25 May 2007

In praise of a Gothic Bat

The waiting period for The Dark Knight will be intense. More than a year away (actually, 416 days and twelve hours away as of the moment I write this sentence—thank you very much Batman-on-Film) and already I'm as giddy about seeing this movie as some poor victim of Joker Venom. Batman Begins rocked my world something fierce in 2005, and it looks as if director Christopher Nolan keeps making one great choice after another for the sequel. I am 99% certain he won't let me down and the film will rule all of 2008.

Sitting around thinking about The Dark Knight and trying to squeeze every bit of information I can out of the Internet about it (spoilers be damned! I want to know now!) has of course got me thinking about Batman in general, and the other movies in particular. And when I start thinking about the Batman films, I always gravitate to that dark spot in my heart that loves 1992's Batman Returns.

I'm not alone in loving the film. But those who hate it aren't alone either. It's nobody's least favorite Bat-film—that would be Batman and Robin and that can be proven scientifically—but many Bat-fans dislike what director Tim Burton did to the character. Taking the dark and Gothically stylized Batman from the 1989 mega-hit, Burton then produced what can best be described as a macabre fantasmagoria that melded Fritz Lang and DC comics by way of Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens in a particularly foul mood, and leather S&M fetishists. It was one big Dark Carnival, to borrow a title from Ray Bradbury. For a lot of Bat-fans it was too much Burton and too little Bat.

And I agree. But I still love the film. I'm a huge Bat-fan who owns all the movies on DVD, plus all the episodes of the different animated series, and will be the first to purchase the 1960s TV show on disc whenever the rights issues gets hacked out (and can we make this soon please, Fox and Warner Bros.?). I've read comics from all the different eras of the Bat thanks to the wonder of trade paperbacks and graphic novels. I know my Bat pretty well. And the Batman who appears in Batman Returns is definitely more a product of director Tim Burton than any of the dominant comic book versions. He's probably closest to the Batman envisioned by Frank Miller in The Dark Knight Returns, in which Bruce Wayne is a borderline sociopath with fascist underpinings. Miller's Batman had a huge influence at the time, but I think Tim Burton would have gone ahead and made his violent, slightly crazed Batman-who-kills (remember when he blows up the strongman with a smile on his face?) regardless. Because he was making a Tim Burton film, not a comic book film.

And since I'm a Tim Burton fan as well as a Bat-fan, I can't help but love the gothic weirdness of Batman Returns. It's a sheer freakin' delight for me. Even though it's the darkest of the Bat-films, I think it's also the funniest. Morbid funny, like "I could have blood gushing from my nose!" kind of funny. Like "life's a bitch now so am I" funny. Like a mutated freak commanding an army of rocket-strapped penguins to annihilate the population of a major city. The thing is just so demented that I can't believe it was meant to be a summer blockbuster. That's the darkest joke of all, and Tim Burton got away with it!

On a psychological level, it's an intriguing text about the masks people wear, and the torture of the dual identity. The Catwoman-Batman/Selina Kyle-Bruce Wayne relationship is perfectly realized, especially how it explores the idea of the same person split down the center. And around this twisted love story is the disgusting figure of the Oswald Cobblepot, a.k.a. "The Penguin," one of my favorite film villains ever. I love how Burton created the Penguin as the anti-Bruce Wayne and the anti-Batman: a boy whose rich parents lost him, and who seeks to avenge that loss by murdering the wealthy of Gotham (or the infant children at least). It's the exact reverse of Batman's origin. Although the Penguin is a grotesque figure, he's also tragic. Deformed, rejected, and ready to do something nasty about it. Batman chooses to be a freak, the Penguin had it thrust upon him. Added to the mix is Max Schrek (a nod to the actor who played Count Orlock in Nosferatur), the perfect example of what Bruce Wayne could have become had his parents not died: a cold-hearted rich industrialist whose only out to pilfer more dough. The "axis of wealth" in the Wayne-Schrek-Cobblepot combination fascinates me, and it gets only better with the Wayne-Kyle/Bat-Cat sexual axis crossing it. It's a Sociological/Economic/Freudian funhouse—with a wicked "have a very Gothic Christmas" setting. (The Christmas backdrop is a great touch; this is Burton's original Nightmare before Christmas.)

Okay, so it's not exactly a Batman film. And it isn't as great as Batman Begins. But damn, I love the movie anyway.

My favorite quote, coming from the maw of Mr. Cobblepot: "You're just jealous because I'm a genuine freak and you have to wear a mask."