignal shooting up into the sky while Bruce Wayne sits sulking in his darkened study, alone and away from the world yet completely comfortable in this isolated world of darkness. He notices the signal in the sky and he dutifully stands up to ready himself for battle. This is one of my favorite scenes in any of the Batman films that have made it to the big screen. Now you understand why I prefer this film to the original blockbuster. Burton isn’t playing it safe anymore and he keeps the gloom up for slightly over two hours. We get to spend quite a bit more time with the man behind the cowl and Keaton continues to fascinate us. He has apparently learned to let love in, yet this time, the destruction is deadlier and he fidgets if he has to make a dash to the Batcave. Keaton sizzles when he plays off of Pfeiffer, who is both his love interest and his villain here. When the two are all dressed up and prowling the rooftops, get ready to have your world rocked. Their showdowns are explosive.
Batman Returns gives us a brief look at the tragedy that has given birth to the Penguin but it takes its good old time to really give us Catwoman, a sultry menace who aligns herself with both Batman and the Penguin. Her shift from timid to seductive is compelling and is a testament to Pfeiffer, who single handedly creates one of the best villains in this series of Batman films. In many ways, she overshadows most of the other villains because you never quite known if she is going to be playing friend or foe. Her origin, though slight cheesy, is one that will have the feminists cheering as she ditches the “His Girl Friday” routine and becomes a snarling liberator who warns the women she saves that they shouldn’t count on the BatMAN to save them anymore. After slicing up a mugger’s face, she whispers to the victim, “I am Catwoman. Hear me roar!” When she is paired up the slobbering sicko Penguin, a perverted freak of nature, it becomes a gothic Beauty and the Beast. DeVito is absolutely perfect as the sad sack Oswald Cobblepot, one who is eager to drain the citizens of their empathy and cackles behind closed doors at people’s gullibility. When he finally reveals his master plan, many may be covering their mouths in horror. Oh yes, Burton plans to go there and when one of Penguin’s gang members speaks up and tells Penguin that his plan may be a little too dark, he quickly reaches for his shotgun and blows the softie away. When I saw this in the theater, my jaw was on the floor.
Burton scales back some of his action in Batman Returns, making things a bit more claustrophobic but still thrilling nonetheless. There are lots of brawls in the snow-covered streets of Gotham between the vicious Red Triangle Circus Gang and Batman that are a lot of fun. The opening riot is appropriately shocking, especially when you see the whacked out appearance of the gang members. There is a fire-eater here, a pair of maniacs on stilts, and tons of freaks on motorcycles that don some horrifying skull masks. Near the end of the film, things take a turn into silliness with the Penguin unleashing hundreds of armed penguins on Gotham. It takes things into campy territory, which is a bit perplexing considering how dark the film was up until this big reveal. Burton regroups with a gruesome four way stand-off between a maskless Batman, a battered Catwoman, a dying Penguin, and a desperate Shreck, who seems slightly out of place in this trio of freaks. Much like the 89’ original, the effects have held up marvelously. Wait until you get a load of the scene where Batman glides over the chaos riddled streets of Gotham City, blending in with a swarm of bats that are filling the streets.
Batman Returns is certainly not a film for children and it erases some of the goofier elements that bothered me in Batman. Luckily, there is no villain dancing around the tunes of Prince, which was a giant relief. The plotline does get a bit weak in points, with the style masking the fact that the story is flying off the rails. Burton botches it at the end with the army of penguins and a funeral procession with six gigantic penguins, but I am willing to forgive due to how great the other 95% of this film is. Once again, Burton wastes the character of Commissioner Gordon, with the beloved ally only making a few minor appearances in all the action. Michael Gough shows up again as Alfred, the kind butler who realizes that he may have to aid Bruce in his battle against two foes looking to level Gotham. Walken is also a lot of fun as Shreck but he sort of clogs up the story at times. Overall, if Burton were hesitant to make this film, you’d never know it because it seems enthusiastically made. It also seems like he got a bit more freedom from the studio to really get weird. Once again, there are some minor tweaks to the stories, which will no doubt drive the fanboys like me nuts but I love this film because it dares to venture deeper into the darkness of the comic books. For that, Batman Returns remains my favorite Batman film from Burton.
Batman Returns is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
After the debacle that was 2010’s Alice in Wonderland, things could only look up for auteur Tim Burton. My initial reaction was not blame at Burton himself but rather was aimed at Disney, who I was certain was tinkering with Burton’s vision. Now we have a new Burton and Johnny Depp mash-up with a remake of the supernatural soap opera Dark Shadows, which is a small step up from Alice in Wonderland but not by much. Dark Shadows is half a good movie and half an even bigger disaster than Alice in Wonderland was. Depp has said in interviews that Dark Shadows is meant to do away with “vampires that look like underwear models”, which is an obvious jab at the perplexingly popular Twilight saga. While Dark Shadows does restore a smidgeon of honor to the vampire genre, Burton shoots his own film in the foot by tacking on an asinine climax that is slathered in CGI nonsense and a droll final showdown that is a stiff as they come. The ending of Dark Shadows left me wondering if Burton is indeed loosing some of his creative juice after all and Disney wasn’t fully to blame for the botched Alice in Wonderland.
