In Batman, solitary billionaire Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton – Birdman) was inspired to become the famous vigilante crime-fighter after the unavenged death of his parents. After terrorising the criminal underworld, he ended up dropping their killer, Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson – A Few Good Men) into a vat of chemicals. The Joker was born along with a new type of villain. The super villain. Eventually he was defeated (AKA killed), and a relative peace returned to Gotham City.
Until Now (Now being 1992).
In Bastards of Batman we examined the various goons, gangsters and gaudily-clad mega bad guys of the classic 1989 Batman movie. Not only did we chart the cinematic lifespan of these bastards, but there inspiration and creation as well. It’s now time for the Bastards of Batman Returns.
Like any action movie, superhero movies need appropriately deadly or threatening villains to pose such a threat that only the superhero can defeat them. They also have to “up the ante” by proving themselves as even more dastardly than any previous incarnations. The stakes have to be raised.
In Batman Returns, returning director Tim Burton does this via the tried-and-true method of simply adding more bad guys. Instead of the singular Joker, we have the Penguin and Catwoman for Batman to play with. But we’re getting a head of ourselves. Let’s go back to the beginning.
Tucker and Esther Cobblepot are chiefly responsible for the whole mess in Batman Returns. 33 years ago they decided they couldn’t bare to live with their weird son, Oswald, a baby born with flipper-like hands and an unusually cruel and aggressive temperament. Despite his obvious issues, his Penguin-esque resemblance would clearly show them up at the various rich people functions they’d need to attend. And they can’t have that.
So they decide to kill him. Because abandoning him is too risky. He might get found and brought back. Adoption had the same problems. Who’d want a pimply midget appear on your doorstep at 18 to claim your vast Scrooge McDuck-like fortune? No, murder is has to be.
But how do you do it? Most films don’t really delve into child slaying territory, unfortunately, so we’ve got a pretty blank slate. They could do a Genghis and dash his head on a rock, but that’d hardly look like an accident, would it? Dropping him in a frozen river at the Gotham Zoo is far more feasible. They humanely leave him in his crib too, so instead of drowning or freezing, he’ll merely starve to death in the inky black sewers running beneath the city instead. What a kindness.
It’s just a shame they didn’t count on some good-guy penguins to save the day.
We never find out what happened to the Cobblepots. All we know is that they are dead when the Penguin emerges 30+ years later. They lie, seemingly unmourned, in a tiny Gotham cemetery. Did they receive a fitting end to their terrible crime? Who knows, as it’s weirdly not something that’s ever really been explored, even in the comics.
Behind the scenes, Tucker Cobblepot is played by Paul Reubens (Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure). For the uninitiated, Tim Burton made his big screen directorial debut on Pee-Wee’s first movie. If you’ve never seen a Pee-Wee episode or film, imagine a an adult man with an unusual voice wearing a grey suit and red bow-tie. He’s cherubic, innocent and almost child-like. It was huge in American, and I vaguely remember being freaked out by it (the voice especially) on Nickelodeon as a kid.
Equally, Diane Salinger as Esther Cobblepot was another character on Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. While neither character has any lines (save for saving “Merry Christmas” to another family at Gotham Zoo), giving them these roles is clearly a nod or thank you for helping launching Burton’s career in 1985.
Salinger would go on to do mainly TV work, while Reuben’s would be caught jacking off in a porn theater in ’91. Maybe doing Batman Returns was as much a favour for Reubens, who was trying to get back on the straight and narrow? Ironically, in 2015 he’d go on to star as the Penguin’s father again, only this time in the totally rubbish Batman prequel series, Gotham.
Max Shrek, as the Mayor describes, is the chief mover-and-shaker of Gotham. He’s got enough employees to swing the voting on any major political issue and the wealth to back it up. He owns the Shrek department store in Gotham, which sells everything from perfume, to bull whips and fire arms. The smiley-faced Felix-like cat is his brand logo, though he seemingly has no apparent affinity for felines, instead having his fave dog, Heraldo, stuffed for posterity in his office.
