Monday, 5 October 2009

My name is not Oswald! It's Penguin! I am not a human being. I am an animal! Cold-blooded.

No 401 - Batman Returns
Director - Tim Burton

Ah Television... Teacher, Mother, Secret Lover. Also, ruiner of all my attempts at plan and order. Last night whilst scanning the chans I was delighted hear twinkly twinkly music box tones of Danny Elfman, and the see the Penguin's wicker pram prison floating into the sewers.
So yes! I know it is a sequel but I'll sort that out in my own time thank you very much... right now I was going to talk about why I love Batman Returns so very much.

Gotham city suits Tim Burton's mentality and visual aesthetic. The crumbling, decaying, vandalised shadow of former art deco resplendence. It is the same pseudo-Gothic streak which has appeared in almost every film Tim Burton has ever made. The difference is that in the original Batman, Burton worked with the Joker - a dancing prancing explosion of vivid purples and greens. Joker thrusts himself in the lime light, he is not the shadow dwelling outsider which Burtons uses so frequently and comfortably.
Luckily, in Returns we have some amazing villains. This is a film where Catwoman and Penguin steal every scene they're in. Let me begin with someone who is (in my humble opinion) the (very close) second greatest movie Batman villain ever.

Oswald Cobblepot, aka the Penguin. Tim Burton's depiction of the Penguin is a very brave departure from the comics. The orginal Penguin getting his nickname from the fact that he was short, fat, had a beaky nose and wore a tuxedo. His character was solely a mobster, with a fashion sense that I approve of.
In Burton's universe, the Penguin gets his nickname from his malformed flippered hands, he has grown up all his life in the sewers and abandoned pools of Gotham Zoo, raised by penguins.
It gives the character more of an obvious motivation and hatred of mankind. It also means that we get a fabulously grotesque villain.

There are a few things about the Penguin that I never understand. I love the fact that he was raised by a bunch of circus hooligans (including the omnipresent Vincent Schavelli who has been in every film or TV show ever) as a freak bird boy and that e therefore has a deep loathing for normality and the outside world. I think his motivation and his physical deformities are perfect... I just don't think his plan (to steal the first born male of every family in Gotham) is ever really explained. To me it seems that Oswald plays a bit at being Mayor and when that fails he tries to steal all the children, but more on Penguin's grand finale later.

The other thing I don't understand is just how rich Oswald Cobblepot is supposed to be. I'm aware that the Cobblepots are a wealthy family, second only to the Waynes. However, Oswald is their rejected son, left in a sewer to die! He will not have inherited this fortune. Neither would he have acquired any major skills in life whilst being raised by penguins and circus freaks. Yet... despite all this, The Penguin has an impressive armoury of weapons to hand, all adapted from umbrellas - including a bloody helicopter umbrella. He also has a rubber duck hydraulic car and a toy Batmobile (fully functional of course). Now, I'm no fool - if you are a rich and powerful mobster in Gotham you can probably afford to have all these toys made for you. But.... THIS MAN LIVES IN THE SEWERS. He shouldn't be able to afford such ridiculous fripperies nor should he have the technical know how to hack into the Batmobile and take it over. Because, I believe.... that the Batmobile would be a pretty well fortified.

So whilst I love The Penguin on an aesthetic level, and love Danny DeVito's depiction of him, I think his criminality leaves a lot to be desired.

At least Catwoman's criminality is never called into question. Oh yes, cast aside all thoughts of Halle Berry, (well... maybe not ALL thoughts. Her Miss Stone will always have a special place in my pre-adolescent memories) Michel Pfeiffer is where it is at in her scandalous rag tag home made catsuit.. Selina Kyle is killed by her boss and revived by cats. Her motivation is simple. Kill her boss and cause a lot of chaos along the way.
Her only reason to hate Batman is that he got in the way of her fun. She is gloriously petty, but I'm pretty sure she is also solely the reaction of a nervous breakdown. The few times we see Selina, post death, she is not the confident lithe figure with a voice like honeyed velvet. She is frazzled, often talking to herself. Jittery, jumpy and scared. Look at the scene which creates Catwoman, that is a depiction of complete traumatic mental collapse.The poor girl is seriously fucked up. I love that it ends with the flickering HELL HERE... which sums up the entire transformation.
It is only during her flirting with Bruce Wayne, that some of Catwoman's sexuality creeps into Selina and we see her out of her catsuit but retaining the confidence. However I think it might have been better to omit that from the film. The complications that come from Batman and Catwoman fighting whilst Bruce and Selina date needed a lot more screen time. Catwoman isn't the primary focus of the film, this is Penguin's film with Catwoman as a subplot. Bruce Wayne's date with Selina is the subplot of a subplot and whilst the point where they both realise their alter egos is a lovely moment, the whole subplot is show in too little detail.

I think Tim Burton knew this. For whilst The Penguin dies a bloody drowning mess, Catwoman escapes with one of her nine lives in tact. Perhaps setting her up for a future film. Perhaps with Billy Dee Williams' Harvey Dent from the original Batman film.

The final villain that needs to be mentioned is Mr Max Shreck (named, one would presume, after the legendary horror actor Max Shreck), the ruthless business man who is trying to steal power from Gotham and decides to do so by helping The Penguin get into power. He also killed Selina Kyle. He is your typical ruthless super rich business man. he is Christopher Walken with the most ridiculous white haired wig.
He is manipulative and twisted and he dies in a suitably gruesome way. Electrocuted and burnt to death whilst kissing Michelle Pfeiffer.

I realise I have got this far into the film without really talking about Batman. That is because he is BORING. Certainly the most boring element of the film. He isn't given much room for depth or characterisation. This is a showcase for the villains.
The most exciting part of his crime fighting arsenal is the mighty Michael Gough as his butler Alfred. That man is a legend and must be celebrated thusly.

And so... we come to the end of my blog and to my biggest gripe with the film. The Penguin's final scheme.
To kidnap babies using brain washed penguins with rocket packs.
WHAT?! That is nonsense! I know that (unlike the Nolan eras) this has no semblance at being grounded in reality, but even so... there is a line, and it has been crossed.

The stupid nonsense of the final evil deed leads me to make a bold and heartbreaking final point.
Tim Burton is responsible for getting the ball rolling which allowed Joel Schumacher to fuck up the franchise!

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