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From Gotham to Gautham: The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

DKR - Poster

With The Dark Knight becoming one of the highest-grossing films of all time, with its critical and fan reaction so positive, it was no surprise that Warner Bros. wanted a sequel. That wasn’t the only thing at play behind the continuation of this Batman’s story, though. See, DC Comics characters had pretty much owned television and film for nearly sixty years. Their characters had been on the Silver Screen since the Fleischer Brothers first brought Superman to theaters in 1941 and included the Superman animated shorts, the Batman serials, the Superman serials, Superman and the Mole Men, Batman: The Movie, the Christopher Reeve Superman series, Burton’s Batman movies, and Schumacher’s Batman movies. On television, Superman and Batman reigned supreme, but was also joined by Lynda Carter in Wonder Woman, as well as all the various animated shows from the 1960s straight through to 2000. Marvel did all right with the cartoons, but their live-action franchises pretty much began and ended with Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno in The Incredible Hulk. There’d been an attempt to bring Spider-Man to the small screen that was mostly a failure. The same with Captain America. The movies that ended up being made after 1989’s Batman was a huge success either were relegated to small screenings and went direct to video (Captain America and The Punisher) or were never released (Roger Corman’s legendary Fantastic Four).

In 2000, with the success of Bryan Singer’s X-Men, Marvel began to have some cinematic street cred. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002) re-enforced it. And while the much under-appreciated Hulk was largely seen as a failure, the sequels to X-Men and Spider-Man most assuredly were not. Even the Fantastic Four movies did all right. But the thing that really shook things up, the thing that I think really made DC Comics–and Warner Bros.–begin to worry didn’t happen until 2008, a mere two months before The Dark Knight would change everything.

"I'll drink to that."

“I’ll drink to that.”

By all means, Iron Man, starring Robert Downey, Jr., shouldn’t have been a good movie, never mind a huge hit. But it was. And not only that, but the “secret” scene after the end credits where Samuel L. Jackson appears as Nick Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D. and talks to Tony Stark about joining the Avengers Initiative sets up what couldn’t possibly come to pass. While The Dark Knight clearly won the box office that summer, there was definitely room enough in geeks’ hearts for both billionaires with a predisposition to gadgets and cool suits who fought bad guys, Iron Man hinted at the possibility of a lively Marvel cinematic event, which only became more real with the following month’s The Incredible Hulk. Regardless of where one stands on this version of the Hulk’s story, Tony Stark’s cameo regarding the Avengers began to cement comic book fans’ hopes. By 2010’s Iron Man 2, it was a done deal. Marvel would be making The Avengers. While the first Iron Man set up the idea, and The Incredible Hulk kept it afloat, Iron Man 2 really started the story. Nick Fury and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and S.H.I.E.L.D. play a huge role, as well as cameos from the other future Avengers in some way or another.

DC needed to respond. Could Christopher Nolan’s Batman films be a part of a new DC Cinematic Universe, or were they too stand-alone? Did Nolan even want to return to make a third Batman? What about the other heroes?

DKR - Green Lantern

“Hey, guys! Remember me?!”

2011’s Green Lantern was met with a lot of excitement but became a let-down. The hopes that DC and Warner Bros. would replicate the success of the growing Marvel Cinematic Universe were destroyed faster than Green Lantern‘s running time. Rumors swirled about a Justice League movie in the works, which would ignore Nolan’s films. DC/Warner Bros. needed something.

Cinematic Universe or no, Christopher Nolan decided to return for a third film in his Dark Knight Trilogy. Again, he met with David S. Goyer for the initial story, which would then be written as a screenplay by him and his brother Jonathan. Nolan decided to stick to his guns and make this film the final act of his story. Warner Bros. and DC were smart to leave him alone.

On July 20th, 2012, The Dark Knight Rises premiered.

By then, things were pretty good for me. I’d been re-married three years and Pamela and I were expecting a baby, a girl. My older daughter was fourteen and just over a month away from starting high school. The year had had some bumpy moments but things were good. And in a summer that had already brought us Marvel’s The Avengers, we truly looked forward to The Dark Knight Rises. I was excited that something similar to the real version of Bane would appear in a movie, and also just to see where we’d be brought this time.

The Day

By now, we’d expect that I’d place Christian Bale here, and I will, though nearly by default and also by a hair. Where he lit the screen in Batman Begins and truly became Batman in The Dark Knight, he feels too familiar by now. Still, there are moments that truly show his craft. The scene between him and Michael Caine as Alfred resigns out of fear for Bruce in one. The raw emotion displayed by both actors gave the movie much-needed emotional depth and was a surprise, as well. Also, his fight scene with Bane (Tom Hardy) is also spectacularly acted. This is the Batman we’ve grown to love meeting his match and unable to change course, which leads to his undoing. Bale’s real performance isn’t under the mask, though, but rather as Bruce Wayne comes out of his self-exile and re-emerges to a different world and slowly figures out how to deal with Bane and the crisis in Gotham.