Going back it would seem he was raised as a poor child, who by his own admission “got lucky”. He was involved in early business dealings with a partner called Fred Atkins whom it’s implied Max had murdered. Likely he was some doltish money person who served his purpose. Equally, Max references a wife. He lovingly remarks to his son, Chip, “nothing suprises me, except your late Mother”. You can really feel the love.
What we do know for sure is that Max covets money and power, so much so that he wants to build a brand new power plant right here in Gotham. Who cares that Gotham already has a power surplus, Shrek wants more. He literally wants more power. Can you get more villainous than that.
He feels he can strong-arm anyone, using either his political connections or vast wealth to cover up any wrong-doings. When his assistant, Selina Kyle, accidentally discovers the power station plan is actually a cover-up scheme for a giant power sucking device, he doesn’t hesitate in shoving her out a window to her apparent death.
But he’s not a gangster-turned-businessman. He doesn’t have any real criminal connections until he’s blackmailed into the services of the Penguin. And even then, he see’s the Penguin as a tool for his own gains, positioning him as a political pawn. It’s only when Batman out-maneuvers Penguin that Shrek severs ties (with a shrug of the shoulders, no less) with his “business partner”.
As revenge, Penguin attacks Shrek’s lavish Christmas party, The Maxquerade Ball. In a moment of unusual compassion, he begs Penguin that he takes him instead of Chip. This compassion ultimately leads to him being killed in the Penguin’s subterranean lair beneath the Gotham Zoo. Discovering that Bruce Wayne is in fact Batman, and Selina Kyle is Catwoman, he shoots both. But he doesn’t have enough bullets to finish the job, and Kyle ends up snogging him via the medium of electrical tazer. He’s memorably found, sans facial flesh.
Similar to the Penguin, Shrek is a shadowy reflection of Bruce Wayne. He’s the evil business tycoon who uses his money for personal interests only. In fact he seems a bit bitter and jealous of Bruce, making plenty of off-hand remarks about him and the Penguin having privileged backgrounds. Loads of shitty comments about silver spoons and prep schools etc.
The power station plot, along with plan to get Penguin into city hall, are all facilitated out of a love for Chip, however. And this is a quality that not only gets Max killed, but sets him apart from the other supervillains in Batman Returns. The Penguin has no such sympathies or weakness. “Gotham’s very own Santa Claus”, as the Mayor once called him, seemingly does have a limit and indeed a heart.
Max Shrek, similar to Carl Grissom (Jack Palance) in Batman, was created purely for the films, and was not a character lifted from the comic book. He’d originally been intended to be Harvey Dent (Aka – Two-Face). According to writer Daniel Waters, the explosion at the end of the film was only supposed to scar Dent, which would then lead to him becoming Two-Face and set up the third film. But Billy Dee Williams (Empire Strikes Back) who’d played Harvey in the ’89 film pulled out of the sequel, so they scrapped that idea and went with a new character altogether. Billy Dee would eventually return to the character twenty seven years later in The Lego Batman Movie.
To be fair greedy tycoons was hardly a new thing in Hollywood; Shrek is both comparable in name and motive to the likes of another classic business movie bastard: Gordon Gecko in Wall Street. However, it’s likely Max Shrek was actually named after the German actor Max Shreck who played Count Orlock in the 1922 film, Nosferatu. This along with other German expressionist work was a key influence on Tim Burton’s art style.
As legend has it, David Bowie was initially offered the role of Max Shrek, but Christopher Walken was ultimately cast. Bowie appeared instead in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. This was Walken’s second time at playing a bad guy called Max, with him famously gunning down legions of dudes as Max Zorin in ’85’s Bond romp, A View To A Kill. He’d later team up with Burton once again, as the headless Hessian horsemen in Sleepy Hollow.
Red Triangle Circus Gang
Unlike Batman’s original outing, which featured generic rank-and-file goons in pretty bland outfits (with the exception of the mime-act bit), Batman Returns goes all out with a wild variety of Joe Blow baddies for Bat’s to smack around. We’ve got bikers wearing giant skull masks, sword-swallowers, fire-breathers, and all sorts of clowns.
