Burton’s golden years were, without doubt, the 90s and while he didn’t make all of his good movies during that time or even all his best movies, the 90s saw his longest unbroken run of good to great movies. It was also the time when he made some of his weirder, more offbeat movies. It all began with his first truly great movie Edward Scissorhands and went from there.
Returns is a weird movie, especially when compared to Batman. At it’s most basic level, it amounts to all of the good and bad aspects of Batman blown up to gigantic proportions. The script is often sloppy, the pacing and structure are now wonky as fuck and it completely throws out the established characterization of both the lead (who now casually murders basic enemies) and of the villains. But the action sequences are easily the best of the pre-Nolan series, both Michelle Pfeiffer and Danny DeVito are giving performances for the ages and the gothic aesthetic and tone are not only much darker, but much more coherent. In a way, I sense a feeling of intentional sabotage about it. Burton didn’t want to return to the Batman franchise after the first one, only returning when promised more creative freedom. I almost get the feeling that Burton, not wanting to get trapped in the Batman franchise, said “You want me to Batman? Here, enjoy my Batman.” And I did, because quite frankly, I like Returns more than Batman.
I don’t know if that’s an odd opinion, but I like it quite a lot. Yeah it has fuck-all to do with the comics, but that’s never been overly important to me. Taken purely on it’s own merits, it’s a well made and highly unique action film. Sure it has some flaws, but DeVito’s performance is brilliant and Pfeiffer is giving one the best performances of her career. And hey, isn’t it nice to see Christopher Walken actually acting, instead of just being Christopher Walken?
Aside from that however, the film attracted controversy, for reasons that should be obvious to anyone who’s seen it. While Batman was hardly a kid friendly movie, it had elements and never quite crossed the line that would make parents freak out. Returns, on the other hand, was darker, more disturbing and often frankly sexual overtones from both the Penguin and Catwoman, made a lot of people freak out, especially since people were used to superheroes being kid friendly.
There are some flaws, like the first one, but the good points far outweigh the bad ones. And like the first one, it was huge hit…but nowhere near as big as the first one and nowhere near as big of one as anyone at WB was expecting. In fact, due to the backlash over the content, they were forced to pull several tie-ins, leaving WB convinced they’d lost money. They panicked, having a lot riding on the Batman franchise, and kicked Tim upstairs to a producer credit for the next one. The rest of the history of the original Batman franchise, and it’s quick and painful decline into shitiness, is well known. Burton, however was moving on to other things.
I’ll be honest: Ed Wood isn’t just my favorite Tim Burton movie, it’s a staple of my favorite movies of all time lists. It’s hard to explain how an odd little movie about one of the worst directors of all time manages to top not only mine, but a lot of people’s favorite movies lists.
But I have to try and nail down the reason, so if I had to try and verbalize the reasons, it begins with the fact that the movie is, simply put, superbly made. All of the actors, from the Oscar winning one from Martin Landau, to Johnny Depp’s weirdly effecting performance (the best he’s ever been) are flat out incredible. The direction and visual design (including the choice to make the film in black and white) are brilliantly chosen and beautiful. It’s all backed up by an incredible screenplay (by the writers who eventually brought us the painfully underrated The People vs. Larry Flynt).
But in this case, I think there’s more to it than simply being an incredibly made movie. I think a lot of this movie’s power comes from how it treats it’s main character. Ed Wood is widely considered the worst director ever and you’d think that a biopic about him would spend its runtime mocking and deriding its subject. But Ed Wood seems to have an odd affection for it’s lead, and plays his almost demented optimism straight. There’s a sequence near the end, that I think sums up the entire film to me; Ed comes out of a theater in the pouring rain and asks his girlfriend to go to Vegas with him and get married. When she points out that it’s raining, he responds that it’ll probably stop by the time they get around the corner. The decision to treat such a terrible director with affection and even love is a bold one, but it turns out to be the right choice, and it brings the film to the next level, giving the movie it’s emotional heart and depth. And really, this characterization pretty much excuses the small liberties they took with the history of the person.
