Batman Returns Novelization Analysis
by The Dark Knight

Film is a visual medium, and that is exactly the case with Tim Burton’s Batman Returns. How do you even attempt to replicate a feature film oozing atmosphere with black text printed onto plain pieces of paper?

Well, Craig Shaw Gardner, the author of the Batman Returns novelization, sets out to do this in his own way and has a degree of success.

The way in which this novelization is written makes fans of the film fondly recall the onscreen antics. Even if you haven’t seen the movie, the plot, often dismissed as lightweight, is engaging and mostly gravitates to the characters’ thoughts and decisions, which manage to give the fantasy a human foundation. Which I deem to be one of the film’s biggest strengths. But from my point of view, this is more of an experience for the real fans. The true believers.

The novelization gives you the film as it is, and also digs a bit deeper to give additional information, expanded and alternate scenes. These moments make you sit up and take notice. They don’t feel forced, either. They feel quite natural in terms of who the characters are and what would likely happen.

Like the movie, there is an ironic and dark humor running throughout the novelization. During the abduction of the children near the end of the novelization, the Penguin wants to know why they haven’t yet arrived at his lair to be drowned in toxic waste. “Don’t tell me they stopped off at McDonalds” he quips. During the opening sequence with The Penguin baby and his parents, it is especially ironic. “And baby is there, too, in that playpen. Well, maybe it looks less like a playpen and more like a cage, but baby mustn’t get into mischief.” There is social commentary to be had as well, with the beauty pageant sweetheart the Ice Princess pushing an old woman to the ground during The Red Triangle Circus Gang attack in the first act.

Craig Shaw Gardner

I’m one of those who view the world of Batman Returns as somewhat timeless. As if it takes place in a snow globe. However, the opening sequence with the baby Penguin being born apparently takes place in the early 50s, a few months before Christmas. The Penguin’s father enters to view his newborn child and screams. The scene transitions to the baby Penguin locked away in his cage a few months later, killing the family cat. Later that very night, the parents drop The Penguin into the sewers, and we time jump once more into the present day, where the film and novelization’s narrative takes place.

These days, we are told, things are different, because there’s a Batman. A proud father shows a sled with a bat emblem emblazoned on it to his wife. A potential present for their child. But a monologue by The Penguin states pain and death wait for people on the city streets, because he’s the kind of bird that can make it happen.

Alfred is still running Christmas errands at the beginning of the film, but his part here is expanded. As the Christmas present explodes with the Red Triangle Circus Gang, Alfred is in the middle of a rampaging crowd, hastily trying to reach the Rolls Royce to call Bruce. Alfred then turns his head and smiles; as he witnesses The Batmobile arrive just in time.

During the iconic shot of Bruce brooding in the darkness, we are told Bruce is home because he doesn’t like crowds. This follows on to give the traditional parent murder sequence we don’t see in the film, because it’s taking place inside Bruce’s mind. This is interrupted by the bat signal shining through his window. I appreciated this moment as it reminds the reader of Batman’s motivations and also allows us to see things from his perspective. Burton provided the image and the novel enriches the sequence in the written sense. Bruce again remembers his parents death later in the story, when The Penguin speaks on television about wanting to find his parents. Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne is very internalized and guarded, and I personally saw this conveyed in the film via his eyes and body language. Just because he doesn’t talk about certain issues often doesn’t mean he doesn’t care. Far from it. He cares the most.

After we first read Max and the Mayor’s discussion about the power plant, it’s time to go down and bring joy to the masses below. Here, we have Max taking the Mayor down the executive elevator, guiding the Mayor right through the first floor of his department store – which is said to be important to Gotham City’s economy. When Shreck prospered, the City did, and Max was reminding him.

Upon reaching the street level, Max passes two bills to the Salavation Army Santa. The bill on top is $50. Max gets he photo opportunity and the Santa frowns as he sees the second note. It’s a single. It doesn’t bother Max though, as he notes the cameras have already moved on and the Santa is already old news. Also interesting to acknowledge is sludge and waste on the ground, presumably from Max’s clean textile plant, and they must move around it on their way to the podium.

The convenient and coincidental plot device of Max falling down the sewer grate to The Penguin’s lair is simply and quite logically explained away. Gardner says it’s a cold night, the grate below Max’s feet is oddly warm and Max is waiting to decide his next move. It’s still a suspension of disbelief, but that sounds reasonable, don’t you think? Once Max is inside the lair, we find out the red Christmas stocking The Penguin hands around is the stocking Max’s grandmother had knitted. I find this a nice touch, and also quite sinister – showing The Penguin has taken the time to gather a number of Max’s items (the shredded documents, toxic waste, Fred’s hand, and apparently this stocking as well).