"Ouch time."

“Ouch time.”

Also, props are given to Gary Oldman, who once again brings Commissioner James Gordon to life with intensity, intelligence, and pathos. That said, like Bale’s entry, he’s here by a hair.

Tom Hardy as Bane is the backbone (not sure if the pun is intended) of this movie. Like Heath Ledger’s turn as The Joker, Hardy’s Bane steals the show. The guy is 5’9″, which while it isn’t short (ahem…thinking of my own height, only I always throw in “and three-quarters” because…well…you know) and he looms over everyone. And I don’t mean the obvious camera tricks, either, though they’re definitely put to good use here, but by his performance. Hardy gives Bane a confidence that borders on arrogance. He doesn’t just walk, he saunters. His soulful eyes also do a phenomenal job in letting the audience grasp his emotion, without ever once seeming to over-play it. And while there’ve been critics about his voice, I liked it. It was silly sometimes, but effective.

"Mrffle griff Gotham Shitty."

“Mrffle griff Mishter Wayne.”

And while we’re on Bane, kudos to Nolan, Goyer, and Nolan for bringing to the Silver Screen a Bane who is worthy of an adaptation. He would’ve been the last villain I’d’ve thought they’d go with (well…maybe not the last…) but they utilized the gist of the comic book character who was one of the break-out stars of 1990s comic books.

Also, Anne Hathaway is quite good as Selina Kyle/Catwoman, though she’s never called Catwoman, even once. Hathaway is an actress I enjoy immensely and whom, like Gwyneth Paltrow, I feel gets given a hard time too often. Hathaway is tough and broken, yet she has the ability to change as the world around her changes.

Where's my laser pointer when I need one?

Where’s my laser pointer when I need one?

I also rather enjoyed Joseph Gordon-Levitt as John Blake. His role as a police officer-turned-detective-turned-Batman/Robin brings an infusion of new blood to the screen, and helps move the story along. He’s spunky and likable.

Marion Cotillard is, well, beautiful, haunting, and I can watch her all day.

Of course, the rest of the cast is good, too, which we expect by now for not only a Christopher Nolan film, but also for this series of Batman movies.

I loved The Bat. I know that some people thought it was lame, but I’m not one of them. I’d hoped for a return of a Batmobile, but The Bat does the job nicely for me. This machine flying through Gotham makes me happy.

I'm sure the store in the background is an accident.

I’m sure the store in the background is an accident.

The story is bold, and I like that a lot. After the mega-success and instant-classic status of The Dark Knight, to go back to Batman Begins, yet forward with a story that truly closes the series with little hope for a follow-up in this universe is bold. To tell a story that surpasses The Dark Knight‘s 2hr 30mins by 15 minutes, bringing it close to 3 hrs, is also bold. It would’ve been easy to play it safe at this point and give us a similarly-themed third installment, replacing The Joker with another character. But Nolan decided to go back to the League of Shadows and Ra’s al Ghul and bring the story full circle. Here is a Bruce Wayne who is finally able to hang up the cowl and walk away. Here is a Batman who will sacrifice himself for Gotham…in a sense. Very, very bold.

Also bold is having Gotham be completely hijacked by Bane. This was the tell-tale moment where this movie went from, “Wow!” to “What the fuck are they doing?!” in the best way possible. I admire it.

I also love Batman’s comeback after the Gotham Stock Exchange is held-up. It’s an appropriate re-introduction to the character and means a lot. The fact that the filmmakers decided to keep the same suit is also wonderful. No sudden outfit changes for this Batman!

And Nolan’s direction is, once again, really good. He makes Gotham feel huge and real, while definitely making it known that it doesn’t exist. The action is well done and the overall tone of the movie is right.

It's a shame he quit. We need more officers like him.

It’s a shame he quit. We need more officers like him.

The Dark

I mentioned above that both Christian Bale’s and Gary Oldman’s performances are there by a hair each (maybe even the same hair!). I feel that their performances in this movie are a little uneven compared to the previous movies. Bale underplays Bruce Wayne sometimes while Oldman overplays Gordon at times. Mostly, though, they’re keeping up the status quo, and it’s neither good nor bad.

The “realistic” villains in John Daggett (Ben Mendelsohn) and his assistant (Burn Gorman) are a little too cartoony for Christopher Nolan’s world. Mendelsohn seems to sneer a little too much and comes off more like a Bond villain (says the guy who’s never seen a James Bond movie) than a Dark Knight Trilogy villain. Also, Matthew Modine’s role as…whoever he was, I’m not checking…is a little weak. Even his death is weak.

