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Difficulty with Duality: The Batman Films of Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher

Written by: Monte Williams, Special to CC2K

CC2K newcomer Monte Williams looks back at the first four Batman movies, and Joel Schumacher doesn’t fare well.

ImageThe greatest moment in Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever occurs near the story’s conclusion, when the Batsignal blazes across the Gotham sky only to be topped by a gigantic question mark. This makes for a neat image, but it provokes no deeper response than a “hey, cool” or an amused chuckle. Had such an image appeared in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, it would have supported the story’s themes. The question mark would mockingly imply unpleasant things about Batman’s psyche or sexuality. In Batman Returns, the Batsignal-turned-question-mark would have been the neon superhero equivalent of that note in Stephen King’s Cujo that mentions the birthmark on the thigh of the recipient’s wife and reads, “To me it looks like a question mark. Do you have any questions?” 

With close-up shots of bulging codpieces and the dialogue’s repeated and significant mention of “partners”, Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever and Batman and Robin do lead the viewer to question Batman’s sexuality, and maybe Schumacher’s giant Batsignal question mark is meant to symbolically reflect and reinforce this playful questioning. But whereas Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s Arkham Asylum graphic novel features a Joker who loves to discuss Robin’s tights and his “Boy Wonder” nickname to really call Batman’s hetero heroism into question, Schumacher inherits a cartoon franchise and adds homoeroticism and innuendo and nonetheless manages to produce something more cartoony than what he’d started out with.

You probably haven’t watched Batman (1989), Batman Returns (1992), Batman Forever (1995) or Batman and Robin (1997) recently; Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight brought the Batman franchise back to life and imbued it with an unprecedented level of critical and popular credibility, but in the process Nolan didn’t merely make the previous four Batman movies irrelevant–he erased them. There’s not even any sort of palimpsest effect at play in Nolan’s two Batman films. Watching Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, you sense no trace of the preceding series. But then, that’s also the case within the preceding series; watching Batman Forever and Batman and Robin, you sense no trace of Batman or Batman Returns.

In Batman, Jack Nicholson’s Jack Napier dismisses someone as a “clown” in his fourth line of spoken dialogue, not ten minutes into the film, and a few minutes later he raises a Joker from a deck of cards. But these are obvious moments that offer no giddy punch of anticipation. For that matter, Nicholson’s Joker is an obvious character, a generic mobster who falls into a vat of toxic waste which turns his skin white and his hair green, which in turn leads him to decide to be crazy, ’cause why not, I guess. Jack Nicholson’s Joker is iconic, but he’s never much deeper than Caesar Romero’s hooting Joker from the 1960s Batman television series. He does say at least one interesting thing: “I make art until someone dies. I am the world’s first fully-functioning homicidal artist.” That should be Joker’s guiding philosophy throughout the movie, but instead it’s just another thing he says, like “You ever dance with the devil by the pale moonlight?” or “This town needs an enema!”

Alan Moore’s graphic novel The Killing Joke suggests that Batman is just as crazy as Joker, but Batman director Tim Burton makes this theme too obvious–the two characters bicker about who “created” whom. There is one scene set in Vicki Vale’s apartment that takes a quiet approach to the idea: Bruce Wayne enters Vale’s apartment and praises it thusly: “Lots of space.” Minutes later, Joker comes in uninvited and says the precise same thing. Here we have two broken, awkward outcasts trying to sound like mundane average fellows.

Kim Basinger’s Vicki Vale is the first of several ineffective, undeveloped female characters in the four Batman films of the ’80s and ’90s. A celebrated photojournalist, Vale has arrived in Gotham City because she implausibly wants to follow her Time Magazine warzone cover photo with some National Enquirer-worthy nonsense about The Bat. However, Kim Basinger does instill her character with a hint of promise as she tries to justify herself to a fellow journalist: “I… like bats”. It’s a weird, off-putting, subliminally kinky moment that serves as a precursor to the overtly erotic kink and play of Michelle Pfeiffer’s brilliant turn as Catwoman in Batman Returns. Also interesting is when Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne says to Vicki Vale, “You know how a normal person gets up and goes downstairs and eats breakfast and kisses somebody goodbye and goes to a job, and… you know…” and Vicki just shakes her head, puzzled. But these hints of kookiness do not adequately explain why Bruce Wayne likes Vicki Vale, or why she likes him. I am reminded of Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner’s bewildered childhood criticism of Star Wars in Bruce Handy’s “Don and Betty’s Paradise Lost”, from the September 2009 Vanity Fair:

    He remembers seeing Star Wars a few years later, when it first came out, in 1977: “Oh my God, my friends were nuts. We saw it twice the first day, and I was like, ‘Why are we seeing this again?‘ And they were like, ‘Who’s your favorite character?’ And I was like, ‘There’s no characters in this movie.'”