In terms of the actual gang, we only get a little bit of back story. Early on, after their first attack, Commissioner Gordon moans that the “Circus gang are back”. Batman is less convinced. “We’ll see”. I bet Commissioner Gordon was totally all “I told you so – I’m not just an idiot in with a badge” when the gang manage to sabotage the batmobile and frame Bat’s for murder.
What we do know of their backstory is pieced together from newspaper clippings. Apparently they were a famed circus which visited Gotham once before. It featured the usual circus freak show fair; a poodle-lady, the world’s fattest man and an aquatic bird boy (guess who). After reports of children going missing around the circus, the cops closed it down, but one performer vanished before he could be questioned (again, guess who).
Notable characters within the gang include:
The Organ Grinder – Played by the great Vincent Schiavelli, who actually appeared alongside both Jack Nicholson and Danny DeVito in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, this dude is the Penguin’s chief whip. Effectively, he’s “Bob” like in the ’89 version, being the main lieutenant. His gimmick is that he has a trickster/thief monkey and a hand-cranked street organ which contained a hidden mini-gatling gun.
The Poodle Lady – This non-smiling blondey employs a small poodle (hence the name) to carry out various criminal acts. Such shit as giving it grenades to drop in buildings. It also manages to pluck one of Batman’s batarangs out of the air mid-flight, so both she and the poodle clearly must have a deep military background. This proves instrumental in framing him for the murder of the snow princess later on.
Tattooed Bald Guy Who Isn’t Bam-Bam Bigelow – Seriously, until researching for this article, I was sure this dude was Bam Bam Bigelow, the classic WWF wrestler with flame tatt’s all over his head. Unfortunately I was both wrong and saddened to learn that Bam Bam bit the dust in 2007. The character is actually portrayed by Rick Zumwalt (Over the Top), and is killed by Batman after the masked vigilante deposits some dynamite down his pants. Seriously.
The Fat Clown & The Thin Clown – These two bastards usually appear together, and their makeup and costume is identical across both characters. Seemingly the Thin Clown is the smart one, sabotaging the Batmobile. Conversely, the Fat Clown is the well-meaning idiot who see’s it as a good idea to question Penguin’s evil plan. He thinks kidnapping loads of children and drowning them in industrial waste is a bit much. The Penguin shoots him for the implied insubordination. Rolled out into the sewer water to decompose, Shrek will later find his discarded revolver and use it plug both Batman and Catwoman. See, he was handy after all. Back to the Thin Clown, he was actually Doug Jones’ (The Shape of Water) first major Hollywood movie. And he was barely in makeup at all. All downhill from there then Doug?
Sword-Swallowing Goon – This guy literally does nothing in the film, but I vividly remember in the Batman Returns SNES game that if you punched the Sword Swallower before he whips out his sword, you killed him instantly. See, they even captured Batman’s lust for blood in the games too
Penguin (Oswald Cobblepot)
As Max Shrek continually reminds Bruce Wayne, if things had been different him and young Oswald/Penguin could have been bunkys at prep school. The idea is that both Batman and Penguin are the result of something bad happening to them as kids, with one choosing the life of evil and the other the life of good. However, it’s not as simple as that.
First, Bruce Wayne was not thrown down a sewer by his parents like some used condom. But then I guess the Wayne’s had their perfect little son, not some three fingered mutant out of the scarred, nightmarish dreams of David Cronenberg.
Being abandoned, feared and hated developed a fine sense of self-loathing during the 30+ years he was down there, which he embodies in his thirst for revenge. So is the Penguin a product of his tragic upbringing (or lack thereof), or was he always a monster? Burton suggests that his crazed, homicidal tendencies were always there in the scene where baby Oswald murders the house cat. Thinking about it now, is this fore-shadowing his relationship with Catwoman? Regardless, being forced to grow up in a sewer among penguins and then later circus freaks probably didn’t do his already fragile sanity many favours.
However, this madness is tempered with an intellect. He has the brains and the stones to start working on Max Shrek, accumulating evidence about his shadowy deeds. That kind of thing takes weeks and with it, patience. Second, he plays Max, using him to gain access to the public records with the sob story of him wanting to know who he really he is. Finding out his parents were rich pricks was just icing on the cake.
