Batman – The Return turns thirty today, and when we thought about it a thought came into our heads: who knows how good it must have been Tim Burton in 1992. At the time, the Californian director was in his fifth film: the first four had all gone beautifully at the box office, obviously in proportion to their budget (7 to 40 per Pee-wee’s Big Adventurefrom 50 to 400 per Batman), and everything indicated that the second chapter dedicated to the Bat-Man would also have the same success. Burton was a figure who is very rare today in Hollywood, one step away from extinction: an author with a strong and recognizable imprint, a very defined poetic and a billionaire franchise in his hands, to be treated as he saw fit. Not even Christopher Nolan, to stay on the Batman theme, has never been allowed so much creative freedom; not to mention the directors of the MCU, who have always struggled to reconcile production demands with their inspiration.
Burton was told, paraphrasing, “do what you want, you’re so good and you bring money.” And he took the invitation literally: Batman – The Return it is an inconceivable film by today’s cinecomic standards, and perhaps only the ubiquitous Nolan has learned at least part of its lesson. First of all: it was released as a sequel to Batman, yet he almost didn’t care. There is just a passing quote from Vicky Vale to confirm that we are in the same universe, as we would say today. For the rest, the film takes its personal direction from the beginning and is not interested in any continuity or ambition of the franchise. It is perhaps the Batman more self-sufficient than ever: it tells a story that begins, continues and ends, does not leave open parentheses, does not promise further returns.
Then there is the fact that in Batman – The Return there is very little Batman, and even more significantly there is a near-zero amount of Bruce Wayne. Left free to create and tell a story that would respond to his creative needs and not those of marketing, Burton decided to turn Gotham into a freak circus and to make a film on one of the themes he loves most: the fact , that is, that strangeness is not a defect but the new normal, and that to be normal means to be trivial (contrary to what a well-known Italian poet). In this sense, the real protagonist of the film is not Batman, who is more a narrative function and a mirror in which the figures that most interest Burton are reflected; but it is Danny DeVito’s Penguin, to whom the most complete (and most dramatic) narrative arc of the film is dedicated.
It is he who opens the dances, it is to him that the opening sequence is dedicated, a childish abandonment due to the fact that poor Oswald Cobblepot has a number of fingers other than five. It is a way to make one of the film’s themes clear right away: the problem is not “strange people”, the problem is the normal one – which not surprisingly is almost always represented as a screaming and shapeless mass. It is also a way to eliminate the classic concept of “villain” from the beginning: where the Joker had tragic origins but a sociopathic supervillain personality, Penguin does everything possible and impossible to be accepted by the rest of Gotham City, and he becomes “the bad guy” only when his fellow citizens reject him and reject him despite all his efforts.
Batman – The Return it is therefore also a film of real and metaphorical masks (not surprisingly one of the most famous lines of the film is “You are jealous of me because I am a monster of controlled origin and you must wear a mask!”, addressed to Batman from Penguin), and it is precisely this aspect of the superhero that Burton really cares about. Bruce Wayne is a normal person who goes to great lengths not to reveal that he is exceptional – the opposite of a Burtonian character. Batman, on the other hand, wears a mask to become the monster he is not: he needs to be accepted by his own author, who nevertheless never hides that he finds Oswald Cobblepot’s monologues more interesting (Batman – The Return is a very static and very theatrical film) of the problems of the Bat Man.
Even Catwoman, inserted a little by force for the need to give a female counterpart to the hero, is more interesting than Batman, according to Tim Burton and therefore according to the film. Where Cobblepot is the freak who didn’t make it, then is about to make it, finally gets thrown in the mud and rebels, Selina Kyle is a freak who is lucky enough to be aesthetically illegal: mutatis mutandis, is the same speech that can be made about the difference between a zombie and a vampire, and the fact that the latter are often sexualized while the former almost never. Even Catwoman, like the Penguin, confronts Batman not as a superhero and executioner of the night but as a person who has to hide behind a mask to be herself; Michelle Pfeiffer’s character is perhaps not fundamental to the plot as such, but it is nonetheless a useful element for Burton to expose his theories.
Daniel Waters, the screenwriter of the film, said that “they told me that Batman – The Return it’s a movie for those who hate Batman, and I accept it ”. “Hate” does not seem the right term: more than anything else it is a film for those in the Batman films who are more interested in Gotham City and its inhabitants than in Batman himself. Burton is one of these, and it shows: where the first Batman it was a perfect war machine that did not break half the scene, Batman – The Return he is fickle, has a swinging pace and limps often during action sequences, as if Burton had forced them to and can’t wait to get them out of the way. But for this reason it is also more alive and more enveloping, a film that should be experienced as a long psychoanalytic session rather than as a rush of action. It is unquestionably a Tim Burton movie, which would probably work even if instead of “Batman” and “Catwoman” there were “Vampireperson” and “The Lioness” – perhaps even if there were no superheroes and supervillains but ordinary people. Or maybe not: Tim Burton never liked normality, and he rarely explained it so clearly as in Batman – The Return.
What do you think? If you are registered with BadTaste + you can have your say in the comments box below!
We remind you that BadTaste is also on Twitch!