ekm’s BAT-MANUAL: CHAPTER 4 –BATMAN RETURNS (1992)
God bless us, every one!
—Tiny Tim, A CHRISTMAS CAROL
Good will toward all Men. And women.
— Bruce Wayne, BATMAN RETURNS
You probably know the holiday story as well as I do; it’s a staple of the Christmas season. Families gather ‘round the fireside, and a familiar tale unfolds. You see, it seems that once upon a time, there was an unhappy man possessed of both deep pockets and deep sadness. One fateful holiday, he was visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, and these three specters showed him what he’d had, what he’d lost, and the very miserable end that awaited him. Only through recognizing his failings, and by embracing the truth of his broken life, could he finally muster the strength to murder the Penguin, and adopt a wayward cat he found in the snow because he thought it was his girlfriend. Thus is BATMAN RETURNS celebrated by old and young alike every Yuletide season.
Before THE DARK KNIGHT RISES posed itself as a contemporary retelling of A TALE OF TWO CITIES that neatly dovetailed with the Occupy Wall Street movement, BATMAN RETURNS had beaten Nolan to the punch by two decades. At least insofar as literary allusions go, Tim Burton's second venture into Gotham City was, whether by accident or design, a curiously atypical presentation of A Christmas Carol featuring an ensemble cast in molded rubber and latex prosthetics. While never acknowledged by either the director or screenwriter Daniel Waters, BATMAN RETURNS effectively tells the heightened fever dream of the holidays in Gotham, during which Bruce Wayne is confronted by three distorted versions of himself, and finds himself forced to reconcile the man he has been, the man he has become, and the man he is fast becoming.*
The tale of Ebeneezer Scrooge is thinly-veiled Christian propaganda at best: the miserly curmudgeon has lost love and hope, retreating into ledgers around which he has constructed walls of prodigious (but scarcely enjoyed) wealth, until he is forced to come to grips with the woman he lost, the family he has alienated, and the notion of a death without consequence. In fact, Scrooge seems hardly moved by any point but the last one. It’s only once he’s brought to his lonely, unvisited grave that he falls to his knees to beg for another chance to celebrate the birth of Christ, and by extension, his own salvation. It’s the same sort of Act of Contrition that allows Darth Vader to escape Jedi Oblivion at the literal last minute. Scrooge at least has the gumption to undo some of the damage he’s caused, and never once does he turn his dying breaths into an opportunity to congratulate himself on this turn by telling his son that You were right about me. It is nonetheless a decidedly Catholic read on the notion of redemption, and one in which Faith and Goodness are scared into a historically self-serving asshole. If this constitutes reformation, then it’s hardly an honest one.
So let’s start with Bruce Wayne, as (re)introduced in BATMAN RETURNS. Prior to this film, he was always presented in social situations: whether at the dual-purpose charity ball he throws in his home, or fucking and then blowing off Vicki Vale. He’s a man with an agenda, because he’s a Batman with an agenda. But what’s a vigilante got left to live for once he’s kinda-not-really-but-so-totally murdered his parents’ killer, and the greater part of his life’s mission has been accomplished? Nothing. So when we see him again, he’s brooding in the darkness of Wayne Manor, as clinically depressed as one would expect of a vigilante (and near-psychopath) who literally can’t find anything better to do than to put on an animal suit and punch criminals in the mouth. The wealth that surrounds him, and all the altruistic deeds he’s capable of accomplishing that don’t require a plastic cape, never seem to occur to him. Bruce Wayne is a man forever looking inward. It’s hard to interpret his crime fighting as having anything to do with protecting innocents; it’s violent therapy that just happens to benefit the occasional Good Citizen who requires (and justifies) saving.