Marion Cotillard is under-utilized. Her role as Miranda Tate brings some new energy to the movie, but the big reveal that she’s Talia al Ghul, Ra’s al Ghul’s daughter, is a let-down. I was hoping she would be this character as I watched the movie, but by the time she reveals who she really is and takes charge, the movie is almost over and she’s given nothing to do but die, which is a waste of this actress and a waste of this character. I know that Cotillard was pregnant during this time and I’m sure that had something to do with the lack of a Talia al Ghul fighting Batman, but isn’t that what stuntwomen are for?

Stop taunting me with your beauty!

Stop taunting me with your beauty!

While each of these movies have some plot holes, The Dark Knight Rises seems to suffer the most from them, and while I’m not so concerned about the plot holes (if I’m entertained, I rarely am) I feel like the pacing of the movie is off. The first part of the movie, where Batman is no more, Bruce is slowly peeking his head out of his exile, and Gordon is having a crisis is great. We meet John Blake, Modine’s character, Selina Kyle, and Bane. We see where things are headed. When Gordon is nearly killed and Bruce decides to return as Batman, the movie hits a strangely bumpy road. Too much is going on in the amount of time it’s happening, making some of the scenes flow into each other so quickly that it’s almost dizzying. Batman returns, Catwoman is watching it as she robs Daggett, she beats him up and escapes, finds Bane’s men, Batman shows up, they fight and escape, and she disappears so he can have a joke. No breathing. Even how quickly he asks her for help and she gives it, only to betray him by giving him to Bane feels too easy, too convenient.

Oh, yeah. Spoiler alert.

Oh, yeah. Spoiler alert.

Why isn’t The Joker mentioned? Even once? Harvey Dent is mentioned, his photo is shown, and Gordon has flashbacks. The Joker? The dude who had Gotham on its knees and basically caused the whole Dent thing to go down isn’t mentioned. Where is he? Why isn’t he released when Bane lets the psychopaths out? It’s just strange to me. Was this out of respect to Heath Ledger? It’s damn weird, is all.

The pacing is perfect for a short period of time here, where Batman gets beaten and brought to the hole prison place. As Bane methodically traps Gotham PD and takes over the city, the movie feels right. Until Bruce suddenly starts training in the hole. Then it’s choppy again. And slow. Very slow. And then Batman returns again and things feel more on track.

Did I explain it well? I’m not sure. But I think that The Dark Knight Rises is, more than any other thing I’ve seen, a strong argument as to why television is actually better suited for these stories than film. Excuse me while I digress a little….

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s (okay, and 2010s) as superhero movie after superhero movie has come out, I have felt stronger and stronger that the best place for these characters would be television. While movie theaters can offer a big spectacle, the television offers breadth. These characters, by their very nature, are meant to evolve and change over a long period of time. They have secondary and side characters that are colorful and varied and best-suited for the way television works. The Dark Knight Rises would’ve made an excellent season of TV. The build-up of Bruce Wayne’s return as Batman. The way Bane breaks him (mid-season finale) and then takes over Gotham. Batman’s return. The intro of John Blake’s true first name being Robin, thereby setting up the next season! Even Batman Begins and The Dark Knight follow this. That said, I’m not currently watching any of the superhero TV shows (well, I just started watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on Netflix) but I really think this is the way they’d be best. I propose a new cable channel called HERO, where comic books and their other-media-offspring have a place to live. Sign both DC and Marvel and get adaptations of both places’ biggest names. Imagine the possibilities! After 10PM is reserved for The Sandman or whathaveyou. Egads!

Anyway, the movie is uneven at times, and even a little boring at times. A little.

"I just came from the frozen river and now I'm here to save your ass. Nothing choppy about this."

“I just came from the frozen river and now I’m here to save your ass. Nothing choppy about this.”

My final real beef with this movie is the ending. No, not Batman “sacrificing” himself, the Robin reveal, or even Alfred finding Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle at some café. My beef is pretty much from the point where Miranda Tate reveals that she’s Talia al Ghul until the moment Batman flies off with the bomb. In other words, the climax. I’ve already mentioned how the Big Reveal is a little lame above, so I’ll skip that and go to Bane and Batman left alone. Talia has given Bane orders to keep Batman alive so he can feel the burn of the nuclear explosion and know that he failed. She leaves and Bane waits a few moments with a gasping, spirit-crushed Batman.

