Imaginary Story 1: Batman Returns

Near Apocalpyse of '09 LogoImaginary Stories are a recurring feature in which I discuss works contemporaneous with and involving the same characters as the DCAU.

It’s June 19, 1992, which is several months before the start of Batman the Animated Series, but the movie we’re talking about will hang on in the box office charts through November, so we’ll count it as contemporary. In the news, on the 16th the U.S. and Russia reached a “joint understanding” on nuclear arms reduction that would become the START II treaty; on the 17th Estonia becomes the first former Soviet state to reject the ruble and adopt a new currency, in this case the kroon; and on the 22nd the remains of the last Tsar and Tsarina of Russia are found in Yekaterinburg. The top song is Mariah Carey’s “I’ll Be There,” with Sir Mix-a-Lot pronouncing his inability to prevaricate regarding his fondness for sizable posteriors at number two, and Kris Kross rounding out the top three with “Jump.” The number two movie this weekend is Sister Act, and Patriot Games is at number three.

Number one is Batman Returns, Tim Burton’s second and last Batman film, as well as the second and last outing of Michael Keaton in the title role. Unlike Burton’s previous outing, a triumph of style over substance that found Wayne more interesting than his crime-fighting persona, this film is much more about the bat, and seems also to be at least trying to say something.

To grasp that something, we must return to the related ideas of carnival and the grotesque, because that is clearly where this film wants us to be from the start, as we are introduced to that classic gothic horror premise, the rich family’s secret, monstrous scion. Young Oswald is depicted as a terrifying creature the audience cannot even be permitted to see, and at least implied to eat a housecat. So of course he is abandoned by his parents–a motif we will be returning to be shortly–and raised first by animals, and then a circus.

The circus “freak show” is, of course, one of the great celebrations of the grotesque, just as the circus itself is essentially the spirit of carnival packaged and transported from town to town. That is why so many horror stories are set at circuses: they share the power of carnival to upend and dismiss social norms, to empower the weak and cast down the strong, to profane the sacred, distort and disfigure the body, and unleash the id.

That unleashed energy, the raw sexuality and violence held in check by society, is where the carnival draws its power, both transformative and destructive, and so it is no accident that both Catwoman and the Penguin are presented as intensely sexual figures, the Penguin as a purely repulsive image of out-of-control, ugly, aggressive lust, and Catwoman as a more complex figure that partakes heavily in BDSM imagery, from her whip to her tight, shiny black outfit with the prominent stitching. They are opposite poles of sexuality, the Penguin animalistic and blunt, Catwoman fetishistic and seductive.

The role of carnival, however, is not merely to unleash the desires normally held in check under the social order, but to shatter that order, to create chaos. One of the ways it does this is by calling into question the underlying narratives of the social order, which is where we return to Cobblepot’s abandonment in a river of sewage, carried in a black baby carriage that looks rather a lot like a dark version of traditional images of Moses’ basket of reeds. The plague of the slaying of the firstborn shows up later, too. Which, of course, makes sense: the Passover tale is a sort of carnival as well, what with the slaves throwing off their shackles while the social order and bodies of their masters are disrupted by irruptions of chaos such as plagues, rains of frogs, and disfiguring boils.

This is therefore a story of class struggle as well, as any story that involves the overthrowing of the social order of a capitalist society must be. Thus we get poor put-upon Selina Kyle, abused by the unapologetically slimy arch-capitalist Max Schreck (himself a grotesque creature as well, sharing a name as he does with the actor who played the ratlike vampire Count Orloff in the classic silent film Nosferatu), but rising up to destroy fist her boss’ department store, and then his life. Schreck is yet another dark mirror of the hero, this time in his Bruce Wayne aspect, as is the Penguin–after all, Bruce also lost his parents at a young age, and became a monstrous creature themed after an animal.

The character the film really works to parallel Batman with, however, is Catwoman. The first scene of Kyle and Wayne together is adorable, as Keaton and Michelle Pfeiffer play off each other marvelously, matching one another awkward mannerism for nervous tic. Yet, the moment their masks are on, they fall neatly into their roles, Batman the stoic but intrigued mystery man, Catwoman the seductive dominatrix. Their fights have a sexual energy to them that crackles outward through the entire rest of the film, enlivening what is ultimately a convoluted script that rushes through too many setpieces for its two-hour running time, and would have dragged badly without their chemistry.

And yes, Pfeiffer gnaws on the scenery whenever she has the catsuit on, but that’s the point; the performativity of it is completely in-character. Selina is being herself for the first time as Catwoman, and who she really is turns out to be a massive ham. Like the film itself, she is paradoxically at her most sincere when she is at her most theatrical.

But the carnival cannot stay forever, at least according to Batman Returns. Everything begins to fall apart, starting with the unraveling of Cobblepot’s campaign for mayor and his return to the sewers. The low can take the place of the high for a time, but sooner or later some defender of the social order is going to shove it back into place. Selina Kyle becomes increasingly unhinged and out of control after the Penguin kills her, because without the social order to define her, she no longer knows who she is. It is of course Batman who offers to tell her.

This is yet another way he parallels Kyle: they both have a dominant streak they can only express by putting on a mask, creating distance so it can become socially acceptable. For Catwoman it’s clearly a sexual desire; her powerlessness and loneliness are equated before her first death, and so once she becomes Catwoman sex, companionship, and power intertwine for her. Batman, however, is repeatedly put in the position of being sexually submissive; she pins him to the ground and licks his face, strokes his chest before stabbing it with a needle, taunts and teases.

His need to dominate instead expresses itself through his drive to restore the social order. It expresses itself in his insistence to Catwoman near the end of the film that Schreck should go to jail, even though she correctly notes that men like him are perfectly capable of buying their way back out. Batman’s role becomes clear as the difference between him and Catwoman emerges: she is willing to use the tools of carnival and the grotesque, theatricality and violence, to destroy those elements of the social order which are corrupt. Batman cannot do that; his role is to maintain the social order, and therefore he cannot deal with those whose power and abuse is an ingrained part of that order. Criminals he can fight, but not capitalists–after all, he is one.

But then, it shouldn’t be any surprise that Batman is both driven to dominate and an agent of the social order. The protector fantasy, after all, is fundamentally a submissive one–a desire not to have to take responsibility for our own well-being, because someone else has it covered. And the grotesque frightens even as it fascinates; it is dangerous, part of what we fantasize about being protected from when we indulge in the protector fantasy. That’s why characters like Catwoman–or, to use an example we’ve covered in BTAS, Poison Ivy–have to be villains, and characters like the Penguin even moreso. Heroes don’t necessarily have to be pretty, but they can’t challenge the status quo of society or the body too much without transitioning from something we want to protect us to something we want to be protected from. For all that she may be intriguing for some, Catwoman is clearly dangerous, and so we dream a Batman to save us from both her and the revolution she represents.

Which leads us at last to an interesting conclusion: the implication of the protector fantasy is that the superhero’s job is always to put the world back where it was. We find ourselves with a new question going forward: What if we want the social order to change? Is there room in the concept of the superhero for meaningful social progress, or does the protector fantasy render it inherently regressive?

That question will take much of the rest of the project to answer.

Sorry this was late! I screwed up the queue again. Because this is up so late, I’m going to skip tomorrow’s post–the next post will be the regularly scheduled Tuesday Captain’s Log Digest.


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