Likewise, you could argue that there are no characters in Batman. As a result, Bruce and Vicki’s relationship is as unconvincing a romance as the forced, flat courtship of Anakin and Padme in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones:

Vicki: Why won’t you let me in?

Bruce: You got in.

Vicki: I’ve loved you since I met you. But I don’t know what to make of all this.

“I’ve loved you since I met you” may sound ridiculous, but apparently she means it–Vale becomes Wayne’s stalker when he grows distant following a night of drunken sex after their first date.

Here are Batman’s final words in the film, from a letter to Commissioner Gordon:

    Please inform the citizens of Gotham that Gotham City’s earned a rest from crime. But if the forces of evil should rise again to cast a shadow on the heart of the city, call me.

Eliminate the reference to “Gotham City” and that could be any generic superhero talking. Not a word of it sounds like Batman. And really, Batman doesn’t even battle “evil”. He battles crime; he’s a violent conservative, not a valiant champion. He’s more of a persecutor than a defender. Still, for all its missteps, there remains some hint of underlying magic to Batman. Danny Elfman’s score is majestic, the sets are moody and operatic, Jack Nicholson’s Joker is captivating and even strangely beautiful, and at times Michael Keaton’s Batman looks positively satanic. But between the dishwater dialogue and the misguided or nonexistent characterization, Batman does not feel like a Batman movie. Stranger still, it seldom feels like a Tim Burton movie.

Every frame of Batman Returns feels like a Tim Burton movie. There is a massive rotating cat’s head atop a skyscraper, there’s Oswald Cobblepot’s comically cruel abandonment in the sewers, Christopher Walken’s wild shock of white hair, and a gang of circus villains attacking Gotham’s citizens with flamethrowers while riding unicycles. There’s even a frozen, dilapidated zoo featuring a giant crab sculpture. From beginning to end, Batman Returns is like the flaming cattle stampede in Mars Attacks: a concentrated dose of pure Burton lunacy.

That lunacy, so surreal in Beetlejuice and so beautiful in Edward Scissorhands, has been sadly missing in most of the director’s work in the past decade or so, and it is only intermittently successful in service of the Batman mythos. If Joker’s origin is lacking in mystery, Catwoman and Penguin’s births are distractingly silly: Selina Kyle is a sniveling wallflower who falls to her death and is sniffed and nuzzled and bitten by alley cats, which inexplicably resurrects her as a whip-wielding feminist dominatrix; Oswald Cobblepot is a deformed infant set adrift like a Moses of the sewers, only to be raised by penguins until he can seek revenge thirty-three years later. The movie knows better than to treat this nonsense seriously; Cobblepot’s summary to the media is, “I was their number one son… and they treated me like number two”.

Despite these false notes, Batman Returns is clearly the most triumphant entry in the four-film cycle, due largely to the daring screenplay by Daniel Waters (Heathers). (Sam Hamm wrote Batman; Avika Goldsman wrote Batman Forever and Batman and Robin). Another reason Batman Returns is superior to the other three films in the series is because Michael Keaton grows into his dual role of Bruce Wayne and Batman. His Bruce Wayne has none of the tragedy or gravity of Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne in Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, but that’s due to the story, not the acting. What Keaton’s Bruce Wayne does have is this constant underlying bafflement that’s very amusing. He seems put out and darkly amused by everyone he meets, as if he’s the only man in Gotham who doesn’t dress like a bat. Keaton spends most scenes scowling and furrowing his brow and cocking an eyebrow, or just staring off into the distance, looking dazed. At other times, Keaton’s expressions call to mind something Roger Ebert wrote about Harrison Ford’s performance in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: he “is so laid back he sometimes seems to be watching the movie with us.”

Christopher Walken’s villainous CEO Max Shreck is similar. Nothing perturbs him. Penguin nearly rips a man’s nose off with his teeth, and Shreck gamely keeps the conversation focused on the upcoming mayoral election. And what a pitch: “Imagine, as mayor, you have the ear of the media, access to the captains of industry… unlimited poontang.”

Penguin’s distracted, bored, begrudging reply: “All right, I’ll be mayor.”

Danny Devito seems to be having the time of his life with the role of Penguin, and he makes the strange, Daniel Waters/Tim Burton twist on the Penguin work when perhaps no other actor could. Devito’s appearance is unforgettable; when he’s clad in only his gray pajama-suit, he looks like a demonic Humpty-Dumpty. His asthmatic grunting and gasping is disturbing and hilarious. Plus, he gets some of the best lines in the film, as when he greets Catwoman with a greedy cry of “Just the pussy I’ve been looking for.”

