Bat’s the New Black: BATMAN RETURNS and Film Noir
6 May 2012
As a sequel to his 1989 blockbuster, Batman, Tim Burton revisited Gotham City in 1992 for Batman Returns. Evident in Batman and unmissable in Batman Returns, Burton tends to employ the film noir style in his movies. Yet, his use of the noir style in the Batman films has been criticized because the Batman franchise revolves around a superhero, and film noirs do not have heroes in the narratives, much less superheroes. However, Batman is not really a superhero in Batman Returns; in fact, he is not even the focus of the film. Yes, Burton breaks some of the film noir “rules,” and that does weaken the effectiveness of the film, but this “rule breaking” has nothing to do with the Batman character.
Batman Returns opens with the birth of Penguin (Danny DeVito), an unsightly creature, perhaps deformed due to his parents taste for alcohol, a very subtle suggestion Burton delicately slips into the opening shots of the film. Feeling his grotesque appearance and brutal behavior would make for an unlivable situation, Penguin’s parents fling their not-so-precious infant into the sewers. Flash-forward several years later, Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer), a plain-Jane secretary—no, sorry, assistant—works for Maxwell Shreck (Christopher Walken), a corrupt and wealthy business mogul. One night, as Shreck realizes just how clever Selina is, and the threat her intelligence may cause him, he murders her; however, Selina does not die…at least not entirely. Emerging as Catwoman, she and now grown Penguin begin to wreak havoc on Gotham City. The resident superhero of Gotham, Batman (Michael Keaton)—also known as Bruce Wayne—enters the scene to protect the metropolis. Catwoman and Penguin devise respective plans to bring down Shreck and murder all the first-born children of Gotham City, which makes it very difficult for Batman to stay on top of double the methodical villainy.
Some of the major attributes of the film noir style are: severe and contrasting lighting(shadows and fog), narratives that generally fall under the crime/fiction genre, cynical tone, strong sexual overtones, a femme fatale, urban setting with festering corruption, and the film’s themes focus on depression, isolation, and alienation. Batman Returns easily addresses all of these staples of the film noir style. First and foremost, Burton’s use of lighting is pivotal in Batman Returns. Burton uses a range of basic lighting techniques—low-key, bottom light, side light—as well as complicated light patterns to create the dark, seedy, and untrustworthy environment of Gotham City. For example, his frequent use of side lighting is effective because the technique suggests we, the viewers, are not being shown anything fully. Put another way, with side light half of an object or person is lit, while the other half remains in the dark. Thus, for everything the audience sees in the light, just as much is being withheld in the dark, casting a veil of mystery and suspense, which engages the audience.
Another staple of film noir included in Batman Returns is the crime/fiction genre, which requires no explanation; however, the cynical tone and sexual overtone, also present in Batman Returns, must be discussed. As alluded to earlier, of the many examples of the film’s cynicism, Penguin’s parent are strong evidence of the film’s distrustful and contemptuous nature. After Burton captures the parent sipping cocktails on Christmas with their deformed child caged in a black, barred bassinet, the parents wheel their child, through a snowstorm, into a park and dump him into a freezing river, still locked inside his cage. Penguin’s parent, much like Penguin himself, build the cynical tone of the film right from the start. Moreover, the sexual overtones of the film are, perhaps, best communicated through Selina and Shreck. While the film does not confirm the two had/have a sexual relationship—actually, at one point Selina, when dancing with Bruce at the ball, denies it—the film is suggestive. First, when Selina returns home after Shreck “kills” her, she listens to a voicemail that enrages her; the voicemail regards Gotham Lady perfume, a fragrance that “with one whiff, your boss will be asking you to stay after work for a candlelit dinner for two.” In her fit of rage following this voicemail, Selina takes a can of black spray paint to her dollhouse. She does not spray the entire thing; she only sprays the bed black. Moreover, Selina’s metamorphosis into Catwoman is a sexual awakening for her, all leading to the moment she kills Shreck. With a taser gun and holding and electrical wire, Catwoman kisses Shreck, which electrocutes them both. Without question, Catwoman erupts with sexual overtones and is the femme fatale of the film.
And yet, while this is all in-depth evidence regarding how Batman Returns employs the noir style effectively, there is some debate regarding how the noir style is incorrectly used in the film. The focus of this debate surrounds the title character, Batman. As a superhero, Batman defeats the hero-less staple of film noir. In traditional film noir there is no hero; instead, there is a flawed antihero, the protagonist, who carries the narrative and emulates the typical themes of depression, imperfection, corruption, isolation, and alienation. However, doesn’t that sound a great deal like Burton’s Batman in Batman Returns, minus the corruption?
