Monday 18 December 2023

Hell is the Absence of Other People

Batman Returns

Superhero movies are Not My Thing. And it is probably fair to say that the superhero I have the least patience with is Batman. Nor am I a particular fan of the work of Tim Burton. Why is it, then, that not only can I say I have a favourite superhero movie, but that it’s the second Tim Burton Bat-Feature, Batman Returns (1992)? That? The one that is so very Tim Burton, and a Superhero Christmas Movie to boot?

I mean, yes, it’s the really pervy one. OK, yes, I do enjoy dressing in fetishwear, and the costume design – and I am not just talking about Michelle Pfeiffer’s costumes – has much to offer a fan of kinky aesthetics. But that is not in fact the reason. Or even a reason at all. Most superhero films flirt with fetishism of some kind after all.

Batman Returns comes from an era just before Marvel Studios locked the Superhero Movie into an immutable, rock-solid structure, and it doesn’t behave like a superhero movie. Maybe that’s it. Against a background of a snowy, fairytale Christmas – and remember, the memory cheats, it had a summer release – a series of images nightmarish and whimsical plays out before us, linked by only the most perfunctory plot. We meet scheming sociopath Max Schreck (Christopher Walken, Christopher Walkening it as hard as a Christopher Walken can), horny child-eating circus freak Oswald “The Penguin” Cobblepot (Danny DeVito), a whole parade of creepy sewer-dwelling circus clowns, a doomed Ice Princess, and, well, the usual broad strokes Gotham notables. People’s motivations are fluid and inchoate, and a rundown of the narrative won’t get me where I want to go. You’ve probably seen this film, or can easily see it, or don’t need to see it.

The only thing you need to hold in mind is this: Bruce Wayne (Keaton) and Selina Kyle (Pfeiffer) are really not OK.

Both of them are coded with the classic signifiers of being “a bit weird”, which is to say that they show such obvious signs of being autistic that it doesn’t actually matter that this probably isn’t the intent – Keaton and Pfeiffer are underrated actors who know how to observe things and they know how to mimic what behaviour that people think of as “quirky” or “obsessive” or “eccentric” so accurately that, well, they can act autistic.

Selina is Max Schreck’s secretary. She is bullied, awkward, has no idea when not to talk out of turn, and she is lonely. She lives alone with her beloved cat, in an apartment full of toys and cutesy, infantile things. Her answering machine has a man saying he doesn’t want a second date, messages from her overbearing, controlling mother, and recorded marketing messages. But she is also a good secretary, and so when she forgets a thing at the office and is reminded by a voicemail she left herself to go back in the office and pick a thing up, she stumbles upon Max doing something nefarious, and smiling, Max throws her out of a window. Because that's what you do if you've got the power.

She doesn’t die. Heavily concussed, and revived by alley cats, she returns to her apartment and numbly, dazedly repeats her homecoming rituals: alive or dead, or half-dead, or resurrected, they mean about as much. And then a marketing call on the answerphone causes something to snap.

At the consequences of capitalism intruding on her existence, at the realisation that capitalism has wrecked her life, Selina enters a screaming meltdown. The plushies go down the waste disposal. The quirky neon “HELLO” sign gets the O knocked off. She graffitis everywhere with a black spray can. And then she gets a shiny rubber mac and cuts it up into a costume and mask, and now she’s Catwoman. Now she’s a clawed agent of chaos. Now she is a revolutionary.

Mistletoe can be deadly if you eat it… but a kiss can be deadlier if you mean it
Over and over again, Catwoman and Batman are juxtaposed. Bruce and Selena meet and are attracted immediately, each recognising that the other is Not OK, but also not OK in a way that means they immediately vibe.

Meanwhile, Batman and Catwoman vibe in a different way: their attraction is raw, and violent. They are each other’s fetish.

We are told they are the same. They are not the same. Over the course of the film, Catwoman’s costume gets progressively more and more wrecked; she patches it with other materials; it gains holes and tears.

Batman’s costume gets wrecked and punctured too – but he has a walk-in wardrobe full of identical Bat-suits, in a cave full of technological marvels and hi-tech weapons. Selina’s cave is a trashed flat, where the walls are defaced, the toys are broken, and the wall tells you it’s hell.

Batman drives to action in his Batmobile, a baroque, winged machine, made of speed and violence. Catwoman pulls her disintegrating latex costume on with her teeth while driving a little VW Beetle to town.

