Part two of Sasha’s Tim Burton Takes Toronto examines the director’s late 80s and early 90s work: Batman, Edward Scissorhands and Batman Returns.
From 7 p.m. on Friday, November 26 to some ungodly hour on the morning of Sunday, November 28th, Torontonians were invited to TIFF Bell Lightbox to screen the entirety of Tim Burton’s filmography (excluding the two shorts Frankenweenie and Vincent). This was in celebration of the Burton exhibit coming to town, which was first curated by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. For some, myself included, the prospect of sitting through sixteen feature films by Burton was intriguing — a Burton Blitz of sorts. Others might call it “Hell on Earth”.
You can read part one of Tim Burton Takes Toronto here.
It’s Batman, people. You all know the drill. Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) witnesses his parents’ brutal murder after having to attend an opera at the tender age of eight. (What’s the deal with them bringing him there, anyway?) He grows up under the careful eye of the family manservant, holding onto the memory of his parents’ murder “like a fat kid holding a pie,” as Jeffrey likes to say, and becomes the vigilante crime fighter we all know and love — The Batman or, if you will, The Caped Crusader, The Dark Knight, The World’s Greatest Detective, etc. Take your pick.
Even though I have quite a lot of affection for Tim Burton’s Batman, it is very difficult to watch the film after adopting Christopher Nolan’s films as the height of Caped Crusader storytelling. Let’s take the Joker, for example: In Burton’s Batman, The Joker (Jack Nicholson) is a “legitimate” businessman named Jack who gets involved in shady deals and during a break-in ends up being accidentally knocked into a vat of chemicals by Batman. His vendetta against Batman, therefore, is somewhat plausible and, for that reason, not so terrifying. In contrast, Christopher Nolan’s Joker (Heath Ledger) destroys the city of Gotham and the sanity of Batman just for kicks — and that in and of itself is blood-curdling.
I know it’s an old habit by now to compare the Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan eras of Batman, but it’s difficult not to. When you see Batman’s backstory so well-written and -acted — as we did in Batman Begins — you feel kind of jilted watching Batman when his origin story is told in thirty seconds as an off-hand comment by a secondary character. (Yes, I think Christian Bale is the perfect Batman. What of it, nerds?) Also, having the Joker be the murderer of Bruce Wayne’s parents is a little too clean-cut for my liking and sort of ruins the relationship between the Joker and Batman.
But I need to share something hilarious with you before I forget: When Vicky Vale (Kim Basinger) is brought to the Batcave for the first time, there is a suggestion that Batman has his way with her. You need to watch this scene again with this possibility in mind. Batman says that “he wants something” from Vicky and then there’s a sweep of the frame with his cape. Vicky Vale then wakes up in her apartment and grasps her breast in a way that suggests Batman removed her bra while taking the 1990s-version of a USB key. The rest of the film’s depiction of their relationship can completely be skewered toward a post-rape situation, where Vicky Vale was dosed with roofies and doesn’t remember a thing.
Oh, and the non-Elfman soundtrack was horrifying in its excessive use of Prince and the presence of boom-boxes. May the 90s never resurface — except for (maybe) the hideous outfits in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. They are hilariously awesome.
For all three of my readers who still give a shit about Lost, [slight spoilers] something dawned on me during this screening of Batman. You know the scene on the beach when Locke and Ben talk about killing Jacob, and Benjamin says, “I’m a Pisces”? That was hilarious, yes, but it actually has origins in Batman that I didn’t know of until last week. In the film, someone asks the Joker, “Are you insane?” and he replies with “I thought I was a Pisces.”
Edward Scissorhands (1990)
Edward Scissorhands is the most “Burtonesque” of all Tim Burton’s original scripts — a disfigured and misunderstood outsider named Edward (Johnny Depp, in his first Tim Burton film) is brought into the suffocatingly-normal world of suburbia, and things end tragically in a beautifully snow-filled monochrome. Oh, and Edward has scissors instead of hands. Did I forget to mention that?
