It’s Christmas Eve and I’m settling in for what apparently will be a night of Tim Burton (thank you, Tim, for having an unnatural fixation with Christmas in your early movies).
I love these early movies: Beetlejuice, the two Batmans, Edward Scissorhands, NBC, etc. I love them because the bad guys are bad and the good guys are damaged. They’re just like watching comic books on the big screen. And I’m watching one of the most comic-booky of them all: Batman Returns.
I never fully understood why everyone said Batman Returns is a terrible movie. Yeah, sure, the acting’s over the top – but that’s just because it’s a fucking comic book. Folks think the Penguin’s character is too over the top and not funny, but I don’t think he’s meant to be funny. I think he’s meant to be pathetic and I pity him (“I am not a human being!! I am an animal!!). But a lot of people make the mistake of thinking the Penguin is the antagonist in this movie. Shrek is. He’s the one who pulls the strings that destroy each and everyone of them.
I also love the story frame in this movie – we start with the Penguin’s birth. Then Shrek steps in, pushes two people to their destruction (Selena literally, and Penguin through his manipulation of him). Then Shrek steps out of the story when he’s killed, which is followed by the outro of the movie where Penguin dies in the very river he was meant to die in at the start. Penguin’s didn’t die because he was going through with his plan. He would have gotten away with it if Batman hadn’t gotten so interested in him because of Shrek. Penguin died because he messed with Shrek. All Penguin ever wanted was to punish the parents that abandoned him.
And there’s a subtle unfolding of the Penguin’s revenge. He doesn’t care about Batman. He doesn’t care about Shrek. He doesn’t care about the mayorship or the police or Catwoman or anyone else. All he wants to do is right the wrong his parents did – he wants to kill all the first born sons, like him. He wants to inflict the grief on other parents that his parents should have felt for him. He wants there to be grief in the world, even if it’s not for him.
There’s a line that Shrek delivers to Bruce in one scene when he admonishes Bruce’s black and white attitude about the Penguin, where he says Penguin could have been one of his classmates at prep school if things had gone differently. And the sad thing is, because of the wealth we see in the opening scene, that line is true. Penguin is destroyed by the selfishness not from himself, but from others.
Then there’s the parallel story with Catwoman, which I do admit isn’t as well done as the Penguin’s. She’s got some of the greatest moments in the movie – like when she’s whipping the heads off of mannequins at the Shrek department store, then starts jumping rope. Or when the Penguin throws her off a roof and she screams in the greenhouse she lands in. She’s an innocent, just like the Penguin was when he was thrown in the river. But in a world of selfish people, she’s completely isolated – she and Alfred are the only two in this movie who give anyone anything. And even when she dies, and becomes darker, she still give up her own lives in an attempt to destroy the man who destroyed her.
Shrek and Selena.
The Penguin and his Parents.
And what does Batman even do in this movie, except facilitate the destruction of each an every one of them (except the Penguin’s parents, who, of course, died with no remorse). The Penguin dies. Shrek dies. Even Catwoman dies (Selena doesn’t, since she’s left with one life left). Batman spends the movie being vilified for helping, makes the mistake of trying to reach out in a gesture of love only to be isolated once again at the end. He doesn’t come through clean. He’s just as alone at the end of the movie as he was at the beginning.
I said at the beginning of this post that I like these movies because the bad guys are bad, and the good guys are damaged. Shrek is the only bad guy here (and he dies when he finally gets the power he’s been after the entire movie – ba-doom-ching). He’s a monster of his own making (he says so himself – “I’m no Santa Claus. I’m just a schmuck who got lucky.” Everyone else is damaged.
No one can be saved in this movie. Not even the Christmas Princess who’s thrown off the roof. All anyone can do is stand by and watch until she hits the ground.
And there’s penguins.
Anyway, hope you all are somewhere safe and warm. I’m sending my merriest of merries your way.