Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Recap: "Batman Returns" Part 1: The Bat

Tim Burton, Christmas… I mean, The Nightmare Before Christmas showed that these two things go together like chocolate and peanut butter!

Then again, Henry Selick was responsible for a lot of that movie. Tim Burton’s got his fingers all up in this pie.

So what will it be, Burton?

A faithful, if stylized, adaptation of the source material?

Or a bizarre mishmash that can’t decide on its tone?

Really, I just want to know if this is going to be an Alice in Wonderland or… well, a Batman.
Before we begin, I think it's important to reiterate that Tim Burton doesn't consider Batman Returns to be a "sequel" to Batman. He seems to consider it more of a "continuation." Sure, the actors are back, and the creative team is, too, but Tim Burton was given more free reign to go nuts this time around, and he immediately began by crafting a new tale. And with it, he gave the film’s very look an overhaul, as well.

Gone is the half 40s, half 80s aesthetic. In its place, the gothic architecture, distinct makeup jobs, overt homages to German expressionist cinema, and other Burton-y touches are so pronounced that you could be forgiven for thinking that Edward Scissorhands, Jack Skellington, or even Pee Wee Herman might show up.

Oh, hey, it's Pee Wee Herman.
The month is December.

The location is Cobblepot Manor, Gotham City.

And Pee Wee is actually Tucker Cobblepot, looking out into the snow as his wife gives birth in the next room. As the newborn shrieks, the doctor and midwife run out of the room as Tucker runs in, only to shriek in horror himself.

So Tucker and his wife, a prototype Helena Bonham-Carter (Diane Salinger), soon find themselves staring out the winter at the Christmas snow, each with a martini in hand.

Could these two possibly be any upper-crustier?
In the other end of the room, their son sits in a makeshift cage with iron bars as his only portal to the outside world. A friendly cat comes along to keep him company, and he repays it by grabbing and pulling it inside, possibly either killing or eating it. Either way, that little act of inhumanity is the last straw for these two.

So the Cobblepots head out for a late-December stroll in the park. After they tip their baby into the Gotham River from off a bridge, carriage and all, the opening credits begin.

Okay, first things first.

Anyone who's familiar with the comics (or read my intro) knows that the baby is going to end up being Oswald Cobblepot, the Penguin.

Those familiar with the pre-1990s exploits of the character will also know that this was not the character's comic book origin. But a deformed child left to die, only to be raised by circus folk does resemble the story of another Batman villain: Killer Croc.

In the original comics, Penguin's story is that... well, he's rich and evil and has a long nose, which combines with his tuxedo to make him look like a Penguin. And he likes birds. That's it.

But Tim Burton just loves telling stories about deformed outcasts, so I’d imagine he probably had some input in the character’s creation, since early drafts of the script featured a tall, thin version of the Penguin.

Anyway, the baby's demented Moses reenactment ends as some Penguins come across his basket, and we cut to 33 years later... which is how old Jesus was when he was crucified.

So... random Bible imagery...? Because... birth of Christ? Christmas? Oswald Cobblepot is Jesus? And Moses? And in the climax, the Angel of Death, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Anyway, Gotham City seems to have ditched the 80s fashions since last we saw, going whole hog into the 1940s stylings. In general, the place seems to be looking up. Sure, it might just be all the Christmas decorations at work, but people seem to be walking the city relatively unafraid.

And speaking of those decorations, the police are busy blocking off parts of the road for the big tree-lighting ceremony in front of city hall. If you compare this to the Gotham bicentennial... well, there's no comparison. The bicentennial spent obscene amounts of money and couldn't provide a single balloon. There’s actually a tree for this celebration. Advantage: Christmas ceremony.

Of course, I wouldn't be surprised if Gotham's politicians made dang well sure to set aside some money in the budget for a tree-lighting ceremony, if only to prevent some costumed freak from holding his own murderous version. So it looks like the Calendar King has been foiled for now. The newsboy on the corner has no better headline to shill than "Penguin Man Living in Gotham Sewers," so it looks like Knox gave up on his Batman story.

The tree lighting ceremony is off to a good start, with at least... I don't know, fifty? A hundred people in the crowd?

I guess this is what happens when half the city gets gassed to death by a clown.
Anyway, the ceremony's Ice Princess (Christi Conaway) does her thing and pushes the big ol' button to light up the tree to the delight of the crowd. Little do they know that something is indeed stirring beneath the storm drains of Gotham.