When Batman cruises the snow-covered streets in the Batmobile, watching The Penguin as he compiles his list, Alfred pesters him about what he’s eating, if he’s sleeping properly and that he should look after himself. Later, in the batcave, where Bruce is given his cold vichyssoise, Alfred asks if the term Christmas holiday means anything to him. Bruce laughs, throws a CD over to Alfred like a Frisbee and tells him to listen to himself. Alfred plays the CD and hears the conversation he had while Bruce was out patrolling. “I learned to live without a mother a long time ago, thanks.” This bonus scene acts as a warm up to the later sequence in which The Penguin hijacks the Batmobile, and Batman once again records a voice, this time not to embarrass, but to disclose an awful truth.

After meeting Shreck and discussing the power plant, Bruce is in a daze over Selina Kyle and she walks him to the elevator. She walks away and the doors close per the movie. But here, he forces the elevator back open and walks back to Selina as he forgot to ask her last name. Bruce watches Selina squeeze blood from her injured finger into Shreck’s coffee – internally she comments “so Max, want more more of my blood?” – and Bruce, totally besotted and dare say a little strange to begin with, continues to talk as if he sees people dripping blood into coffee every day. It’s a moment that I now tell myself did happen, but we didn’t see. It strikes that quirky and dark Batman Returns balance. And this isn’t the only time we see hidden surprises in coffee…

During Catwoman’s destruction of Shreck’s building, she plays cool jazz on a nearby stereo. Something that doesn’t happen in the film. However in the film, Elfman’s soundtrack gives us something in the sleek spirit of the character. During the identity reveal at the masked ball, a slow, sad song is being played – which must be Face To Face. Immediately after The Penguin’s explosive entrance, Selina yells “Bruce, we have to do something” – but he is gone. A scene that doesn’t happen in the movie but adds to the up and down complexity of Selina. I found this quite sad, knowing how she ended the story with Bruce, rejecting a life with him, going on to murder Max and risk her own life in the process.

Following Catwoman’s destruction of Max’s shopping center, we are given a totally new sequence involving Selina at work. We are told Selina has removed her old, ‘wimpy’ notes she wrote to herself and posted over her work computer. She replaced them with “defy authority”, “take no prisoners” and “expose the horror”. A fly buzzes close to Selina’s ear, and she snatches and crushes it without looking up. She really is a new woman with a new outlook on life.

We see Selina confidently taunting her boss. “Morning, Max. Bummer about the store. You covered?” Max says he better be and wants Selina to make a call to Gotham Insurance. Instead, Selina says she’s taking a personal day off and leaves. Before she does, Max sips his coffee, only to spit a live cockroach from his mouth onto a table. We get another taunting quip from Selina: ‘Those darned exterminators. They swore the machine was shipshape!”, and from here, Selina suits up as Catwoman to meet The Penguin, where they discuss the Batmobile tampering.

In the movie, after meeting up with Selina in the City Square and agreeing to watch the tree lighting ceremony at Wayne Manor, Bruce walks away and Selina remains standing with a smile. In the novelization, Bruce takes Selina’s hand and they walk together towards the waiting Rolls Royce. The scene is followed up a few pages later, where it is revealed Bruce asked Selina if she wanted to go to Wayne Manor right there and then, or wanted wait until the evening. This shows Bruce is eager. Selina opts for the evening and asks for directions to drive herself, although Bruce volunteered Alfred chauffeuring services. A woman needs her independence, Kyle internally ponders. Does Bruce walk back and take Selina’s hand after the scene cuts away in the movie, or does he just keep walking? That’s up to you to decide.

Vicki Vale is referenced twice in the novelization. Not just Bruce’s taunt to Alfred about letting her in to the batcave, but straight after that Selina’s name is brought up. Bruce comments that he thinks she has more facets than Vicki and is funny, but also mysterious. Alfred said that’s Bruce’s own affair. The word affair piques Bruce’s interest, replying with “yes, maybe if she…”

It is made clear that the Burton Batman does not mind killing, as shown with the Strongman detonation. After The Penguin falls into the waters of his Arctic Lair and emerges damaged, we are treated to something a little different and in line with the killer of Burton’s Batman. Batman holds the bullet-firing umbrella and aims it directly between The Penguin’s eyes. Batman follows The Penguin and we are told he is still ready to fire if need be. But The Penguin drops dead, like in the movie, and Batman puts the deadly umbrella down. Again, this obviously does not occur in the movie, but I have speculated myself what Batman would do if The Penguin did not die naturally, and I always come back to the answer this book gives us. He wouldn’t let him remain alive after all he attempted to do. It feels logical to me.

Before rescuing the Ice Princess, Batman watches the Mayor make his address to the Gotham people. The Mayor states that Batman will be brought in for questioning. Obviously relating to the batarang incident The Penguin set up. It is said half of the Mayor’s speech is lost in feedback because The Penguin was playing with control knobs – letting a few words here and there out. Just enough to give the Mayor hope he was being heard, but also confusing the audience. This sequence is quite funny, given a similar interference happens to The Penguin later on. The Mayor and the Mayoral prospect.

