Perfect film for the first Trump Christmas? Batman Returns
A moneybags narcissist with a New York accent and strange hair. Sound familiar?
Played by Christopher Walken, business mogul Max Shreck in Batman Returns speaks in a weird, New York accent, and has weird, puffy hair. Sound familiar?
This Christmas will be the first of the Trump presidency. Even having to type ‘the Trump presidency’ there just took all the holly out of my jolly. How could obvious villains have been handed the keys to the executive kingdom? Yes, the American election day this November had some heartening outcomes, and yes, the resistance is real. But will the world’s faith in Americans, in humanity, ever really be patched up? I’m not convinced. Some elections stay on your permanent record. Just ask the Germans.
But now is the season for celebrating light in times of darkness, and for enjoying special treats. So this year, why not take a short escape into a funny, freaky, gothic Christmas tale? One set in a world where, though there is real violence and structural injustice, evil doesn’t get the voter mandate. A film called ‘Batman Returns’, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, yet is worryingly more relevant than ever before.
The film opens with a meeting in the main office of Max Shreck. We know it’s his office because his name is plastered across the outside of the building in huge letters. Batman Wiki describes Shreck as “a powerful, malignant, narcissist, as well as ruthless business mogul”. Played by Christopher Walken, he speaks in a weird, New York accent, and has weird, puffy hair. The meeting is to try to sell the mayor of Gotham on a big power plant that Shreck’s designed. (How a guy running a department store has made the jump to major industrial projects is mysterious, but we roll with it.) When the mayor isn’t keen on the project, Shreck casually threatens to make his numerous Shreck Industries employees sign a petition that would force a recall on the mayor’s election. Minutes later, at a tree lighting ceremony, the mayor warmly introduces Shreck to the masses as “Gotham’s own Santa Claus.” That’s politics.
This uncomfortable relationship between money and power runs throughout the heart of this film. When a gang of evil circus folk descend on the tree lighting, they say that they’ve come for “The one who runs the show.” When the mayor dutifully steps forward, they slug him, and say, “Not you. Shreck.” These guys know that the people who ‘run the show’ aren’t politicians, but people with money. Shreck knows this, too. In a meeting with Bruce Wayne (played by Michael Keaton), to discuss investment in Shreck’s power plant, Bruce tells Shreck he doesn’t see any reason for a new plant when Gotham currently has a power surplus. Shreck replies, “Power surplus? Bruce. Shame on you. No such thing. One can never have to much power. If my life has a meaning, that’s the meaning.”
So, Shreck is a malignant narcissist bully megalomaniac with weird hair and no respect for democratic institutions. To many folks these day, that might sound like great material for political office. Yet while Shreck does want to push politics in favor of his business ventures, he has no intention of running for office himself. Maybe he thinks so poorly of politics that he can’t be bothered. Or perhaps the idea of a business tycoon with zero political credentials jumping into politics seemed too outlandish when the film debuted back in 1992 – perhaps the times we’re living in now are more ridiculous than even the logic of a comic book universe can accommodate.
Instead, Shreck teams up with the Penguin (played by Danny DeVito in gloriously grotesque makeup). Penguin has spent most of his life hiding in the sewers under Gotham, so he and Shreck stage a variety of publicity events to introduce him to the world. Reporters go crazy for the Penguin’s story; how his parents abandoned him as an infant, how he dramatically forgives them at their grave, how he ‘saves’ the mayor’s baby (from one of his own henchmen), how he’s now good friends with the supposedly-upstanding citizen Max Shreck. The press eat it all up, and regurgitate it to the public without hesitation.
And the public, in turn, go mad for the Penguin. Several scenes show Gotham’s citizens buying newspapers with Penguin headlines, reading the latest Penguin news to each other, watching him on TV, and cheering for him in public. The media does such a good job of broadcasting Shreck’s phony portrayal of Penguin and enthralling the public that within a few weeks, Shreck feels ready to launch Penguin as a mayoral candidate, and starts maneuvering for that recall. A guy with flipper hands and long, greasy hair, who has been living in a sewer, and walks around devouring raw fish in his long underwear, seems like a long-shot for mayor. But he’s certainly what we’d now call an ‘outsider’ or a ‘maverick’, and in a time of violence on the streets and uncertainty amongst citizens, I guess that is what many people – and the press – are interested in.
But this isn’t just a story about shady, macho power struggles. It’s also a story about how unrelenting sexism will drive you insane – that is, if it doesn’t just kill you. This slice of the story is told from the perspective of Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman (played by Michelle Pfeiffer). Unfortunately, Selina is the only active, named female character in the whole film, so it completely and utterly fails the Bechdel Test (and like all Tim Burton films, the cast is as white as the Hitler Youth in February). But she is the only character that has real depth, and the only one that goes through a real transformation. Her story of suffering and revenge is the most complete of all the characters, and forms the emotional core of the whole tale.