Penguin’s plan is to kidnap Gotham’s firstborn sons and drown them in the industrial waste in his sewer lair. Pretty sadistic, right? On the other hand, his team is comprised mostly of penguins with rockets strapped to their backs–how can you not love that? (“The penguins are moving aboveground”, Michael Gough’s Alfred gravely reports.) And how can you not love the moment when Penguin growls at Batman, “You’re just jealous because I’m a genuine freak and you have to wear a mask”, and Batman offers in reply only a surprising four-word concession: “You might be right.”

Devito’s performance is a winning one, but the star of the show is Michelle Pfeiffer as Selina Kyle and Catwoman. Pfeiffer often keeps her mouth open, so that she is almost but not quite panting. Like everything else Michelle Pfeiffer does with the Catwoman character, this not-panting is simultaneously seductive and unsettling. The thick stitching woven throughout her shiny black costume is reminiscent of the stitches that prevent Sally from falling apart in the Burton-produced The Nightmare Before Christmas. The difference is that Sally contentedly sews herself back together after mishaps, whereas Selina Kyle… well. Catwoman is happy to exploit her fractured nature–having discovered that she has nine lives, she unceremoniously sacrifices several of them in quick succession in order to reach her goal. Nevertheless, she seems like the recipient of a curse, rather than a gift. It’s as if some cruel force repeatedly resurrects her against her will, like Bill Murray’s Phil Connors character in Groundhog Day. Selina Kyle wants to shed the thick, coarse stitches and unravel, but to quote Pee-Wee Herman in yet another Tim Burton movie, “Someone keeps knitting and knitting and knitting and knitting and knitting”.

Selina Kyle develops a dangerous relationship with Bruce Wayne. Their respective alter-egos are attracted to one another, as well, and none of it should work, but it does. Compare the greeting card banter from the Vicki Vale exchange with this:

Selina Kyle: What went wrong? Hang on. I think I know. You kept things from her.

Bruce Wayne: No, I told her everything.

Selina Kyle: And the truth frightened her?

Bruce Wayne: Well, there are two truths… you know? And… and she had trouble reconciling them, because I had trouble… um… reconciling them.

Selina Kyle: Yeah.

Bruce Wayne: See, Vicki thought-

Selina Kyle: Vicki? Ice skater or stewardess?

Bruce Wayne: Uh, heh-heh… no, she was a photojournalist.

Selina Kyle: Well, was Vicki right about your difficulty with duality?

Keaton hesitates, then says, “You see… if I say yes, then… you’re gonna think of me as a… uh… Norman Bates, a Ted Bundy type and… uh… well… you might not let me kiss you.”

These two people are profoundly damaged, and we understand how they see in one another a chance for wholeness and redemption–Selina says that Bruce “makes me feel the way I hope I really am”. Even at its most over-the-top, the relationship is compelling, as when Catwoman straddles Batman and licks his face. Reading my stark description might create a silly image in your mind, but onscreen it’s more sexually charged than a superhero kiss has any right to be. Later, when Bruce and Selina realize mid-dance that each has a dual identity, Selina offers a plea that’s simultaneously cute and sad: “Does this mean we have to start fighting?”

One cannot figure out what Bruce Wayne and Vicki Vale see in one another, but there is an exchange between Selina Kyle and Bruce Wayne that summarizes the urgency of their relationship with just seven words. Keep in mind that when this scene occurs, neither character knows the other’s secret:

I’m tired of wearing masks.

Me, too.

My lack of attribution is intentional. Later, I’ll quote two characters from Batman and Robin, and again I won’t reveal which words belong to which character, but in that case it will be damning evidence of a complete lack of character development, whereas the exchange above shows that Bruce and Selina see themselves reflected in one another. They are the missing piece and the big O, desperate to fit together.

In the greatest scene between the two, Selina and Bruce dance at a party. Selina pulls out a gun and announces that she is there to kill someone. Bruce says, “Who do you think you are?” and Selina replies, “I don’t know anymore, Bruce.” Michelle Pfeiffer earns every bit of that line; look at her eyes and her body language when she says it. She is lost. And then she laughs like a lunatic–a real one, not a supervillain. So Bruce kisses her. I’ll say it again: Bruce Wayne cuts off Selina Kyle’s crazed, disturbing laughter with a passionate kiss. It is no revelation to recognize that Michelle Pfeiffer is an attractive woman, but Batman Returns makes us uncomfortably aware that Michelle Pfeiffer is at her most gorgeous when tears are in her eyes and she is shaken and fragile and vulnerable. This is worrying, and one wonders whether Tim Burton saw something of this potential in Pfeiffer’s acting during the casting process, or whether he just lucked out.