Batman Returns (1992): Good Film But Full of Double Standards and Inconsistent Characters

Batman Returns

     “Batman Returns” is a fun film but is also very flawed and doesn’t quite have a focus on knowing what it wants to be about. I would still recommend this film as the performances by the main cast are fantastic, as is the environment and score…this is just no longer a favorite. It is a solid film, but not a favorite as when I watched it the flaws were too many to make it a film I’d continue to come back to watch.

 The film was directed by Tim Burton who was also one of the producers and written by Daniel Waters and also produced by Denise Di Novi.

     The story arrives the Penguin (Danny DeVito) seeking power in Gotham by kidnapping and using businessman Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) to get him what he wants. Elsewhere Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer) is killed by Shreck and resurrected by cats into the Catwoman as Batman (Michael Keaton) investigates them all and tries to stop their plans.

The Pros: The World – Burton’s world is fantastic and I love returning to it, even if the story isn’t as good as the first film. This is a Gotham that feels both old and new in feel and that is overlayed by a Gothic feel giving it a dark and dying feeling that fits the characters who inhabit it’s world.

The Peguin’s Circus Gang – These guys are awesome! They hack the Batmobile, they wreak havoc on multiple occasions and have a really cool aesthetic, ranging from creepy clown faces, a lady in white and a bearded man in a top hat. I wanted more time with these characters and wanted to know how they came to be with the Penguin and why they worked for him.

The Action – This film has much more action in “Batman” (and Batman has a much higher body count because of it) as well as some great chase and fight sequences. Whether it is Batman v. Catwoman or Batman v Penguin’s Gang the action keeps you drawn in and I wanted to see what would happen next.

The Soundtrack – Danny Elfman is once again in his element as his score captures the horror and gothicness of Gotham as well as the internal struggles of the characters of Batman and Catwoman.

The Cinematography – The cinematography is beautiful as the Burton’s shadowy Gotham is presented with contrasts of dark and light like in the first film. Stefan Czapsky did a great job! The film is beautiful and it is largely thanks to how it is presented.

The Characters – The characters are intriguing and a pro, even if they aren’t always consistently written. I still enjoyed these characters even if some of the cons in how they were presented and written brought them down.

Max Shreck – Christopher Walken is a national treasure, he is wonderful as the two-faced corrupt businessman Max Shreck who kills Selina Kyle and manages to keep the Penguin at a safe distance and use the Penguin to his own ends. In the end Selina Kyle gets revenge against him as he meets a fitting end. He also nearly kills Batman as he sees that Batman and Bruce Wayne are the same person and tries to shoot him. Not many people can claim this victory.

Alfred – Alfred is great in this and is the counselor to Batman once again. Michael Gough really makes a great Alfred and helps us see more of Bruce’s humanity.

Bruce Wayne / Batman – Bruce Wayne’s motivations in this are clear, he is Batman seeking to save the city and as many people as he can around him who aren’t part of Penguin’s Gang or the Penguin. We also see his seeking of normalcy too as he shows Catwoman who he is and expresses a willingness to do anything to bring her back from being Catwoman. In her he sees his own fractured identity and an escape, which I wish could have been explored more.

Okay/Pro: Selina Kyle / Catwoman – Selina Kyle is a secretary for Max Shreck who he murders when she accesses confidential documents. From here she goes from nervous and unsure to empowered and sexual. She is a good threat too and manages to hurt Batman on multiple occasion as well as finally getting revenge on Shreck. Sadly her motivations are unclear through most of it as the script decides to present her largely as crazy…which was a waste of character.

Okay: Oswald Cobblepot / The Penguin – Like Catwoman, Penguin’s motivations are unclear. He wants revenge, but he wants power, he wants to be accepted, he wants sex…the writers seemed unable to decide what it was he actually wanted and because of this it kept him from being like Nicholson’s Joker whose agenda was clear. DeVito put in a great performance but in the end he is only okay because I didn’t know what he was about or what he wanted.

The Cons: Commissioner Gordon – Gordon is there to light the Bat Signal, seriously in the Burton films he isn’t used at all and shouldn’t have even been put in the script. He’s just an extra body with a familiar name.

