I rediscovered Batman Returns sometime in the last few months of 2014. This was around the same time I saw Bride of Frankenstein for the first time. And as with Bride, I went crazy for this movie. Out of the original four Batman movies from the 80s and 90s that I had watched as a kid, Returns was the one I had revisited the least. But I never forgot it.
Opening a movie with attempted filicide, following that with a killer circus troupe, and a woman being brought back to life by cats after being pushed out of a window will have that effect on a viewer. Regardless of your personal opinion of the movie, you can’t deny its audacity.
But the most memorable part to me, the part that I never forgot and never stopped loving even as I forgot other parts, was the following exchange that occurs first between Batman and Catwoman, and later Bruce and Selina:
“Mistletoe can be deadly if you eat it.”
“But a kiss can be even deadlier if you mean it.”
There are many many aspects of this movie that I love, but I think this exchange sums up Batman Returns the best. Strange, but beautiful.
Others have written about how much more of a Tim Burton film Returns is than the 1989 Batman. And they are absolutely correct. The production design by Bo Welch feels like it came from Burton’s visual sensibilities more than the 1989 Batman did. The score by Danny Elfman is more openly whimsical and operatic than the previous film’s. And compared to their comic book counterparts, Returns‘ versions of Catwoman and Penguin are unrecognizable, and undeniably Burtonesque.
But what I find interesting is how much sexuality is in this movie. Especially compared to his other films*, Returns is the most openly sexual movie I’ve seen from Burton.
Look at the first scenes with Catwoman. When she prepares to stop a mugger from robbing a woman in an alley, she playfully says “Be gentle, it’s my first time.” Or when she’s spotted by a couple of security guards, “You poor guys, always confusing your pistols with your privates.”
After Penguin begins to interact with more people throughout the movie, his sexual urges become hard to miss. We get gems like “I could really get into this mayor stuff. It’s not about power, it’s about reaching out to people! Touching people! Groping people!”
And yes, every time Catwoman has a scene with Penguin or Batman, one of the characters is showing interest in having sex with the other. Penguin wants Catwoman. Catwoman wants Batman.
But this goes beyond a simple adult sense of humor. The way that these characters joke about sex informs who they are.
Selina starts the movie as a repressed, unhappy secretary, and is then literally reborn into a liberated nocturnal adventurer. Her consistent jokes about male insecurity come from her newfound comfort in the form of her Catwoman persona. When she’s in that costume, she is in control. No man can touch her without permission or punishment.
Penguin’s sense of humor doesn’t become centered on sex until he joins the surface-dwellers of Gotham. For possibly the first time in his life, Penguin feels accepted into normal society. The attention he receives suggests that he may actually have the opportunity for sexual intimacy with someone. And it’s highly unlikely that Penguin has been able to relieve any of his sexual frustration with his circus family. It’s even possible that sex hadn’t even occurred to Penguin before he exposed himself to normal society. So it makes sense that he continually expresses excitement at the thought of having sex.
But the most fascinating aspect of Returns‘ sexuality, to me, is Batman/Bruce. There is obviously the banter that he shares with both Catwoman and Selina, but there is only one moment in the movie where Bruce allows himself to be openly sexual.
The scene is his date with Selina at Wayne Manor. After discussing how his previous relationship with Vicki Vale ended due to what Bruce describes as her inability to “reconcile” the two truths of his identity, Bruce suggests that he drop the subject because he’s afraid Selina won’t let him kiss her if he continues. After the memorable response of “Sickos don’t scare me, at least they’re committed,” Selina pounces (I’m sorry) on Bruce, and they passionately kiss and touch each other.
Unfortunately, they are stopped by the injuries that they have unknowingly inflicted on each other as Batman and Catwoman. Because of the immediate pain of those injuries, and the fear of what questions the other may ask about said injuries, the moment passes.
During a fight with Penguin, Batman struggles as he is choked by one of Penguin’s umbrellas. Penguin angrily yells, “You’re just jealous because I’m a genuine freak and you have to wear a mask!”
And Batman tellingly responds, “You might be right.”
Later in the movie, after Bruce and Selina realize each other’s identities**, Batman approaches Catwoman, attempting to persuade her not to kill the man that pushed her out of a window. And then Batman removes his mask, in one of the few outward displays of emotion that he has in the movie.
The date with Selina, the freak comment***, and the unmasking reveal the huge divide between Bruce and Batman. Batman is Bruce’s way of expressing the freak that he feels is inside of him. As Bruce, he is awkward, reclusive, and repressed. As Batman, he is violent, powerful, and intimidating. There are even times where he can enjoy himself in this persona.
An example is the slightly controversial scene where Batman straps a bomb to a henchman’s chest, grins, and then throws the henchman off-screen to his confetti-filled death. Ignoring the whole “Batman doesn’t kill” rule that this scene absolutely breaks****, we see a rare instance of Batman visibly feeling satisfaction and pleasure in his work.
But with Selina, the divide between the two personas no longer feels necessary. Bruce has been romantic and sexual in the previous Batman film, but the first kiss between him and Selina evokes much more noticeable passion from Bruce than his previous relationship with Vicki Vale. Even in their scenes together before the kiss, Bruce is the one drawn to Selina vs. Vicki being drawn to/stalking Bruce in the previous movie.
The unmasking is Bruce/Batman’s attempt to show Selina his complete self. The complete freak. He believes that Selina is the same as him, since both need their Bat/Cat personas to express certain parts of themselves.
This is what I love most about Returns. Its finale boils down to two people who are weird in very similar ways, and one of them asking the other to stay and be weird together for the rest of their lives.
Strange, but beautiful.
* The only ones I have not seen are his Planet of the Apes remake, Big Eyes, and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.
** Right after the song “Super Freak” is played by a band in the background.
*** It’s also worth noting that Jack Nicholson’s Joker refers to Batman as a “winged freak”.
**** Although it personally doesn’t bother me because death in this movie is so exaggerated and cartoonish that this scene doesn’t strike me as a real death scene.