Like Batman, Batman Returns presents three protagonists, almost the same protagonists as 1989‘s Batman — a deformed freak of a gangster (this time the Penguin instead of The Joker), a blonde who’s crazy about bats (Catwoman subbing for Vicki Vale), and Batman himself. In addition to its three protagonists, it offers an antagonist from outside the traditional Batman world — a ringer, if you will, in the form of businessman Max Shreck.
It would be great to report that Batman Returns takes all of these worthwhile, interesting characters and weaves them into a single, unified story, but it does not. Instead, it presents two separate stories, each compelling in its own right, and kind of sutures them together like the irregular chunks of vinyl of Catwoman’s bodysuit. As this is an unusually complicated narrative with three separate, competing plot strands which actually take place in utterly different genres, let’s separate out each character’s storyline and examine them one at a time.
First we have the Penguin, who is a classic antihero — we’re going to watch the Penguin destroy himself, and we’re going to enjoy every minute. The Penguin is born bad and is literally dumped into the sewers by his wealthy parents before the titles even unspool. This dark, twisted vision of villainy is shocking even by Batman Movie standards, and indicates that we’re headed somewhere very strange in Batman Returns. The Penguin’s parents try to murder him on Christmas, and 33 years later (Christ’s age, for those keeping score) he emerges from the sewers to wreak his revenge upon Gotham City. That’s barely even a Batman plot at all — that’s a monster movie, and it’s light-years beyond anything rolling around in the mind of Burgess Meredith. The Penguin lives in an abandoned zoo (Gotham City apparently has an abandoned zoo), has flippers for hands, a spherical head, a bigger spherical body, two short bandy legs, a beak for a nose and a filthy union suit for clothes. He eats fish and drools green gunk. He’s an incredible creation, horrifying and repulsive, and it’s clear that the director absolutely loves him from head to toe.
Here’s the Penguin’s story: the Penguin wishes to wreak his revenge on Gotham, remember? Okay, so the way he goes about doing that is: he has his circus-themed henchmen stage an attack on a tree-lighting ceremony attended by businessman Max Shreck. The purpose of this attack is to provide cover for the Penguin to kidnap Max, which he eventually gets around to in a sideways kind of way. When Max is in his clutches, the Penguin tells him that his goal is to discover his (that is, The Penguin’s) parentage and regain his place in society, and for this he needs Max’s help.
Doeshe need Max’s help? Turns out, no, not at all — everything he wants to do, he could have easily accomplished without Max’s help. All the Penguin needs is access to Gotham’s Hall of Records, where he can copy down all the names of the city’s first-born children. Once he has that list, he can then have his circus gang round of the children and bring them to his lair. He accomplishes his entrance into Gotham society with another staged attack (he has one of his clowns kidnap a baby), except this time it is the Penguin who appears to save the day. His entrance into the overworld made, he sets about his nefarious scheme.
The Penguin’s goal — his only goal — is to round up and murder Gotham’s first born. That’s what he wants to do at the beginning of the movie, and that’s what he wants to do at the end of the movie. And yet, for almost an hour of the narrative, the Penguin dallies with the notion of running for mayor, at Max’s behest, and tries to ruin Batman’s reputation, at Catwoman’s behest. The mayoral-race subplot of Batman Returns and the Catwoman-revenge subplot are complete diversions, part of other plot strands which we’ll get to in a moment.
For now, let’s say that the Penguin runs for mayor, then quits, then tries to ruin Batman, fails, then goes back to doing exactly what he was doing at the beginning of the movie. He sets into motion his child-napping scheme, and kidnaps exactly one baby before Batman shows up and foils his minions. Outraged, the Penguin, like the Joker before him, then lashes out with a more apocalyptic plan — to destroy an entire neighborhood with a flock of rocket-carrying penguins. (It’s a measure of how strange and twisted this movie is that, by the time the rocket-bearing penguins show up in Act IV, it seems like the most natural thing in the world.) Batman foils this plot as well (using a bat-calling device not unlike the one he has in Batman Begins), turning the penguins’ rockets back on the Penguin, destroying his lair and sending him to a watery grave.