The Mayor – The Mayor like Commissioner Gordon is a non-entity who is only there to be protected by Batman and overthrown by the Penguin. What a waste of a character.

Catwoman’s Motivation – We never get her motivation…at first it’s revenge but she never follows through with it and she never seeks revenge against the Penguin even after he tries to kill her. I had no idea why she did what she did, she was just presented as insane. I didn’t know her motivation beyond keeping her job when she is Selina Kyle.

Batman’s Hypocrisy – Batman won’t let Catwoman kill, even the character is bad and a villain and he is doing it all the time. This was really annoying and I hated it as it just made Batman look like a big hypocrite. It only would have made sense if we hadn’t seen him kill people in the last film and this one and if he had stated that his motivation was not to kill but to turn people into prison.

An Inconsistent Penguin – He wants revenge, he wants to be Mayor he just wants to be left alone, he hates everyone, he loves everyone…what did this character want in the end? He seemed to have the destruction of Gotham plot going for a while so why did he even bother running for mayor?

Lack of Narrative Focus – The lack of narrative focus is best illustrated in the unclear motivations of Penguin and Catwoman, who are two major characters we follow whose desires and plans are never fully realized so it leaves their arcs up in the air and unfinished…

   This was a film that was trying to do too much and fell because of it. It still manages to be a good film but the inconsistently written Penguin, Catwoman’s unclear motivation and the lack of clear narrative focus keep this film from being great. To any lover of Burton’s work this is still a must see but the flaws are much more obvious than the first “Batman” film. The world and characters make the film worth the watch though and the cons do not keep this from being a good film and one of the better “Batman” films.

Final Score: 8.5 / 10

Stardust (2007): A Fairy Tale of Love

Stardust

Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite authors, Neverwhere, American Gods and Anansi Boys and the Sandman Series are some of my all time favorite fantasy works which makes me somewhat worried by their eventual screen adaptation in film or television form. This film gave me hope that it can be pulled off well though, and this film made me want to read the book that it is adapted from.

“Stardust” was directed by Matthew Vaughn who was also one of the producers and screenplay writers. The other producers were Neil Gaiman, Michael Dreyer and Lorenzo di Bonaventura. The other screenplay writer was Jane Goldman. The fact that Neil Gaiman had a producer credit on an adaptation of his work was a good sign going in to the film.

“Stardust” is the story of two worlds a village called Wall in our world and the magical kingdom of Stormhold that is separated from the wall. The story begins with Dunstan Thorn crossing the wall because he is curious and meeting an imprisoned beautiful woman he shared a night with. Later a child Dunstan names Tristan is left at the wall and the story follows from him  and his journey to learn how to love and in the process discover the heritage of the world he is a part of when he crosses the Wall to catch a falling star for Victoria, the woman he is infatuated with. Around this time the King of Stormhold has died and competition to catch the falling star is on as a Coven of Witches also joins the hunt since a Star’s heart can grant eternal youth and life.

Here is the assessment of the film:

The Pros: The Narrator – Ian McKellen narrates the beginning and end of the story giving it a fairy tale feel and his voice is super memorable and worked wonderfully. I also would have been down with Patrick Stewart being the narrator too, but it was McKellen and he is great!

Cinematography – The Cinematography is amazing and really captures the fantasy feel, the best examples I can think of is the darkness at the wall, Captain Shakespeare’s ship in flight, the falling of the Star and the final fight sequence. All of these made it feel epic and worthy of being on the big screen. Ben Davis did great.

The Music – The music has a “Pirates of the Caribbean” feel which worked in it’s favor, as Sky Pirates appear at one point and the witches and older society it takes place in in our world and Stormhold add ambiance and tension to the world. IIan Eshkeri was the right guy for this film.

The World – I’m largely going to talk about Stormhold here but even the world of England presented is fascinating, as an old man guards the Wall to keep people from getting into Stormhold. Stormhold is a rich world full of royal intrigue, dangerous witches, stars that are living human beings and Sky Pirates. There is so much to love here and I can’t wait to read the book that inspired it all!