In truth he wants access to the records so he can make a list of all the first born wealthy sons of Gotham. So he can kill them. But Shrek knows nothing of this. In fact, no one does. His circus brethren only go along with him when he kills Fat Clown for questioning the master plan. They probably didn’t want to get into the child murdering business. They were probably more interested in making a fast buck.
He’s clever enough to change his plans for Batman too. Originally intending to blow up the batmobile, Catwoman suggest this would make the vigilante a martyr. The Penguin agrees, and instead turns the batmobile into a giant remote controlled-car. He even has a rad arcade machine built so he can control it. This, along with using a salvaged batarang as planted evidence, paints Batman as a bastard.
Compare this to the Joker, who sort of had a plan, but that was literally to kill as many people as he could. He lures his victims to a street party by literally throwing money at them before gassing them to death. The Penguin’s plan is far more nuanced, fitting and evil. All that shit about him becoming Mayor isn’t part of the master scheme. That was Shrek’s idea, and clogs up far too much of the plot in my opinion. When that side of it goes wrong, yeah he’s wounded. It’s rejection, again, and he goes a bit mad. But the plan is still there for him to carry out.
Oh, did I mention that phase two of the master plan involved using Penguins as missile launches for an all-out rocket strike on Gotham? No, well yeah he plans to do that too.
Ever the tech wizard, Batman manages stick his nose in, an alters the coordinates, forcing the penguins to fire on the zoo instead. Who gives a shit about the actual visitors, animals, or grounds keepers still in attendance. Batman certainly doesn’t.
Super pissed he’s foiled both his carefully laid plans (I imagine fitting a harness and rocket to a penguin is a pain in the ass), Oswald attacks Batman directly. Not wanting to come off more of a dick, Batman summons a horde of bats to herd Penguin through a glass window, dropping him down into the industrial sewage he’d planned to bathe the kiddies in earlier.
He emerges one last time to throw some shade at Batman, before expiring, green crud spewing from his mouth and nose. His friends, the penguins, flock around him, ushering his body back into the water thinking that is where he came from. As Danny Elfman’s score swells, it’s actually a pretty sad moment.
Similar to the Joker, the origin of the Penguin in Batman Returns diverges from the source material. In the comics he’s not a deformed weirdo with murder complexes and sexual fetishes. Well he might have those things (I mean, who doesn’t), but he is far more reserved about them. He is small, yes, but is more the businessman type, and not so much the super villain like Joker or Two-Face.
He’s more of a facilitator, the type with his fingers (flippers?) in many different illegal pies. His clothing was totally different too, with comic Penguin classically wearing a bow-tie and contemporary suits, with finely cut short hair. He’d typically wear a monocle too. The Penguin in Batman Returns looks like a Victorian man raised in the sewer, with scraggly hair, palid skin, uneven and blackened teeth, and crusty, mouldy clothes.
It was writer Daniel Waters who came up with these changes for the film, with a twisted take on the Moses story. However, there was a lot of disagreement between original writer Sam Hamm, and Wesley Strick (Doom) was brought on to do a rewrite. He claims that the Penguin’s original plan was to freeze Gotham (a totally lame idea they’d recycle for the fourth film ironically). What everyone did choose to stick with was Penguins use of the umbrella as his chief weapon. And Batman Returns features a slew of specially designed Umbrella gizmos including a helicopter umbrella, mesmer-umbrella, knife umbrella and machine gun umbrella. But my fave toy of his has to be the amphibious giant duck vehicle he drives. It even has a build in chair lift. What craftsmanship!.
Regardless of the issues with the writing, Waters always intended the role for Danny DeVito. “I kind of knew that DeVito was going to play The Penguin. We didn’t really officially cast it, but for a short nasty little guy, it’s a short list. I ended up writing the character for Danny DeVito.” Kind words. However, legend has it that Dustin Hoffman was the studio’s first choice. He declined.
While this wasn’t his first time up to bat as a villain (he was a right shit in Romancing the Stone), his incredible performance is certainly memorable. I think mixing him in with Catwoman, Shrek and a weak middle-section of the film really dilutes the impact of his performance however. If he’d flown solo, we’d likely be gushing over him like we do Ledger or Nicholson. Do yourself a favour, reader, the next time you have such a conversation, mention Danny DeVito. He’s earned your respect.
