Batman at 75: The Ultimate Festive Favourite – Batman Returns

The Penguin - Batman's Santa Claus

 

From a comic universe ice-packed with cold foes, and a franchise often shovelling snow and ice, Batman Returns sits at the top of the tree as the most festive of the Batman films. One of Tim Burton’s finest hours, and the one that pissed off McDonalds.

BATMAN RETURNS PUTS ANOTHER TYPE OF BIRD INTO THE CHRISTMAS STUFFING MIX.  THE “YULETIDE CONTEXT” AS CHRISTOPHER WALKEN’S MAX SHRECK CALLS IT, IS UNAVOIDABLE IN A FILM WITH MANY A CHRISTMAS TREE POPPING UP, BUT IT’S HARDLY AN OVERRIDING MESSAGE.  The Penguin may have been born on Christmas Day (unconfirmed, but he’s certainly a Capricorn), he may be ascending at the meaningful age of 33, but most of the Biblical strands woven through Returns are stridently Old Testament.  The Book of Exodus is the most prominent.  The Penguins origin echoes Moses’ – exchanging cyperaceae for sphenisciformes – And it’s the feathery fiend who later enacts his own variation of the Plague of the Firstborn in vengeance.

Packed alongside are more Christmas elements than you could shake a cute umbrella at.  There are the pantomime villains, Dickensian grotesques (much to Alfred’s constant disdain) and even a morally flawed business man with the shock of white hair who obviously has little time for festivities beyond his annual Maxquerade ball. “Hard and sharp as flint” especially when protesting that he’s no monster. There’s also time for the type of remote controlled car that the Penguin might place under your tree (“I don’t like surprises”) and the anthropomorphic animals that still grace many a Disney film. And then there’s the omnipresent snow. Amid a high murder rate and constant explosions, there’s perpetual snow.

All of these elements and more combine to create an irresistibly stylised fairy tale tone and picture that could comfortably, and lazily, be termed Burtonesque. Even 22 years later.

The Dark Knight Ascends

“Peace and unconditional love, wrapped in a big bow”

Following the events of the undoubtedly brilliant Batman, albeit a film that solved its main character’s struggle a little too explicitly, we found Gotham not only at a different time of year but in a different frame of mind.  It’s a huge change, triggered by both on and off screen events.  If Batman was what Burton described as a duel of the freaks, Returns raises the game. The mob’s nowhere to be seen. The freaks and the capitalist power-brokers are in charge, happy to jostle for power, with Gothamites ripe for exploitation.  Merry Christmas. Batman is well known, on first name terms with villains he’s never met and condoned by the police. Rumour has it, a scrapped scene would have seen a Batman merchandise store in the city; for Gothamites to grab their last minute Bat-stocking fillers.

“Our Community is coming apart in a season when it should be coming together”

There’s a power vacuum with a Mayor constantly apologising to a town that he hopes gets its “first merry Christmas in a good long while”.  Away from the first film’s open air jaunting around key points of Gotham, here we dwell on a far closer part of the city. It’s laughable as Gotham’s plaza if you think about it – but it’s highly effective onscreen.  While crowds pile into the Plaza to see the lighting of a Christmas tree, we see Michael Gough’s Alfred literally stepping over the Penguin. It’s a blunt metaphor, but when you have an Alfred this irascible and mischievous it’s a shame he can’t be in every scene.

Behind the camera, despite the vast expense of storing the first film’s sets at Pinewood Studios, production had moved to giant soundstages in California.  And crucially, Anton Furst the extraordinary visual stylist of the first film wasn’t involved. Hence a Gotham condensed to a Californian sound stage in the form of a highly tuned Rockefella Plaza, with the giant Pinkney sculptures acting as bookend to an enormous Christmas tree.

Gotham on Film

“The Penguins are moving above ground”

This year’s Gotham on Film series paid a closer look to the design and function of Gotham in the second Burton film:

“Crucially Anton Furst was contractually unable to join the production and although it was distilled from his concepts and is clearly the same city (as the first film), it’s as distilled as the animal metaphors that run up, down and around it. The action is reduced, boiled down to a central plaza that’s unexpectedly… small. It’s the practicality of a city constrained by the walls of a film set, although ironically the magnitude of the set and its many details can never quite be grasped on screen.  That said, the stylisation works in pushing up the unreality stakes – particularly at Christmas. And Gotham at Christmas is superb.