(An aside: The world’s greatest detective has been fooled by Talia al Ghul. All right, I’ll buy that, League of Shadows and all that. But he is so heartbroken. Between the less than subtle stab in the back she gave him and the point after she leaves and–well, I’m about to go there–he is in shambles. Heavy mouth-breathing, eyes wide, unable to figure out what to do or get his footing back against Bane. Yes, he’s in pain. Yes, his feelings are hurt and he feels betrayed, and probably the fool, too. But he’s Batman, fer chrissakes! His last fuckin’ girlfriend was blown up by a clown! He hardly knew this girlfriend and only really had a one night stand with her! All right, diatribe done.)

Bane takes a shotgun, points it at Batman’s face, and basically says that Talia will just have to believe Batman blew up and didn’t have his face shot off, when suddenly–BLAM!–the Catwoman shoots him with the guns on the Batpod. In other words…Batman fails. He got his ass handed to him by Bane halfway through the movie. He gets his spirit back. He gets his body back. He escapes the prison hole that is able to symbolize the well he fell down in the first frames of Batman Begins and how Bruce Wayne has finally grown up and is able to move beyond his childhood trauma. He somehow gets back to Gotham through means we’ll never know (here’s where a TV series would’ve helped). He rounds up everyone he needs to. He beats up Bane, proving that he’s the motherfuckin’ Batman. Yes, Talia threw him off. Yes, he’s upset. But isn’t that how it’s supposed to go? Shouldn’t Batman be the one to take down Bane? Isn’t it the job as the hero of the movie to, I don’t know, take down the villain?

Instead, the Catwoman does it, and adds a one-liner that, while in character, throws away Batman’s beliefs. It’s not like he’s the title character or anything.

"GrrrowwwlllShe said to waitrrrrrrr!"  "Mrrfle flup never know."  BAM!  "What the hell're you two saying?"

“GrrrowwwlllShe said to waitrrrrrrr!”
“Mrrfle flup never know.”
BAM!
“What the hell’re you two saying?”

Oh, wait, there’s more.

So they leave to stop the bomb. Batman gets Talia to drive off a bridge. I’ll buy Gordon miraculously living through a drop off an overpass as he’s in the back of a truck with a bomb that ways a ton even though the driver of the truck dies. But…the driver dies. Talia, the “true” villain of the movie, is killed in an automobile accident. And her last words are given to Gordon.

Finally, the last thing that annoyed me about this ending is something I’m okay with in theory, but after these two letdowns, it bothered me. Batman lets Gordon know who he is, through his typical cryptic means. And Gordon, who one would think has helped many children in the crime-infested city that is Gotham, knows exactly which child he gave a coat to. It’s a little thing, but this proves that this Batman is hardly a secret to anyone. Not only does Alfred know, but Lucius Fox knows, Rachel Dawes knew, the guy who works at Wayne Enterprises and was going to blackmail him knows, Ra’s al Ghul knows, Selina Kyle knows, Bane knows, Talia al Ghul knows, John Blake–who never met the man–figured it out because he also lost his parents, and, finally, James Gordon knows.

(Another aside. Unless the point of these “faults” was that Batman’s true job wasn’t to take down Bane or Talia, but to only take care of the bomb. But that’s a little weak to me.)

I also think they had a lost opportunity. I kept expecting that Harvey Dent was alive. That he’d never died but was hurt, and that he was holed-up in the prison or in the new Arkham facility, and that he’d pop up at the end to wreak more havoc. It would’ve been great. Who better to be a judge instead of Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow? But, alas, he was dead.

"This is what I do to nitpickers!"

“This is what I do to nitpickers!”

The Dawn

Overall, I think The Dark Knight Rises, much like 2013’s Man of Steel, which was shooting at the same time as Nolan’s movie even though it was released a year later, is a very flawed masterpiece. The size of the movie and the fact that it boldly goes where most of these kinds of movies are afraid to go, to ask questions and not answer them, and to actually give an ending to the story, is an achievement that is rare in this type of movie. If the filmmakers use coincidence a little too much, or allow for the fantasy to seep a little too much into their ultra-realistic storytelling, or sort of botched up the ending, so be it. I’m fascinated by this movie in much the same way I’m fascinated with Man of Steel. Both films have things that strongly bother me (Gordon calling for every police officer to go into the sewers looking for Bane, for instance) but both tell fully-realized stories that I feel I have to watch again and again, like reading a good novel.

I left The Dark Knight Rises the Sunday after it opened unsure of how I felt about it. I loved it and didn’t like it at the same time. I needed to see it again, to experience it again. I’ve seen it, I think, four times now. I really like the movie and am drawn to watch it again. I feel like I’m still missing something. Maybe it’s because there’s not as much there as I’d hoped, or maybe it’s because the movie works on a higher level than most superhero movies. Again, I feel the same way about Man of Steel.

