Batman/Election Returns

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I feel like Catwoman. I've cut and stitched this movie and made something of my own from it which kind of holds together, which has for me a certain quality of self expression.
Alyson Bardsley

Issue #3, November 1992


"In order to destroy Batman, we must turn him into the thing he hates most — namely, us."
Catwoman to Penguin
"You're just jealous because I'm a real freak, and you have to wear a costume!"
Penguin to Batman

Most of the complaints I've heard about Batman Returns (e.g. from the "Movietrack" surveys on "Entertainment Tonight") have been that the screenplay doesn't really make sense, that it seemed to switch horses in midstream. The plot began with the anti-big business thing continued from the first movie, the apparent attack on the power of selfish, greedy and destructive capitalists, satisfying, if superficial. But in the end we ask, what was that about the villain's powerplant secretly really being a capacitor and sucking energy away from Gotham rather than producing it? Where did that point go? Was it just a Mcguffin? And who's going to be mayor of Gotham? Have the industry and government of the city really been saved at the end? What matters of course is not simply the fact that the initial political plotline goes off track but what diverts it: the spectacularly different yet similarly spectacular Catwoman and Penguin.

I. Sixties Nostalgia?

Evidently BR's been a bit of a disappointment in the domestic market, partially, it seems, because there was some confusion as to its proper audience. Violence and sex=adult fare, right? — but then there were those McDonald's "Happy Meal" toys to make you think it was for kids. What is and isn't "for" kids leads us to the issue of the crucial intertext for Batman Returns, a film about a coup in a fictional European dictatorship, set in Edwardian England but made, importantly, by a U.S. company in the year 1968.

I refer, of course, to Disney's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, in which an entrepreneurial type name of Caractacus Potts, along with his kids and an industrialist's daughter name of Truly Scrumptious, "accidentally" invade a country in the Potts BMW/Batmobile equivalent, the car after which the movie is named. The overweight, infantile, uniform-wearing, German-accented monarch of the invaded land has outlawed children and hoards expensive and elaborate playthings, anticipating the 1980's gag line "whoever dies with the most toys, wins." Baby boomers as well as babies, please identify.

Unlike Batman Returns, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was unequivocally presented and accepted as children's fare, this despite its representation of the violent overthrow of a government, and the depiction of hoards of kids, illegally preserved from execution, being kept in the sewers under the fictional dictatorship's capital. The visual echoes from CCBB in BR are primarily of these children and of the child-catcher, to whom the Penguin at one particular time is made to bear a striking resemblance. The child-catcher/Penguin double in CCBB controls the child population and thereby ensures the dictator's remaining sole possessor of all toys in his domain; like him, Penguin is a sewer-dweller; hunchbacked, hook nosed, top-hatted, with long, stringily flowing black hair, he dances around gleefully with a toy-decorated decoy umbrella as he plots to abduct Gotham's firstborn sons; even the train of cages he plans to collect them in resembles the toy-catcher's cart form CCBB. Recall that BR's director Tim Burton got his start with Disney, the producer of CCBB.

Penguin, though visually aligned with the child catcher, plays a different and ostensibly more central role in BR's political plotline. He has been a candidate for leader (mayor), although at another's instigation and, implicitly, for that other's benefit; the viewer has witnessed the genesis and the failure of that political campaign, based on market research and centering on the deliberate construction of a charismatic leader out of unlikely materials. Penguin's monstrosity is the emblem of his unfitness and consequently of the corruption of a system which can mask it; but the contemplation of the monstrosity threatens to become an end in itself as it escalates dramatically almost as a result of his candidacy. From the campaign's inception in the brightly lit and busy office miraculously installed by Schreck in the basement of Penguin's gloomy and dilapidated digs, he comes across emphatically as a physically repellent and morally degenerate being. As he first encounters his party machine, we are confronted by his body: clad in filthy longjohns revealingly concealing his deformities, he chomps on a raw fish, makes crude sexual advances to a female employee, and bites the nose nearly off of a vacantly grinning male image consultant. His election is thwarted only by Batman's debunking (i.e. hi-tech electronic eavesdropping and signal hi-jacking).

II. Identity Politics

Penguin, however, has other fish than the political to fry. Once emancipated form the election plotline he can devote himself to his original personal concern: the mass abduction of Gotham's children which calls up the visual references to the older film. This we know was his purpose in coming to Gotham, as he began his lists before Schreck proposed the mayoral race to him. A strange, veiled and allusively sanctioned version of an insistently personal and purely negative identity politics seems ultimately to be at stake. Penguin's singularity, the incapacity of his parents to accept him and his assumption that others will be similarly unable, have been the basis of his animus against Gotham. The film has participated in his exclusion insofar as it's dwelt on his physical and (consequential?) moral hideousness.

But by oddly sanctifying, through weird Biblical resonances, his vengeful attempt to force a kind of identity between him and the rest of Gotham and by having this turn out to be, as it were, the "true" plot, the one motivating Penguin, the one referred to in a cryptic way (what was he doing in the record office early in the film? In the end, all is revealed) and then ultimately unravelled, the film confers a kind of validity on Penguin's wrongs and his attempts to right them through forcing Gotham to share his different and denigrated point of view.

