Flashback: ‘ Batman Returns’

The summer of 1992 saw Michael Keaton’s Dark Knight faced with two iconic foes in Tim Burton’s second (and final) Batman film…

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The superb Michael Keaton dons the cape and cowl once more in ‘Batman Returns’ (image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures).

Year:  1992

Starring:  Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Michael Gough, Pat Hingle

Directed by:  Tim Burton / written by:  Daniel Waters (story by Daniel Waters and Sam Hamm)

What’s it about?

Batman faces a new challenge when a corrupt businessman plots with the villainous Penguin to seize control of Gotham City, with matters further complicated by the appearance of the mysterious ‘Catwoman’…

Retrospective/review

Given the blockbuster success of Batman in the summer of 1989, Warner Bros. Pictures were naturally keen on producing a sequel.  Released in June of 1992, Batman Returns, whilst not as good as its landmark predecessor (although for some the reverse applies) easily qualifies as a strong second outing for Michael Keaton’s Dark Knight.  Although there’s slightly less focus on Bruce Wayne/Batman, Batman Returns is still very much a Batman film lovingly produced through the dark gothic imaginings of Tim Burton.  It’s clear that Burton was given more creative freedom as Batman Returns has even more of an idiosyncratic and fantastical touch that makes it unmistakably a Tim Burton film, but still feels appropriate for a major Batman feature born in the era of seminal comics works The Killing Joke and The Dark Knight Returns and would also serve to inspire the exemplary Batman: The Animated Series.

Having formerly taken on Jack Nicholson’s Joker, Batman Returns doubles the jeopardy with two main antagonists – the Penguin and Catwoman, who are reinvented for this iteration.  Danny DeVito lives and breathes the role of Oswald Cobblepot – otherwise known as ‘the Penguin’ – his podgy, diminutive build, pointed nose and flipper-like hands giving him somewhat of a grotesque and literally penguin-like appearance, effectively evoked via the brilliant make-up design.  Much like the ‘monsters’ of the classic Universal horrors, his villainy is driven by tragedy – specifically, abandonment by his parents as an infant – and a desire for acceptance.  Michelle Pfeiffer is a similar revelation as Selina Kyle, starting out as the meek underdog before the fateful incident that leads to her ‘rebirth’ as the sultry and formidable Catwoman who, like Bruce Wayne, finds herself grappling with dual personas.

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The Penguin (Danny DeVito) and Catwoman (Michelle Pfieffer) provide double the trouble for Batman (image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures).

Colluding with DeVito’s Penguin is the excellent Christopher Walken (who previously proved his worth as a villain in James Bond outing A View to a Kill) as devious Gotham businessman Max Schreck – named after the actor who portrayed Count Orlock in the classic German horror Nosferatu – who brings further weight to the threat Batman must face.  As for Michael Keaton he continues to impress, deftly straddling the line between his two identities bringing emotional complexity to Bruce Wayne, aided greatly by the chemistry he shares with Pfeiffer’s Selina Kyle, whilst applying a confident measure of brooding and intensity once he dons the iconic cape and cowl of the Batman.

Batman Returns is a very atmospheric film (benefitting from another great Danny Elfman music score), the Christmas holiday setting and frequent snowfall adding a feeling of wintry crispness to the gothic chill evoked by Bo Welch’s wonderful sets which build upon Anton Furst’s Academy Award winning work on the previous film.  A gentle increase in humour provides an element of quirkiness and levity (especially in the exchanges between Bruce and Michael Gough’s Alfred) without undermining the darker and more dramatic themes of the story.  As with Batman, the stunts and choreography in the fight sequences are top-notch and coupled with superbly staged action set-pieces (bolstered by some deftly executed pyrotechnics) provide plenty of visual excitement.  It all makes for a fun and artfully crafted comic book blockbuster at a time when such a thing wasn’t so common.

Read the classics review of Batman (1989) right here.

Geek fact!

Batman Returns features an early screen appearance from Hellboy and Star Trek: Discovery star Doug Jones as one of Penguin’s circus clown goons.

All images herein remain the property of the copyright owners and are used for illustrative purposes only.

Film Review: ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’

Tom Holland swings back into action to grapple with great power

and great responsibility… 

Spoiler-free review 

Starring:  Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Robert Downey Jr, Marisa Tomei, Jon Favreau, Jacob Batalan, Laura Harrier

Directed by:  Jon Watts / Written by:  Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Jon Watts, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna & Erik Sommers / 133 minutes

What’s it about?