In this film version, Batman is not portrayed as a superhero; he is not even an average hero. At best, Burton’s 1992 Batman is the antihero who barely saves anyone, does not defeat the villains of the narrative (Penguin and Catwoman), lives in isolation, is alienated from society, and ends up alone, all contributing to the theme of depression running rather steadily throughout the film. The only person Batman saves in Batman Returns is Selina, at the beginning, when one of the circus crew grabs her. But, where is he when Shreck “kills” her? Also, Batman failed to save the Ice Princess from the Penguin or Shreck from Catwoman. Moreover, Batman himself does not actually save the first-born children of Gotham from Penguin; it is Alfred who stops the rocket-packing penguins. And, in the film’s conclusion, Penguin dies, basically, at his own hand when he falls into the toxic sludge lagoon he created.
In addition, Batman is also seen as physically flawed during an early exchange with Catwoman. In one of their first encounters, Catwoman runs her hand over Batman’s chest, trying to feel the man behind the suit. Batman allows this, and when she finds the thinnest part of his suit she jabs her metal claw into it, stabbing Batman. This is not the type of wound one might expect a superhero to receive, lending more evidence as to why Batman is not actually a superhero in Batman Returns; he is clearly more a mortal antihero.
Even his alter ego, Bruce Wayne, lives in complete isolation. All the money in the world, but he lives shut-up in a gothic style mansion, with only his butler, spending most of his time in the dark, cold cave beneath the estate. Although he risks his life for the citizens of Gotham, no citizen of the city knows of his sacrifice. And, frankly, the citizens don’t seem to care. In this film, Gotham’s residents never ask who Batman is or why he became a vigilante for their society; the residents only care that he show up when they flash their spotlight signal. Burton makes this fact more obvious in Batman Returns, suggesting, perhaps, Bruce understands this fact about Gotham and it may be why his static characterization is so melancholy in Batman Returns. Bruce faces the fact when Penguin frames Batman for the Ice Princess’ murder (a classic noir move, false suspicion of a crime). The people of Gotham believe Batman could be a merciless killer, even though they should know better. This is not the Batman of yesteryear’s comic books. Burton’s 1992 Batman is not trusted and society turns against him despite all the sacrifices he makes for them, this furthering the cynical tone of the film.
The film’s conclusion is Bruce Wayne, on Christmas, driving the abandoned street of Gotham with Alfred. Yes, Penguin is dead, but fear does not give way to joy at the end of Batman Returns; in the film’s conclusion, fear gives way to alienation, isolation, and, in true noir style, depression. It is not Batman who breaks the traditional film noir style in Batman Returns, yet a break is made.
Burton defies one major staple in the film noir style. Yes, Gotham City is urban, because most noirs have urban settings, but the film noir style typically emphasizes realism in setting, which Burton disregards. Gotham City is some sort of futuristic dystopia, or an exaggerated and embellished version of our reality, but certainly not the everyday cityscape audiences recognize from their own lives. In film noir, the setting, theoretically, should suggest all the unlawful and unethical actions of the plot actually happen in the real world, right under society’s nose, in the true “underbelly” of society. Thus, a huge part of the noir effect is lost in Batman Returns; audience members do not feel as though the cynical, seedy, underbelly of society depicted in the film could be happening in their reality because their reality is not in the film. Burton takes a huge step away from the real world in the Batman Returns setting, which, ultimately, makes the film less effective than traditional film noirs which maintain a strong sense of realism.
Why would Burton avoid realism in Batman Returns, which completely undercuts the noir style he so clearly was working with on the film? The only answer is…Burton’s films are always set in some form of dystopia, which is one of his trademarks. Tim Burton never employs realism in his films. Realism might stifle his creativity and aesthetic flare, so he dismisses it, yet does not let that dismissal stop him from using the film noir style, which, undoubtedly, he is a fan of. In all, the lack of realism does weaken the effect Batman Returns has on audience member because the film is not directly relatable to viewer’s reality; however, this certainly does not make the film weak. Batman Returns is a visual sensation from start to finish, nearly all to the credit of Tim Burton, and all of the other elements of the film noir style come together quite brilliantly to reintroduce Batman, as flawed antihero, back into popular culture.