Because if Disney means normal (let's put it in scare quotes: "normal") Penguin is it. While his basket was going down the sewer in the credit sequence, someone in the theater started singing "It's a Small World After All," under his breath, implying, that it looked like a particular water ride at Disneyland. Penguin of course habitually locomotes in a big amusement park duck; and when he seizes control of the Bat-B'mer, he does so through the mechanism of an enclosed kiddie-ride version; he turns the Batphallusmobile into a real toy which he plays with solitary ecstatic Winnebago-shaking abandon while controlling Batman by remote. The Disneyest aspect of Penguin is of course his literalization of the anthropomorphized animal that is Walt and Co.'s stock in trade, with which he taunts Batman — he's a real freak. But not just any freak. Born at Christmas, and 33, as a title informs us, at the time of the film's main action, Penguin has some superficial Jesus characteristics; on the other hand, he goes down a river/sewer in a rush basket, Moses-like. Penguin himself is scarcely to be thought aware of the Biblical overtones surrounding him — he only wants others to suffer as he has — to be like him. In some way Penguin, rejected as a child and grotesque and criminal as an adult, is right, or has a right, to do as he does. Not elected but maybe elect.

So the mayoral electoral intrigue and exposé, though it takes up some time and plotting, winds perhaps as much a digression as the capacitor/powerplant was — as if deception and moral bankruptcy in the political process were as unsurprising, as inconsequential, as unable to sustain the film's attention as was the theme of corporate exploitation and environmental destruction. This is not unlike CCBB — after all, the coup the protagonists cause is calculated to be uncontestably morally justified (who in Disney's audience, could argue with restoring missing children to their grieving parents? And it is, after all, a people's movement — the outsiders are merely advisors!) This, then is the '68 version of politics as usual, and happens, to our heroes at least, as if in a dream, from which they return to the more lastingly crucial business of finding a market for one of Potts' inventions so he can have enough money to buy/marry the industrialist's delicious daughter. If marriage and a comical treatment of entrepreneurial capitalism were the '68 Disneyvalues into which a coup plot could safely be intruded and contained, what is the norm into which into which abuses of the electorate can intrude without consequence now? Is it in fact the Penguin's search for validation of his identity? How about Catwoman's sad sexiness and its effect on Batman/Bruce Wayne?

III. Feminist Felines Critique S/M

This movie fell in love with Catwoman. Her story even started out sort of thematically coherent with the big bad business thing, with Selina's confronting the glass ceiling in her job actually leading to her becoming Catwoman: making it her business to know more than a secretary should and learning about the powerplant/capacitor scam provoked her evil boss to attempt her murder. But once Catwoman rose from the battered body of the beleaguered A.A., mostly the movie lost the capitalism is hell, save the planet stuff and got all carried away with Catwoman's pain and her power. Before you knew it the new focus was, gender is hell, let's whip men, and let's castrate Batman.

The temporary initial turn-on of the mainstreaming of S/M through Catwoman is ultimately unsatisfying simply because being whipped by a spinster-secretary-dominatrix will never make Batman any less able to shop at Lord God King of all Sharper Image stores, compensating for his lack with lots of high-end electronic Batstuff; and what felt like nice observations and sentiments with regard to gender being hell (look how Catwoman's homemade PVC suit is so expressively being barely held together with big ragged dental floss stitches as her overdetermined body tries to be efficaciously violent, acrobatic and sexy all at once!) turn out to be fundamentally unsurprising after all (so, Selina, the first thing you do after some one tries to kill you is get a new outfit to express your rage? Now I suppose some British cultural critic will tell me you were being subversive by making it yourself instead of buying off the rack). The nearly truly revealing thing is that superficial and inconsequential stagings of "problems" like this can make so many people stop what they were doing and pay attention; and believe they're having thoughts when they're actually mostly just being titillated (that's a great effect, that thinking you're thinking when you're not — I wish they'd bottle it!).

She achieves her goal I guess. She makes him like her and Penguin. Only more or less. After several physical struggles, in the final confrontation he says, "Look Selina. We're the same. Split down the middle." As he ripped off his Bathood and delivered that line, I'm afraid the split I envisioned was the gash of ugly slang usage, the female genitals, the phallus' absence. Batman is saying, hell yes I'm castrated; do you love me now? Actually he's referring to the pain that each feels at having to maintain a dual identity: a "crusading," active self (Bat/Cat) and a fairly passive "regular" self (millionaire/secretary). Millionaire/secretary? The parallel gets a little weak here, doesn't it? And where he rips off his rubber headgear, the fluffy blond hair of Selina's ineffectual "real" self is peeking through her Cat-hat, against her will.

IV. Election and My Identity

I feel like Catwoman. I've cut and stitched this movie and made something of my own from it which kind of holds together, which has for me a certain quality of self expression. But I've done it, like Catwoman, without being ultimately subversive or even particularly consequential. And frankly, voting, that final reduction of citizenship, feels like a combination of catalog shopping and standardized test taking. I've had market researchers cold call me twice in the past four years to test out the phrasing of propositions and bond issues on me; market researchers. And that actually almost made me feel as if I were contributing something.

Copyright © 1992 by Alyson Bardsley. All rights reserved.

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