Batman Returns–as much as Easy Rider, Saturday Night Fever, and Wall Street-is both symbol and symptom of its cultural time. Fans looking for anything like Jack Nicholson’s psychotic comedy will be disappointed, for this sequel is all too serious and somber. The entire movie is cast in an eerie purple blue, and this time the expressionistic sets are even more menacing: the scale of Gotham’s skyline is radically distorted, with the city streets now careening off into existential voids. Murnau’s Nosferatu has nothing on Batman Returns.
Leaving aside the debate in the New York Times whether the movie is anti Semitic or anti-Christian, or whether the herring-eating Penguin is a caricature of a Jew, there is another way of reading this film. The plausible reason for the darkness is that so much of the movie’s action takes place indoors, at night, or underground. The Penguin’s hideout and headquarters are in the city’s sewer system; when not brooding alone in her bedroom, the Catwoman is prowling on rooftops and through alleys in the dark of night; and when not alone in his study or with Alfred, Bruce Wayne is alone in the Batcave, several stories underground.
But the darkness also conveys the shadowy lives and grieved psyches of the film’s protagonists, all of whom can be seen as representing troubled elements of American life. The Penguin is grotesquely deformed at birth-born with flippers and a beak-like nose. Not wanting the joys of “exceptionally challenged” offspring, his aristocratic par ents throw him into a river, after which he is rescued and nurtured by a forgot ten colony of penguins from an abandoned zoo. Far from being the criminal genius we are supposed to fear and despise, this Penguin is more sympathetic than threatening. Unlike the Joker, who despite his claim that Batman “made him” really spent his entire life doing evil, the Penguin’s crimes are not his fault but ours-the fault of an insensitive society that refuses to accept the handicapped and differently abled. And if the Penguin gets a little out of hand as when he takes a page from the Bible and determines to kill the firstborn sons of the city’s leading families-we view him not as diabolical but as a tragic victim who after years of oppression and ostracization can find no other means of venting his frustration.
We also sympathize with the Catwoman’s plight. As Selina Kyle, she is verbally abused and sexually harassed by her boss, and on top of it all she can’t get a date. When she accidentally discovers the details of her boss’s crooked business scheme, she is pushed out of her office window and left for dead. Brought back to life by the healing licks of a pack of cats, she declares lifelong revenge on the source of all her troubles-men. “Life’s a bitch, now so am I,” she exclaims. It’s Michelle Pfeiffer as Molly Yard, or sort of. Ms. Pfeiffer could get a date.
But if the Catwoman occasionally parrots the platitudes of NOW, she also reflects the turmoil that has plagued the women’s movement in recent years. Yes, Selina Kyle wants respect and equal treatment in the work place, but she al so wants feminine beauty and meaningful relationships with men. In scenes that will have Andrea Dworkin heading for the exit, the Catwoman can’t sup press or deny her sexual attraction to Batman. Torn between radical feminism and her need for emotional and physical satisfaction, she is the prototypical post feminist who “wants it all”-including everything the women’s movement told her to despise and forego.
Batman, meanwhile, is still brooding over the death of his parents and trying to come to terms with his dual life. Like most heterosexual white males depict ed in popular culture, he is mopey, feel ing guilty, and always introspective about his life and actions. He still feels some obligation to bring justice to the denizens of Gotham, but he would really like to hang up his cape for good. Some critics have criticized director Tim Burton for not casting a more manly Batman, someone more like the young Sean Connery or Adam West of the TV series, hut these critics are missing the point; virility is out, for the hero of the 90’s is kinder and gentler, a knight not of action but of sensitivity, a man like . . . Michael Keaton. When Bruce Wayne closes the movie with the wish “Goodwill towards men,” and then corrects himself and adds “and women,” we know we are in the real world of the l990’s listening to the real Michael Keaton.
But what is most disturbing about the movie is not its Freudian view of human behavior, its motif of repressed sexuality-with Batman wanting to grope Cat woman, Catwoman wanting to grope Batman, and the Penguin wanting to grope anything flippers can grope-or even its lack of heroic figures who can rise above misfortune and accept their lot in life. It is the banality of the dialogue and characterizations when compared to their original comic hook ver sions. For even if we still believed in the virtues that once embodied our action comic heroes, it would be impossible to portray these characters today. When originally scripted in the 1940’s, the Penguin was a snobby little man with cherubic face and waddling gait who flaunted his haughtiness by quoting Shakespeare and Keats. The Catwoman’s name “Selina” clearly derives from “Selene,” the moon-goddess of Greek mythology who was associated with the Titan Hecate, the name given to the Cat woman’s chief pet cat. All of this would be lost on today’s moviegoers. It is too had that our current Batman and Penguin are sniveling little drips, but they’re the only Batmans and Penguins we’d understand without Cliff Notes.