Catwoman (Selina Kyle)
When Max Shrek pushes his dizzy assistant Selina Kyle out of a really high window, it comes as a suprise to everyone that she’s resurrected by an amassed gang of alley cats. The fact that they somehow impart her with martial skill, comparable to our boy Batman, is something else that comes out of left field. All it costs is her sanity.
Ransacking her bedsit, she fashions a literal catsuit from an old latex jacket. Similar to Batman, she begins a nightly quest, first taking out some mugger. But she’s not doing this altruistically; she messes with the mugging victim too, claiming the stupid bitch was merely waiting to be saved by Batman. She goes on a crime rampage herself, primarily focused on messing with Shrek. She destroys his department store before joining forces with Catwoman. When she rejects his physical advances he tries to kill her. Attaching her to his heli-umbrella, she flies off into the sky “like a princess”. Thankfully she manages to sever the noose around her neck, and she drops into a glass house far below.
Sick of Shrek and co. always coming out on top when they they should be six feet under, she re-emerges at the Maxquerade ball. Confiding with Bruce that she wants to kill her former boss, they both deduce the other’s secret identity. But he can’t talk her out of her revenge plans. It’s only the sudden appearance of Penguin and the Red Triangle Gang that foils her immediate scheme of shooting him with a hold out pistol.
At the climax Batman removes his cowl to try and pacify her. “We’re the same” he argues. I sort of get it. They’re both chained to this dual-lifestyle, forced into black latex through tragedy they had no control over. They’re both certainly mental, but Selina is much more damaged. Bruce has had a lifetime to process the death of his parents, whereas Selina was only recently betrayed and “killed”. Being Catwoman may have given her self confidence, but it doesn’t help the underlying feelings of worthlessness. As Tim Burton describes, “She’s a woman in a man’s world”. Last century thinking, but hey, it was last century.
Ultimately she recoils from Bruce, fearing she’d ruin everything any way. “I just couldn’t live with myself!” she argues, emerging at the end to finally finish off Max, disappearing into the charred wreckage of the Penguin’s destroyed lair. However, she has one of her “lives” left. Would she be returning, much like our boy Batman in a future film? Yes and no.
Michelle Pfeiffer was not the first person to be cast as Selina Kyle/Catwoman. The Scarface actress only got the call after original choice, Annette Bening (American Beauty) became pregnant. Still, she beat out a whole menagerie of hot Hollywood lady talent, including the likes of badasses Jodie Foster (Silence of the Lambs) and Sigourney Weaver (Ghostbusters).
She underwent months of vigorous training, training in kickboxing, karate, as well as doing weight training and learning how to properly crack a whip. Taught by cinema stunt man legend, Anthony De Longis (Masters of the Universe), she accidentally caught him in the face on the first day of filming. Thankfully, Anthony didn’t bring it to the attention of anyone, so the shoot continued with Pfeiffer performing all her own whip stunts.
In terms of design, Tim Burton had originally envisioned a black, stuffed cat with it’s stitches coming away from the seams. Created from a body cast of Pfeiffer, the form-fitting catsuit was fashioned from silicone latex, with the stitching painted on. As it disintegrated and ripped so easily, about 60 different suits were made for the shoot, each costing about a grand a piece. It was so tight, that she had to be covered in Talcum powder before she could be squeezed into it, and she’d only take it off for a toilet break. Now that is dedication.
Thankfully, it really lends to her fantastic performance. Her sultry appearance, coupled with her feline acting, seals the deal. In fact, she really plays two roles – that of the prowling badass and her weak, self-conscious alter ego. Perhaps this is why she gets so much credit (deserved as it is) for the role. DeVito’s Penguin, on the other hand, is 100 miles per hour all the time, whereas Pfeiffer can be a bit more nuanced. It’s interesting see the character disintegrate into insanity over the course of the movie. Looking into reflections and wondering out loud “Why are you doing this”, she sort of parallels Batman’s own doubts.
