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Batman Returns

DECEMBER RETROMANIA! - Late Night Dec. 29th - Tickets: $12

Tim Burton's sequel Batman Returns, coming out a good 10 years before everyone and their brother (Kenneth Branagh, Christopher and Jonathan Nolan, etc) began cranking out comic-book franchises, still ranks among the most fruitful marriages of high-brow auteurist style and pulp source material in the '90s.

It's a Burtonesque layer cake. At bottom, his take on German Expressionism, all towering skyscrapers, 1930s touches (the Penguin often looks like a Prohibition-era tycoon), long shadows and striking faces. Then the Gotham grotesquerie: a toxic-wasted, long-orphaned Oswald Cobblepot (Danny DeVito), aka Penguin, all beak-like nose and snaggle-toothed cackle; Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer), just turned into Catwoman, stabbing and garburating the stuffed animals in Selina's mousey, girly, dollhouse-y life; the Beethoven-white-haired, Scrooge-like (it's Christmas throughout) millionaire Max Schreck—his name an homage to the lead actor in German Expressionist classic Nosferatu. Topping it all off is a fissuring, fracturing fairytale—the Penguin plans the night-time kidnapping of rich parents' first-born sons from their beds, his gang of crazed clowns bringing them down to his sewer home via toy trains and rubber ducky.

Full of snappy, punning dialogue, bat-gizmos and a grinning darkness, Batman Returns is closer to the campy '60s series than it seems. And, unlike Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, it recognizes how stone-serious and deadly dull Bruce Wayne/Batman (Michael Keaton here) tends to be. So the focus is mostly on the bird-like baddie and feline fury. (There's one quaint '90s touch—the almighty CD, which DJ Bruce Wayne even scratches at one point, proves instrumental in Batman's thwarting of the Penguin.)

The story grapples with feminism via Catwoman (the Reagan '80s had seen a backlash against the new f-word). The effect's a curious illumination of a woman as masochist and sadist—regularly harried, ill-used, submissive secretary by day turns leather-wearing, whip-cracking pseudo-villain by night—which veers away from simple sex-objectification or offensive “catty” stereotyping. Batman Returns remains what most comic-book adaptations should aspire to—not F/X-laden block-busting but a bursting-out of characters into colourful, poppy life on screen, framed within a vivid, distinctive esthetic and some zippy, playful dialogue. Too bad that, more than 20 years later, bigger box-office business has made it harder to get the smaller stuff right.

Courtesy: Brian Gibson, Vue Weekly (Edmonton)

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Directed by: 
Tim Burton
Running Time: 
Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken
Screenplay by: 
Wesley Strick, Daniel Waters, Sam Hamm

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