We Have To Live Out Our Precise Experimentation: Batman Returns and the Abject

Batman Returns (1992) | Warner Bros.

Life now is sold as so clean. Hand sanitizer is everywhere, in some cases sensibly. Small houses in the larger Los Angeles area are listed on Redfin for a million dollars and feature spotless white walls, light gray laminate floors, black and white photographs of foreign cities. Rows of wiped-down Target carts await you upon entry. 

So much cinema, too, feels soap-rinsed squeaky: no sex, no grain, no mess, no kink. High-def, de-saturated, platonic content designed and tested to please without offending—to pass content restrictions in various foreign markets—to satisfy the eye in the same way a photoshopped model does: on the surface and in a manner that only distorts our relationship to the very twisted world we are often trying to escape. 

But life, real life…what does it do but serve you twists and turns that you don’t know how to handle? It throws you out high windows, ambushes you with machine gun unicyclists, gives you a baby you don’t know how to care for, dunks you underwater next to a drowned clown, blows a hole in your Christmas masquerade ball. What a relief in some ways, then, to turn on Tim Burton’s Batman Returns (1992) and revel in its unfettered embrace of the twisted and the pathetic, the askew and the abject. Other, more recent superhero films may claim to be grim—and certainly achieve a gritty, surface-level style—but in Batman Returns, we have something that, though stylized, seems to deliver an underbelly of actual darkness: upsettingly discolored bodily fluids, thrillingly unhealthy psychosexual games, raw fish, toxic sewage, and a semi-catatonic ‘hero’ who barely speaks. 

After all, Michael Keaton’s Batman may just be the most accurate cinematic version of the caped detective. He leverages his privilege to separate himself from the people he says he protects. He is lonely, but his loneliness seems, ultimately, cynical; his trust in and tolerance for “regular people” (unless those regular people are beautiful blondes) appears low. He reminds me, a bit, of the Batman that John Ashbery conjured up in his poem “Breezeway”: 

Batman came out and clubbed me.
He never did get along with my view of the universe
except you know existential threads
from the time of the peace beaters and more.
He patted his dog Pastor Fido.
There was still so much to be learned
and even more to be researched.
It was like a goodbye. Why not accept it,
anyhow? The mission girls came through the woods
in their special suitings. It was all whipped cream and baklava.
Is there a Batman somewhere, who notices us
and promptly looks away, at a new catalogue, say,
or another racing-car expletive
coming back at Him? 

Ashbery’s Batman is an indifferent God (the capital “H” in “Him” is no accident), one equally interested in doling out punishments just because, and in capitalistic comforts. What would happen to such an indifferent God, Batman Returns asks, if confronted with adversaries that forced him to see the dark and deviant parts of himself just a little more clearly? 

Why Is There Always Someone Who Brings Eggs and Tomatoes to a Speech?

If you haven’t seen Batman Returns, it kind of picks up where Burton’s earlier Batman (1989) left off. However, where Batman leans comic-book-enjoyable in its visuals, Batman Returns feels sort of like a comic book that got left out in the rain, trampled into a mud puddle, and then taken home by an outcast pervert who drew weird doodles on all the pages. 

In a nutshell, Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) finds himself compelled to face off as Batman with Oswald Cobblepot/The Penguin (a troubling Danny DeVito), who seeks to become mayor of Gotham City on the urging of corrupt tycoon Max Shreck (Christopher Walken). Shreck wants to oust the current mayor and use the Penguin in order to build a toxic power plant (or something?), and so Batman has to deal with Shreck, too. Meanwhile, Shreck’s shrinking assistant, Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer), has finally stood up to the guy and nearly gotten herself killed—only to rise from near-death, zombie-like, to become Catwoman, a seemingly unkillable (or only killable eight times?) rogue entity who will do anything to take down Batman and the fucking patriarchy, even though her alter ego remains violently attracted to Bruce Wayne. 

Pick a scene in this movie and I will happily talk your ear off about how it is perfect. Like, I don’t want to say that I enjoy watching Danny DeVito stuff raw fish in his mouth (real raw fish!) while some awful black ooze1 drips out of his mouth and his upsetting flipper hands struggle to hold on to the oily carcass, but…I enjoy it. And the violent sexual tension of Selina and Bruce’s relationship is top-notch, as violent sexual tension goes. I even love the backstory of the film, all the bizarre behind-the-scenes tales—how McDonald’s was upset because they couldn’t sell a disgusting Penguin toy in a Happy Meal; how Michelle Pfeiffer’s original Catwoman costume didn’t give her a way to use the bathroom; how she did indeed put a live bird in her mouth (“It seemed fine at the time”)—able somehow, in the moment, to not think about all of the many terrible things that could stem from putting a live bird into your mouth.

