From the Archive: Batman Returns

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I suppose I should hold this in reserve until the Saturday that Ben Affleck’s directorial effort with the character arrives, but we’ll use this to draw a contrast between a time that I was actively excited at the prospect of a Tim Burton film rather than the current sad state that finds my preemptive exhausted at the thought of sitting through his latest exercise in whimsical gloom. And, hey, there’s a Donald Trump reference in here, too. So, you know, timely. This was written during the summer that my on-air colleague and I decided we would take a break from the weekly hour-long show and file our reviews as two minute reports that played as bumpers during the college radio station’s regular broadcast day. I think this review demonstrates my challenge in trying to fit a discussion of a deliberately unwieldy summer spectacle into that space. In retrospect, I should have spent two minutes writing about Michelle Pfeiffer’s performance. That’s what makes the film memorable and, to this day, one of the stronger cinematic outings of the caped crusader. 

With its savage wit, thrilling action, and fiery sensuality brimming over the edges, Batman Returns represents the first excellent film in an otherwise tepid summer. For this big-budget sequel, returning director Tim Burton has pulled out all of the stops, delivering bigger and better action sequences and bat-gadgets, and he’s also injected the film with his darker sensibilities.

The Penguin, played by Danny DeVito, becomes a lurching, hideously deformed man who was abandoned by his frightened parents as an infant, left to spend much of his life dwelling in the sewers of Gotham City. He’s filled with angry lust and prone to making lewd comments with a low, menacing squawk.

Catwoman, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, becomes a leather-clad temptress, using her sexuality with the same lethal prowess as her martial arts skills. Pfeiffer’s character begins as a lonely, skittish secretary who is always restraining herself from following her more forthright impulses. Watching her transformation to the fierce, angry Catwoman, who saves a woman from a back alley attack only to forcibly criticize her for not fighting back in the first place, is a marvelous, occasionally unsettling experience.

Rounding out the villains list is Christopher Walken as wealthy industrialist Max Schreck, whose boasts about never having too much power are turned on him with a wicked twist. Walken plays the character with the lazy drawl of Donald Trump and loads of sinister charm.

Michael Keaton ably fills the Batman costume once again, but really grabs our attention as Bruce Wayne, humanizing the film with the awkward fumbling of a man uncomfortable without his protective mask.

Tim Burton’s camerawork brings us the stunning visuals of Gotham City, and the screenplay, by Daniel Waters and Sam Hamm, is sharp as a batarang. There are flaws in the film, mostly in the form of slightly inconsistent storytelling and playful tricks that don’t quite work, but the energy level and, at times, the sheer audacity of the work makes those mistakes easily forgotten.

As long as Tim Burton can keep assembling the films with as much skill as he has here, here’s one film critics who’s hoping the Batman keeps returning again and again.

On the four star scale, Batman Returns receives three-and-a-half stars.

My Misspent Youth: Batman by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

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There are a few titles that are routinely cited as instrumental to understanding the path of American superhero comics the past twenty-five years. The Frank Miller series Batman: The Dark Knight Returns is chief among them. I won’t deny the impact of Miller’s satiric limited series that helped define the caped crusader’s pathology by imagined a heightened intensity future, but I think another storyline from a year later is even more important.

In the pages of the monthly Batman, Miller reunited with his recent Daredevil collaborator David Mazzucchelli to go in the opposite chronological direction from his Dark Knight series. Instead of the future, the Batman storyline looked to the past, presenting a sort of origin story that focused on the first year that Bruce Wayne took the law into his own hands in Gotham City. “Year One” found the haunted millionaire trying to clean up the urban hellscape that robbed him of his parents. Of course, he didn’t have a good angle for his vigilantism until the strangely faulty windows in stately Wayne manor proved porous enough to allow entry of an unspeakable giant bug.

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The storyline followed and expanded the origin of Batman, but one of Miller’s key inspirations was the make the foundation story of the famous superhero as much about one of his key allies, who began as an adversary. I’m not enough of a lifelong Batman aficionado to say so for certain, but my clear impression of Gotham City P.D. employee James Gordon as a character before “Year One” is that he was a fairly cardboard figure, mostly in place to provide some key exposition when needed. Miller made the story about him to such a degree that some of the complaints I remember from those time groused that the saga would have been more accurately titled “James Gordon: Year One.”

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For me, this was one of the elements of the story that I responded to most strongly. It’s a tried and true storytelling technique: when there are fantastical elements in play, it’s helpful to have an everyman whose reactions can be a reasonable stand-in for those in the readership. What’s more, it offered a good reason to expand the origin story that decades earlier was handled in a few panels to four full issues. Miller wasn’t dragging things out to expand to the necessary page count for a trade paperback. He was genuinely trying to explore different facets of an oft-told tale. The extra room also provided room the occasionally cute in-joke.

