Batman Returns arrived in theaters 25 years ago today, cementing the Dark Knight as one of Warner Bros.’ go-to movie properties, for better or for worse, even as it delivered the unlikeliest of superhero sequels. Enjoying the creative freedom that followed the blockbuster success of his 1989 original, director Tim Burton turned to Heathers writer Daniel Waters for a screenplay that’s a Gothic fairy tale, a Christmas story, and a Batman movie in name only.
If critics lamented that Batman was dark, then Burton and Waters would go even darker with its sequel, introducing a pair of outcast-antagonists that make Jack Nicholson’s psychopathic Joker look almost cheery by comparison: Oswald Cobblepot (Danny DeVito), the deformed scion of a wealthy Gotham family, who abandoned him in infancy, and Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer), a mistreated corporate secretary whose humdrum life is shattered when her employer attempts to kill her. But although the grotesque Penguin seizes more screen time, Batman Returns is, without a doubt, Catwoman’s film.
Sure, the plot is driven by The Penguin’s machinations, intertwined as they are with corporate mogul Max Shreck’s nebulous plan to build a power plant and siphon Gotham’s energy. However, it’s Selina’s story that imbues Batman Returns with a depth that lifts it above its predecessor, and establishes Pfeiffer’s Catwoman as the Caped Crusader’s most compelling movie villain of all time.
‘You Killed Me … The Penguin Killed Me … Batman Killed Me’
In its opening scene, which recounts The Penguin’s tragic origins, Batman Returns displays all the hallmarks of Burton at his best, from the Gothic setting of Cobblepot manor to the juxtaposition of the festive and the macabre. But into that the director and screenwriter inject religious undertones and a feminist theme, both of which are at least somewhat surprising. OK, in the case of the former, really surprising.
Like a malformed Moses, the infant Oswald is set adrift in a bassinet by his mortified upper-crust parents (played by a monocled Paul Reubens, channeling Burgess Meredith’s Penguin, and Diane Salinger), only to be taken in and raised by penguins at an abandoned city zoo. Thirty-three years later (a number with unmistakable biblical significance), he reemerges in Gotham as The Penguin and, with the help of the Red Triangle Circus Gang, captures and blackmails Christopher Walken’s Max Shreck. On the surface, Cobblepot’s plot is to graduate from shunned sideshow attraction to respected citizen, which just so happens to line up with the businessman’s own plan — one that morphs into an unlikely scheme to use the public’s obsession with this monstrous newcomer to propel The Penguin into City Hall. Secretly, though, Cobblepot intends to unleash his own version of the Tenth Plague of Egypt by abducting Gotham’s firstborn sons and submerging them into the toxic waste from Shreck’s companies. Because, of course.
The biblical parallels extend to the film’s reinterpretation of Catwoman’s origins, in which a meek Selina Kyle dies — symbolically, at least, though there’s certainly room for a more literal interpretation — and is reborn as a whip-snapping supervillain bent on revenge. Max Shreck’s unappreciated assistant, Selina is pushed out an office window after she inadvertently discovers his plan to monopolize Gotham’s power supply. She (seemingly) survives, thanks to several well-placed canopies, but suffers a mental break; defenestration will do that. Selina then experiences a harrowing of her own, and returns to her Pepto-Bismol-colored apartment, with all its Barbie flourishes, and wreaks havoc, breaking a neon sign so instead of “HELLO THERE” it now reads “HELL HERE.” Yes, Selina Kyle “dies,” goes to “hell” and is resurrected as Catwoman.
(It can be somewhat-convincingly argued that Selina does indeed die from her initial fall, a notion underscored not only by her deathly pallor as she lies in the snow — and even afterward — and her subsequent “lives,” but also by her costume. Unlike other interpretations of Catwoman’s slinky suit, both before and after Batman Returns, this one is a vinyl patchwork held together by oversized stitches, evoking Frankenstein’s Monster or, perhaps more accurately, the Bride. The Penguin, the bloated embodiment of the Seven Deadly Sins, is both repelled and aroused by Selina, who shoves his pet canary into her mouth. “You’re Beauty and the Beast in one luscious Christmas gift pack,” he later observes.)
‘Honey, I’m Home’
When we first meet Selina, she teeters dangerously close to a variation on the “hot librarian” trope. She timidly serves coffee to the mayor and other city leaders in the Shreck Corporation offices as Max unsuccessfully lobbies to build a new power plant. Mustering the courage to make a suggestion, or perhaps merely ask a question, Selina is mocked by Max and laughed at by the other men in the conference room. To complete her humiliation, she later runs out into the street to take Max his speech for the Christmas tree-lighting ceremony in Gotham Plaza, where she’s promptly grabbed by one of the Red Triangle Circus Gang terrorizing the city, and then rescued by Batman.
This Selina is the victim, the damsel in distress and the working girl desperately in search of Mr. Right — all those movie stereotypes rolled into one. Returning to her empty apartment, decorated more like the bedroom of a preteen girl than the home of a full-grown woman, Selina enacts a nightly ritual, announcing, “Honey, I’m home. Oh, I forgot, I’m not married,” then listens to a series of disheartening answering-machine messages, from her mother, from a boyfriend who’s moved on, from a rape-prevention class, from herself. Even the pink paint and child-like decorations can’t disguise the depressing state of Selina’s life, built as it is upon traditional societal expectations of gender roles. “What did you just purr? ‘How can anyone be so pathetic?'” she asks her cat, Miss Kitty. “Yes, to you I seem pathetic. But I’m a working girl, gotta pay the rent.”