Look at the ark of that character — born evil, thrown out by his parents. Tries one scheme for revenge, gets sidetracked. In the middle of being sidetracked, gets sidetracked again. Is manipulated and used by others, then fails at his appointed tasks. Goes back to his original plan, then fails miserably. Decides to go out in a blaze of glory, then fails at that too. The Penguin’s story in Batman Returns is unbearably sad, and one feels like Batman is a bully for picking on this pathetic excuse for an evildoer. The Penguin has nothing, and builds an empire — Batman has everything, and picks on little people. “You’re just jealous because I’m a real freak!” the Penguin shouts at Batman at the climax, and Batman can only sigh and say “You may be right.” Authenticity may be a strange thing to say a character as fanciful as the Penguin possesses, but despite his monstrousness we feel for his rage, his animalism and lust for revenge. Who among us has not felt discarded and unloved, and has not sought revenge on the world to soothe our wounded souls?
Next we have Selina Kyle. Selina Kyle is a mousy (mousy! ha!) secretary who stumbles upon an evil scheme her boss has cooked up. Well, perhaps evil is too strong a word —”unethical” is more accurate. Her boss is Max Schreck, and his scheme is a deceitful power plant, about more later. The important thing in Selina’s story is that Selina discovers Max’s unethical plan, Max kills her for her discovery, she gets brought back to life by some cats (cats adopt Selina the same way penguins adopt the Penguin), and from that moment on Selina is mousy no more — now she is Catwoman, a kitten with a whip on her hip and a chip on her shoulder.
When Selina becomes Catwoman, her goal is: a) fight men, b) destroy Max’s department store, and c) kill Max. Once she blows up Max’s department store, she falls in love with Bruce Wayne and plots, with the Penguin, to destroy Batman’s reputation, but we see rather quickly that her heart is no longer in her Batman Villain work. As Selina falls in love with Bruce, Catwoman falls in love with Batman. The whole Catwoman plot of Batman Returns is not only independent of the Penguin plot, it’s in a different genre — it’s a love story in the middle of a superhero movie.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Catwoman plot goes like this: Catwoman is born of Max’s misdeeds, she defends a woman against a would-be rapist then chastises the woman for her stupidity, then destroys Max’s department store. Batman pursues her and fights with her, which then causes her to want to destroy his reputation (why, I’m not sure — he’s a man, I guess, and a member of the Patriarchy, which means he’s her enemy, but she’s also clearly attracted to him, and he even lets her go at one point after she’s committed a fairly serious crime — he seems to be cutting her breaks all over the place). She barely participates in the “ruin Batman’s reputation” plot at all, and by that point she’s fallen in love with Bruce/Batman and is clearly losing her mind, driven mad by the whole being-reborn-by-cats-into-a-badass-feminist-whirlwind-agent-of-destruction thing. (The plot to ruin Batman’s reputation involves kidnapping a woman and making it look like Batman did it, then hijacking the Batmobile and driving it through the streets of Gotham by remote control. Catwoman participates by keeping watch over the kidnapped woman for a bit and fighting off a rescue attempt from Batman. She’s angered when the Penguin murders the kidnappee, which was not in the plan, and repulsed when the Penguin takes the opportunity to propose marriage. She refuses, and the Penguin dissolves their partnership. So that is actually another failure chalked up for the Penguin — tempted by Catwoman, he orchestrates an elaborate scheme to discredit Batman, at her request, takes on almost all the work required to pull off the scheme, and is then rejected by the object of his affection.)
Selina/Catwoman pushes forward with her plot to kill Max, but Max is, at the crucial moment, snatched out from under her by the Penguin, who has reasons of his own for revenge. Catwoman then heads over to the Penguin’s lair, where, after the Penguin’s schemes have all backfired, tries, again, to kill Max. Batman intervenes, and tries to get Catwoman to lighten up a little, taking off his cowl and pledging his deeply messed-up love for her. Max takes the moment of Catwoman’s confusion to shoot Batman, then Selina herself. Selina, her personality melting down before our eyes, takes a stun gun and sticks it in her mouth while kissing Max. Max ends up fried like chicken fricasee, but Catwoman escapes to ponder love and Batman again.
So that’s Catwoman, a kind of “doomed neurotic lovers in the big city” story, which every now and then shares a thematic unity with the Penguin story, but really has nothing whatsoever to do with it.