Conclusion to The Dark Knight Trilogy

It looks as though Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy is a look at the modern superhero in modern terms, with terrorism, mass murders, and cynical outlooks all over. This Batman wants to be a symbol, and he is. He gets others to do good just by being. The biggest problem with these movies is that they’re too serious. Sure, they have some humor, here and there, but everything is serious and a little too well-thought-out. Nolan is trying to elevate the superhero movie with these movies, but in so doing, lost one of the things that make Batman and his villains so interesting: they’re pulp fiction history. This Gotham City couldn’t host Man-Bat, or Killer Croc, or many of Batman’s other Rogues Gallery unless they were so adapted that they’d eventually lose their character. And it certainly doesn’t open up the hope that there could be other superheroes.

One of its other major flaws is in allowing Bruce Wayne so much help. The fact that Lucius Fox is either the designer, or part of a team, that has made most of the gadgets and vehicles Batman has, the fact that there are so many people who know who he is and help him in some way may make for a more realistic portrayal of Batman, but it also takes away some of the magic that the character has. One of the fantastic things about the character of Batman is that he’s a genius. He could easily have helped stop crime by following the rules and using his research and technology to help the police do their jobs, but instead uses it himself as a vigilante. By taking away his ability to come up with the tools he uses, Batman and Bruce Wayne become nothing more than a rich dude who wants to kick people’s asses. Sure, he has detective skills, but some of what makes Batman Batman is lost.

While in many ways, The Dark Knight Trilogy is a masterpiece in storytelling, it does fall shy of what Marvel’s movies have been able to achieve: Big screen adaptations of not only the characters, but the universe that was created in the comic books. Nolan isn’t interested in being at the helm of a shared world, he’s interested in being a serious filmmaker. As such, for everything Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises gets right–which is considerable–they miss one major thing that the Marvel movies–whether from 20th Century Fox, Sony, or Paramount/Disney–has: fun.

An Afterword

I went to bed on July 19th bummed that I couldn’t get out to see the midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises. My wife had to work the next day and was pregnant, so sleep was very necessary, and my best friends either lived too far away, were busy with their own lives, or also had to work the next day. Being a teacher, I had the 20th, the film’s opening date, off. But Pamela really wanted to see the movie, too, since she loved the predecessor as much as I did (well…maybe not as much), and would’ve been bummed if I’d gone without her, so I went to bed vowing to stay away from the internet for any possible spoilers between Friday and Sunday.

I awoke the next morning hearing the news from the living room. In my sleepy consciousness, I heard something about a mass shooting. In a movie theater. The Dark Knight Rises was named. Horrified, I slid out of bed and went into the living room.

Colorado. Okay, I thought, no one I know lives out there. That’s the first concern, right? Do I know anyone in one of these places?

The news that a man armed to the teeth began shooting in a crowded movie theater during a midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises, killing 12 people and injuring 70 others struck hard. I remembered the joy and buzz seeing Star Wars: Episode II–Attack of the Clones and Star Wars: Episode III–Revenge of the Sith at midnight screenings, being some of the first people to see a movie you’ve been waiting for. Those are great memories for me. Then, using my keen writer’s imagination, I thought about the impossible happening, the kind of thing that my writer’s imagination sometimes frightened me about. Twelve people–12–dead. A six-year-old was killed.

I wept. As I did for Columbine High School back in 1999. As I would for Sandy Hook Elementary School the following December, holding my one-month-old daughter in my hands as I watched that particular nightmare unfold.

The horrifying incident haunted me then. Pamela and I had planned on rewatching The Dark Knight that Saturday night to prepare for the following day’s trip to the movies. The spectre of the news colored that viewing.

The following day, sitting in a movie theater in Southeastern Massachusetts nearly 2,000 miles away from the tragedy, it was difficult not to keep an eye on the entrance and exits of the theater. My mind is set up to imagine the worst, which is probably why most of my fiction tends to lean toward dark subjects–horror, crime, dark fantasy–so this was a difficult viewing.

Twelve people died due to negligence in taking care of mental health issues as well as availability and access to guns. There are morons who said that if anyone in that theater had had a gun, they could’ve stopped it. Yeah, that would’ve worked out. Either way, this isn’t about a political statement, because I have no answers, but it is about the incident that I truly believed marred this movie’s reception and raises lots of questions.

Was the shooter fantasizing about being a Batman-type villain? Could Heath Ledger’s performance in The Dark Knight have acted as an accelerant to someone who was already keyed up to do something horrifying? Could the Dark Knight movies, themselves, have acted as accelerant?

