‘Tis the season! ‘Tis a time for merriment, gaiety, festivity, and a bunch of other synonyms! ‘Tis also a time in which box-office turnouts for fifth and sixth installments of Saw or Fast and Furious vastly outweigh those for fresh, original film — a time in which the popularity of one kind of movie seems almost contingent on the failure of the other. ‘Tis a good time for cynicism, evidently.
Batman Returns is a superhero sequel, obviously, but it’s not the kind of assembly-line movie that phrase conjures up today (it’s also a Christmas movie, hence my yuletide cheer). This isn’t an instantly forgettable Marvel sequel like Iron Man 2 or Thor: The Dark World, seemingly intent only on filling the space between Avengers team-ups. Returns, like Burton’s first Batman film, takes pride in originality even in the face of decades of established Bat-lore, flipping things upside down and ignoring long character histories and comic book arcs in favor of new things, for better or worse. So in Batman we discover that the Joker is the one who killed Thomas and Martha Wayne, not some nobody named Joe Chill; here in Returns, Penguin isn’t a respected sophisticate but instead a literal man-bird. Returns basically says f*ck you to so much of the Batman canon that it’s difficult to imagine it being released today without causing fanboydom to implode.
Prior to Returns, this originality was a defining characteristic of Batman in the same way it defined Sherlock Holmes or James Bond or any other character who has enjoyed so many continuous decades of publication. Part of their success and continuing allure has always required a bit of ignorance toward their own histories. Role recasting, franchise reboots, series retcons, characters coming back from the dead — all have subtly undermined and even insulted readers and viewers in a “maybe-they-won’t-notice” kind of way. And yet, we return for the latest installment. Ultimately, this return shows that all along fans were disregarding trivial anachronisms in favor of the themes and traits that made their characters enjoyable in the first place.
We’ll stick with comics for a second. Batman’s original run in Detective Comics lasted 881 issues through 2011 — the longest continuously published comic book in the United States — before ‘tec rebooted for the current run. You can bet your batarang that traditional “chronology” was met with glaring problems over the course of this run. Wait, he has a different logo on his suit! Wait, Gordon is suddenly not a badass anymore (see: everything after Year One), and everyone has been the same age for a decade! Even basic elements of personality, which one would assume drew fans in and kept them coming, change from iteration to iteration. This is why Frank Miller gives us the psychotic, Robin-slapping “goddamn Batman” while Kevin Smith has his pants-wetting Dark Knight blushing and picking flowers, and they’re both still Bruce Wayne.
The real reasons Batman fights on in the comics are linked to the story, the symbolism, to the countless callbacks and compounded tragedy of the characters, and these things have nothing to do with the tint of Robin’s panties as compared to the last issue. Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns is very specifically “out-of-continuity” and “non-canon”, never intended to fit with any chronology. But how could it not fit? Would the titular “return” mean as much if we didn’t have at least a sense of what has come before? Not everyone reads this stuff in order, but they can feel the longevity somewhere in whatever panels they do come across. Even if you’ve never heard of Bruce Wayne, there’s a feeling you might get in coming across a certain image that suggests something too great to unfold in a single book or film.
And so: Batman Returns. The opening scene immediately shakes up Penguin’s history; the following scene focuses on Max Shreck, a never-before-seen favorite son of Gotham played by Christopher Walken, and introduces a timid Selina Kyle played by Michelle Pfeiffer. Selina Kyle is the alter-ego of Catwoman, and anyone who knows Catwoman knows “timid” isn’t usually deployed as a descriptor for that slinky, bold burglar. Already it’s plainly obvious that Burton isn’t going to give us what we expect.
And then we see Wayne Manor. We see Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne, alone and brooding in his upstairs study, framed in a wide shot of the expansive room. This is just a guy sitting in a room. We see a close up of Bruce, his head in his hand — and then a light breaks on his face. We see the lit Batsymbol, triggered by Gordon as he tussles with the Penguin’s goons over in downtown Gotham, the light bouncing off an array of mirrors jutting out from the sides of the mansion. The light floods the room, Bruce stands attentive, and in that instant he’s so much more than just a guy in a room. He’s something that’s been built up for decades in comics books and television shows and movies and toys, and now he’s standing here with the giant symbol of the hero wreathed in light around him. This kind of symbolism doesn’t appear overnight, and Burton’s respect for that is still unparalleled.
The moment is exciting precisely because of that balance between tradition and originality. Burton respects that canon, but Returns has already surprised us multiple times and it’s only been ten minutes. What could possibly come next? That question, frankly, is everything. What’s next?, if you truly don’t know the answer, is the question any great film poses. Sure, I’m excited for the next silver screen iteration of Bruce Wayne in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. But because this is no longer a time when originality automatically overrules franchising and the pleasing of the masses, what’s next? isn’t as big as it should be. I know Man of Steel will tie to Batman v. Superman and I know that will further tie to Justice League, and I know Batman will fight Superman, and I know justice will dawn. I know, too, that Batman’s history probably won’t be compromised to any great degree. With any luck, though, it will take at least a small bit of direction from Batman Returns, a superhero sequel like no other, one that simultaneously solidifies a hero’s history and pushes it forward into whatever comes next.