Every December, Rachael and I get in the mood for Christmas movies. This is not terribly unusual for anyone who celebrates Christmas.
We go through several standards every year: The Muppet Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life, and if we can find an easily available copy, A Christmas Story (this one’s not as good as the first two, so we don’t sweat it if we don’t get to watch it). The other night we had finished up with A Christmas Story when I decided it was time that I sit down and wrap some presents. Being the media junkie that I am, I opened up Netflix and browsed through the selection for something appropriate for background noise.
I found Batman Returns.
After making the obligatory quip about finding a Christmas movie more my speed (Rachael’s initial reaction was, “It’s a Christmas movie?”), I settled in to wrap some gifts and revel in some Burton era cheesy Batman (I have come to the realization since Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy came out that all previous Batman movies are filled to the brim with camp; we just never realized it because Burton’s take looks downright grim next to Schumacher’s).
In a lot of ways, this movie’s still really fun. Burton’s signature style revolves around juxtaposing the grim with the playful, and there’s plenty of both in Batman Returns. I mean, this is a movie where you have a scene in which the villain bites a guy’s nose so that it’s gushing blood, and also a scene where Batman’s remote controlled batarang gets foiled by a toy poodle catching it in midair. Both scenes are absurd, but they shoot in opposite directions on the scale of visual levity. Add in the fact that Christopher Walken plays the tertiary villain of the movie, and you get a tone that’s really delightful in its zaniness.
Unfortunately, this movie’s not perfect. It’s not perfect, because it has Catwoman.
As Rachael remarked while we were watching the movie, “It’s a shame that Catwoman’s such a great character, but she never gets portrayed well.”
I’m inclined to agree, though I think poor portrayals of Catwoman stem more from her nature as a character. Bob Kane’s on record as saying that he and Bill Finger designed her to represent the fickle and distant nature that he felt was inherent to women (Kane did at least have the good sense to admit that people would find his opinion sexist, which it is). She’s always been intended as an anti-villain, someone who dangles the possibility of redemption out there, but who never quite crosses the line into heroism (which was apparently supposed to be a metaphor for how women can almost be actual friends with men, but never quite get there; thank God sensibilities evolve, right?), and I think this nature is her weakness as a character. Catwoman is based on an idea that’s false and sexist all the way through, so she’s going to take some serious re-imagining in order to become a less problematic character.
Batman Returns fails on pretty much every level to fix those problems.
In this movie, Catwoman takes her villainous turn after her boss murders her, and through Burton magic, she’s imbued with the sensibilities and extra lives of a cat (I don’t think Catwoman has ever been portrayed as superhuman besides in this film, and it’s really out of line with the general subtext of Batman stories that involve a lot of psychologically damaged but otherwise normal people running around in funny costumes fighting each other). Apparently, in this universe, the sensibilities of a cat mean that she becomes a hypersexual straw feminist who relentlessly teases every man and berates every woman she interacts with. Given that a majority of the movie delves into the weird repression of its three main characters (well, the weird repression of Batman and Catwoman, anyway; the Penguin is completely unbound id, which makes him a particularly pathetic character when you think about his motivations for ultimately attacking Gotham), this treatment kind of makes sense, but where Batman’s struggles with his identity have some element of nuance, and the Penguin’s utter failure to assimilate into society has lovely tragic undertones, Catwoman’s motivation boils down to the fact that she has no stable man in her life, and that enrages her to the point of having a psychotic break.
So to review, the guy who dresses up as a rodent and drives around town in a fancy car fighting crime is a complex person who has doubts about his own reasons for what he does, the guy who’s an outcast because he was born with a deformity and never properly socialized gets to have a tragic character arc, and the woman who runs around in vinyl and tries to kill a bunch of people just really needs to get laid by a man who doesn’t have megalomania. Glad we got those character concepts straightened out.