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The ripples that emanated from Miller and Mazzucchelli’s splash went out across the waves of comicdom. The pointed seriousness of the story influenced subsequent comics far more that the comic exaggeration of The Dark Knight Returns, and the expansion of Gotham City from the setting for Batman’s adventures to a place with a far-ranging inner life of its own began here. Even the primacy of clearly defined story arcs in the midst of ongoing series can be traced here. Add to that the clear impact on Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, and this work has been profoundly resonant ever since it first ran.

I remembering feeling disappointment when the fourth and final issue came out and it was clear that Miller and Mazzucchelli wouldn’t continue–I may be wrong, but I think the initial announcements were for a more open-ended tenure–but they were surely better off closing things out, making their statement on the character and even the state of comic book storytelling definitive.

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Previously…
Fantastic Four by Stan Lee and John Buscema
Contest of Champions by Bill Mantlo and John Romita, Jr.
Daredevil by Frank Miller
Marvel Fanfare by Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum and Paul Smith
Marvel Two-in-One by Tom DeFalco and Ron Wilson
Fantaco’s “Chronicles” series
Fantastic Four #200 by Marv Wolfman and Keith Pollard
The Incredible Hulk #142 by Roy Thomas and Herb Trimpe
Uncanny X-Men by Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum
Godzilla by Doug Moench and Herb Trimpe
Giant-Size Avengers #3 by Steve Englehart, Roy Thomas and Dave Cockrum
Alpha Flight by John Byrne
Hawkeye by Mark Gruenwald
Avengers by David Michelinie and George Perez
Justice League by Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis and Kevin Maguire
The Thing by Dan Slott and Andrea DiVito
Nexus by Mike Baron and Steve Rude
Marvel Premiere by David Kraft and George Perez
Marvel Super-Heroes Secret Wars by Jim Shooter and Mike Zeck
Micronauts by Bill Mantlo and Butch Guice
Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland
What If? by Mike W. Barr, Herb Trimpe and Mike Esposito
Thor by Walt Simonson
Eightball by Dan Clowes
Cerebus: Jaka’s Story by Dave Sim and Gerhard
Iron Man #150 by by David Michelinie, John Romita, Jr. and Bob Layton
Bone by Jeff Smith
The Man of Steel by John Byrne
Fantastic Four by Doug Moench and Bill Sienkiewicz
“Allien and How to Watch It” by John Severin
Fantastic Four Roast by Fred Hembeck and friends
The Amazing Spider-Man #25 by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
Marvel Two-in-One #7 by Steve Gerber and Sal Buscema
The New Mutants by Chris Claremont and Bob McLeod
Dark Horse Presents
Bizarre Adventures #27
Marvel Team-Up #48 by Bill Mantlo and Sal Buscema
Metal Men #20 by Robert Kanigher and Ross Andru
The Avengers by Roy Thomas and John Buscema
Fantastic Four by Marv Wolfman and John Byrne
Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra
American Flagg by Howard Chaykin
Marvel and DC Present by Chris Claremont and Walter Simonson

My Misspent Youth: Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

When I was teenager, I tiresomely informed others about the validity of comic book storytelling as an art form, quickly pointing the relatively contemporaneous exalted masterworks as prime evidence. These were great works, I was sure of it. I also had a lot of outside sources backing me up on that. But I also also really wanted the major superhero stories that were part of the two major companies’ regular continuity to be at that level, to stand as a form of modern literature at least on par with the significant novels being published at the time. So when something was issued that seemed to aspire to that sort of ambition, especially if it was printed in the fairly new “bookshelf format,” boasting heavy, glossy pages. And if it was written by Alan Moore? Well, circa 1988, you couldn’t do any better.

Moore was the prize creator in the DC Comics stable, having just completed a lengthy, transformational run on Swamp Thing and the even more impactful limited series Watchmen. Though the British writer’s tenure with DC ended very, very badly, there was a stretch where he was allowed to do practically anything he wanted at the publisher. And what he wanted to do was tell the ultimate Batman and Joker story, one that explored the mad reactions to personal hardship that united the two characters. He got artist Brian Bolland to make an increasingly rare foray into creating the interiors of a book, and the result was Batman: The Killing Joke. With the project, Moore also wanted to effect a major change on a character who’d been around for a long time, presumably to add some real consequences to the murderous mania that consumed the Joker.

