Wouldn’t you know—“Batman Returns” has recently met its 25-year anniversary so a belated “hats-off” to Burton-ville.
Though nothing will top the “Bat-mania” craze of summer ’89– that season of pre-internet innocence when everything marketable must have been emblazoned with the neon-yellow BAT-LOGO.
One good turn deserved another. Like “Spaceballs 2: The Search for More Money”. As the joke went, it’s the merchandizing that makes this stuff happen.
THE FRANCHISE—and what a series it was. Toys, games, BATMAN CEREAL even as families push strollers up and down through the malls of America.
The first one was fusty, noirish—knobular, even. Like sheer black atmosphere and nighttime menace as taut as the molded-rubber muscle suit. Dank, too—with the claustrophobic sets as steam rose from the street-grates. Glopping, green toxic chemicals and the sheer wetness of heat-steam in fevered corruption for the heart of the city and the Gotham underworld.
A singular, “stand-alone” summer blockbuster. Its world of conventions now established– and leading directly to the stylish, underperforming sequel.
Okay, then. The second was different—really different.
Like a dark, molten take on Christmas and whirling snowflakes against a moon-blue sky-line. Ookey green/white stripes and red bows for a revolting orgy of shopping district vandalism as the misfits came out to play, a twisted side-show circus. You thought of Mardi Gras “on the midway” with MTV artifice.
Precise and flashy, a more cluttered movie rife with competing villains and intrigues– wrought vividly with new intensity with Tim Burton’s free hand at the drawing-board. It came from a sleeker era of channel-surfing and ever-shorter attention-spans as you got a lot of bang for your ticket.
We spilled out from the slums and shanty-towns—street urchins, gamins skipping-about, the vulgar classes (– or their “slumming” upper middle-class compatriots) up to low-brow shenanigans as popcorn tumbled from its golden, buttery tubs like manna for a low-man’s lyric and matinee-hour leisure.
Scarfing-it down with mischievous, bright-eyed awareness like an amusement-park ride of demented mechanical novelties.
Of interest was a lampoon of a corrupt Gotham bigshot and property-developer, old New York banking dynasties not far from the self-importance of Trump towers. Now finding himself bound by murky intrigue in the cold, dark watery lair of the Penguin, who seeks nefarious political fortune.
A statement on the age of “spin” and the tabloid press—verily, a coronation of stage-managed media events. And you think how politics becomes like the proverbial sausage-factory– if you like either you shouldn’t watch its packaging and manufacture.
Meanwhile Cat-Woman prowls along the rooftops of buildings to steam up Batman’s nights of crime-fighting in a factious triangle for the upper-hand.
Boisterous, vulgar good fun and high box-office draw—general admission seating as true to the spirit of “democracy’s forge” as anything experienced at a turn of the century old-time Vaudville hall or Nickelodeon arcade.
And the swing of the tides—tit for tat, measure for measure as favor swung back to each principal to the exultant roar of the crowd—like a waltz of gloating villainy.
To wit: a gruesomely-comic scene in “Batman Returns”—The Penguin “NOW UNMASKED” and loping through a snowy park in his coattails and top-hat, “dissociated from all of humanity” as he grunted dementedly and the police gave sordid chase. Then, in rotund form toppling off a snowy bridge into a low-sunk pond and vanishing from sight with an undignified exit.
Not the impression McDonald’s wanted. Ever skittish to public opinion, vulnerable in defeat—they pulled out of the promotion to distance themselves from this unseemly public disturbance.
And here we were, like herded cattle “following a script” of assembly-line customer satisfaction. At once, a target-audience for fast-food tie-in’s and commemorative plastic cups.
Living hand-to-mouth, raise your burger and munch.
Everything was supposed to be, you know—ENTERTAINGLY BLAND.
Fear of contagion—like a bolt of wildness shot through the electrified mob goaded on by these ribald, subversive truths.
Master in numbers. . . . . . the rabble. . . . . . the proletariat. . . . . . ideas leaping from apathetic corners to overtake public order.
“A threat to health, wealth, and morals”.
Whatever it was, “bad for business”. As if rioting mobs would knock over the temple of commerce amid the megaliths of “The Golden Arches”, themselves.
And maybe we weren’t supposed “to get many ideas”.
(OVERTHROW THE STATE)
Whatever our glee, or out “running wild in the streets” or just getting loud at a table our power began and dead-ended here in public “like 13 steps to nowhere”.
Roving minds wouldn’t be corralled quite so easily. . . . . but we already know how the story goes.
The low-rent district. Yep, and there was the lone McDonald’s. This was the K-Mart economy with wide seas of parking-spaces, if even a bulk super-discount warehouse as we drove past.
The battered ole’ American dollar had seen better days as we pulled our coats a little closer to ourselves in the biting, hungry wind. Me and my brother—elementary-school wise-guys “taking in the sights”.
If even out by this south St. Louis shopping center—a fizzling community-redevelopment project down by the railroad trestles and abandoned factories that had mostly turned into a civic embarrassment.
Mom was down here hunting for a carton of “Virginia Slims” at the discount smoke-shop, a piece of transplanted New Jersey. She had an easy repoire with the world-wise shopkeeper, bars on the windows inside that licensed, complicated thing called grown-up sin.
A moral gray area. Grey as the smoker’s lungs or yellow-striped cinderblocks or fading, chipped paint.
Pick your poison, citizen/customer. A dubious, serious profession of nicotine and excise taxes as it was a free country, after-all. One of neon cowboys and rugged mountains on the aisle-display racks like the greatest nation on earth.