The Characters

Dunstan Thorn – The story really starts with him as he crosses the wall and spends a night with the enslaved princess Una. They have a great experience together as she is the experienced person who knows her world and he is the wide eyed idealist. We see him care for his son after too as it was the one thing she wanted from him since he couldn’t rescue her. We also see him support his son Tristan to cross the wall and gives him a Babylon Candle to do so. I wish we’d gotten more of old and young Dunstan. This is where this as a mini-series might have worked better. Ben Barnes (young Dunstan) and Nathaniel Parker (old Dustan) are fantastic in what time they have though.

Princess Una – Uses what little power she has to resist and gives a gift that protects her son Tristan from the witches. I really wish she’d been the one chosen to rule as near the end she’s the one helping Tristan and Yvaine fight back against Lamia and her coven. She was a great but underutilized character. Kate Magowan did well with what she was given.

Prince Septimus – Is an antagonist for most of the film and Mark Strong does a really good job with it as we see him off some of his brothers and try to capture the fallen Star. He is brutal but has complexity too as he works with Tristan in the final fight against Lamia and her coven. His biggest problem is he never brings enough men and he lacks any sort of empathy which is when he is helping Tristan near the end and when he dies it is hard to fully sympathize with him in any way.

Lamia – Michelle Pfeiffer makes a great villain. Her witch is the final boss of the film and deserves the role as we see her be the one with the highest body count at the end and it takes multiple characters to finally defeat her. We see a bit of humanity (even if it was possibly false) when she mourns the death of her Coven Sisters and goes super sayan for the final battle.

Tristan Thorn – He’s the generic hero but he does a good job at the generic hero. He realizes that he just like Victoria because she was attractive but didn’t know her as a person and that his time spent with Yvaine showed him what love actually is. He also goes through a great training montage with Captain Shakespeare and his crew. Charlie Cox is good in the role even if he isn’t great.

Yvaine – At times she needs to be saved, other times she does the saving. Her character is the fish out of water as she was cast out of the kingdom by the King before he died and so many factions are trying to get her it would have been easy to make her a plot device. Thankfully that didn’t happen. She also gets the final kill on Lamia when she goes Nova at the end as she and Tristan are sharing their love. Claire Danes was good.

Captain Shakespeare – This is one of the best roles I’ve seen Robert De Niro in. He plays a gay Sky Pirate and is fantastic! His character is written with respect as he shows the life he can’t show his crew to Tristan and Yvainne when he trains them how to capture lightning and to be self sufficient. He gives them cover stories and idealizes England as he’s heard stories about it. At one point he is revealed when he is cross dressing and Prince Septimus attacks, but it doesn’t matter as his crew always cared about him for who he is of which his sexuality is part of. He is my favorite character in the film and I’d watch or read a story just about his adventures.

The Message – Love – The message of love is great in that it is learning to love others and be open, honest and risk for those you care about…and to see beyond appearances. As Victoria was all about appearances and not connection, and Captain Shakespeare learned the appearance he put on didn’t matter as his crew loved him anyway for the man he was. It also expressed love knows no gender or sex and is greater than that. It’s caring for others and yourself and being a part of something greater.

The Cons: The Ghost Peanut Gallery – Every time a prince dies or someone who could become king they appear how they died and do commentary on the events going on. This got really annoying really fast and took away the drama that should have occurred when one of them died.

The Random Princes – There are a few princes who die or royalty who die who aren’t worth mentioning. They were there for comedic relief and failed at that, which hurt the drama of the chase for the crown and the drama with the witches.

The Side Characters – From the other two witches, to Lamia’s slaves and countless others…they don’t feel all that deep or interesting. They are pretty much background which would have served the story better if they were.

“Stardust” is a great movie and one I’d highly recommend. My hope is that future book adaptions of Gaiman’s work can be just as good if not better since the worlds he creates inspire the writing in my own. This movie had a great cast, great directing, music and cinematography and is well worth watching if you are a fan of fantasy.

Final Score: 9 / 10. Solidly great.