But it’s the sheer ugliness (visually and thematically) of much of the film I think I’m most drawn to. The kind of ugliness—especially regarding familial relationships—that most of us don’t get to reveal in our day-to-day lives. The kind I can’t show to my kids, or bring into the classroom, or carry with me to a friend’s house—but that’s there, nevertheless, humming right under the surface, whether or not it’s the holidays, whether or not you have a good thing going, whether or not you know you’re supposed to be the ‘good guy.’ A lot of this ugliness radiates from Batman’s two nemeses—Catwoman and the Penguin—who batter the hero from the inside out. Batman is innately drawn to both of them; they reflect back pieces of himself in fractured ways. 

Keaton plays Batman’s essential status as a master repressor subtly and delicately; this is a man, one feels, who has bottled up so much that even his double life isn’t helping him let off the proper amount of steam. He seems to feel a warped connection with Oswald Cobblepot, a fellow alienated son who is haunted forever by the ghosts of his parents; Catwoman, meanwhile, arouses his id, that fucked-up voice deep within him asking to be given the relief of receiving some of the punishment he spends his days distributing to others. These two characters ooze ugliness in their appearances,2 their dialogue, their mouth business (we get both drooling and licking in this film), and their souls—and they jubilantly drag Batman down in the muck with them.

No Darker Than Yours, Bruce

This ugliness is something horror theorist and academic Barbara Creed has explored. In her essay “Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection,”3 Creed works through Julia Kristeva’s concept of the abject, imagining a situation where abjection is not seen purely as a negative aspect tied exclusively to women or the feminine sphere.4

Abjection—according to Kristeva, Creed explains—is “that which does not ‘respect borders, positions, rules,’ that which ‘disturbs identity, system, order.’” Creed sees abjection as a source of horror, and notes that the category can contain such abominations as “sexual immorality and perversions; corporeal alteration, decay, and death; human sacrifice; murder; the corpse; bodily wastes; the feminine body; and incest.” The abject is disgusting, but it’s also part of life; we can’t exist without expelling bodily waste, but we also have to, well, expel it. We depend on that boundary—the split between the self and the abject—to keep us sane. 

Part of Creed’s thesis is that horror movies work by disrupting the boundary and putting the (often feminine) abject front and center, only to restore patriarchal order at the end and resolve the viewer’s anxiety. She dreams, though, of a world that doesn’t require that re-establishment of patriarchal order; a world that finds a way to embrace feminine abjection and uplift the truly fucked-up depths of the maternal body, a site of “conflicting desires” (longing and repulsion, attraction and disgust). She’s interested in the male sphere, too, as long as it feels suitably distorted by its underlying fears and weaknesses. I don’t know if she’s seen Batman Returns, but I can only assume she would love it. 

From its opening moments, every frame of the film overflows with abjection. Watching it after acclimating to the contemporary blockbuster film aesthetic is, frankly, jarring; there are no smooth, CGI landscapes navigated by drones here. Rather, Burton has created a world so stickily physical you can feel the ridges on its models and taste its (very real) raw fish. The camera watches visceral scenes unfold the way an older sibling watches a mother change a baby’s diaper: repulsed, fascinated, and just removed enough to feel protected (but close enough to smell it). 

Oh, yes, babies and mothers. All horror hinges on the question of the separation from the mother (or lack of it; hello, Norman). The renunciation of the mother is, of course, necessary for each child to establish safe independence and agency, and the terror bubbling up in many genre films occurs at the site of this fraught mother/child relationship.5 In Batman Returns, the separation occurs immediately and involuntarily on the child’s part; in the very act of being born as he is (deformed, only partly human), infant Oswald Cobblepot triggers the rejection that both creates him and destroys him. His mother throws him into a river, an inverted Moses—one who will speak not to God but to penguins, and who will exist not to lead a migration home but to urge an invasion of the home—and watches as he re-enters a gaping black womb. He travels in his bobbing black carriage through vaginal tunnels, born again into a sewer as the opening credits unfold. As villain origins go, it’s delightfully awful, and the viewer is immediately plunged into that strange space between abhorrence and pity, complete disgust and sympathetic attraction.