She needs rescuing from this dismal existence, one in which she feels unappreciated, unheard and unloved, but not by Batman, Bruce Wayne or (shudder) Oswald Cobblepot. Selina’s “death,” metaphorical or otherwise, opens a door (or maybe a window) that permits her to save herself, and exact revenge in the process — not only on Max Shreck but on Gotham’s patriarchy. Hey, it’s no coincidence that Selina is “killed” on three separate occasions by the male personifications of the city’s political and financial power, law and order, and criminal underbelly.
‘I’m Catwoman, Hear Me Roar’
In her first outing as Catwoman, Selina interrupts a mugging, easily defeats the attacker, and then quickly turns her disdain on the victim: “You make it so easy, don’t you — you pretty, pathetic young thing? Always waiting for some Batman to save you. I’m Catwoman, hear me roar.” There’s no sympathy, or empathy, for this woman, only disgust for what Selina once was, a lifetime ago.
It’s important to note that, like Batman before it, Batman Returns unfolds in a Gotham largely devoid of women. There’s Oswald Cobblepot’s mother, the Ice Princess who lights the Christmas tree (and is ultimately kidnapped and then hurled to her death by The Penguin in a feeble attempt to frame Batman), The Penguin’s thug the Poodle Lady, and assorted faces in the crowd. It’s a city where men make, enforce and, yes, break the rules, whether in government, business or on the streets. That’s part of what makes Selina Kyle’s one-woman crusade so extraordinary, particularly within the world of Batman.
Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, like those who came before her, is undeniably sexy, but she’s not there for the men of Gotham, or of the audience, to ogle; the male gaze withers under her scrutiny, under her claws. As she vandalizes and burglarizes Shreck’s department store (a mere pretext to blowing it up), she’s confronted by a pair of security guards. “I don’t know whether to shoot or fall in love,” one of them remarks. “You poor guys,” Catwoman responds, “always confusing your pistols with your privates.”
The guards’ uncertainty, and Selina’s observation, are echoed in the confrontation that follows with Michael Keaton’s Batman, who’s momentarily confounded by how to fight her. “How could you?” Selina mockingly pleads after he hits her. “I’m a woman!” When the Dark Knight fumbles for an apology, she continues, “As I was saying, I’m a woman and can’t be taken for granted. Life’s a bitch, now so am I.”
‘A Kiss Can Be Deadlier If You Mean It’
The dynamic that emerges between Batman and Catwoman is perhaps the most fascinating of the entire film series. There’s an attraction between the two, of course, both in costume and out, but Selina Kyle is one mystery Bruce Wayne can’t solve. She’s complicated, she’s dangerous; she’s no damsel hoping to be saved nor a femme fatale needing to be reformed. And, despite The Penguin’s declaration, “I saw her first,” she’s no prize to be claimed.
In a franchise, where the (typically) male villain is positioned as the fun house-mirror reflection of the Dark Knight, it’s in Catwoman that Batman sees a kindred spirit. Despite a brief flash of recognition of himself in The Penguin’s sad, sad past as an orphan, it’s in Selina Kyle’s dual nature that Bruce Wayne finds common ground (it just so happens that duality is one of Burton’s favorite threads). That’s highlighted when, after meeting a transformed Selina at Shreck’s offices, Bruce invites her to Wayne Manor for dinner, where they begin a tantalizing dance to hide their physical and psychological wounds. The evening is derailed, however, when it’s interrupted by news of mayhem at Gotham Plaza (again?), leading Bruce and Selina to enlist poor Alfred in explaining their awkward, mirror departures.
If that little cat–à–tête didn’t fully establish Selina and Bruce as two sides of the same coin (sorry, Two-Face), their meeting at Max Shreck’s masquerade ball, where they’re the only attendees without masks, certainly does. It’s there that they’re fully exposed, as repetition of repartee from their first costumed encounter — “But a kiss can be even deadlier if you mean it,” foreshadowing Selina’s fourth “death” — triggers the realization of each other’s secret.
‘So Don’t Pretend This Is a Happy Ending’
In another superhero film — heck, in another Batman film — that moment might’ve marked a turning point for characters, leading to Bruce and Selina hang up their costumes, abandon Gotham and reemerge, say, at a sidewalk cafe in Florence, Italy. However, this isn’t The Dark Knight Rises; it’s Batman Returns, where the only happiness is found in Catwoman exacting revenge on Max Shreck, with a deadly kiss. (It’s only fitting that the corrupt mogul, so focused on harnessing the city’s power for his own benefit, should be killed by electrocution.)
That doesn’t stop Batman from pleading his case in the film’s final act, where he attempts to save Catwoman from the imminent destruction of The Penguin’s arctic lair, and, presumably, whatever more quandary he imagines might follow the murder of Max Shreck. “Don’t you see, we’re the same … split down the middle … please,” Batman tells Selina as he rips off his cowl, a display of vulnerability that, from a story perspective, virtually guarantees the demise of Shreck.
“Bruce, I could live with you in your castle forever. Just like in a fairy tale,” Catwoman responds, sounding for a moment like countless others who have crossed paths with the playboy-vigilante. However, as she’s demonstrated time and again, Selina isn’t like all the others. “I just couldn’t live with myself. So don’t pretend this is a happy ending.”
The Selina Kyle introduced at the beginning of the film longed for nothing more than a happy ending, in which a knight in shining armor carried her away from her “pathetic” life. But that was a lifetime (or three) ago, and this Selina Kyle doesn’t need a knight, shining, dark or otherwise. She wants revenge, and she gets it, in spectacular, smouldering fashion.
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