All those people wanted to do was see the new Batman movie. That was it. Twelve of them never went home. Seventy others will never forget that nightmare of that evening.

For me, the incident and the film will always be connected.

Batman.

Batman.

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From Gotham to Gautham: Batman Returns (1992)

Batman Returns Poster

With Batman‘s huge success, Warner Bros. obviously wanted another movie, and obviously wanted Tim Burton to direct it. However, Burton wasn’t sure he wanted to direct it, and had a story of his own he was passionate about. That movie, Edward Scissorhands, became the film that is probably most quintessentially Tim Burton. Release by 20th Century Fox in 1990, it was a modern fairy tale that utilized many of Burton’s already-known quirky styling and enhanced them. It was a hit.

Eventually, Burton went back to Warner Bros. and agreed to do the next Batman. The biggest thing he wanted, though, was the kind of control he’d had over Edward Scissorhands. As such, producers Jon Peter and Peter Gubers became executive producers while Burton and longtime collaborator Denise DiNovi became producers. A script by Batman writer Sam Hamm was rewritten by Daniel Waters (as well as a ghost-rewrite by Wesley Strick) and eventually passed muster. With Burton on board, Michael Keaton agreed to resume the roles of Bruce Wayne and Batman.

When Batman came out in 1989, I was fresh out of elementary school having just finished 6th grade (in these parts, 5th grade now constitutes the end of elementary school). Junior high school (7th-8th grade, as opposed to today’s middle school, 6th-8th) was pretty bad. Some of the worst years of my life. My freshman year of high school was only marginally better. I transferred schools after 2 months, not happy with the original high school I’d attended and opting for the area’s vocational-technical high school to do art. The two things I looked forward to for the 1991-1992 school year were Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare and Batman Returns. At least one of them delivered.

"Two guesses at which one delivered. Time's up. Me. Batman. I always deliver."

“Two guesses at which one delivered. Time’s up. Me. Batman. I always deliver.”

The Day

The cast is quite good. Keaton’s second go-around as Batman and Bruce Wayne is more interesting than the first. Maybe it’s the redesigned suit, which features a thinner mask/cowl than its predecessor and torso armor that looks more like armor than the 1989’s sculpted muscles. Maybe Keaton just grew more comfortable moving around as the character. Either way, his Bruce Wayne is more interesting, willing to smile and actually try to be a part of his world, while his Batman kicks a little more ass, and is even more like the Batman from the comic books from that time period.

Michelle Pfeiffer as Selina Kyle/Catwoman starts off a little rocky, my guess is mostly due to the script, but quickly becomes a scene stealer. Pfeiffer is confident, sexy, and smart and it comes through. As the movie progresses, her character is more and more interesting and her performance gets better and better, no easy feat considering movies shoot scenes out of order. She is a great foil to Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne/Batman. The scene at Max Shreck’s masquerade ball is easily their best together without the masks. In masks, all their scenes together are great.

"Is that a Batarang in your...oh, forget it. Meow."

“Is that a Batarang in your…oh, forget it. Meow.”

Danny DeVito’s Penguin is ridiculously over-the-top and hilariously evil. It shouldn’t work. Upon rewatching the movie for this essay, I didn’t think it would work now that I’m an adult. But I couldn’t help but laugh at the double- and triple-entendres I missed as a 14-year-old high school kid. The movie is wildly inappropriate yet most kids wouldn’t know it because the humor is above them. I found myself quite mesmerized by the character this go-round.

Christopher Walken’s Max Shreck is the true villain of the piece. A corporate do-nasty, he has plans for Gotham City and uses the Penguin as a means for more control. When Batman foils the plan to get Penguin elected mayor of Gotham, Shreck disassociates himself with the deformed man, leaving the Penguin to fend for himself, which sets up the last act of the movie. Walken plays Shreck in a way that is subtle but scary. While DeVito is chewing the scenery and give a broad performance, Walken pulls it in and allows his eyes and increasingly wild white hair to do the work.

This is what The Donald should do with his hair.

This is what The Donald should do with his hair.

There’s better pacing this time around. Maybe because there are so many characters that the audience has to keep track of, maybe the filmmakers took a cue from some of the negative comments about Batman, but there’s more action in this movie, and more interesting things happening. It’s actually quite insane. The costumes and shenanigans of the Penguin’s Red Circus Gang are ridiculous, but create a world that one almost wishes existed. If these were the villains we had to deal with, life may be crazier, but maybe we’d be safer in the long run.