And just like that, the Bat Signal strikes the wall of his study, and Bruce rises tall, erect, and activated for obsession. Who cares what the threat may be – there are Bad Guys to punish. There are people to hurt so that his pain can be lessened. If the money housed within these walls serves any purpose, it’s inversely proportionate to the difference it would make in the hands of the hungry, the homeless, the crippled and broken. For Bruce Wayne – who’s never had to work a day in his life to amass or maintain his wealth – it’s a vehicle by which his judgment over others might be made painfully, physically manifest. Scrooge might have denied Cratchit that extra lump of coal, but Bruce Wayne dispenses lumps of a different kind, and far more painfully.
Then he’s off to the winter wonderland of Gotham’s inner city,** and encounters, one by one, the ghosts who will presumably alter the course of his life. I say presumably, because we neither see the aftermath, nor was there likely the intent to proceed as such. As it stands, A BAT CHRISTMAS CAROL is a one-off, Elseworlds-style adventure into the psyche of Bruce Wayne, and what he finds there is made manifest in the form of The Penguin, Max Shreck, and Catwoman, with each functioning as a different stage in Batman’s development, career, and eventual descent into narcissistic self-flagellation.
If there’s a Ghost of Christmas Past, it’s surely Oswald Cobblepot. Burton was quite the FUCK COMICS auteur before Christopher Nolan took the attitude to new, nostril-gazing heights of pretentiousness; this Penguin has more to do with the themes of alienation and freakishness that provided only subtext in BATMAN, but would form the surface-level thematic qualities seen in EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, ED WOOD, and everything else the director has made before or since. Cobblepot has been radically transformed from a short, fat guy in a tuxedo into a drooling Manbaby in a filthy onesie. Fidelity to the source material notwithstanding, this Penguin is Bruce Wayne, the child: born with a silver spoon in his mouth, and rejected by parents who couldn’t be bothered to stick around. Thomas and Martha Wayne might have checked out against their will, but it was forced abandonment nonetheless; perhaps Dad might have chosen to let Napier get away with those pearls and that wallet rather than throwing himself into harm’s way. It’s only a stretch when we consider it from an adult perspective rather than the vantage point of a child who’s watched his mother get shot in the face, and realizing it didn’t have to happen that way.
The Penguin is a Bruce Wayne without the fortune, and to whom great wealth would be meaningless without a mission to drive him. Both have spent childhoods in subterranean retreat (physically or emotionally); both would establish their base of operations likewise underground with only the animals they’ve chosen as their particular totem. Even the freakish company they keep is designed to reinforce their abnormal delusions – anyone arguing that Alfred Pennyworth represents sanity or stability is misunderstanding the role of an adoptive Father figure.*** The infantile Bat and Bird have similar grievances, when it comes right down to it: each resents their inability to live the lives of luxury that were seemingly promised; neither has any hope of producing an heir; and they’re both hopeless in their respective sexual frustration. Most importantly, they’re both rich orphans who have concocted a scheme by which to enact revenge against the world in which they’re square pegs. If Bruce needed a Dorian Gray-style portrait through which to more accurately see child within, it’s the disgusting sight of the Penguin, printed across a thousand unsold Burger King tie-in cups that likely occupy the same landfill as those fabled E.T. cartridges.
Then there’s Max Shreck.**** There has been endless speculation that this in-movie-only character was originally intended to be Harvey Dent; his ultimate fate by way of electrical burn seems tailored to introduce a Billy Dee Williams Two-Face, and would provide neater entry into a third film (and would prove a potentially thematically relevant introduction in a second film). As it stands, Shreck was invented specifically for BATMAN RETURNS, and while one can’t but wish a character from canon had fulfilled the same function, he serves nicely as the Ghost of Christmas Present. Like Bruce Wayne, Shreck is a powerful businessman; unlike Bruce Wayne, he’s self-made, and every bit the developed, cultivated figure as Batman. Shreck, like the Dark Knight, is drawing strength and stability by stealing power from Gotham City; in the former’s case, it’s literal, and in the latter’s, figurative. In either case, the end goal is to firmly establish authority above and beyond that which is lawful. Max Shreck furthers his personal agenda by uniting with The Ghost of Christmas Past – only by utilizing the angry child can the adult enact schemes that go far beyond what is considered appropriate behavior.