It is stated Commissioner Gordon had 100 police stationed around the plaza, and 20 more watched from surrounding buildings. Gordon is contacted by the 12th precinct by radio that the Ice Princess has been found, and just as they begin to move through the crowd, Batman ‘pushes’ the Princess. A moment that Gordon does not completely believe, telling himself Batman probably tried to save her.

When the Ice Princess falls down to hit the button, the tree lights up and bats emerge. Here, the bats are explained. At some point beforehand, The Penguin (perhaps with Shreck’s help/connections) filled the tree with cages of bats that were released at the push of a button. Another suspension of disbelief, but again, storing the bats in cages makes sense and Gardner at least attempts to cover this segment of the movie.

Even if this isn’t good enough, logic be damned. It’s a great visual for a movie and captures the emotion of the scene. To the public, Batman has snapped and killed the Ice Princess and they are now running in a panic from his kind swarming in the air, with him flying away to join them. Speaking of bats, the bats that are launched at The Penguin later on from the batskiboat are said to be agitated from being in an enclosed space for too long. I’m not sure what Batman had planned, but again, if this isn’t good enough for you, logic be damned. The way they attack The Penguin feels like what goes around comes around.

Gordon and the police take an elevator up the building, then headed up stairs to the roof. Gordon demands them to hold their fire on Batman as in the movie, but of course they don’t. Batman’s fall is apparently only a dozen feet down to a penthouse terrace. After his encounter with Catwoman and escaping with his glider, Batman again falls to the ground hard before entering the Batmobile, just like the comic adaption.

Looking down at the mayhem below are Catwoman and The Penguin. Upon rejecting The Penguin’s advances, Catwoman is verbally attacked as in the movie and sent skyward. However here she reacts a little differently at first. She is surprised that she sent out such signals. “Did I? Only because my mom trained me to, with any man..” she begins, “any man – all men –“ she pauses and ponders. The catsuit had brought it out even more and she blames herself for not looking at what she was doing, and calls herself a ‘corn dog’, recalling her previous life as the downtrodden secretary. But quickly after, she strengthens her resolve and puts the blame back on men and not on herself. Catwoman unloads with an angry barrage. “ Repulsive”, “awful” and the line the line that offends most, “Penguin”, causes an umbrella to snap around her neck and for her to begin her trip to the heavens.

The Penguin’s remote control Batmobile stunt plays out pretty much as it does in the movie. However we do get a short scene where a reporter shouts “Batman is out of control! First he murdered the Ice Princess, and now..” The reporter’s sentence is cut short by a batdisc launched from the Batmobile into the side of his head. An interesting and thought provoking moment includes an angry mob chasing after the Batmobile, with Gardener calling them vigilantes, and asking what makes them so different to Batman. The answer Gardner gives is money, training, high tech equipment and controlled anger.

When The Penguin flees the angry crowd following his hijacked speech, he jumps over the bridge and back into the sewers. While doing so, he flashes back to the baby carriage and a fall from long ago. It is nothing major but similar to Bruce recalling his own personal tragedy. When he arrives back in his lair via the yellow rubber duck vehicle, he still shoots a circus performer. But here it’s an acrobat. He does, however shoot the fat clown after receiving the message from Batman later on in the story, as shown in the comic adaption.

Regarding The Penguin’s intent, Gardner states he was sidetracked by personal glory/personalized revenge, and those goals depended on outside factors the Penguin couldn’t control. Therefore the rocket wielding penguin army plan would go ahead, something we learn he had been planning for years. Once deciding this was the next move, t he outfitting of the rockets and radio control devices took a whole day to outfit, finishing before Christmas Eve.

In the movie, the batskiboat is seen in the sewer pipes already cruising to The Penguin’s lair. But in the novelization, Gardner expands this to reveal Batman drove down Gotham River. Something logical and obvious, but nevertheless something exciting to imagine.

Selina’s confrontation with Max plays out very similarly to the movie. Important to note is that Max shoots Selina in areas such as her arm, leg and thigh. Gardner says she is bleeding but can’t feel it, as she was determined to finish off Max if it was the last thing she would ever do. Upon reaching Max, Selina places the stun gun in her mouth, grabs Max and drives her talons into the generator fuse box. It causes both of their bodies to jump as electricity arcs through them.

At the end of the main narrative, the power goes off in Gotham City, ala the comic adaption. Funnily enough, Gordon ponders if Shreck had been right all along about his power scheme. Later, all the lights come back on, and we have dialogue between Gordon and the Mayor, wondering if Batman will ever forgive them, to which Gordon replies probably not, but he will always help. This sequence is also present in the comic adaption.

After reading the novelization you may feel the need to watch the film again to see it in a newfound light. That is one of the main positives to come out of this. The novelization makes your imagination run a little bit more wild and think outside the box while inside the movie. You can transport these internal character thoughts into the movie. Some things don’t fit as they don’t happen in the scenes – like Batman aiming the umbrella at the Penguin, but it does tell you what he as a character would have done, and was willing to do.

With 2012 being the 20th Anniversary of Batman Returns, now is the perfect time to give the novelization a read and get the edge on your fellow Batman fans.

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