“Though this is a smaller gathering, it’s even more vertical than the first film, mainly thanks to the natural tendencies of the Cat and umbrella powered Penguin. It all helps to create a further stylised illusion, concave verticals focussing on the city’s interior… (Gotham City Plaza small though it is) takes on a political role, replacing the Monarch Theatre of the last film while danger lurks further afield or high above (a clearly neglected Gotham).”

Gotham City on Film I – Ill Met by Moonlight

Here Gotham is more than the canvas for Batman to grow against; her greater role is signified by her significant, if not total, hand in creating each of the film’s villains. She’s created the, far greater, vertical height of wealth from which Max Shreck stares down on his powerbase; when he pushes the hapless Selina Kyle to her doom it’s the City that breaks her fall of Selina Kyle, just as Gotham nourished the felines that come to her aid and even resuscitate her.  And below the streets, in a story as long in the making as Batman’s (the mythical DC-Christian age of 33), it’s was her sewers that took the abandoned Cobblepot youth to his nursery in Gotham Zoo. Gotham would seldom be as important to a Batman film again, and seriously, doesn’t it just look resplendent at Christmas time?

Christmas on Film

“What are you waiting for? The signal!”

Batman Returns is a Christmas mash-up.  At the beginning of the film, Burton, sets the festive tone with every drop of a pine needle.  At the Penguin’s birth, there’s the lavish Cobblepot Christmas tree, past which the hapless cat wanders on its way to the baby Penguin’s cage. Then there’s the vertical pan, falling down from the spires of Gotham with the snow, catching the Cobblepots’ hurried and guilty wishes of “Merry Christmas” as they dispatch their child over a small and fetching bridge.  A Bridge that may as well be called the Penguins “Crime Bridge” in this mythology.

From the start composer Danny Elfman sets a high bar, matching his distinctive style, and definitive Batman theme, with Christmas trinkets. His sterling work, some of his best, seldom lets the time of year slip, even when the snow is out of sight.

And there’s the first set-piece, still one of the finest comic to screen adaptations. Political machination gives way to the Mayor introducing Gotham’s own Santa Claus, Max Shreck… Only to be interrupted by a huge Christmas parcel that may as well be horse shaped.  The highlight is always the emergence of the late, great Vincent Schiavelli as the Organ gunner. And his monkey. And so, summoned from Wayne Manor by the Bat-signal, Batman’s Circus Gang take-down in the snow is superb, if homicide heavy and fight-lite.

Winter Caperland

“Alright, now I’m a little worried”

It’s not long until the Penguin’s reveal with the fantastic zoom across Gotham Zoo, almost sliding in on Danny Elfman’s strings. It’s a beautiful shot that really defines the film and this Gotham. After letting Axis Chemicals fall to the Joker in the first film, here the neglected Gotham Zoo was clearly the Penguin’s for the taking. And the Mayor wonders why Gotham never gets its merry Christmas.  The Penguin’s lair sits below the prone statue of a polar bear, posed almost as Polar bear the Redeemer. Penguins recline in colder environments of course, but compared to the frosty CGI excess of Batman and Robin half a decade later it’s a masterclass of Christmas tone. Those flightless birds would still be there in the summer of course, but they wouldn’t be half so John Lewis.

Away from the zoo, into town, Gotham is far more vertical than it was three years earlier – probably influenced by the size of the Plaza – which serves to complement the film’s Christmas trees, even those that pop up in Wayne Manor.

On the long road from the Penguin’s Easter like ascent, there is time to pull the inverted parallels, albeit briefly, with Bruce Wayne’s childhood.  “I hope he finds them” he says, before heading down to the Bat Computer to dig some dirt. Mind you, while Keaton’s Batman is always incredibly watchable, it’s incredible his Bruce Wayne can keep his secret at all.  It could only happen in this stylised city – where the battle of the City’s firstborns is reduced to spiky dialogue like: “You think you can go fifteen rounds with Muhammad Shreck”.

In the suit, so many select scenes and japes rely on two incredibly un-Batman elements: Disregard for human life and a preference for rooftop ladders over grappling hooks. That’s crucial in his interaction with his feline female equal and in creating quite a few situations that could otherwise be easily resolved. Most avoidable is the death of the Ice Princes during the second lighting of the Plaza Christmas tree. This is a reactive Bats, not on his best form.