Dark Shadows begins in 1782, with Joshua and Naomi Collins leaving Liverpool, England to begin a new life in North America. They bring with them their young son Barnabas, who grows up to be a wealthy playboy and master of Collinwood Manor, the Collins’ gothic seaside dwelling. Barnabas (Played by Johnny Depp) ends up breaking the heart of a witch named Angelique Bouchard (Played by Eva Green), who in turn puts a curse on the Collins to get revenge on Barnabas. After the horrific death of his parents and the love of his life leaping to her death, Barnabas finds himself cursed as a vampire and buried alive in a shallow grave by the fearful citizens of Collinsport, Maine. After being confined for 196 years, a construction crew accidentally frees Barnabas into the alien world of 1972. Confused by the new world around him, Barnabas returns to Collinwood Manor to find the once glorious estate in ruin. Barnabas is quickly introduced to family matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Played by Michelle Pfeiffer) and the rest of his dysfunctional descendants. Horrified but the state of the family, Barnabas sets out to restore honor to his family but finds himself pitted once again against the evil Angelique, who is determined to make his undead life even more of a living hell than it already is.
The first half of Dark Shadows is a hilarious fish-out-of-water tale about Barnabas trying so desperately to adjust to life in 1972. He tiptoes about Collinsport with weary caution, baffled by McDonalds, lava lamps, the board game Operation, and television (Trust me, there is tons more that intrigues Barnabas). Elizabeth’s rebellious teenage daughter Carolyn (Played by Chloe Grace Mortez) is appalled by Barnabas, especially when he mistakes her for a prostitute during the first meeting. Set to classic tunes from the Nixon era, Dark Shadows really finds its funky groove early on even if that groove is made up of dry humor. Things really get moving when Barnabas revives the family business, attempts to connect with his relatives (a conversation about wooing women with Carolyn is the highlight moment), and is tortured by Angelique. Half way through, it seems as if Burton remembered that he is making a film that will be released during the summer movie season. He crams the second half of Dark Shadows with nonsensical explosions, CGI creatures, narrow rescues, and a fiery final confrontation. It’s like Burton began making an entirely different movie altogether.
In addition to the quirky first hour, Depp and his supporting cast manage to keep Dark Shadows afloat even when the project falls apart around them. Speaking in a rich British accent and painted up in pasty white make-up, Depp’s Barnabas is one of the politest bloodsuckers to inhabit the screen. He apologizes when he drains one of his poor victims of blood and stands for a lady when she approaches the dinner table. When the vampire violence is called for, Depp becomes vicious but he remains delicate and sensitive for a good majority of Dark Shadows. Near the end, Burton attempts to sell Barnabas as an action hero, a requirement that Depp seems uncomfortable with and it’s blatantly obvious. In addition to his awkward turn at the end, Burton edges Depp out of the way almost completely to unleash multiple twists and reveals for the rest of the cast members. Yet overall, the entire film and the supporting cast really perk up when Depp enters the screen. His performance is silky smooth and his comedic timing is impeccable.
Burton fills the supporting roles of Dark Shadows with the usual suspects as well as several new faces. Burton’s squeeze Helena Bonham Carter shows up as orange haired Dr. Julia Hoffman, the family psychiatrist who is perpetually recovering from the night before and has an infatuation with staying young. Michelle Pfeiffer, who (funny enough) appears to not age, holds her own as the family matriarch Elizabeth. Pfeiffer has some razor sharp chemistry with Depp and I would have liked to have seen more. Christopher Lee has a brief cameo as a sailor who enjoys sipping beer in the local pub. As far as new faces go, the always-welcome Chloe Grace Mortez as Elizabeth’s daughter does rebellious teen a little too good and snags all the best moments with Depp. Eva Green smolders as the sexy Angelique, who seems on top of the world seducing and tormenting Barnabas. Bella Heathcothe as governess Victoria Winters checks in with a rather quiet and reserved performance. She isn’t given too much to do besides be wooed by Barnabas and interact with a CGI ghost. Jackie Earle Hayle as caretaker Willie Loomis, Jonny Lee Miller as Elizabeth’s irresponsible brother Roger, and Gulliver McGrath as Roger’s ghost-seeing son David all do a fine job but are given very little to do.
I wish that screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith had developed a better story that would have stretched through all 113 minutes of Dark Shadows. The film’s plot dries up halfway through, pauses for a musical intermission from Alice Cooper, and then continues to sputter by on fumes for the rest of its runtime. I couldn’t shake the feeling that Burton and the rest of his crew realized that they had a bunch of money left over so they decided to dump a bunch of unnecessary CGI into the hollow climax. Had Dark Shadows remained consistent, this could have been a serious return to form for the vampire genre, one that manages to be fun, sexy, thrilling, and, yes, creepy too, but Burton and Warner Brothers just couldn’t resist blowing a few things up to appeal to the summer movie crowd. At least Depp held it together and refused to allow Burton to drive a stake through his dignity.