I say "storm drains" because I really hope the Gotham sewer doesn't just connect to the street like that.
But above the sewers, Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Gough) finishes up his Christmas shopping, pausing only to deliver a verbal smackdown of the annoying paperboy.

Alfred: "My dear boy, sometimes, it's a diversion to read such rubbish. Most of the time, it's a waste of time."
“I’ll take five copies, please.”
He walks into Shreck's department store, owned by none other than Max Shreck himself. Shreck is currently conducting a business deal on the top floor of his building, just beneath the giant spinning head of his mascot.

Who I can only assume is the illegitimate lovechild of Felix the Cat and Minnie Mouse.
Max Shreck... oh, man, it must be Christmas.

Max Shreck is played by none other than Christopher Walken, one of the few men in this world of ours who can overact by underacting, as well as vice versa.

At this moment, Shreck is discussing his new power plant proposal with the mayor of Gotham. The Mayor in question is not Mayor Borg from the last film, and there's probably a good reason for that.

And not just because Batman teamed up with Captain Picard to keep him from assimilating Gotham.
We can assume that Batman took place earlier this same year. Now, Mayor Borg put all his time and effort into funding a Gotham bicentennial that went far over budget, despite not even successfully rounding up even a single balloon, and the festival was eventually funded by a gangster clown who took the opportunity to gas much of the crowd to death.

Yeah, Borg's not getting re-elected, I can tell you that. And I wouldn't be surprised if DA Harvey Dent took some blame, as well.

And I'd imagine Shreck here, being a wealthy businessman, probably helped get Gotham back on track after wasting all that festival money. In exchange, of course, for a favor or two from the new mayor, which he's now trying to cash in.

You know, Tim Burton said that this movie doesn't continue the story of the first one, but it really is building on existing plot threads nicely.

Anyway, Shreck wants to build a power plant, despite the fact that Gotham doesn't actually need one.

Mayor: "Max, all our studies show us that we've got enough power to get us through the middle of the next century."
Max Shreck: "Your analysts foresee growth at 1% per annum. That's not growth, that's a mild swelling."

"That reminds me, I need to schedule a doctor's appointment."
Max Shreck: "Imagine. A Gotham City... of the future."

Check.
Max Shreck: "Lit up. Like a blanket of stars... but blinking. On and off. Embarrassingly low on juice."

"That reminds me, I need to stop by the grocery store."
The mayor... I'll be calling him "Mayor Worthington, since not only does he not have a name, but it's the actor who played Warren Worthington II in X-Men 3. Anyway, he tells Shreck that he's simply going to have to go through the usual official channels to get this done; he won't rush the power plant into approval.

Secretary: "Um, I have a suggestion."

You know, I can't help but think that interrupting an official meeting between the mayor and a wealthy industrialist isn't the way to go about chiming in with your two cents, regardless of the point you have to make.

Secretary: "Actually, really, it's just more like a question."

Yeah, she hasn't exactly gotten the hang of the whole "time and place" thing.

Max Shreck: "I'm afraid we haven't properly housebroken Ms. Kyle."

Yes, this is none other than Selina Kyle, played by Michelle Pfeiffer.

Gone is the jewel thief adventurer, and gone is the former prostitute-turned-jewel-thief/vigilante. Remember, Tim Burton loves stories about people who don’t fit in. As such, Selina Kyle is now a socially-awkward secretary in a sexist workplace.

There’s something she reminds me of, but I can’t quite put my finger on it….
“Need some help?”
No, I think I just figured it out.

Max Shreck: "In the plus column, though, she makes a hell of a cup of coffee."

Some crusty white laughs spread throughout the room before Max's son, Chip (played by Andrew Bryniarski doing a Christopher Walken impression) comes in to tell him that it's time to give that speech at the tree-lighting ceremony. The men all file out, leaving Selina alone to berate herself over her awkward interruption.

Selina: "You stupid corn dog!"

Whoa, there's no need to go that far, Selina. Chili dog? Maybe, but certainly not corn dog. Have some self esteem.

Shreck, Mayor Worthington, and the others exit the building as a strange figure waddles through the sewers beneath their feet. As they wade through the crowd, Shreck somberly tells the mayor that he has enough signatures from his employees alone to warrant a recall.

Mayor Worthington: "Maybe. But you don't have an issue, Max, and you sure as hell don't have a candidate."

