The Batman movies have included some absolute bangers in their soundtracks. Seal’s ‘Kiss From A Rose’ from Batman Forever is an obvious example; U2 showed their dark side in lavish fashion on the same film; The Smashing Pumpkins’s riffy jam for Batman and Robin is an inarguable plus; and we don’t need to qualify Prince’s funkified backdrop to Batman 1989.
Despite this array of talent and tunes, no band has ever been better suited to a vision of Gotham City than Siouxsie and the Banshees on Tim Burton’s decadent dark knight sequel Batman Returns. The group, who were at the forefront of goth culture and post-punk from the late ’70s into the ’90s, joined composer Danny Elfman for tie-in single ‘Face to Face’, an erotic, symphonic cut befitting the DC movie‘s sexual tension.
Siouxsie’s presence is but one facet of the film’s eerie opulence, wherein the Penguin rises from the sewers to take over Gotham as Catwoman begins clawing her way around the city, pushing Bruce Wayne to get political outside the cowl. It’s a Christmas movie that’s majestic and morose, downbeat and ever so slightly debased, and completely and unabashedly gothic.
The whole thing is like a Shakespearean tragedy performed by Cirque Du Soleil. Oswald Cobblepot was born to socialites just like master Bruce, except his parents abandoned him due to his webbed fingers. Forced to live underground, he gradually amasses an army of former circus performers and penguins in order to one day re-insert himself into Gotham’s upper echelons under the pseudonym the Penguin.
He takes his opportunity during a campaign speech by Max Schreck, a corrupt businessman vying to become mayor. The Red Triangle, a misfit gang of trapeze artists and jugglers, wreak havoc in the streets as Max is taken away. Batman intervenes, as he is want to do, but fails to fully contain the maelstrom.
Tim Burton turns Gotham’s Union Square into a big top tent, where the unsuspecting citizens become participants in his glorious sideshow. The dark and dreary metropolis is subsumed by a lawless troupe of murderers and kidnappers who perform at the behest of a ringleader who demands the world be his stage.
The set piece is grand and unrefined, yet there’s a flow and rhythm to it as if the dancers are making a music video for a song only they can hear. Batman plays his part, the batmobile adding to the light show. He saves Selina Kyle, whose day plummets further by her descent into Catwoman once she gets home.
For an action movie about the caped crusader, he’s not in it all that much. Instead, we more closely follow extensions and inversions of his various personalities: Penguin is the need for attention and control; Catwoman is his appetite for vengeance; and Max Schreck is the personification of corporate megalomania.
Bruce Wayne isn’t necessarily the main character, more the calm among the chaos. He’s our anchor through Burton’s salacious examination of the world of Batman as constantly shifting performance art. Gotham is overseen by a benevolent playboy who dresses in a bat costume, stopping crime as therapy to perpetuate an absurd alter-ego.
It’s a platform that just begs for challenge. The Penguin tries to do so entirely through theatrical absurdity, but Max convinces him to take a more solemn approach by stepping into the mayoral race. Catwoman joins him in order to cut down Batman, but Selina Kyle gets in bed with Bruce, literally and figuratively.
Selina, Oswald, and Bruce aren’t that far removed from each other. They’re all balancing their ego and id on a tightrope, trying to curtail various impulses in order to satiate their base desires without ending up completely alone. A romance movie pulses through Batman Returns, but it’s one that can never completely work out because of who these people are to each other. Bruce and Selina attempt to date, but their masked personas are totally at odds.
Burton treats their costumes like a second skin. Oswald and Catwoman are perfectly comfortable conspiring together in drab suits and skintight leather, these outfits clearly most true to who they are. As much comes back to bite Oswald, when Bruce ruins his attempt at office by playing a recording of his dastardly plans, leading Penguin to attempt a biblical plague of killing all Gotham’s firstborn sons.
This is followed by a wave of penguin bombers. In the end, nobody gets what they want. Everyone is left lonely and unfulfilled. Bruce has his real armour on in the car with Alfred in the closing scene, quietly wishing his lifelong confidant merry Christmas. Batman Returns holds festive apathy for those who endure the holidays rather than enjoy them.
The dance it offers is magnificent but fleeting. For a moment, a penguin runs Gotham and a cat tears apart the high street, surrounded by waves of uncouth weirdos in bright singlets. As Siouxsie sings, “Face to face, The passions breathe, I hate to stay, but then I hate to leave”.
Briefly, these heightened heroes and villains find each other in the shadows, but before you know it, the lights are up, and we’re back to the cold grey of the real world. The night never quite lasts long enough, so Batman Returns invites us to dance in the moonlight while we have the chance, among the mistletoe, stray cats, and the occasional penguin.