Selina Kyle, too, suggests a strained relationship to the sphere of the mother. She listens to a voicemail from her mother early on that seems to sum up the dynamic of their relationship:

Selina, dear, it’s your mother. Just calling to say hello. But I’m disappointed you’re not coming home for Christmas. I want to discuss just why you insist on languishing in Gotham City…as some lowly secretary. 

The guilt trip. The backhanded undercutting of your no-longer-childhood choices. “Lowly assistant,” Selina mutters as the voicemail ends. Her mother couldn’t even bother to get her job title correct. And Selina? She is doing her best to play the part of the happy feminine underling, but no one’s really fooled. One look at her and Bruce Wayne knows there’s more to Selina Kyle than meets the eye; he’s not attracted to her because of her good looks and subservience, but because he can sense something dangerous and ugly hovering right beneath the skin. 

In a way, her transformation into Catwoman allows her to become the ultimate “archaic mother”—a term Creed uses to think through the archetype of an outside-of-time maternal being that can both generate and obliterate, that can cross the binary of gendered categories, that could maybe save us from ourselves but also might kill us if they get too close. (I think the final T-Rex from Jurassic Park is the perfect archaic mother, if that helps you wrap your head around this.) A lot of times, I want to be that mother. Providing milk for my supernaturally-attracted kittens by spilling it all over the floor. Defacing my own home décor. Undeniably sexy despite the clear disturbance. Willing to partner with whatever gnarled being I need in order to buy myself a little more power.

Come to think of it, there aren’t any functional parent-child relationships in the universe of Batman Returns, unless you count Oswald and his penguins. The perversity of the blurred line between human and animal in this film is somehow intensified by my feeling, while watching it, that Oswald Cobblepot really loves those penguins, and they really love him. It’s beautiful and horrible, the way they congregate around him as he carefully feeds them the only food he, also, would like to consume. The recognition he seems to relax into when he’s among them makes me feel…hopeful. It seems, in many ways, to be the peak of parenthood: raising an army of like-minded beings who trust you, listen to you, would strap rockets on for you and walk out of their habitats into some unknown sphere to fight for you. Uncanny and cruel, the love they have for Oswald—always cold and slippery, always evading the heart almost completely. And yet when he dies, six of them appear, synchronized, to gently guide his body into the cool water from whence he emerged. It’s tender and twisted, the way they watch him as he sinks. 

Combined, Catwoman and the Penguin comprise those abject, shadowy crevices which Bruce Wayne himself has tried so hard to expel from his life: the feminine pus, the sad-son excrement. Batman would, we feel, prefer to stay aloof—to promptly look away from the mess that Selina and Oswald bring into his brutally tidy home. But the beauty of Burton’s film is precisely its refusal to stay out of those crevices. Burton (literally) shines an emergency light into Wayne’s controlled reclusiveness, serves him cold soup, forces him to rip his own mask off. We don’t even see Bruce Wayne himself until about 13 minutes into the film. Chaos has already erupted in Gotham City thanks to the Red Triangle Gang, whose members are hard at work firing machine guns into Shreck’s publicity-oriented ceremonial Christmas celebration. The cut from the violent mess in the streets to Wayne’s distant, silent, walled-up mansion tells us just about everything we need to know about this movie’s view of its supposedly main character: he needs to feel important and impactful, and yet his worst tendencies make him part of the problem. Batman’s lawful, clean, boring order is stretched too thin for the abject—in the form of Catwoman and Penguin—to refrain from seeping into, tearing up, and bleeding on.  

A Breeze Falls From A Nearby Tower

Earlier in Ashbery’s poem, before the Batman reference, we hear (as much as we hear of anything concrete in an Ashbery poem) of the need for a breezeway to siphon off the energy of some recent storm. Ashbery’s lines stop and start, mis-heard and powerless, associative as always, but resigned to finding remnants of this world worth clinging to:

The days go by and I go with them.
A breeze falls from a nearby tower
finds no breezeway, goes away
along a mission to supersize red shutters.

Alas if that were only all.
There’s the children’s belongings to be looked to
if only one can find the direction needed
and stuff like that.
I said we were all homers not homos
but my voice dwindled in the roar of Hurricane Edsel.
We have to live out our precise experimentation.
Otherwise there’s no dying for anybody,
no crisp rewards. 

