Batman Returns was the first film that I snuck into, underage.
It was released in the UK in the summer of 1992, with a '12' certificate. Not only was I not 12, I looked more like a small 6-year-old boy, so I didn't see how I was going to get in.
But it was Emma Barker's birthday, and her Dad took me and her to see it. I stood in line at the Showcase Cinemas in Batley, heart racing. Me and Emma didn't speak.
When we got to the counter, and her Dad asked for tickets, I stood on my tiptoes, because being half an inch taller would make me look a lot older.
The cashier asked how old me and Emma were (Emma was tiny). Her Dad said that we were both 12.
And that was it. We were in.
Emma's family was considerably better off than mine, so we then got loads of popcorn, and it was a proper treat. Fear + exhilaration + M&Ms + with your best mate = the enduring power of cinema-going.
But why should you care?
We have three major horror indicators early in the film:
1. In the prologue, these parents throw their baby off a bridge
2. Then, as Albert hurries home with his Christmas shopping, he realises something evil is lurking in the grate....
3. The Meet-Cute is an evil clown attacking Michelle Pfeiffer
Beyond the film's horror markers though, we need to spend some time thinking about Christopher Walken. He plays Max Shreck, the mayor. How luminescent is Walken's skin in this film?
I had to screengrab all these images off an ITV2 showing on Box of Broadcasts, so it's all desaturated and depressingly grainy. But when I watched it on my Big Telly, Walken's skin just shines, he's the inspo for Hourglass’s Ambient Lighting Infinity Powder.
While Walken shimmers away, in Gotham's sewer system, the Penguin does a very useful monologue. He explains to Walken that they are both monsters, 'but to date, you are a well-respected monster and I am not'
Then the Penguin outlines precisely what he wants:
'some respect /
a recognition of my basic humanity /
but most of all, I want to find out who I am, by finding my parents, learning my human name / simple stuff that the people of Gotham take for granted'
I watched this thinking 'oooh, this is nice and simple, I might start using Batman Returns for my intro screenwriting workshops, two characters talking about being either side of the same coin; an antagonist clearly outlining his desires and moving from the ephemeral to the tangible, a nicely goal-driven set up.... '
But then the film kind of goes wrong plot wise. It's a very enjoyable mess, but it can't contain all the things it wants to be.
The star power of Walken, Pfeiffer, de Vito and (I suppose) Michael Keaton means the film bursts its banks. It pours, wildly, in loads of different directions: sometimes it's a gothic fairytale, sometimes an action film, sometimes its about Catwoman, sometimes the Penguin, and I'm not talking about ABC storylining, it's literally multiple films and the filmmaking team couldn't pick which one and just did all of them.
This messiness impacts on the running time, which is over two hours. This is a cardinal sin for horror, unless it is a Korean or Japanese horror film which is playing by different narrative rules (and yes, I do include Hereditary in this indictment).
No Western horror film is ever improved by being over 87 minutes.
Also, Batman is barely in it. And when he is in it, a lot of the time he is watching telly.
For example, in the first third of the film: Walken introduces the Penguin to Gotham City. Bruce watches the broadcast. Bruce pouts.
Much later on, the Penguin challenges Batman to be there when they re-light the Christmas tree. This time, for variety, Bruce stands.
Then, at the relighting, Bruce is back sitting in his easy chair with his slippers on, watching the Penguin again. Dynamic visual storytelling!
You can imagine the shooting schedule for Keaton -
"so, Michael! New Batman movie! We'll need you on set for three days, to shoot lots of footage of you watching de Vito VT, and we'll have a nice fire going in the grate so you're all toasty. Then we'll use a stunt double for action, so perhaps one or two more days for the close ups between Batman and Penguin and Catwoman. Perfect."
Side note: the Penguin and I are much the same (like all good major characters). We are twinned through our love of writing on yellow notepaper with a fountain pen.
Although, minus points for his BLATANT, huffing desire
The single most important thing about Batman Returns though is Michelle Pfeiffer as Selina / Catwoman (the Penguin clearly realises this).