But we’re still not done! There’s still Max’s story. The Max story goes like this: Max wants to build this power plant. The power plant is not really a power plant, and is in fact a capacitor, a power-sponge. Max wants to build his plant and seeks Bruce Wayne as an investor. Bruce sees the plant for what it is and refuses to help. Without Bruce’s help, to get his plant built Max needs something else — a new mayor. For reasons that utterly escape me, he turns to the Penguin to be his proxy in the mayor’s office. He seduces the Penguin with some raw fish and the hope of sex with many young women. (The Penguin’s frustrated sexuality is only one part of his woeful, stunted pathology, but it is significant — his anger at Catwoman and Batman is partly due to them being young, good looking and — comparatively speaking — sexually functional.)
The Penguin, it seems to me, makes a spectacularly awful mayoral candidate, but who am I? (The Penguin running for mayor of Gotham is, ironically, one of the few aspects of Batman Returns that derives from the original comics.) The Penguin, sadly, knows nothing of Max’s power plant, he knows only that he will have power of his own, and many sexual conquests, once he is mayor. When Batman foils the Penguin’s mayoral campaign, Max shrugs, gives up his plan for the power plant, and goes on his merry way. The Penguin, abandoned for a second time (or third, if you count Catwoman’s betrayal), realizes he’s been wasting his time seeking power and acceptance in the human world, and goes back to his animalistic plot of revenge. Max spends the remainder of the movie falling prey to those he has wronged — first the Penguin, then Selina. Batman — or Bruce, for that matter — never lays a glove on him. Others must always suffer for his crimes.
And guess what! Did you know, Batman is also a character in Batman Returns! Batman/Bruce’s plot goes like this: Batman responds to the Penguin’s initial attack on the Christmas-tree lighting (where he meets Selina), then tangles with Max, where he meets Selina again, then does a wee bit of detective work to connect the Penguin to the circus gang (I could never figure out why a circus-themed gang, except that circuses are creepy), then disrupts a second circus-gang attack (this one intended to discredit the mayor), then fights Catwoman, then falls in love with Selina, then gets ensnared in the Penguin’s scheme to ruin his reputation, then foils the Penguin’s mayoral run, then tries to talk Selina out of killing Max, then foils the Penguin’s penguin plot, then meets up again with Selina and fails to convince her to not kill Max.
As you can see, Batman is mostly reactive in Batman Returns — he’s more like a mucilage that holds all the different plot strands together. He barely has a goal of his own; the most affecting part of his story — his hesitant love for Selina — is largely overshadowed by the Penguin’s and Max’s various schemes.
Why does the Penguin approach Max in Act I to demand his help? To better tie together the Penguin and Catwoman stories. There are a lot of forced marriages of plot in Batman Returns, starting with the Penguin’s kidnapping of Max and ending with — well, ending with the Penguin’s second kidnapping of Max 90 minutes later. The best part? All this plot, all these different stories, all happen within the space of about two and a half days!
Check this out — Selina falls out a window, dies, comes back to life and re-creates herself as Catwoman all in one night. Then, we see the Penguin emerge from the sewers, then be accepted into society, then go to the Gotham Hall of Records to write down all the names of Gotham’s first born, as Bruce does his research on him and the circus gang. Then we see Catwoman foil the rapist and chastise the victim, and then we see Max meeting with Bruce, and Selina shows up, surprising Max, since she’s supposed to be dead. It feels like about six weeks has gone past, but in fact it’s the next day! The Penguin emerges from the sewers, is accepted into society, becomes a media sensation, goes to the Hall of Records, copies down all the names of Gotham’s first born, finds his parents and gives a press conference all in the space of about two hours!
But it gets better — Bruce turns down Max for his power-plant thing, and the next thing we know Max has organized a mayoral campaign, complete with staff, banners and a promotional scheme — all later that same day! That night — that is, Selina’s second night as Catwoman, she destroys Max’s department store, blows the whole building sky-high, and yet, a night or so later, Max holds a Christmas party in the same store!
The amazing thing is, with all of this craziness, Batman Returns continues to charm and enthrall. As pungent and revelatory as Batman was, Returns is even more so, a chilly, overflowing cauldron of perversity, thrills and dark surrealism. As Burtonesque as the first movie is, Returns offers a purer vision of Burtonism, irrational and passionate. It fails to cohere as a narrative, it’s more like some kind of nightmare dreamscape of curdled ambitions, wounded egos and bisected personalities. (Discussion of the weird Christian symbolism alone could take up another post.) Rarely has a director been given this kind of money to be this kind of weird.
Text ©2010 Todd Alcott