The movie is actually quite funny in places, and appropriately so. Unlike the campy satire of the 1966-1968 Batman, Batman Returns has the aforementioned risqué humor from the Penguin, as well as cute scenes, like the one involving Bruce, Alfred, and Selina. Bruce and Selina are on a date (that in itself is funny, since a heavy make-out session–that was about to go farther–had to be stopped since they both suffered from wounds they gave each other the night before in their alternate personas) when trouble happens. Bruce, scatterbrained as usual, tries to get Alfred to tell Selina a lie so he can run off and be Batman. The moment Bruce leaves, Selina comes in and does essentially the same thing.

Another great moment comes later on and also concerns Alfred. The Batmobile has been compromised and needs repairs. As Bruce Wayne is accessing a secret way into the Batcave, via an iron maiden, Alfred reminds him that they can’t just send the Batmobile to any old repair shop.

“Hey,” Bruce says. “Who let Vicki Vale into the Batcave? I’m sitting there working and it’s like, ‘Oh. Hi, Vicki. How are you?'”

It’s a great moment acknowledging the outcry the fans made over Vickie Vale entering the Batcave and the interaction between Michael Keaton and Michael Gough helps show Bruce and Alfred’s relationship.

"And so my wife had to go back to work, see? And I was home with the kids, hence, I was Mr. Mom. Get it, Alfred? Instead of Dad, I was Mister...Mom. Why are you looking at me like that?"

“And so my wife had to go back to work, see? And I was home with the kids, hence, I was Mr. Mom. Get it, Alfred? Instead of Dad, I was Mister…Mom. Why are you looking at me like that?”

Which is why I’m going to give Michael Gough more accolades here. While Gough gave Batman some much-needed humanity, here he reinforces the humanity of others. Whether it’s the playful interplay between him and Keaton, or him and Pfeiffer, or it’s him alone discovering something or working some sort of Bat-equipment, Gough is phenomenal. He manages to make Alfred seem both put-upon and fatherly simultaneously.

Again, Tim Burton and his production designers, costumers, make-up artists, and prop people create a world unto itself. Gotham City in Batman Returns feels as though it belongs in the world set up in the first movie but takes it in different directions. The former amusement park where the Penguin has lived (and retreats to), Shreck’s Department Store and its offices, the rooftops of Gotham, and Gotham Square are all familiar and alien at the same time. Again, it’s hard to pin down the era in which the movie takes place, though it does feel more of its time (1992) than its predecessor, much of the costuming has a 1940s/1950s feel, except for Bruce Wayne, Batman, and eventually Selina Kyle/Catwoman.

Danny Elfman’s score was great in the first movie and is even better here. Maybe in the three years between movies he grew more as a composer? Maybe he’s more comfortable with the subject? Either way, his score in this movie builds from Batman’s theme and goes way, way beyond. And without Prince’s crappy music to force into the movie, the music really soars. (And before you leave angry comments about me calling Prince’s music crappy, let me say that I don’t think all of his music is crappy. I actually like a lot of it. But his music for Batman was just bad, man.)

The Dark

No Harvey Dent. Apparently, he was in some of the earlier drafts of the movie but was eventually deleted because they had too many characters. Even Commissioner Gordon’s role was diminished in this movie. While Pat Hingle isn’t my favorite James Gordon, Gordon is such a huge part of the Batman mythos that hardly seeing him onscreen is a little disconcerting. I think Dent’s character growing through the movie, even if it was only a few short scenes, would’ve been pretty cool. Yeah, that’s more of me as a fan-geek than as a serious critic, but that’s how I see it. Besides, I’m hardly a serious critic.

The film is a little too…theatrical? Is that the right word? One of the things that Tim Burton is known for is his distinct style. There were glimpses of it in his first three movies (Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, and Batman) but it really took shape in Edward Scissorhands. His movies are very stylized and have a specific look to them, from the use of the camera, the use of miniature sets, to the way characters enter and exit a scene. It’s all very theatrical, which isn’t a terrible thing, and is arguably one of the things that makes his movies (well, most of them) fun to watch. Here it’s a little silly sometimes. Two examples I remember from when I was 14 and noticed (and made me smile) now have to do with Michael Keaton.

"Oh, no. Here comes some geek nitpicking."

“Oh, no. Here comes some geek nitpicking.”

In these early Batman movies (and many other action movies of the 1980s into the early-1990s), there is a scene when the hero suits up. Whether it’s John Rambo in Rambo: First Blood Part II, or Schwarzenegger in one of his movies, or Batman, there is a scene when the hero goes from being…well…the hero to the, um, hero. In this move, Bruce Wayne goes to the Batcave for the final act’s suit up. He goes into the new vault where all the Batman costumes are located (he must’ve renovated the cave since the first movie). There’s a drawbridge that leads right up to the first costume, which takes up the doorway. It’s quite apparent that you can’t go into the room with the costume where it is, yet Michael Keaton walks right up the small drawbridge and into the room–and obviously nose-to-nose against the first costume. I know what they were going for, and it would’ve been a great shot. Except that you can see at the last minute Keaton has to stop and stand awkwardly, trying not to dump that first costume.

