Batman Returns ★★★★★

You're just jealous, because I'm a genuine freak and you have to wear a mask!

Batman Returns is a brooding Gothic burlesque of the whole Batman mythology—a grand and over-the-top farce of heroism, high society, and politics that revels not in saving the day or dooming it, but in the beauty and anguish and drama and tragedy of the ongoing fight for it.

Burton's style sticks to Batman like real, farm fresh butter on hot country toast. Gotham has never looked better than he makes it look, a gargantuan and infinitely deep web of industry and vice like Fritz Lang's Metropolis after a teleporter accident with Dracula's castle. The larger-than-life statues represent bygone ages and impossible ideals, looming massively and dramatically over the city. They're ashamed of us, and are hewn from marble far more perfect than our monstrous flesh.

And Elfman! He turns in the best score he's ever done. There's the still-definitive Batman theme, ominous but triumphant. The playful tiptoeing of Catwoman's antics (and the yowling strings of her transformation). The jazz quartet cover of "Superfreak"! My favorite, though, is the beautifully wrought march of the Penguin, which Elfman orchestrates and reorchestrates as mysterious, bombastic, mournful, and more in various renditions.

There's a humor here like nothing else in any other Batman film. It's so morbid and dark but never at the expense of delightful cheesiness. The previous film had the Joker himself, but here, even Batman smirks his way through a few one-liners, almost proud of himself for it each time. "Eat floor." "Meow." "Lawn dart!" Batman's one-scene career as a DJ. There's site gags, slapstick, prop comedy...even when vacant of an obvious joke, each frame of the film oozes a captivating sickly-sweet grime that can make you laugh just from how strange and incredible everything on-screen all at once is.

What makes a Batman film great is the way it utilizes its characters, and the trinity of Batman Returns—the bat, the cat, and the penguin—is phenomenal (and it's so, so often that superhero films fail to balance multiple villains well). Who is the Penguin but a symbol of all things abject, an inverse-Batman? Consider Bruce Wayne, an incredibly wealthy son of socialites stolen away by murder, who becomes a noble paladin for justice and a physical paragon. Consider Oswald Cobblepot, a pathetic son of socialites that deliberately abandoned him out of fear for his monstrousness, and then he only became more monstrous as an adult. Each takes the name of a strange winged animal, each hides their true nature from the public, and each hides in a secret sanctum inventing signature gadgets and weaponry. But in the end, Cobblepot is nothing more than an overgrown manbaby, too petulant and cruel in nature to have ever been capable of genuine good or heroism, or to have been anything else at all other than what he was.

The last time I watched this movie, it must've been Obama's first term. We live in a changed world now, one that's stranger than fiction and gets stranger ever day, and at some point it just may be so strange that Gotham City seems tame. To watch Cobblepot's flailing campaign for mayor today is to be disarmed with its prescience. You have a deplorable but crowd-winning outsider who usurps business-as-usual with an unpredictable political blitzkrieg. From the very start, it's not about a deep commitment to politics, but about public approval and adoration (and getting revenge on his enemies). This is a person not "made bad" or "turned bad" but someone who has always been bad. Someone who has always been a hateful, lechrous, grabby, vindictive, petty creature. Someone with inherited wealth and a famous name, has a weird hang-up about the size and shape of his hands, and whose narcissistic nature at least lets his establishment ally (who hates his guts) easily exploit his indignation to serve more complex agendas. Do I even need to say the name? DeVito delivers the greatest performance there never was of our sleazy showman-in-chief—a performance of a performer—and the greatest tragedy of this observation is that in our world, we got Penguin triumphant. It seems like the scripts diverge at the point when his horrid remarks, caught on tape, are revealed.

I'll say of Christopher Walken as Max Shreck, the Penguin's begrudging compatriot and the emblem of capitalist corruption, that there's significant humor in just how transparent and obvious his evil scheme is but how much impunity he has in working towards it anyway. Also, like a true crook, he steals every scene he's in. There could be costumed cretins flying up and over and all around him, but Shreck's unflappable visage and subtle seething tone subjugates everyone else beneath him. From goofing that he's going to kill his secretary (then actually doing it) to the brilliantly dense quip in his final scene, Walken hams it up and I wolf it down. Furthermore, the realization that the actor playing his son is doing his own Christopher Walken impression for the role is a realization that keeps me warm at night whenever I think about it. Pure poetry.

Catwoman, our other star, is the revolutionary icon we need. She is berated and devalued and then literally killed by capitalist conspiracy and patriarchal violence—the final blow in a lifetime of little destructions against her identity, worth, and agency. Then, she rises from the grave not like Jesus but like the cat from Pet Sematary. She returns to her docile studio apartment and cathartically smashes her answering machine, silencing forever every voice telling her what she should be/buy, then demolishes all of the other infantilizing commodities no longer needed by her new self. In the wake of her death, she is a void: no name, just a mask, and behind it is nothing but pure, distilled rage against the machine. Destroy men! Destroy consumerism! Destroy all this bullshit! She calls this faceless, bestial rage Catwoman. She may not know exactly who Catwoman is, or how to really comprehend her new anti-identity, but it's better than being the powerless person she once was. It all feels so much yummier. And she has not abandoned the femininity that once made her feel weak: as Catwoman, she has weaponized it. She's as seductive as a vampiress, striking poses and aiming gazes like a leather-clad Madonna, and she is dangerous and deadly and ferocious and unstoppable. Nine lives worth of revenge to dish out.

She is the counterpoint to Bruce Wayne, to Batman, the stalwart vigilante. She's right, you know, about Max Shreck: the law doesn't apply to monsters like him because he can buy his way out of any punishment. But she's also right about herself and Batman and the law, in that their rightful causes and crusades will never be lawful. Batman (hypocritically) clings to the same code of law that allowed Shreck to exploit so much already (and how telling that the lowly circus gang Batman's spent the whole movie mowing down get no such mercy). Catwoman knows that to let herself fall for Bruce is to pretend that that isn't a problem. She'd love it if she could go back to being Selina Kyle, poor meek Selina Kyle doting on some sweet husband in his castle—but Catwoman, naturally, would rather die!

Another thing: in this age of CGI hallucinations and green screen abundances, there is a distinct satisfaction in seeing ridiculous things happen on a screen and for those things to be real things that really did happen. The gimmicky umbrellas? Real. The giant duck? Real. The machine gun music box? Real. The army of penguins swarming the streets of Gotham with rockets on their backs? You bet your ass they're real! Fire, frenzy, and big, huge explosions everywhere, and each chaotic moment is truly awesome because it is truly awesome. Furthermore, the setpieces and props and costumes and prosthetics and over-the-top schemes are a bold display of comic book sensibility that is so frustratedly lacking from DC's (and even, to an extent, Marvel's) efforts. The film may be drenched in a glossy coat of black paint, but it is one hundred times closer to the colorful pages of superhero comics than the high-flying Batman v. Superman. It's like an after-hours episode of the 60s Batman show, and that's precisely why it works as well as it does.

It has been a long time since I've seen Batman Returns. If it's been a long time for you as well, then I very highly recommend letting him return to your screen sometime, too.

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