That leaves Selina Kyle, who’s Catwoman is the questionably-insane Ghost of Christmas Future. If Batman represents self-control and carefully orchestrated order, then Catwoman is anything but. She’s a woman on the edge, who is literally pushed over the side by more than one male adversary. It’s only once she accepts her feline persona as the rage release that Bruce denies to acknowledge in Batman, that Selina allows herself selfish self-therapy that’s far more effective than the type she previously received feet-up in a doctor’s office. Her defense of a hapless female in danger ends derisively, with projected self-loathing rather than a You’re welcome. Selina finds Batman a kinky oddball time bomb – sexy, but ticking toward an overdue explosion in both the physical and emotional sense.
And why shouldn’t Batman let go and accept that his nocturnal activities are the product of depression at best, and mental illness at worst? Never once does the Bruce Wayne of the Burtonverse claim altruism as intent; he’s unapologetic in his desire for vengeance, and private justice. The comic book series has long-argued that Batman exists to save Gotham City from itself, but a more accurate reading might be that Gotham City is beyond saving. It’s an assembly line for faces to punch, noses to bloody, and bodies to break. If Batman were truly a hero, his aim would be to rehabilitate even the lowliest foe; instead, he chucks an adversary into an open sewer so that the explosive he strapped to the thug will cause minimal property damage. Note the scary smile he flashes while doing so.
Taken together, The Penguin, Shreck and Catwoman are the three stages of grief, and a roadmap from trauma to self-justification of homicidal (and suicidal) behavior. Like Scrooge, Bruce has his scene with the Ghost of Christmas Future by the gravestone; he tears off his mask (and magically-vanishing eye makeup) and begs Selina to come home with him. No more Batman; no more Catwoman. But the future in inevitable, and Selina has reached the point of willing self-destruction that Bruce is forever in danger of running headlong into. Given that this was the last BATMAN film Tim Burton would direct, it’s appropriate that there’s no final, heroic shot of Bruce Wayne in the guise of his alter-ego; he never dons the suit again onscreen. We see Catwoman instead. The implications are obvious.
If there’s a missing ingredient from the Christmas Carol reading of BATMAN RETURNS, then it’s the presence of Scrooge’s deceased partner Jacob Marley, who is sent as an emissary of the visiting Ghosts. Or is it a missing ingredient? After all, if the man who collaborated with Scrooge to amass power is little more than a wounded wraith bound by chains of his own making, what, then, is Batman…?
*It occurred to me that another writer steeped in BATMAN lore has held a similar belief that Burton and Waters drew from Dickens, and I’d be remiss not to present his work for additional perusal.
**One of the deficits of BATMAN RETURNS is the decision to build Gotham City on a soundstage, unlike the six-block outdoor location seen in the previous film. Whereas the architectural Hellscape of Burton’s first cityscape was granted unparalleled gravitas by virtue of natural lighting, temperature shifts, and actual, believable weather, the Gotham of BATMAN RETURNS never once looks cold despite the abundance of fake snow, and is lit like a set because, well, it is one. The notion of reality as artifice is perfectly in keeping with the distinctive look of the director’s ouvre, but begins one of several moves toward the very Camp aspect that BATMAN ’89 promised it was avoiding.
***The Penguin takes up with a circus-themed group of outcasts more in keeping with the Joker (but perfectly in sync with Burton’s general aesthetic). The criminal organization is called The Red Triangle Gang – the three sides in keeping with the notion of Past, Present and Future.
****The real-life Max Shreck was the titular vampire of F.W. Murnau’s NOSFERATU, which was not only the first adaptation of Dracula, but a film that exists only because private collectors hoarded a few private copies following Florence Stoker’s successful claims of copyright infringement. Considering the clear homage to German Expressionism in Burton’s work, the character name (and homage) is warranted; but given Walken’s specific look in BATMAN RETURNS, the name “Conrad Veidt” feels more appropriate.
Erik Kristopher Myers (aka ekm)