In 1992, Tim Burton made a $65 million dollar art film. A sick, twisted black comedy, it was perhaps the most experimental blockbuster the multiplexes had yet seen – a vitriolic work of dark art that reeked of loathing and contempt. It was a little film called Batman Returns, and it may well be the finest superhero story ever committed to celluloid.
Batman Returns is a film at war with itself, a huge scale production that so obviously hates the idea of being a huge scale production. In some respects, it almost resembles Blade Runner, another epic more concerned with theatrics and philosophy than usual Hollywood trickery and tomfoolery.
Just like that Ridley Scott epic, Returns casts a bleak shadow over humanity. It’s a film that doesn’t much like us as a species, and though it ends on an ultimately triumphant note, you’ve got to crawl through a solid ten miles of sewer before you make it to the surface, and the light.
Even Batman himself, the film’s supposed hero, is a gothic protagonist rather than a knight in shining armour. He’s a kind of latex-bound Heathcliff, a Lord Byron who happens to solve crimes. Michael Keaton does a tremendous job of playing the chisel-cheeked hero, managing to be both studied and surreal, moving like a mime.
But as always, Batman himself isn’t half as interesting as the world in which he resides. Gotham is like Ayn Rand’s fever dream – all rigid angles and high, towering spires. It’s a kind of fairytale land, albeit one filled with marauders and murderers. It never aims for realism – indeed, it spurns the mundane at every available opportunity, coming to rest just on the outskirts of human imagination. Even a simple office block, the headquarters for the villainous Max Shreck (Christopher Walken, all jittery malevolent perfection), is a treacherous, transformed place.
And yet despite all its bleakness, Batman Returns is nothing but enjoyable, and it is on this level that it truly succeeds. It may be full of all manners of fluid – ranging from the black ooze that continually trickles out of The Penguin’s mouth to the vials of toxic waste and sewage that take up almost every inch of frame real estate – but it’s also funny. A lot of that humour stems from Danny DeVito’s Penguin, the veteran actor playing the villain as though he’s a kind of psychopathic lounge act – a sadistic emcee who spews threats as frequently as he spews one liners.
Demented versions of dad humor aside (“Could be worse. My nose could be gushing blood!”) the film is also impeccably directed. Tim Burton uses shades of grey the way Hollywood’s early masters used technicolour, and his ashy color palette is assembled to create a strangely compelling monochrome carnival.
Burton also remains in total control of tone. The film cartwheels from horror to humour, but it’s also dotted with odd moments of heart. A penguin funeral near the film’s climax proves genuinely moving, albeit in a kitsch, sadistic way, and Selina Kyle’s transition from crazy cat lady to crazy cat lady is oddly nuanced.
By the time it’s all over, Batman Returns has become a kind of brand upon the brain – an indelible imprint of colour, and violence, and slapstick. It’s less dour than the recent Batman films; more respectful of its audience than Joel Schumacher’s movies. In short: it’s a toxic masterpiece, a Blockbuster that never once feels like a Blockbuster.