But the threats end as they reach the podium and put on a cheerful face for the crowd. The mayor wishes Gotham Happy Holidays before introducing a man who needs no introduction, Max Shreck. Shreck decides to play the crowd a bit by tossing some nearby gifts into the crowd, which I can only imagine is causing some reporters to pat themselves on the back for coming up with "Shreck the Halls" as a headline, unaware that every other reporter in the crowd has come up with the same pun.

Shreck pats himself down real quick, discovering that his speech is gone. It's currently on the top floor of the Shreck building, where Selina suddenly remembers that she forgot to hand it to her boss. Shreck tells his son to remind him to take it out on "what's-her-name" (possibly demonstrating that Selina has suffered repeated verbal abuse from her boss) and instead decides to just wing it.

Max Shreck: "Santa Claus? 'Fraid not. I'm just a poor schmo. Got lucky."

"Now? I'm a rich schmo."
Max Shreck: "Sue me... if I want to give something back."

"But seriously, don't sue me. Or I'll see you in court. And only one of us can afford to bribe the judge."
"...Which, ah, is a joke. Of course. Ha. I'm such a joker."
"Not like the Joker, obviously. I mean, I certainly haven't filled Gotham with nutty chemicals. That you know of."
"...This is going well."
Max Shreck: "I only wish I could hand out more than just expensive baubles. I wish I could hand out world peace and unconditional love. Wrapped in a big bow."

And a gigantic Christmas present wheels up behind the crowd, as if to punctuate Shreck's closing remark.

Mayor Worthington: "Great idea."
Max Shreck: "Not mine."

And as if the reign of terror caused by one evil clown wasn't bad enough, several emerge from the giant present in a burst of confetti to bring mayhem to the streets Gotham.

Selina exits the building just in time to get caught up in said mayhem. Clowns attack people with sleds, ride around on motorcycles, shoot off hidden machine guns, the works.

Commissioner Gordon (Pat Hingle) gives the order to shine the signal as we cut to STATELY WAYNE MANOR, where Bruce is deep in thought.

Whatcha thinkin' 'bout, Bruce?

"Oh, you know. Vengeance."
That's nice.

Anyway, his thoughts are interrupted by a set of mirrors on the roof that rotate to shine the Batsignal directly into his study

Great visual, but people are going to wonder why there are Batmirrors on STATELY WAYNE MANOR.
The gang's organ grinder demands "the guy who runs the show" give himself up. But when the mayor does just that, he angrily clarifies that he meant Shreck. Shreck tries to escape in all the chaos as Chip attempts to slow them down with the standard "You'll have to go through me first" routine.

And so, as a strange figure waddles around the sewer, Batman soon arrives on the scene in the Batmobile, starting things off by activating this weird platform thing to trip some fire-twirlers on stilts. And in case you thought that was a weird and convenient thing for the Batmobile to have, he shoots out some bolas to knock down the skull-faced bikers. And then he activates this weird pole thing that comes out of the bottom of the Batmobile, lifts it up, spins it around, and uses the jet exhaust to set a devilish-arson-clown on fire.

And that's not even getting into the clowns he ran over.
So... yeah. Batman sure is brutal this time around. Moreso than in the first film. I'll address that eventually.

Apparently, Selina Kyle lost her glasses in the hubbub. When she spots them and goes to retrieve them, a nearby clown decides to use her as a hostage, since Batman has gotten out of his car to take some clowns down by hand. The made-up menace threatens Selina with a taser, so Batman uses his grapnel to pull down a section of wall on his head, knocking the clown right out. Selina responds by kicking the clown in the head and stuttering.

Selina: "Wow. The Batman. Or is it just 'Batman'?"

Since Batman has better things to do than listen to Selina Kyle act like an over-the-top Kara Danvers, he leaves to go beat up more clowns.

Selina: "Well, that was very brief. Just like all the men in my life."

Yeah, get used to her narration. Selina Kyle is a big fan of “tell, don’t show.” Okay, to be fair, “show by telling.” She’s a socially awkward woman who might not have the firmest grasp on her marbles in the first place, so her ramblings do fit the character. Even if they do veer into clunky exposition at times.

As she picks up Max's speech, she finds the clown's dropped taser. After testing it out on the unconscious clown just for funsies, she decides to take it for herself. Ostensibly for self-defense purposes, but mostly just to set up the film’s ending.

And also to show that perhaps she's a few kittens short of a litter.
Batman meets up with Commissioner Gordon, who helpfully informs him that the Circus Gang is back.