Having fought alongside the Avengers as Spider-Man, Peter Parker yearns to be the indispensable hero but finds he has much to learn when the appearance of the villainous Vulture threatens to destroy all that he loves…

In review

After making an impressive debut in Captain: America Civil War, Tom Holland returns to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as high school student Peter Parker – aka Marvel’s much-loved wall-crawling web-head, Spider-Man.  The sixth solo big screen outing for the character, Spider-Man: Homecoming benefits greatly from the co-production deal between Sony Pictures and Marvel Studios with its connections to the wider Marvel screen universe more of an embellishment than a hindrance.

Whilst it fails to match the heights of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, Homecoming is a fun, witty and heartfelt comic book adventure, wearing its high school teen comedy and coming of age story elements with pride and exuberance.  In this respect, Spider-Man: Homecoming is a more youthful affair in the vein of John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, focusing on its characters first and foremost, offset by the (generally) more street-level heroics of Peter Parker’s friendly neighbourhood alter-ego rather than being a slave to it.

Tom Holland once again tackles the role of Peter Parker/Spider-Man with enthusiasm and glee, with the wit, intelligence and vulnerability that reminds us of the appeals and relatability of the character – the well-intentioned, nerdy underdog with everyday problems that everyone loves to root for.  In an age where to be a geek is somewhat cooler than in the 1960s, Homecoming treats Parker as less of an outsider and has a more balanced approach to its laudably diverse, multicultural cast of characters with some contemporary twists on familiar faces.  As the object of Peter’s affections, Liz (Laura Harrier) is more of a peer than the totally out-of-reach popular ‘cool’ girl but there’s still a good dose of angst as Peter tries to balance his school life and the callings of a superhero.

This being a Spider-Man film, there’s a natural wealth of humour (largely facilitated by Peter’s best friend, Ned – played wonderfully by Jacob Batalan) that, like Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man fits neatly into the world of Peter Parker and never feels out of place or forced in at the wrong moment (Doctor Strange, ahem).  There are also numerous references and connections to the MCU (including the return of Tony Stark’s cantankerous driver, ‘Happy’ Hogan – with Iron Man/Iron Man 2 director Jon Favreau reprising his role) but are all slotted in tidily without burdening the story – this is still very much Spider-Man’s film.

As the central villain, Michael Keaton brings experience and gravitas to the role of Adrian Toomes/Vulture and despite having less screen time than it would initially seem he is well-served by some decent writing which paints a more interesting antagonist with identifiable motivations.  Far less a mere marketing gimmick, Robert Downey Jr’s part as Tony Stark/Iron Man feels integral to the narrative as he plays an important role as a father/mentor figure, there to guide Peter’s course and help him correct the errors of his ways – Stan Lee’s classic moral principal concerning great power and great responsibility a driving theme throughout.  It’s the support from Stark and Peter’s Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) that help keep our struggling hero centred and inspired to do better and be greater.

Although Spider-Man: Homecoming is mostly concerned with its characters, and the high school focused portions do tend to drag out the pace at times, there’s still plenty of popcorn action and spectacle to be had.  Despite the bulk of the action being bound to the streets of New York, there are a few larger set-pieces with ferry rescue and endangered aircraft sequences amongst the highlights.  It’s all staged competently by director Jon Watts and though lacking a little of the overall heft and excitement of the previous efforts by Sam Raimi and Marc Webb, it delivers enough to keep the audience engaged and thrilled.

Whilst the coming of age story and teenage relationship scenarios might be more appealing to a younger demographic, more seasoned Spider-Man fans will appreciate that this is where Peter Parker’s story begins, the formative experiences of his earlier years an important part of the character’s makeup and just like in the comics we can only look forward to seeing the character learn and grow into adulthood…the amazing and spectacular Spider-Man is here to stay and it’ll be exciting to share his cinematic journey in the years to come.

The bottom line:  A highly enjoyable romp, Spider-Man: Homecoming sets the iconic web-slinger on course for greater adventures to come as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Spider-Man: Homecoming is in cinemas now.

Spidey Homecoming

Does whatever a spider can: Tom Holland stars in ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’ from Sony Pictures and Marvel Studios.

GBUK Film Classics: ‘Batman’ (1989)

Looking at some all-time favourites…

“Have you ever danced with the devil by the pale moonlight?”

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Batman (Michael Keaton) and the Joker (Jack Nicholson) face off in Tim Burton’s seminal big sceeen adaptation of the DC Comics character (credit: DC/Warner Bros).