Diehard comic book nerds might be displeased with this incarnation of the classic character. Catwoman from the comics was always sure of who she was. The quintessential cat burglar from humble beginnings, she was certainly often at odds with Batman. However, she was never crazy or evil, and she was as much an ally to the caped crusader as she was a villain.
Personally, I never liked the whole supernatural element of the movie. While I could forgive her “creation”, the idea she had nine lives was just too convenient for me. Cats don’t actually have nine lives, you realize? However, Pfeiffer was my first on-screen crush for this role alone, and she can’t be held responsible for questionable choices made in the writing. Anne Hathaway’s portrayal in The Dark Knight Rises may be a more “true” reflection of the character, but I still think it’s Pfeiffer’s Catwoman which will turn heads.
Originally intended to die at the end of the film, the studios were suitably impressed by Pfeiffer and the positive reaction she was getting in the press, so they decided to tack on a stinger that teased a potential sequel. Unfortunately, both Tim Burton, Michelle Pfeiffer and writer Daniel Waters (who turned in the first draft of what would become Catwoman) would all move on to different projects. The idea would linger in development hell until 2004, when Halle Berry (Swordfish) would star as the titular feline thief. It is widely considered one of the worst films of all time.
Bonus Bastard – Batman
Old Bat’s is up to his usual tricks. Like in the original, Batman still doesn’t seem to have any concerns about the damage he inflicts on any of his victims. This runs the whole violent gamut from mild beatdowns to full on murdering. He chiefly slays the Circus Gang goons in various and ever-more creative ways. For example, for the Fire-Breathing criminal, he swings the Batmobile around and incinerates him (and a nearby shop) with the turbo booster on the back. Later, with two gang members on the hood of his beloved car, he brakes suddenly, catapulting them into the burning window. He clearly remembered, with great relish, no doubt, his earlier handiwork.
How about Big Tattooed Bald Guy baddie? Well, earlier in the conflict with some other circus bastards, he steals a wad of dynamite hooked up to a ticking alarm clock. Faced off with the Big Guy, Batman is challenged “Go on, hit me”. Batman smacks him to little effect. The big guy smiles. But then he notices Batman grinning maniacally and looking down at Big Guy’s crotch. You guessed it, the dynamite is inserted in his belt. Batman then smacks him again, and Judo tosses him into a nearby manhole. Moments later there is an explosion. Batman doesn’t even turn around to check if he lived or died.
Like in ’89, Batman has a tendency to drop people from great heights too. While Bale Batman did it in both The Dark Knight and Batman Begins, he at least takes the time to ensure whomever it is was either not too high up or tethered to his bat-rope. Not in Batman or Batman Returns. First, when Catwoman is feeling him up on some ledge, she playfully sticks him with one of her claws. In retaliation he punches her off the roof. Luckily she survives by landing in a passing truck filled with sand (she describes it as kitty litter). She’s lucky to be alive. She was only being cat-like too. Seriously, have you ever owned or been near a cat. They do that mental, bipolar shit all the time.
Later, when facing off against the Penguin, he sets some caged up bats on him. Handy he had those little pricks. No idea how he got them inside his Bat-Ski thing. Or how long they’d been in there. Do you think PETA might be interested (before you crazy freaks comment, they were all CGI)? Any way, the bats scare the bejesus out of Penguin who stumbles and falls through a nearby window, this time plunging into the watery sewer 50 feet below. I mean come on, doesn’t Batman already have a huge advantage over the Penguin already? You know, by being two feet taller, trained in martial arts and covered in body armour?
Attaching the Joker’s leg to a gargoyle thus forcing him to plunge to his doom was one thing, but now he’s doing it to Selina Kyle and Penguin too. Maybe he’s mentally writing it off. Like it’s not him, technically, killing them. It’s gravity, right? Bale does this in Batman Begins when he refuses to save Liam Neeson from an inevitable train wreck. But somehow I think Keaton Batman was always just a little more unhinged than any of the following iterations. Who knows how he’d have killed Two-Face in the proposed sequel (he too actually dies by falling down a pit after Batman makes him loose his balance). What a bastard.