Unfortunately, despite being the best movie of Burton’s career, Ed Wood was a financial failure, taking in 5 million against an 18 million budget. Oddly enough…I can’t figure out why. It’s since been rediscovered as a modern classic, and it received nearly universal critical acclaim. But since it probably got strong home video sales and even managed to pull in a couple Oscars (Martin Landau won Supporting Actor for his brilliant performance as Bela Lugosi and makeup god Rick Baker won Best Makeup for transforming Landau to Lugosi) so I doubt anyone was taking a bath on it. Plus Burton’s track record with directing (and producing) was good enough that he was still getting his movies made. You’d think his thus far most offbeat movie failing would cause him to dial his weirdness back.
This is, to put it gently, a fucking weird movie, and pretty much the definitive example of Burton’s issue with structure in his movie (well…there might be one other, but we’ll talk about that one much, much later). The movie is, to put it bluntly, not really a coherent whole, more of an extended series of mean-spirited skits, designed as takedowns of things Burton and co. don’t like, personified with the scene where, after destroying the government, an elderly character joyfully exclaims “They blew up congress!”
The movie is a mess, with a weird tone and poor structure but…I’d be lying if I said I don’t find it massively entertaining. It’s easily the most problematic Burton film I’ll cop to liking, but I’ll damned if it doesn’t work. How is it this works when so many of his other less works fall apart?
Well, if I had to try and verbalize a reason, it would be the movie’s overwhelming commitment to itself. The aliens are purposefully unreal, the movie never tries to find a structure or a cohesive plot, the characters are universally unlikeable (which helps mitigate the sheer amount of abuse they take) and it never tries to mitigate the sheer mean spiritedness or it’s presentation. I think it can all be defined by the fact that, upon being told that he couldn’t kill off Jack Nicholson’s character, Burton cast Nicholson in two roles and killed them both.
Weirdly enough, a movie in which a Slim Whitman song is used to cause the alien visitors heads to explode didn’t do too well at the box office. Some people point to the similarities to Independence Day, released the same year (a more coherent, but vastly less interesting alien movie). I’d agree with that, but point to the movie’s weird tone and offbeat style as another reason. It broke even, with help from being much bigger overseas, but only just. With two of his weirder movies not doing too well at the box office, you’d think Burton would tone it back a bit.
But if you thought that, you really don’t know Burton.
I really dig this movie. I’m not too proud of it, because it’s full of problems. It’s structure is weak (big surprise), the tone is all over the map, it devolves easily into some of the more tiresome clichés of the mystery genre (including, you guessed it, the scene where the villain explains their entire plot to a pair of surviving characters, a scene which takes a solid 5 minutes) and it has a complete disregard for it’s (admittedly kind of weak) source material.
And yet I really like it. I like its weird gothic aesthetic and odd tone. I like its color palette, in which most of the colors are muted (except blood, of course). I like how despite the fact that its main villain sticks mostly with cutting off heads, it still keeps the kills and action sequences imaginative. I like Johnny Depp’s jumpy performance, I like how much the villain chews the scenery, I just like the movie.
And like with Mars Attack I think this movie gets a long as well as it does by being unapologetic about itself. It proudly touts its extreme R-Rating and its influence from old Hammer films. It’s even proudly unapologetic about how silly its plot is, playing every single silly twist completely straight. It keeps the movie from devolving into tired self parody or feeling less engaging, as it takes its characters and world seriously.
As a weird, gross and often disturbing R-Rated horror film, Sleepy Hollow was…a big hit. Burton’s first big hit for a while. In fact, for an R-Rated horror film with no real franchise to back it up, it was quite a big hit, pulling in 200 million on an 100 million budget. You’d think with his first big hit under his belt for a while, Burton would take it as a sign to make his movies even weirder.
Again, I don’t think Burton’s brain works like ours. But we’ll talk about that next time.