Year:  1989

Starring:  Jack Nicholson, Michael Keaton, Kim Basinger, Pat Hingle, Jack Palance, Michael Gough

Director:  Tim Burton / Written by:  Sam Hamm & Warren Skaaren

What’s it about?

Protected by the mysterious ‘Batman’, the innocent of the corrupt and crime-ridden Gotham City soon find themselves facing a new and deadly threat…a homicidal criminal known only as ‘the Joker’!

In review

Amongst the many screen iterations of Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s comic book creation, for many Tim Burton’s Batman is perhaps the most perfect.

The highest grossing box office success (and merchandising behemoth) of 1989, Batman succeeds on numerous levels.  Whilst taking the iconic character and his world back to the roots of Kane and Finger’s vision and mirroring the darker and more adult comic book interpretations of Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Tim Burton’s gothic fantasy also retains an element of the camp wit and charm of the hit 1960s Batman television series starring Adam West.

Michael Keaton makes for a perfect Bruce Wayne.  Effectively dark and brooding with just the right hint of angst, Keaton proved the naysayers of the time wrong and allayed the fears of millions of Bat-maniacs (here’s hoping the same will be true of Ben Affleck in the forthcoming Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice).  Beyond a flashback to the tragic murder of Wayne’s parents, the origin of Batman is not explored in too much detail yet provides the crux of Bruce Wayne’s story and the subtleties of Keaton’s performance are a key element.

Synonymous with the film’s tone, Jack Nicholson (who receives top-billing above Keaton) infuses the role of Jack Napier/Joker with a multi-faceted performance.  As gangster Napier, he exudes a steely calm but once reborn as the Joker we are treated to an electrifying and manic portrayal that melds the psychotic elements of Nicholson’s iconic turn in The Shining with a homicidal twist on the camp clowning of Cesar Romero’s portrayal of ‘the Clown Prince of Crime’ in the Adam West TV series.

The cast is rounded out by a list of noteworthy names including Kim Basinger, who brings a touch of sparkle and elegance to proceedings as love interest Vicki Vale, Michael Gough as Bruce Wayne’s faithful butler, Alfred, Pat Hingle as police commissioner Gordon and Jack Palance as crime boss Carl Grissom.

Beyond the performances of the principal stars, Anton Furst’s Academy Award Winning production design brings the decaying, crime infested streets of Gotham City breathlessly to life (all the more impressive considering it all comprises of sets constructed at Pinewood Studios) and the exhilarating action is elevated by neat stunt work, scintillating pyrotechnics and exemplary special effects and miniatures by the legendary Derek Meddings.  The costume design is also inspired, from the jet black armour of the Dark Knight himself to Vicki Vale’s elegant clothing and the pin stripe suits, hats and trench coats – all lending themselves to the otherworldly ‘pulp’ feel of Batman.  It would also be remiss to not mention Batman’s “wonderful toys” the highlight of which is the sleek and formidable Batmobile, complete with machine guns, armour shields and that iconic flame exhaust!

Equally important to the piece are the dynamic themes of Danny Elfman’s exciting and atmospheric score, complemented by specially produced songs written and performed by Prince.

Tim Burton’s Batman transports the viewer into the panels of the comic book world, brought to life by incredible sets and outstanding cast performances – a true classic of the genre.

Standout moment

Having thwarted the raid on the Axis Chemicals plant, Batman escapes the pursuing Gotham City police in a shroud of smoke – yet the damage has been done, from a vat of acid a white hand rises.  The Joker is born…

Three reasons it’s a classic…

  1. It presents a dark and moody interpretation of Bob Kane’s creation that’s still fun and retains an element of comic book camp without the silliness of later sequels.
  1. It features one of Jack Nicholson’s greatest and most intense performances, providing the definitive screen Joker.
  1. It boasts impressive production design, bringing the ‘character’ of Gotham City to life.

Did you know?

Batman co-creator Bob Kane was originally due to cameo in the film but fell ill, leading to the proposed scene being scrapped.

If you like this then watch…

Batman Begins : the opening chapter to Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy presents a more grounded version of Batman and Gotham City that’s breathtakingly realised and benefits greatly from stellar casting with Christian Bale proving the perfect fit as a grieving Bruce Wayne who seeks to reinvent himself as a symbol for justice…

Batman Returns : although veering a little too far into the realm of gothic fantasy, Tim Burton’s sequel to Batman is still an impressively designed and action-packed affair with a confident return from Michael Keaton and memorable performances from Danny DeVito (the Penguin) and Michelle Pfeiffer (Catwoman).