This initial 'honey I'm home' sequence' lodged straight into my 1992 tween memorybanks. We begin with Miss Kitty, Selina's pet, who is just like my old black cat Marla, who I still have a framed picture of on my bookshelves.
what beautiful dancing legs she has (Miss Kitty)
Then, Cheryl Carasik's set decoration of Selina's apartment is SUMPTUOUS. Again, thanks to ITV2's lack of commitment to film aesthetics, you're not getting it here but this apartment is popping (now, in my head, Lil' Mama's Lipgloss song, "it's popping, it's popping...").
I marvel at the production design here, the neon, the walls, the door, the suit, and the phone all in the same shade but with different saturation.
Pink offset by lemon
Some spot-on framing around Selina as well, foreshadowing her fate. The composition below leads our eye from left to right, foreground to background. From Pfeiffer to Walken's stuffed chihuahua, from the darkness of Pfeiffer's lighting to the glowing chihuahua, which pulls at our attention. What is Walken going to do to her? (clue: it's not taxidermy but he's certainly planning on Selina ending up dead in the very near future)
Walken pushes Selina out of the window. Burton's little Vertigo nod
This next sequence is my other enduring Showcase memory: as Selina lies broken, dying, on the sidewalk, the neighbourhood cats surround her, and chew, rebirthing her as a supercatbaddieawesomewoman. This is totally how I want to go. And then come back.
The ginger tomcat looks just like my Grandma's cat Kipper, and it totally unnerved me at the cinema when we go to the close up of the tom, merrily gnawing away.
Then, the last moment in the whole film that has never, ever left me.
When Selina returns to her beautiful apartment (in shades of pink that are very trendy right now, take a look at Lick Paint Pink Shade 4 if you don't believe me) she pours the milk everywhere, which I found very distressing as I am a very tidy person.
And then she gets milk all down herself which also upset me because That Isn't Where Milk Is Supposed to Go.
While the milk mess is happening, there are lots of lovely cutaways of all the neighbourhood cats flocking to the apartment. The felines watch the metamorphosis of Selina into Catwoman. They judge. They approve.
I have come to realise there are not enough sewing scenes in horror films (with the exception of In Fabric). Sewing can be horrific! Bravo, Batman Returns.
Leaning forward in my seat at the Showcase, I saw this next shot and had my final Batman Returns epiphany:
1. This is the hair I have always wanted and will never have.
2. I will crush on Michelle Pfeiffer forever more.
The first of many endings to this film (the inability to conclude this film reminded me of a Roxanne Gay quote on endings, when she is like 'Don't Lord of the Rings it! You don't need five endings!'). But of all the endings in this film, this one is my favourite. This is how to kill the real bad guy: electrocution by tongue! Go Catwoman!
Then, as the film concludes (again), we learn what Batman Returns is really about.
You know stories have a thing that they are about, on the surface, the plot? The mechanics. Then they have what they are actually about e.g. the big themes, the universal human experience stuff.
The final frames of Batman Returns reveals its true, deep meaning.
Bruce Wayne has gone on an emotional journey.
Throughout a series of obstacles and encounters
He has learned how to love
This has led him to....
Become a Responsible Cat Owner
Miss Kitty and Bruce drive into the night, no longer alone.
Batman Returns wasmy final cinema trip with Emma. That was our last summer at primary school, and I was part of a gang of four - me, Emma, Gemma and Lisa.
That September we all trotted off to the same high school together, perms moussed, Head backpacks, ears freshly pierced.... and I was placed in the other half of year 7.
Emma, Gemma and Lisa were together. But our four was over. No classes, no mealtimes, no hanging out during school at all.
I came home on my first day and bawled my eyes out.
To add insult to injury, no-one else in 7WL shared my obsession with Catwoman.
Emma and I grew apart, fast, but for the next five years we were still on the same school bus going home. She was sat upstairs at the back with the coolest kids (the smokers, the hard people, the oldest).
I was 100% not an upstairs / back seat ranking. I knew my place. Still, she'd pass by my row, on her way to the back. And sometimes we'd catch eyes. And there'd be the tiniest smile.
Cinema trips mean something.
Underage cinema trips mean even more.
Friendships end, but that moment together forged in the darkness,
Our faces lit by Walken's skincare glow,
Would always, silently, bind us together.