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The Burton Binge: “Batman Returns”

by on July 24, 2012
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Each Sunday with “The Burton Binge,” Sam Watermeier will look back at one of Tim Burton’s films, ultimately tracing the return to the auteur’s roots with the October 5 release of “Frankenweenie,” an animated adaptation of Burton’s first live-action short film.

This week’s edition is a little different. Sam will be joined by die-hard Batman fan Evan Dossey to discuss “Batman Returns,” which displays more of Burton’s sensibilities than the Dark Knight’s. Join them as they prowl the streets of Gotham City. It’s going to be a hot time in the old town tonight.

Sam: What perplexes me first and foremost, Evan, is the fact that you appreciate Grant Morrison’s Batman comics for the fantastical, surreal worlds and situations in which they ground Batman, yet you don’t like Tim Burton’s Batman films, which essentially do the same thing. What’s the deal?

Evan: I just don’t think his films’ depictions of Batman are particularly well conceived, at least to my tastes. Batman is something of a secondary character within his own film, and we ultimately learn nothing substantial about the character. In regard to the film as a whole, I understand that Burton’s a strong visualist first and foremost, but his visual work in “Batman Returns” is too static for my tastes. Even the more loony elements feel isolated within that miniscule, cardboard Gotham. But you’ve seen more Burton films than I have and enjoy his work more than I do. Tell me how you feel about it.

Sam: First, I’d argue that the static appearance gives the visuals the quality of comic-book panels. Secondly, I love the specificity of the production design in “Batman Returns,” in which Gotham is a wintry, neo-Expressionistic metropolis.

The film’s overall aesthetic is also very uniquely Tim Burton. In the same way that Robert Downey, Jr.’s off-screen persona is infused with the Iron Man mythos, Burton’s surreal, almost innocent and childlike depiction of the macabre is infused with Batman. And it is that strange, childlike exuberance and melancholy “wonder” with which the film is imbued that makes it special. To me, at least.

I like your analysis of the film and I wish I could feel the same. There’s definitely something unique about Burton’s films. But I believe the most common criticism of the Burton Batman films, and one I will now echo, is that they’re Burton films first and Batman films second. There’s never a sense to me that Batman is trapped in a life-or-death conflict beyond perfunctory chasms and gunbrellas. It’s like Burton had a gothic kick and needed a property to sell it.

Sam: That’s a valid point, and even Burton has admitted that he hasn’t actually read many Batman comics. But that’s what’s interesting about his Batman films; they’re like an outsider’s view of Batman, which is fitting, considering Batman is something of an outsider himself.

Evan: You’re right about the portrayal of Batman as an outsider. It’s a good angle. A great angle! An angle that Burton definitely managed to capitalize on with Michael Keaton’s brooding performance as Bruce Wayne. But I don’t think the film really focuses on that. “Batman Returns” is not an outsider’s view of Batman; it is a lazy writer’s view of Batman. If I had to sum up my view on Burton’s Batman, perhaps it would best be said: “Style over substance is fine when the style doesn’t suck, too.”

Sam: I don’t think it’s an example of style over substance, though. In fact, I marvel at how it infuses such an outlandish world with raw emotion. It shines a harsh light on the costumed characters, so much so to the point that they appear heartbreakingly human by the film’s end. Take the scene in which a bruised Batman approaches the equally battered Catwoman, extends a hand in friendship, and says, “We’re the same.” It’s a devastating scene in which these feral creatures of the night become vulnerable and human.

Evan: Good argument, but I think it clashes with the overall lack of Batman or Bruce Wayne in the film proper. The moment you reference is good but underserved by the development of Bruce throughout the film. It focuses squarely on Catwoman, Penguin and their aesthetic eccentricities. Overall, the film rubs me the wrong way. It seems to do a disservice to the potential of Batman as a character and Gotham as a world.

Sam: The lack of focus on Batman is a valid criticism. However, I think all of the Batman films are guilty of that to some degree, ultimately focusing on the worlds in which Batman is thrust rather than the caped crusader’s internal dimensions, if you will. And I think all of Burton’s films are about how specific settings affect characters, not vice versa. However, I can understand how the Dark Knight’s absence would irk a Batman fan like you. I guess I’m just more of a Burton fan.

Sam’s Rating: 5 Yaps                                                                                                                     Evan’s Rating: 2.5 Yaps

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