Sympathy for the Devil: How ‘Batman Returns’ Complicates the Penguin

Danny DeVito in Batman Returns

Tim Burton’s Batman Returns begins with screams in the dark, as Gotham City socialites Tucker and Esther Cobblepot discover that their newborn son Oswald is some sort of mutant atrocity with an appetite for household animals. One night, they cold-bloodedly decide to rid themselves of their wailing spawn in one swift act of cruelty, sending the child plummeting into the freezing sewers, where he’s sure to die. But somehow the child survives, and years later resurfaces as the Penguin (Danny DeVito) — a misshapen bundle of oozing trauma and resentment, hell-bent on exacting righteous vengeance upon the unfeeling society that consigned him to the gutters.

It’s a mesmerising opening to a demented fairy-tale oddity. Spitting with astonishing audacity in the face of good taste and bland marketability, Burton followed up on his wildly popular Batman (1989) by whipping up a whirlwind of untethered weirdness and libidinal psychosis alongside Heathers screenwriter Daniel Waters. Batman Returns plunges with total abandon into batshit craziness, marginalising the Caped Crusader in order to tell a brazenly theatrical tragedy about a homicidal threesome of horny misfits wreaking havoc in a decaying metropolis. It’s a film that could never be made today, in our imaginatively bankrupt era of homogeneous comic book sludge. Batman Returns would never get past a first draft, let alone test audiences.

And at the heart of Batman Returns is the Penguin, the most astringent and dangerously unhinged of all of Burton’s cinematic outsiders, an anguished soul wrapped in layers of artifice and evil. From the very beginning, the film’s grapple with Oswald is a tangled and thorny matter. What is he, exactly — a product of neglect, or an innately diabolical entity? There’s no easy answer, because Oswald coalesces sincerity and insincerity into an uncomfortable muddle that resists reductive readings. Through layers of makeup and prosthetics, DeVito imbues Oswald’s early lamentations with disarming rawness, foaming and frothing with what seems to be authentic agony: “I want some respect. A recognition of my basic humanity.” But it’s not long before the genuine catastrophe of his childhood abandonment becomes just another tool for Oswald to exploit, using his story to manipulate his way to the apex of Gotham’s social structures, and reap the spoils of the privileged status of which he was wrongfully deprived. Blackmailing slimy millionaire Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) into presenting him to the public as a hero, Oswald ascends back to the surface cloaked in a shroud of instant stardom. “All I want in return,” he announces, after meticulously fabricating the rescue of a baby, “is the chance to find my mom and dad. A chance to find out who they are, and thusly, who I am. And then, with my parents, try to understand why — why they did what I guess they felt they had to do to a child who was born a little different. A child who spent his first Christmas, and many since, in a sewer.”

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Danny DeVito in Batman Returns

It’s a pitch-perfect plea, delivered into camera lenses hungry for such a story: the hideous penguin-man turns out to have a heart of gold. DeVito charges the scene with soap opera energy, matching the mawkish tone of the speech with his mannerisms — suddenly timorous, shrinking away from the flashbulbs, staring self-consciously down at the wet flippers that mark Oswald out as a freakish outcast. To accuse DeVito of overacting is to miss the point entirely. If he didn’t treat Oswald’s theatrics with such relish, if he didn’t fill every frame with clownish delight, Oswald would be just another merciless schemer — using the spotlight but not really loving it, methodical and predictable in his climb to the summit. But there’s absolutely nothing methodical or predictable about what DeVito does. In his waddle, in his voice, and in the menacing sparkle of his eyes, DeVito conveys something more than just cynical maneuvering. It’s the eruptive glee of an emotionally-stunted individual discovering and reveling in the art of entertainment.

Like Gus Van Sant’s To Die For, Batman Returns is remarkably prescient in its depiction of an individual whose identity is subsumed into televised performance. With the help of Shreck’s masterful handling of the media, Oswald disseminates an uplifting image of himself on the small screen as the harmless and misunderstood victim of a society that fails to take care of its own, willing to absolve all those who did him wrong of their crimes. Every public appearance he makes is charged with calculated pathos, designed for maximum impact upon broadcast. Particularly egregious is his visit to the graveyard in which his parents are buried — a personal event fashioned into a tastelessly extravagant spectacle of grief, staged in front of an eager audience. Falling heavily to his knees, Oswald places two roses before the headstone, arms wide in swaggering sorrow, as Danny Elfman’s score soars to a melodramatic crescendo. “It’s human nature to fear the unusual,” he declares in defence of attempted infanticide, further captivating the people of Gotham with his apparently preternatural levels of understanding. DeVito chews the scenery and spits it out; a delivery so replete with weighty pauses that it’s almost as if the whole sequence plays out in slow-motion. “Penguin Forgives Parents” reads the consequent newspaper headline, followed by a series of nauseatingly syrupy quotes. Batman Returns is particularly corrosive when it’s commenting on how thoughtlessly we consume the vacuous swill fed to us by a loathsome culture of fame. Don’t we all just love a good zero to hero story, with its precisely engineered peaks and valleys of emotion?