Bikers lumbered through in bandannas and leather-jackets, pushing out through the exits with packaged liquor stuffed into crinkly brown paper bags. Domestication was a bedroom of dirty clothes and indebted paycheck-to-paycheck. Maybe knocking back paper cups filled with water at a drug and alcohol treatment center, amid “the fast lane” of pizza parlors and roaring bikes and pawn shops.
You could easily picture the act “Guns n’ Roses” sitting parked in front of a liquor store and posing in their leather motorcycle hats and t-shirts.
It was still the world of the payphone—as Winona once played a world-wise cabbie in a Jim Jarmusch movie called “Night on Earth”. Cradling the receiver to her ear, her cap turned backward as a cigarette hung from her mouth as life took an easy, malevolent spin. Chewing gum, smoking Marlboros as she casually steered– her eyes peeled straight ahead as she half-contemplated and talked back to her astonished customer, a wealthy, successful L.A. casting agent fresh out of the airport.
One foot in the world of the old Jersey “bridge & tunnel crowd” and passage to “the city of the world”, maintenance men shoveling lime & ash and resigned to their fate like street dogs. Even as Gotham’s statues looked on like impassive stone angels and pondered over the trials of man.
Easy come, easy go—the newsstand and comic-book shop for whatever the dregs of cultivated free-form grime. The new/used chop-shop where prices were neither fair nor exorbitant but coolly-appraised with a price-tag. One jaundiced look from the clerk could weight it for what it is—maybe Winona herself in the cabbie’s gray cloth jacket and t-shirt. Half-glowering with a hardened face like a sooty, snotty dumpster-fire as a cigarette sits tucked behind her ear—this bazaar of low-culture on clearance.
Nodding to music, a tinny disturbance, that plays out of a little portable tape-player. Some underground cassette of bug-juice skate-rock noise, true to the fast trade of “buzz” on the street corner.
This, as the customer was left to browse and ask for customer service “quite sparingly”.
You had airbrushed pin-up models styled after World War II, or a goblin-storm of fantasy art, and other schlock true-to-genre as attentions and loyalties shifted in a tribal free-for-all. Testosterone was on the wane, as heavy metal and meaty WWF Wrestlemania were getting pretty played-out, if not overshadowed by the new breed of angsty alt-rock aesthetic.
(– And the workplace being taken-over by computers)
Even as we gamins skipped-about, practically with rolling spark-hoops and tossed firecrackers.
Whatever you said, it was still the greatest country on earth—according to the silvered long-view of your veteran New Yorker “holding forth” with pale, watery blue eyes. Be it a neighborhood butcher in an apron, or a porter down at the docks, or even the shop-owner who sold Mom her cigarettes. A hint of Norman Mailer— or a call back to Marlon Brando in “A Streetcar Named Desire”, or mayonnaise and lox and Charlie’s Tuna along a crisp, presentable breakfast table of New England sunlight.
Standing next to our mother, we’d nod and agree “like good boys”.
It was the age of the cribbed catch-phrase off the television, “Yadda, Yadda” and “Bing-botta-Boom” or even a kind of proto “Make America Great Again” in the national lexicon, if not Donald Trump in a hard hat giving “the thumb’s up” at a steel mill or construction site.
You thought of Danny Devito’s speech as a corporate take-over artist in “Other People’s Money. Forever, the hard-trudging MARCH OF PROGRESS and slogging market correction. If “under new management”, hopefully not the Japanese as wave your little American flags.
“An overhaul” was long due— “the ole’ charm offensive” for a distressed property as we observed with young, open faces.
Power belongs to the future youth, new life springs eternal.
As for those for whom it was too late, throw some meat to the schmoes with Batman and other feel-good vigilante entertainment.
Our role in this? According to “the script”, we boys were to study hard, “make good”, and go to college with specialized fields without asking too many questions. Pat you on the back, chuck your chin like a senior Mafiosi “in the old neighborhood” steering kids towards THE AMERICAN DREAM.
Immigration, possibilities in flux as a little flower sprouts in between the cracks of the broken sidewalk.
Like a daffy gaggle of Slavic immigrant children knocking back Coca-Cola, wild and snaggle-toothed and doing a funky-monkey immigrant dance like truest golden assimilation within the American life.
(– Miming Batman in a martial arts flurry of arms, they’d figure he was some kind of leather-clad “fruit” though you weren’t supposed to let that register. Adults just shook it off.)
“Keepin’ it real”. . . . . you know—with a shrug? Like 4th generation “street-cred” lifted from the ghetto, repackaged, and sold back to “we young defilers”. We were less loyal to school work than “keeping on the same side” of the mellow, laid-back and popular. Middle-class, rich kids’ anxieties. . . . . . maybe endearing your way out of homework with a bold, mousy excuse only an 11 year-old could get away with.
And mind that “you don’t forget your old friends on the street corner”, wrestlers and rock star alley-cats “down on their luck” and singing like drunks in the midnight choir. Leaner, meager times.
It was the long twilight of dying forms. . . . . . mostly-discredited and how most of the retail space still sat, unleased.
You could tell the difference between happy cashiers offering up your tray in the McDonald’s commercials and then what we had here—a rocky, unfriendly economic environment as the gray skies hung overhead with the future but a looming mystery.
Just links in the grinding crank-shaft of poverty’s chains. . . . . .
If revolution would start, like a child run over in the spattering mud and the high cost of a loaf of bread like in “Tale of Two Cities”. Rich man, poor man, American man.
Tensions might come to a head– this public cut-off valve of the service counter– “letting off steam” in this local McDonald’s outpost of franchised misery, staffed by low-wage service workers.
Flux, change, revolution, possibility. . . . . . sequels?
But mostly not.