"The clowns were a bit of a giveaway."
And the mayor tells Batman that they were after Max Shreck... wherever he is. Which turns out to be an alleyway, having escaped from the hubbub, but a rather convenient trap door drops him into the sewers.

We then cut to the abandoned Gotham Zoo and its many exhibits.

Dinosaur ribs, rubber ducks...

...a giant enemy crab....
...and finally, the Arctic World exhibit, where Max soon wakes up to find himself on a concrete island in the arctic habitat. Before him, at a surprisingly fancy banquet table, sits the gang of clowns. To his left, a bunch of penguins.

This raises a lot of questions.
I get that the Gotham Zoo is abandoned, but the animals are usually shipped to other zoos before they shut the place down. Unless these are just the gang's pets/mascots that they got elsewhere. After all, their leader seems to have a bit of an affinity for them.

And a bit of a resemblance.
This is the Penguin, played by Danny DiVito.

Penguin: "I believe the word you're looking for is 'aaaaaaaauuuuuuuuuggghhh!'"

Yeah, if you were harboring any hopes of a well-spoken, gentlemanly bastard, as is traditional for the character... you're SOL.

Penguin: "Actually, this is all just a bad dream."

People who dislike this film agree.

Penguin: "You're at home in bed. Heavily sedated, resting comfortably, dying from the carcinogens you've personally spewed in a lifetime of profiteering. Tragic irony? Or poetic justice? You tell me."

Shreck puts the pieces together and figures out that the so-called Penguin Man is holding him hostage while aid Penguin Man puts on a pair of specially-made gloves in order to minimize the amount of time Danny DiVito has to wear the prosthetics to make his fingers appear fused together.

Penguin heads over to an umbrella stand and starts testing out his trick umbrellas. A flamethrower, a stabby one, et cetera. As he searches, he give a little villainous monologue.

Penguin: "Odd as it may seem, Max. You and I have something in common."

You both look like Henry Selick's stop-motion figurines come to life?

Penguin: "We're both perceived as monsters. But somehow, you're a well-respected monster. And I am, to date, not."

Max Shreck protests the idea that he's some kind of "monster," but Penguin knows better than to fall for Shreck's smooth talk. As he talks, he spins an umbrella with a spiral design in front of Shreck.

Max Shreck: "What is that, supposed to hypnotize me?"
Penguin: "No. Just give you a splitting headache!"

And when the spiral fails, Penguin fires a blank as a jumpscare.

See, this is all Penguin's version of psychological warfare. He called Shreck down into the sewers for a reason. (Side note: I just realized that the Gotham sewers and/or storm drains all lead directly to the Arctic exhibit at the Gotham Zoo. No wonder it closed down.)

Penguin: "I've been down here too long. It's time for me to ascend."

"Up where they walk! Up where they run! Up where they play all day in the sun!
Wandering free, wish I could be… part of your world."
And Penguin not only wants Max's help gaining respect from the surface dwellers, but he wants to find his parents and reconnect with his family. Thing is, for all his talk about wanting to give something back, Max Shreck isn't really too interested in helping this Penguin-Man simply out of the goodness of his heart.

So it's time for a little good ol' fashioned blackmail!

From a stocking with Max's name on it, Penguin whips up a thermos full of toxic waste from Shreck's "clean" textile plant.

Penguin: "There's a whole lagoon o' this crud in the back!"
Max Shreck: "That coulda come from anywhere."

"I mean, have you seen the filth spewed out by the Ace Chemical Company?"
"I have!"
Penguin: "What about the documents that prove you own half the firetraps in Gotham City?"
Max Shreck: "If there were such documents... that's not an admission... I would've seen to it they were shredded."

But Penguin has that covered, thanks to some tape and patience.

Come on, Walken, I expected you to be better at covering your tracks.
I've seen how far you're willing to go to hide a watch.
Penguin: "By the way, how's Fred Atkins, your old partner?"
Max Shreck: "Fred? Fred's actually... I believe he's on extended vacation. He's good."

Which is Penguin's cue to whip out Fred's severed hand.

Penguin: "You wanna greet any other body parts?"

This film was deemed "too dark" for kids? Can't imagine why.
With all this evidence piling up, Max wisely decides that it might be time to cut a deal. And maybe the Penguin can even do something for Shreck in return. And the two men shake hands on their villainous alliance.

Well, technically, one of them shakes hands.
Elsewhere in Gotham, above the streets, Selina Kyle enters her apartment.