And Batman has Alfred (Michael Gough), a kindly retainer who loves working for “Master Bruce” and will do anything for him. Selina has a cat.

In the final act, both Bruce and Selina unmask themselves. Bruce tears off the Bat-mask, destroying his costume. He says, “We’re alike.”

And they are not. Bruce is in cahoots with the police; Selina literally blows up the trappings of capitalism.

But of course it doesn’t mean anything if Bruce destroys his costume. He’s got a room full of spares.

His experience isn’t comparable. He’s rich. Even unmasking himself isn’t much of a stretch. It’s not that he doesn’t have anything to lose, it’s that there’s no real risk of him losing it.

It'd be obvious to comparre Pfeiffer's Selina to Ann Hathaway's version of the character In Christopher Nolan’s interminable, morally repellent and unapologetically fascist copaganda play The Dark Knight Rises (2012), where Selina is the sexy, amoral jewel thief of the comics, whose Randian ethics reward her with a stable relationship with Bruce Wayne and a retirement in moneyed ease. It's boring and empty. Be hot and unprincipled and get the guy with your enlightened self-interest. Yeah, who cares? 

Actually, It's more interesting to compare The Dark Knight (2008) here. Now, when I talk about interesting here, there's caveats, obviously. The middle of the Nolan films (we're not bothering with Batman Begins, that's just a blank void where a film goes) isn't quite as interminable and is marginally less an exercise in morally repellent and unapologetically fascist copaganda, but that's comparing a 1/10 with a 3/10 and both of the bonus marks The Dark Knight gets are for Heath Ledger's tortured, final performance, and you knew I was going to say that. But what really matters here is the bit where The Dark Knight really tells on itself. And that's the scene where an accountant discovers that Wayne Enterprises is building Batman’s gear, and tries to blackmail Wayne’s tech man, Lucius Fox (America's President, Morgan Freeman) to keep the secret. And Fox laughs and explains that trying to blackmail a billionaire is nonsense. It’s treated like it’s somehow a good thing – Take that, pencil pusher! Teach you to call out a billionaire for embezzlement! – but at least Nolan openly admits it, so there’s that I guess. 

Tim Burton does too, and I'm not sure if that's accidental – Selina knows that if Max Schreck faces institutional justice, he will be fine. So she expends her eighth life to do something more electrically final. Selina isn't law-abiding, and it's not like she's actually going to bring down the system. but as a friend of mine wrote many years ago in an academic paper, there is no one dramatic revolt, and no single site of resistance. You can't change the world with one electric shock. Only personal revenge is possible. It is the most satisfactory outcome left.

Bruce and Selena are fractured; both have to navigate the choice between loneliness and respectability, or kinky self-determination. But Bruce can afford to be fractured. When you're that rich, you're not mentally ill or neurodiverse, you're eccentric.

But what happens if you can't afford it? What happens if the things you have to lose are things you can't afford to lose? What happens if you don’t have the means to fix your Batmobile or your Batwing? What if you don’t have a cupboard full of spare Batarangs and cans of Bat-Shark Repellent? What’s left to you?

I feel so much yummier
Selina understands that there is an existential horror in living alone. There is an existential horror in living alone at Christmas. There is an existential horror in living alone under capitalism.

Imagine. You’re extraverted – and by “extraverted” I don’t mean what people usually think when you say that, because that really parses as “introverted, but with an alcohol problem”. No, I mean that particular type of human nature, far, far rarer than people think, where you need human connection to survive in the world. Now imagine you’re autistic as well, with all the social awkwardness that entails.

You live alone, in an apartment the size of a hamster run, with a glass case full of exquisitely converted and painted model kits, for example, and shelves of rare books and board games you’ll never play because you have no one to play them with. You brush your teeth, and you shower, and you eat three meals. You exercise and do hobbies. You try to work. Your existence is a day to day hustle to keep a roof over your head, a roof you despise, that you absolutely cannot bring yourself to call a home, because you're trapped here and your only other option is sleeping in wheelie bins.

Every day you scream inside. 

Imagine how, whenever you try to tell people how awful it is to live alone, someone invariably thinks it’s helpful to tell you how amazing living alone would be for them, and you just want to scream in their face to just read the bloody room.

And sometimes you melt down. And sometimes you fracture and go out and dance in clothes made of rubber and plastic that look like you’re from outer space and bring about the downfall of civilisation and capitalism and the tyranny of gender with your spiky, magnetic difference. Why wouldn't you? 

Even at Christmas. Especially at Christmas.