It may have caused the film-makers great headaches at the time, but one of Returns great strengths is the mundanity of the villains’ plots.  All thee villains have rather likeable rage issues when thwarted. But between the three, in this patently absurd city, it’s rather nice to have mayoral and gender politics propel the story – until the missile army comes waddling along.

Sadly the critical plaudits meant that Returns left unwanted Christmas present for Hollywood: the concept of the multi-villain superhero film that still curses us today.

While we’re passing by relevant plot propulsion, it’s worth noting the secondary villains.  There’s a strong tradition of circuses and Christmas albeit oddly – I suppose family and exploitation are involved – but here, when combined with the dilapidated zoo, it almost frames a clash of two capitalisms. In the end, the old skills and the new business both fall in a tangle of revenge, with many a fallout along the way. Could there be any redemption?

Three of the main players have dysfunctional families – with only Shreck and his loyal son Chip projecting the best outward appearance. However it’s the Penguin’s adopted family who proves the strongest. True there’s little love lost when push comes to shove between the feathered fiend and his circus mates. He’ll shoot them before they desert him; that seems to be the order of the day.  But when the upper world (quite rightly) turns on the Penguin he chooses the same bridge as his parents did to return to his real family: The penguins.  They may need some guidance but there’s no doubt that these birds happily follow him into battle.  These are culpable penguins; just look how they take on the Batskiboat then rue its escape. And Batman’s perplexed reaction.

But when the game’s played out, Penguin rises from the embers in the water of his home for his final words.  And across the pool only Batman still stands to watch the Emperor Penguins salute their fallen and bear him to his watery grave. Family. True Christmas sweet sorrow.

Cats aren’t just for Christmas

“Oh my God, does this mean we have to start fighting?”

Of all the elements Festive, small and large, the most important element is surely romance. Psychologically messed up bestiality it may be (hey, no worse than some of Danny DeVito’s excellently lurid sneers), but it’s kind of sweet.

It helps that Batman’s moved on from journalist to a femme fatale much more on his wavelength – much as he still berates Alfred for the butler’s previous lapse of professionalism. Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman rightly drew a lot of attention, carrying as she does far more solo screen time than any other Gotham rogue. The first time this Dark Knight leaves his Batmobile is to save Selina Kyle. But after her transformation – a cathartic scene that could easily be a crude metaphor for Christmas stress – is where the interest creeps in. With a heavy dose of mutually assured destruction.

“Help me find the woman behind the cat”

From the roof top scraps to Masquerade balls, this relationship covers a great spectrum.  There’s the domestic violence, sado-masochism and redemptive moments of emotional understanding. Oh, and the in-built duplicity that come from two highly damaged individuals. As Bruce says, “We’re the same, split right down the centre”. Like a slice of Viennetta.

“What did curiosity do to the cat?”

There was to be no pick-up for these rooftop-crossed lovers, although countless animated and comic storylines have taken it further.  Still, there can be no better clue to their relationship than the fact that this Batman’s journey ends with an empty alley.  That’s quite a quantum of solace for this Dark Knight.  “Good will toward men… And women” indeed.  And so the car departs, the snow falls and the Bat-signal seems to be for feline eyes only.

Finale

“Must you be the only, lonely man-beast in town?”

For me, Batman’s held a firm role in Christmas proceedings for 23 years. Ever since the BBC ident morphed into the Bat-signal when the ’89 film premiered on Christmas Day two years later.  But Returns, for all intents and purposes a thematic remake of that first film, wears Christmas on its gauntlet.  It may well feature references and share coincidental similarities to other films that have achieved a Christmas classic status but it’s not without influence itself.  22 years on, Exodus: Gods and Kings has emerged as a large Christmas release.  March of the Penguins has been and gone as a festive favourite. And another era of the Dark Knight on film has been tied up, ending in the winter snows of Gotham as it took Returns capitalist agenda and ran with it, alongside a new Catwoman of course.

Good will toward Batman Returns: truly a Christmas film through and through. And well deserving the heightened appraisal that this Yuletide has brought.

Cue: Danny Elfman…

Only One Batman @ 75 post to go… And who on Earth could that be about? Smile…

Read more Batman on Jokerside

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