Barbara Gordon made her first comic book appearance as Batgirl in 1966. Created at the behest of the producers of the Batman TV series, she was the daughter of Police Commissioner Jim Gordon, putting on her own cape and cowl to fight crime in Gotham City. I don’t know that the character was ever hugely popular, but she did become something of a fixture in the DC universe. Regardless, she was a significant enough character that it was a shock when she was on the receiving end of a bullet fired by the Joker’s gun, a bullet that left her paralyzed from the waist down.

Within the story, this assault was just one part of the Joker’s master plan. Besides the attack on Barbara, the Joker and his henchmen also kidnapped James Gordon, bringing him to an abandoned amusement park the villain had acquired through nefarious means.

The Joker’s intention was to prove the unalterable, irresistible impact of one very bad day. Any sane person confronted with a parade of unconscionable personal horrors would go make. According to the Joker’s premise, that was the only possible outcome, a thesis he presented as a justification for his own madness and the appalling acts that resulted from it. Gordon was strapped naked to the rumbling train car of a fun house ride and dragged through bleak tunnels with images of his daughter, wounded and stripped naked, projected onto the walls.

This prolonged act of self-justification is paralleled with a retelling of the Joker’s origin story, which finds him recruited against his will into a criminal act that leads to an accident which forever distorts his features into the visage familiar to comics fans. From a storytelling standpoint, Moore wants to play with the elements of the Joker and Batman that mirror each other, the bonds they have together and the distance between them that put them of separate opposing paths. That aspect of the story is even explicitly acknowledged within the panels.

Ingeniously, the origin story that Moore has concocted for the Joker throughout the preceding pages is essentially discarded by the character in the acknowledgement that his memory shifts with the seismic plates of his madness. It’s a wicked quirk that Christopher Nolan borrowed for his interpretation of the Joker in 2008’s The Dark Knight. Moore upends the comic book trope of revealing secret histories with the offhand revelation that nothing of the Joker’s history that has been presented should be considered definitive. It’s just another imaginary story. Aren’t they all?

While Moore’s story arguably shaped the depictions of both Batman and the Joker for years to follow, it was that heinous act against Barbara Gordon that lasted the longest. It would have been very much in keeping with the incredible healing properties found in the realm of superheroes, where even death is a temporary ailment, to have Barbara experience a rapid recovery. Instead, she remained in a wheelchair, eventually adopting the identity of Oracle, transmitting vital, rapid intelligence to the various costumed heroes who still roamed Gotham City’s night. In this iteration, the character was actually far more interesting and complex than she ever was as Batgirl, something the various DC creators and editors who came and went over the years seemed to appreciate.

This valuing of Barbara as Oracle ended abruptly when DC Comics mounted their major reboot last year. Despite having a couple different recent versions of the character they could have drawn from, each with a unique and fervent fan following, the publisher decided to use the fresh start to put Barbara Gordon with full mobility back into the costume, keeping the incidents from The Killing Joke in continuity but retroactively giving her exactly the sort of unlikely physical comeback they had the courage to avoid the first time around. It may have been a commercial success, but it still seems like a poor choice creatively.

I’m not sure if The Killing Joke actually lived up to the aspirations I imposed on it. Whether it’s truly fine literature rendered in sequential art of grim humans in ludicrous outfits remains debatable. It surely convinced enough other comics creators that it was, and for many years afterward writers and artists proved the supposed maturity of their work by pouring sex and violence into the stories. Dark as The Killing Joke may have been, I don’t think Moore and Bolland intended for that sort of inept mayhem to follow in its wake. That’s a major part of its legacy, though, and it’s hard to look at the book now without thinking of some of the unintentional damage it inflicted on the superhero comics that aspired to it lurid thrills.

Previously…
Fantastic Four by Stan Lee and John Buscema
Contest of Champions by Bill Mantlo and John Romita, Jr.
Daredevil by Frank Miller
Marvel Fanfare by Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum and Paul Smith
Marvel Two-in-One by Tom DeFalco and Ron Wilson
Fantaco’s “Chronicles” series
Fantastic Four #200 by Marv Wolfman and Keith Pollard
The Incredible Hulk #142 by Roy Thomas and Herb Trimpe
Uncanny X-Men by Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum
Godzilla by Doug Moench and Herb Trimpe
Giant-Size Avengers #3 by Steve Englehart, Roy Thomas and Dave Cockrum
Alpha Flight by John Byrne
Hawkeye by Mark Gruenwald
Avengers by David Michelinie and George Perez
Justice League by Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis and Kevin Maguire
The Thing by Dan Slott and Andrea DiVito
Nexus by Mike Baron and Steve Rude
Marvel Premiere by David Kraft and George Perez
Marvel Super-Heroes Secret Wars by Jim Shooter and Mike Zeck
Micronauts by Bill Mantlo and Butch Guice