Double Feature Fridays: Sequels
How Tim Burton’s ‘Batman Returns’ and Richard Linklater’s ‘Before Sunset’ outdo their predecessors
Many of us bemoan the existence of cash-grab sequels, devoid of passion or creativity. Did we really need eight Saw films? Or a second Grown Ups? But despite the endless stream of soulless sequels, I’ve still got faith. Especially when the plot warrants a continuation, and ropes in a talented team with strong ideas. The best sequels are created by people interested in telling a story, not providing fan service. They may be produced right after the first (Godfather 2, Spiderman 2), or even take decades to materialize (Blade Runner 2049, Mad Max: Fury Road), but what’s important is that they achieve the tricky balance of keeping things familiar and making them feel fresh at the same time.
A great sequel knows that it’s meant to deepen the characters we already love and expand the universe of the original, without dismissing what has happened before. A great sequel isn’t just a continuation of events, but also has an emotional history simmering beneath the surface.
This week on Double Feature Fridays, we’re examining two sequels that are arguably superior to the originals, although not by a huge margin. The second instalment of Richard Linklater’s romance trilogy, Before Sunset, and Tim Burton’s cult Batman sequel, Batman Returns.
Before Sunset (2004)
Richard Linklater has been experimenting with narrative structures since the beginning of his career (Slacker, 1990), so it comes as no surprise that The Before Trilogy is completely unique in the way it portrays romance. And yet, it’s closer to reality than most of the genre’s output. All three movies feature two characters, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), walking and talking in a picturesque city.
The first time, it was Vienna. Before Sunrise (1995) saw the couple as young adults on vacation, whose paths cross on the Euro rail. They decide to spend the night wandering together. They talk about love, self-discovery, fulfilment, and everything else that’s fascinating to two intelligent, starry-eyed young people.
Unsurprisingly, they fall in love. To preserve their passion, they don’t exchange numbers or addresses, and promise to meet in six months. The audience is left wondering if they ever met again.
Before Sunset takes place nine years later, both in the film and in real life. This time Linklater collaborated with the actors on the Oscar-nominated script. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy have aged by a decade and bump into each other by accident, at his book signing in Paris. They’ve both matured, and a lot more cautious due to a history of failed or stagnant relationships. She’s passionate about her job and the life she’s built, and he’s a writer in America, married with a kid. They get to talking again, subtly exploring the ways in which they’ve changed, launching into intellectual arguments, but beneath it all is a question they’re both aware of – “Could we have made a life together?’”
It’s a perfect sequel because it addresses the questions posed by their first encounter, and recreates it after aging the characters emotionally. The new question is, with all their youthful optimism and recklessness stripped away, can they make magic again? The answer is yes. Despite the long takes, pages of scripted dialogue, and constant dynamism through a bustling city, there are no odd cuts or faltering. This conversation is real. Even their body language is incredibly nuanced, making the audience truly believe that they’re watching two people desperately trying to hide their affection. In one scene, Celine reflexively raises her arm to brush away strand of his hair, and recoils before he turns to look. They never need to kiss on screen, or profess their love. We already know. And after almost a decade of waiting, we’re so glad they made it.
Batman Returns (1992)
Tim Burton’s Batman was a cultural phenomenon driven by one man’s twisted vision. Over a span of two hours, it carries the origin stories of Batman and the Joker, and pits them against each other in Burton’s ominous interpretation of Gotham. There’s a lot of fun to be had in Jack Nicholson’s unhinged performance as the Joker (“I am the world’s first fully functioning homicidal artist!”).
But as successful as the film was, it hasn’t aged very well, owing to lazy action sequences and a slow pace that makes the film lumber and stall until the obvious conclusion. The reaction to the sequel was positive but somewhat less enthusiastic, a result of the backlash against the morbid and sexual themes in a film marketed almost exclusively to kids and families. However, over the years Batman Returns has been elevated to the position of a cult classic, a Christmas movie that’s both tormented and ridiculously campy.
It follows the fresh but familiar formula by putting the gothic architecture of Gotham city on display during Christmas. This gives it a dark fairytale vibe, adding lights and color to the chilly tones. The runtime is the same, but fits more story threads. Instead of one villain, we’re treated to three. Their arcs converge in a way that doesn’t overburden the movie (I’m looking at you, Spiderman 3). The story is still comic book nonsense, but with the nonsense dialled up to 11, you can’t really complain. There are penguins strapped with missile launchers, a giant yellow duck car, a supernatural resurrection, and other ridiculous elements that move away from the attempted realism of the first Batman (1989). And yet, this is the darker chapter, chronicling the lives of depressed outsiders whose theatrics are a desperate attempt to belong somewhere. Nowhere is this more obvious than the conversations between Bruce and Selina, as they try to connect with each other while hiding the full extent of their psychosis.
We know everything about Batman, so he’s most effective when he’s a silent presence looming in the background. The smartest thing Batman Returns does is putting him in the backseat, allowing his enemies to be the centre of attention. Almost 30 years later, people still debate the casting of Michael Keaton, but no one questions the star-studded roster of villains. Michelle Pfeiffer, Danny DeVito and Christopher Walken each emanate an aura of madness unique to their characters: Catwoman, Penguin, and minor baddie Max Shreck respectively. Walken brings his signature quirks to a short role. Penguin is truly repulsive with his deformed body, pale skin and black drool coupled with his mean, perverted persona. His dialogues are always preposterous: “I’ve played this stinking city, like a harp from hell!’ Pfeiffer’s Catwoman goes from being a timid secretary to a vengeful, seductive villain with perfectly feline body language and a purring, growling voice. Her commitment to the role is obvious. Her costume was notoriously difficult to put on, and for one CGI-less sequence, she puts a live bird in her mouth.
Although it was considered too grimy for kids (Penguin’s ultimate plan involves drowning babies in the sewer), adults will definitely find something to like in this nightmarish roller-coaster. Batman Returns works because it’s deeper and far more entertaining than its predecessor: A Christmas movie that effectively combines big-city melancholy with a warm holiday spirit.