It is a pretty reliable indication of an delightful film when, in its first scene, the Avon lady comes a-calling to the gigantic, Gothic mansion on the top of an mountain in a small town of otherwise suburban pastels and gossipy housewives. Much like in Beetlejuice, this is a story of the “suburban nightmare” — but this time it’s taken to the extremes that only Mr. Burton can achieve.
It occurred to me during Edward Scissorhands that, even though I’ve seen the film numerous times, I never once asked why they didn’t just weld off the scissors from Edward’s hands. This defeats the purpose of the story, yes, but it was surprising and telling that I’ve never thought of this possibility before. My complete ignorance of reality during each screening is an exemplary signifier of the film’s strength as a fairy-tale — and a well-conceived, emotionally-realistic one at that. The exaggerated juxtaposition of the bizarre and the routine is used to extraordinary ends, making Edward Scissorhands, in my personal opinion, Tim Burton’s most-successful original script.
Unfortunately, I had to skip out on the last twenty minutes of the film so that I could reacquint myself with some semblance of light. I already spent six or seven hours in the theatre and was turning into something of a vampire. But I was able to catch one of my favourite moments before I ducked outside to grab a chocolate bar. When Edward and the group of teenagers rob Jim’s (the almost-unrecognizable Anthony Michael Hall) house, Johnny Depp’s portrayal of out-right innocence is gut-wrenching as you watch Jim take advantage of him. Edward asks, “Did this person steal from you?” to which Jim responds in the affirmative. In his quietly-charming way, Edward then inquires, “Why don’t you go to his parents to give it back?” I think my heart just broke.
Batman Returns (1992)
It’s the second Tim Burton Batman film. Yes, Batman was a enjoyable reevaluation of the legendary tale of the Caped Crusader, even if it does have its flaws. So, it isn’t a stretch to expect a little more out of its sequel, with Burton given more creative control, is it? Well, you may be sorely disappointed.
It is not a firmly-guarded secret that I somewhat loathe Batman Returns. When the word “Batman” is in your film’s title, you shouldn’t let forty minutes of the film go by before Bruce Wayne even gets a line of dialogue. I am serious. There are only two cuts to Batman/Bruce in the film’s first forty minutes, and he doesn’t speak until the second one. The lack of emphasis on Batman/Bruce — that is so beautifully realized in the Christopher Nolan franchise — is the first sign of a lamentable script.
Well, that and the story. There is almost no plot development beyond the premise of Batman Returns. Basically, a corrupt businessman (Christopher Walken) and a deformed penguin-man (Danny DeVito) band together to “take over the city” by running for mayor. Batman here is little more than an inconvenience. There is also a woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) who becomes possessed by a feline demeanor — how in the hell, no one knows — and she’s apparently good but Batman thinks she’s bad and, well, vice-versa.
That’s an alright start for a film, Tim, but you could have made something happen besides a couple chases through Gotham (with vehicles and without) and lot of sexual innuendo. And what about character development? Michelle Pfeiffer’s turn as Catwoman is completely dependent on female stereotypes and, most often, these are negative and sexist stereotypes.
What does occur in Batman Returns would probably be enough for most comic adaptations but, people, this is the Batman — with an incredible wealth of engaging story-lines and the most terrifying rogues gallery of them all. So, it’s not quite the source material’s fault for the piss-poor narrative, is it?
To add fuel to the fire, Danny Elfman’s score is overbearing and hugely reminisent of the soon-to-come score of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Thankfully, however, there is a distinct lack of Prince pop songs and, for that, I am incredibly thankful.
Next time on Tim Burton Takes Toronto…
The last leg of the Burton Blitz for Sasha is the “animation detour” that is James and the Giant Peach and The Nightmare before Christmas She would have watched a couple more films, but then a few people probably would have died in the process.
Want to read more from Sasha?
Well, she’s got a website called The Final Girl Project and has a Twitter account to which she is addicted. Also, she and Jeff are organizing a special director-focused series that will be published on Dork Shelf in the near future.