In dipping into the language and syntax of the subconscious, Ashbery summons the way our inner selves both gravitate towards the abject and desire an architectural shape that could allow us to live with it but not let it overwhelm us. We have to live out our precise experimentation. Isn’t that, in the end, what all three main characters of this film are invested in doing—living out their carefully calibrated double lives, human and superhuman, man and animal, publicly respectable and privately profane? Otherwise there’s no dying for anybody—what we wouldn’t give to die for someone else, the best possible way to do it (death) if you need to—no crisp rewards. When the “mission girls” later in the poem show up “in their special suitings,” they come bearing decadent, sugary gifts—“whipped cream and baklava.” Ashbery’s speaker seems to see this gesture as an affirming one—one catering to the id, no doubt, but one that keeps him somehow in the game. Catwoman’s whipped cream and baklava serves the same purpose for Batman, and potentially releases him from the fate of the indifferent comic book hero in Ashbery’s final lines. 

Yes, Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle are the characters that initially find each other intriguing and attractive—but what Batman and Catwoman have when they share the same space is a brutal, visceral chemistry. When those two characters are on screen together, the audience feels the pressure of their concentrated, destructive sexual power. In their final confrontation, Batman urges Catwoman to give up the fight and come home with him. Keaton’s voice drops to a passionate whisper: “Selina. Don’t you see? We’re the same. We’re the same. Split…down the center.” He rips his mask off, willing himself to be vulnerable even as he knows he’s admitting to the corruption at the heart of his own identity. There is no looking away after this. 

But Catwoman knows this story doesn’t end that way. 

Love, in the world of Batman Returns, isn’t fulfilling or guaranteed. There’s no fairy tale ending; Catwoman invokes it only to spit on it. Yes, it’s Christmas, but there is no Savior to promise eternal life. There’s no cozy family tree with presents stacked underneath, just giant evergreen capitalistic entities used as the site of child-stealing and Ice Princess abduction. (Bruce’s tree, appropriately, is both very large and very boring.) The line Bruce and Selina circle around—“Mistletoe can be deadly if you eat it, but a kiss can be even deadlier if you mean it”—is there to remind us that falling for someone is surrendering something vital about the self. And yet: in their very abjection, these characters cling to perhaps the purest form of love—a willingness to embrace the ugliness of life, to suck it up, to embody it, to rend their garments, to emit bodily fluids, to die again and again when required of them, to nurse their wounds, to stay alert for strays, to eclipse the moon with their impossible returns; they play the abject Jesus to their society’s clean God of capitalism. The truth is that none of them is a villain, just as none is a hero: they’re all just fucked-up people trying to muddle through and make it home (alone) for dinner. 

The film ends as Alfred drives Bruce back home to his safe, removed fortress. Has Bruce Wayne learned anything? Perhaps. Perhaps he’s seen the hint of fascism in the mirror—or, underneath that, the repressed abjection and disruption he must know lies at the heart of society and of his own individual, uncohering, bestial self. By the end of Batman Returns, pummeled by his own unruly impulses and desires, Batman seems to have shifted from detached deity to something resembling the breeze itself, falling from nearby towers, looking for outlets for its pent-up force. He is pushed out of his seat by nothing, by a shadow—by the flicker of a suggestion that his feminine double is still out there, waiting to build him an arched pathway along which he could float freely. And though he doesn’t find her, he settles for her synecdoche: a stray cat. It was like a goodbye. Why not accept it, / anyhow?

  1. Actually a concoction of mouthwash and red and green food coloring, according to this behind-the-scenes video about DeVito’s makeup as Oswald Cobblepot.
  2. Yes, I know Michelle Pfeiffer is hands-down gorgeous, but the way her costume stretches the skin on her face! The way it splits, too-tight on her tiny frame! The wild dishevelment of her eyes!
  3. Creed, Barbara. “Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection.” The Dread of Difference: Gender in the Horror Film, edited by Barry Keith Grant, University of Texas Press, 2015, pp. 37-67.
  4. After all, mothers in particular, are the receptacles and producers of all that we don’t talk about in polite company, right? All that blood, that milk—all that familiarity with vomit and piss and shit.
  5. Think Carrie and her mom, or The Babadook, or Mrs. Voorhees, or or or…