Oswald’s narrative is way too glossy and immaculate, of course, but viewers can still sort of buy into it. Because at every turn, Batman Returns reminds that there might be truth and genuine emotion within this pitiable persona. Shreck is right, in a sense, when he points out that there’s only a fine line separating the dysfunctional crime boss Oswald from the dysfunctional vigilante Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton). “If his parents hadn’t 86’d him,” Shreck says to Bruce, “you two might have been bunkies at prep school.” Both suffered irrevocable childhood losses — but while Bruce had material security and a faithful butler to support him, Oswald had nothing of the sort. One was nurtured after being orphaned, the other was left to fester in a toxic netherworld. Who’s to say that Bruce wouldn’t have sunk into complete derangement if he had grown up in the sewers, or that Oswald wouldn’t have been more stable if he had grown up with a figure of kindness in his life? The fantasy of transmuting suffering into heroism can’t become a reality for every child — some of their environments simply won’t allow it.

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Danny DeVito in Batman Returns

Ultimately, the critical turning point in Oswald’s character comes once Shreck has made him a mayoral candidate. Suddenly, catching the slightest whiff of institutional power, Oswald pushes all other concerns to the fringes, and unleashes the rampant lust for flesh that’s gone unsatisfied for his entire life. The veneer of self-discovery dissipates, and an overwhelming sense of sexual entitlement takes hold. “I need you, Oswald,” he imagines an enthusiastic lover saying to him, “I need you now. That’s the biggest parasol I’ve ever seen.”

Simply being Gotham’s new golden boy, the focal point of collective compassion, just isn’t enough. What Oswald needs is to be sexually worshipped; to have his phallic powers praised; to fill women’s voids; to show them his French flipper trick. Political presence gives Oswald intimate access to impressionable individuals, and it makes for some seriously unpleasant viewing — when he fondles a young woman after she calls him a role model, it’s hard not to think of gross behaviour from governmental figures abusing their positions for carnal conquest. And as Oswald regresses, DeVito exchanges his operatic gesticulations and monologues for something far more primal — all leering, grunting and groping. It becomes harder and harder to see the heart of the tormented child behind the drooling face of the sleazy predator.

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Danny DeVito and Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns

A destructive conclusion feels inevitable once Batman takes away Oswald’s popularity, and with it the potential for womanly rewards. What does a chronically embittered man like Oswald have left after you divest him of his sexual leverage? Deprived for so long, and now deprived again, Oswald flies into the sort of murderous rage with which we’ve become all too familiar — that of the romantically spurned outsider, whose only response to being denied is to explode into violence. If he, Oswald Cobblepot, can’t have the sexual gratification that he knows he deserves, to which he knows he has an inherent right, then everybody else has to pay a price. To hell with forgiveness, to hell with humanity. If he, a firstborn son of Gotham, can’t have what he wants, then no firstborn son of Gotham should be allowed to survive.

And yet even this plot to perpetrate mass murder still can’t clinch the argument that Oswald is more monster than man. In the end, there can be no simple feelings of joy or satisfaction in seeing Batman defeat the Penguin — in seeing the good guy defeat the bad guy — because who’s the winner here, really? Oswald’s inglorious death isn’t so much a triumph for the mournful Bruce as it is for Tucker and Esther Cobblepot, whose barbaric vision for their son is finally realised. Oswald should have died in his crib, and now he dies in a wounded heap of unresolved yearning, immersed alone in the frigid waste to which he’s always belonged. The sorry image of his sinking corpse is more peaceful than anything else, signaling the release of his unfortunate spirit from an existence that brought agony and little else. The Penguin of Batman Returns exits the stage as one of the most mercurial superhero movie villains ever, and also one of the saddest.

Cian Tsang (@CianHHTsang) studied English Literature at UCL, and is now a writer based in London. He spends most of his time listening to the Twin Peaks soundtrack.