Selina: "Honey, I'm home! ...Oh, wait, I forgot. I'm not married."

You know, they say the first sign of madness is talking to yourself.

You're already long gone by the time you start talking to corpses.
She goes through her usual routine, letting in the local stray cat for a little milk.

Selina: "What? How could anyone be so pathetic? Yes, to you I seem pathetic, but I'm a working girl. Gotta pay the rent. Maybe if you were chipping in instead of stepping out...."

Man, Selina puts herself down a lot.

As she unfolds her fold-up bed, she listens to her phone messages. The first one is from her mother, who criticizes her choice to stay in Gotham for the holidays, live in Gotham, and work as a "lowly secretary."

Selina: "Lowly assistant."

The next message is from her boyfriend (I think), who won't be going on some trip with Selina anymore because of advice from his psychiatrist. And after a message from a rather misogynistic perfume advertisement, she gets a message from herself, reminding her to go back to work and do that stuff she forgot to do.

And so, Max Shreck ends up finding her going through some files in the office. To assist Mr. Shreck with the meeting with Bruce Wayne tomorrow, she pulled the files on the power plant proposal, even opening the protected files.

Selina: "I figured your password was 'Geraldo,' your chihuahua, and it was."

That's what you get for keeping your stuffed dog on the filing cabinet, Max.
And Selina proves that she went through the protected files by mentioning that the power plant wouldn't actually produce any energy, rather suck it up from other power plants, acting as a capacitor.

Or as John Henry Irons calls it, a capaci-tor.
Max asks who she's told about this, and she replies "nobody," like all would-be whistleblowers who end up mysteriously dead.

Max Shreck: "What did curiosity do to the cat?"
Selina: "I'm no cat."

Get it?

As he backs her up against the window, she stutters that she won't tell anybody, but Max starts doing that crazy Walken-whisper.

Max Shreck: "This power plant...is my legacy. It's what I leave behind. For Chip. Nothing must prevent that."
Selina: "Okay. Go ahead. Intimidate me. Bully me, if it makes you feel big. I mean, it's not like you can just kill me."
Max Shreck: "Actually... it's a lot like that."

As she starts whimpering, he smiles and goes "Hanh?", indicating that he's just joking around. Selina breathes a sigh of relief, only for her next few breaths to become screams of terror as Max shoves her out the window, through some awnings, and onto the ground below.

You know, I really think it really shows what kind of craphole Gotham still is when Shreck can just push Selina Kyle out the window on a whim. I mean, honestly, her death would probably be chalked up as a suicide, either because it's Gotham City or because Max will pull some strings.

But the point ends up being moot.

Dozens of stray cats surround her and start chewing her fingers until her eyes flutter open. Whether the cats did some kind of mystical whatever, or if the awnings broke her fall is unclear. But she soon arrives back home, where she goes through a warped version of her routine, flatly repeating her comments about not being married, knocking things on the ground, chugging some milk, and finally, playing her new phone messages.

As if her mother's "Why haven't you called me back?" comments weren't bad enough, she gets another perfume ad.

Message: "One whiff of this in the office, and your boss will be asking you to stay after work for a candlelight staff meeting for two."

The reminder of what just happened in the office is enough to make her freak out and start trashing her apartment. Stuffed animals get shoved down the garbage disposal, pictures get smashed by a frying pan....

This is your brain after being brought back to life by cats. Any questions?
...she starts spraying a line of paint on the walls, graffitis her clothes, breaks her "HELLO THERE" sign, spray paints and smashes her dollhouse, and finally gets to work sewing a costume out of a vinyl jacket.
It might seem random that she suddenly makes an outfit for herself, but remember how awestruck she was when she saw Batman in person.

And a new identity would be perfect for her to let out everything she’s been repressing. She’s been treated like dirt at work, the people in her life abandon her and make demands of her… it’s very possible that she’s been burying her true feelings and covering her world in artificially pink cheer. Stuffed animals, a dollhouse, a neon sign… her apartment is basically a land of smiles and sunshine, which might be her way of coping with how the world has been treating her.

But she’s finally had enough. And if being Selina Kyle hasn’t been working for her, then the solution must be to become something else.

And soon enough, she tries out her new costume in the illumination of her brand-new "HELL HERE" sign.

I like to think that somebody in an adjacent building watched the whole thing happen and immediately decided to move to Metropolis to avoid the oncoming storm.
Coming up in Part 2! Batman might show up for more than a couple minutes.

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