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SCI-FI MOVIE PAGE PICK: BATMAN RETURNS

BATMAN RETURNS

Michael Keaton Batman/Bruce Wayne
Danny De Vito The Penguin/Oswald Cobblepot
Michelle Pfeiffer Catwoman/Selina Kyle
Christopher Walken Max Shreck
Michael Gough Alfred The Butler
Michael Murphy The Mayor of Gotham
Cristi Conaway The Ice Princess
Andrew Bryniarski Chip Shreck
Pat Hingle Police Commissioner Gordon

Directed by Tim Burton. Screenplay by Daniel Waters and Sam Hamm (from the story by Waters and Hamm, based on the characters by Bob Kane). 1992. Running time: 126 Minutes.

I knew something was wrong when we were the only two people in the cinema. My date and I were there to see Batman Returns. It was the second time that I would see the film and her first time. While we both had a pretty good idea what to expect, what we weren't really prepared for was an empty cinema. It may have been an early evening show during the week, but still! This was the sequel to the 1989 Batman - one of the biggest grossing movies of all time. (Although ironically more money was made with the Batman merchandising than actual ticket sales! But that's the way movies work these days: it's a multimedia opportunity rather than a film . . . )

I would, however, have expected this when the week before a colleague of mine told me that she wasn't going to allow her kids to see it. She has heard that it was too dark and violent a film for children - even though they wanted to see it very much. This could only have been a bad omen for the financial success of the Batman sequel. If the kids didn't go to see a Batman movie, then who would? Definitely not the "adults" who weren't supposed to take mere "comic" books seriously. (Or at least that's what my dad tells me every time he sees his 29-year-old son with one of those comic books . . .) Comic book readership (along with literacy) has been changing in the past decade or so. People don't read much anymore. It simply isn't cool, there isn't time, it's easier to go rent the video instead. More fun to play CD-ROM games. Whatever. The demographics of comic book readers have also changed. Although kids still make up the largest chunk of comic book consumers, comics readers have become older. Why? Because kids aren't interested anymore and few new readers have come into the fold while the existing fans. Well, they just turned 29, that's all . . .

This explains why Marvel Comics (which mostly prints juvenile titles such as X-Men) has to scale down while the Vertigo branch of DC Comics which caters for more "mature" tastes actually recently expanded its canon of printed titles. Comic readers have become an older (if not wiser) bunch. Yet they remain a small sub-culture within a small sub-culture. After all, it's easier to watch the latest episode of The X-Men on television on Saturday mornings than going out and buying the latest edition of the said title . . .

Basing the viewership of a multi-million dollar Hollywood production on that particular tiny sub-culture could only spell financial disaster. Because that is what Batman Returns was aimed at: the "mature" comic book readers. It had more in common with the dark brooding graphic novels that saw the light (?) after Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns than the pure comic book stuff that appears on the shop shelves every month. When my colleague felt that Batman Returns wasn't really for kids, she was probably right. When the film was criticised by critics for being too psychopathic, too tormented, too brutal for children they were probably right too.

However, when Ebert complained that Batman Returns denies us (the audience) what "we more or less deserve from a Batman story," he was wrong. When he wrote that "no matter how hard you try, superheroes and film noir don't go together; the very essence of noir is that there are no more heroes" one could clearly see that he hasn't exactly been in on what has been happening in the comic scene since Frank Miller re-invented (or rather re-interpreted) the Batman character for modern audiences. Perhaps he should take a look at those graphic novels or at Grant Morrison's Arkham Asylum.

Yeah, I probably do take my comics too seriously. The fact remains that when one compares the first two Batman films, it is obvious that following the commercial success of Batman, director Tim Burton was given free rein with its sequel. Batman Returns is more malignant in its style, atmosphere and feeling. Like one critic remarked: "It . . . is probably one of the only live action movies to date that successfully converts from its comic origins. Batman Returns captured the comic hero's manic depressive state of mind as well as the comic book's Gothic intentions." But the game was over for director Burton.

Always having trod the thin line between avant garde weirdness and mainstream commercial success, Tim (Edward Scissorhands, Mars Attacks!, Ed Wood) Burton finally fell from Hollywood grace. "They (Warner Bros.) are happy that I didn't do another Batman movie," he admitted in a recent interview with Starlog magazine. "I put them through a lot. I didn't mean to; I felt a lot of pressure on the second one. A friend of mine had just died, and I felt really bad; I was going through some personal things. My primary concern was to make a good movie . . ." And he did.

Although very secretive about box office returns in general, it was clear that Batman Returns didn't turn out to be as profitable as the studio had hoped. Burton's involvement with Batman Forever (directed by Joel Schumacher) was only in the form of advice, when it was sought. The final word on Batman Forever has to be Burton's: "It became a franchise thing for the studio, and once that has hooked in, you've got to have meetings with McDonald's six months before the movie's even started . . ." Schumacher gave Warner Bros. what they wanted. Flat-out spectacle, something that the kids could easily digest, obnoxious flavour-of-the-month Jim Carrey, you name it. What this viewer got was what I didn't want: a migraine attack.

No, without a doubt Batman Returns will remain the best movie in the, er, series. There is little from what we have seen from the upcoming Batman & Robin (also directed by Joel Schumacher) to waylay this suspicion . . .


Copyright � May 1997 James O'Ehley/The Sci-Fi Movie Page

 

 

- Greg Ursic



 

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Copyright © 1997-forward James O'Ehley/The Sci-Fi Movie Page (unless where indicated otherwise).