When the film begins, Selina has just started working as Shreck’s new secretary. She wears glasses, serves coffee, and when she is ridiculed for trying to speak in a room full of businessmen, she blames herself for her humiliation, referring to herself as a “stupid corndog”. Virtually every surface of her crappy studio apartment is pinkish, and covered in stuffed animals, knick knacks, and even a dollhouse. Her answering machine is full of messages from a criticizing mother, an ineffectual romantic interest, and reminders from herself about work. Over the sounds of trains trundling past her window, she argues with her cat about whether or not she is pathetic (if you’re debating it with your cat, the answer is probably ‘yes’). In spite of the fact that she’s so beautiful it almost hurts to look at her, she still manages to come across as the young everywoman. A character with whom anyone who’s ever tried to hold their own in the big city or the heartless corporate world – male or female – can relate.
And it truly is a heartless environment that she finds herself in. When Selina tries to speak in a meeting, Shreck says, “I’m afraid we haven’t properly house-broken Ms. Kyle.” When Shreck forgets his speech for the tree lighting, he tells his son, “Remind me to take it out on what’s-her-name.” When Selina tries to take the speech to Shreck, she is attacked by a large male clown who holds a Taser to her head. Then, when she goes back to the office after hours to prepare for an upcoming meeting, she accidentally discovers a dirty secret in her boss’s files. Shreck sneaks up behind her while she’s reading, and we get the impression that he’s going to sexually assault her; instead, he pushes her out the window, and we see her fall floor after floor to the snowy street below. Most of us will, thankfully, never be literally thrown out a window by our boss, but we know what it’s like to report to people who terrify us, who have the ability to destroy our careers and lives without a second thought.
Luckily, this film steals one piece of plot logic from the world of fairytales: kindness to animals is rewarded. Selina’s semi-feral cat, who she fed a couple scenes earlier, discovers Selina, and leads a pack of other roaming cats in chomping all over Selina’s bluish, seemingly dead body, until she miraculously wakes up. With barely a scratch on her flawless skin, she zombie-walks herself home, kitty in tow. She’s still processing what’s happened to her, when a perfume advertisement on her answering machine promises her that if she buys their product, her boss will invite her to stay after work for “a candlelit meeting for two.” Here, we see our heroine finally, completely lose her shit. She destroys everything in her apartment, and makes herself a cat costume. From here on out, she has two new personas. By day, she is now a sassy woman with a sassy mouth and sassy perm, who obviously doesn’t wear glasses anymore. By night, she is a cat-woman who beats up would-be rapists, blows up her boss’s property, and somehow does advanced gymnastics in stilettos.
Unfortunately, even though she’s joined the world of freaks and baddies, she’s still not taken seriously. Again, she’s basically the only woman we see actually doing anything in Gotham, and while the men before just saw her as a mousey drudge (I mean, glasses, right?), they now just see her as a sex object. The cops who find her smashing up Shreck’s department store just laugh and say, “I don’t know whether to open fire or fall in love.” When she first meets the Penguin, his immediate reaction is, “Why should I trust some cat-broad anyway? Maybe you’re just a screwed-up sorority chick, who’s getting back at her daddy for not buying her that pony when she turned sweet sixteen?” But he agrees to let her join in one of his villainous schemes, because he wants to shag her. When she rejects his advances, he’s furious. “You lousy minx. I ought to have you spayed. You sent out all the signals. And I don’t think I like you anymore.” At which point, he too tries to kill her by launching her from a very high building.
But what really makes this film perfect for this particular Christmas season is that all Batman has to do is play a recording of the Penguin’s actual, off-the-record words to the public, and the citizens of Gotham are so unanimously appalled that they all turn on Penguin at once. Yes, they all let their heads get turned by the political ‘outsider’ and the business tycoon. But the minute they hear how Penguin really talks, and how meanly he speaks about people, they give up their illusion that he will make them safer. They don’t make excuses for him, or for his vulgar, insulting language towards their fellow citizens. These folks may be a bit gullible, but they have a certain level of moral decency that they won’t allow anyone to sink below, let alone a candidate for a role that isn’t supposed to just be about power, but public service. Yes, it is Batman and Catwoman who ultimately take out Penguin and Shreck, but it is the citizens of Gotham who reject the villains’ bid for power.
Things don’t turn out perfectly, but they turn out in a way that seems fair. Everyone who tries to con the citizens of Gotham, or hurt women, gets punished. I don’t know about you, but that’s the sort of story I want to be told these days; not one that promises a fairytale, just fairness. It would be nice if we could still believe that all of our own fellow citizens were also capable of such basic rationality and general good will as the citizens of Gotham, but in the meantime, here’s a nice film where the world still kind of makes sense. Not that escapism is the answer, but it’s the holidays, and we all deserve a little break.