The second moment comes closer to the end. Batman is in his new vehicle, called the Batskiboat, and rushing toward the Penguin’s lair in the abandoned amusement park. He has used a frequency changer (with the help of Alfred) to save Gotham from the Penguin’s penguins and has redirected them to the amusement park. The Penguin, quite angry, rides his motorized duck car to the surface and the Batskiboat follows, crashing from a tunnel and on top of the duck, crushing it. The lid of the Batskiboat slides open and Batman is obviously bent over, squished inside so he can stand up and get out of the vehicle. In other words, the life-size one they built for this scene was too small to fit Michael Keaton. I know I’m nitpicking, but I remember that it bothered me at 14. And that’s the thing with those small, stylistic things, as an adult I find them almost charming, but as a kid, they took me out of the story.

Gotham City feels smaller in this movie. Batman was shot in England, at the legendary Pinewood Studios, where a huge chunk of Gotham City was built. Pinewood Studios is also where portions of Superman and Superman II were shot on the famous 007 Stage. On the backlot, portions of New York City streets were recreated for the infamous fight between Superman and General Zod and his crew. In Batman, Gotham feels like a city. In Batman Returns, which was filmed at Warner Bros. Studios in Los Angeles, even though the sets were huge, it looks (and feels) like less of Gotham was built. And it’s pretty obvious that certain sets were re-used, albeit decorated differently (the exterior of Shreck’s Dept Store and the exterior of Gotham City Hall of Records). Even with the matte paintings of Gotham’s skylines, and chases on the rooftops, Gotham feels small.

Batman the murderer is on the loose. Seriously, Burton’s Batman is a killer in the same way that every action movie star of the 1980s-1990s are, and it’s disappointing. In an interview for one of the behind-the-scene documentaries on Warner Bros.’s superb Batman Anthology DVD/Blu-ray set, I believe it was Daniel Waters who said that while fans complained that Batman killed in these movies, they felt they needed to make him more modern, and in modern movies, the action heroes often kill indiscriminately. To which I say: Bullshit. Why the need to make Batman like every other action star of that time period? Batman purposely uses the Batmobile to set someone on fire, and purposely attaches a bomb to another criminal, blowing him to hell. (How many people will come to my website by searching Batman blowing? We’ll find out! Whee!). And for all intents and purposes, he kills the Penguin as well. Yet, he stands down in the Penguin’s lair, trying to convince Selina Kyle not to kill Max Shreck. He argues that they’re not like Shreck, which I read as, “We’re not killers like he is.” Except…he’s killed all those goons that worked with the Joker, the Joker, several of Penguin’s goons, and, at this point, possibly the Penguin…twice. The way I see it, if Selina Kyle/Catwoman kills Shreck, she’s doing something Batman most likely would’ve done anyway. The argument is, of course, he had no choice but to kill these people. Maybe, maybe not. But the thing that makes the comic book Batman so interesting is that he is unwilling to kill, and when he does, it messes him up.

"Don't kill him, Selina. We're not like him. Well...you're not like him. I kind of am. I'm also Mr. Mom. Because I was the Dad. At home. With the kids. Because Mom was at work. Get it? Wait! Put the taser down!"

“Don’t kill him, Selina. We’re not like him. Well…you’re not like him. I kind of am. I’m also Mr. Mom. Because I was the Dad. At home. With the kids. Because Mom was at work. Get it? Wait! Put the taser down!”

The black gunk that comes from the Penguin’s mouth. It’s just weird. Blech.

The Dawn

Like Burton’s initial foray into Gotham City, Batman Returns is a tour-de-force of imaginative filmmaking. Nitpicking aside, not only do I enjoy the movie, but I like it even more than its predecessor. It’s faster paced, has more humor, and is just more fun. I saw it twice in the theaters when it came out (and still have the ticket stubs) and multiple times in the year or two that followed, once I got the videotape for Christmas.

Batman Returns was a financial hit, though the reviews were mixed. While Burton’s vision and unique storytelling prowess were often cited as plusses, they were also parts of the criticism that the movie, which was rated PG-13 (like its predecessor), was too dark and too scary. Still, it seemed inevitable that Warner Bros. would want a third adventure. And I knew, that summer in which I turned 15, that I couldn’t wait for a third movie!

A possible piece of trivia: I’ve kept movie stubs for every movie I’ve seen since June 1992. The first stub is for Batman Returns. So is the second stub, seen a month later.

"I'm Batman."

“I’m Batman.”

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