The superhero movie that predicted 2017

In the wake of Kellyanne Conway’s ‘alternative facts’, George Orwell’s 1984 is racing up the sales charts. But if you’re looking for art that anticipated the rise of Donald Trump, look no further than Tim Burton’s Batman Returns.

Sure, Donald Trump’s inauguration speech quoted Bane from The Dark Knight Rises — but that’s not the most prescient superhero movie. In fact, it’s not even the most prescient Batman movie.

The observation that Trump is a real-life Batman villain has certainly been made before, and comparisons have been made between the real estate mogul and The Penguin, aka Oswald Cobblepot.

Cobblepot ran for mayor in the second season of the Adam West TV series, and even held the office of mayor in Dan Slott’s Batman Adventures run and Geoff Johns’ Batman: Earth One.

But the Trump-iest Penguin of all is the one in 1992’s Batman Returns.

Reality television doesn’t exist in Tim Burton’s vision of Gotham, but Danny DeVito’s Penguin — a sideshow attraction who emerges from the city’s sewers and inexplicably wins its heart — is the closest thing it has to a reality TV star.

A grotesque figure, self-conscious about his flipper-like hands, The Penguin leads a deplorable gang of criminal outcasts, but manages to convince Gothamites that he — an outsider — is the only one who can save the city from corruption and crime.

The glory that I yearn to recapture is the glory of Gotham,” he tells his adoring public.

The people are so desperate for a saviour, in fact, that they are willing to ignore clear signs that something is not right with Cobblepot.

At the outset of his campaign, he literally bites a man’s nose off. This bizarre behaviour has no adverse effect on his popularity.

An unrepentant sleaze, he gropes a young girl who sees him as a role model in full view of the public. His campaign is not about power, he says — “it’s about reaching out to people, touching people, groping people”.

One of those people is Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman — as soon as they meet, The Penguin moves on her like a bitch, telling her she’s “just the pussy I’ve been looking for”.

He even walks in on Gotham’s favourite beauty pageant winner, The Ice Princess, while she’s in her dressing room, under the false pretense that he’s a “talent scout”.

He frames Batman, spreading fake news about The Caped Crusader in a bid to turn the public against him, despite Batman’s exemplary record of public service compared to The Penguin.

Ultimately, he is brought undone by kompromat, after Batman leaks a private conversation between the two of them in which The Penguin brags that he’s played the “squealing, wretched, pinhead puppets of Gotham” like a “harp from hell”.

Even as the audio plays, however, he tries to convince the crowd that it’s not his voice.

I didn’t say that,” he tells them – but because this is superhero fiction, where bad guys get their comeuppance, the crowd doesn’t let him off the hook.

Despite all that, however, The Penguin may not even be the most Trump-like figure in the film.

That honour belongs to his partner in crime, narcissistic business mogul Max Shreck (Christopher Walken).

Originally, it was going to be revealed that Shreck and The Penguin were actually brothers, so it’s fitting that there are elements of The Donald in both characters. He’s something of an unholy hybrid of the two.

The most immediately striking similarity between Trump and Shreck is their distinctive speech pattern, with its staccato cadence.

Both Trump and Walken grew up in Queens in the ‘40s; both were born to Scottish mothers and German-American fathers.

“His speech pattern is very much that particular part of New York,” Walken told The Guardian last year. “I never met him as a kid, but he could’ve been one of those kids that I grew up with.”

Even at the time of Batman Returns’ release, viewers were convinced that Walken had based his performance on Trump.

“I’ve heard that,” Walken told the New York Times in ‘92. “Other people say that I speak like him. Well, we both come from Queens. It’s true in most movies I don’t use my own voice. I’m always from somewhere. Gotham City is really New York. I was born there. So I used my own voice. That’s it. I never thought about Donald Trump.”

Walken may not have been thinking about Trump, but watching the film today, it’s hard not to.

Max Shreck is the kind of guy that keeps a portrait of himself and his dopey son in his office; the kind of guy who names buildings after himself.

“One can never have too much power,” he tells Bruce Wayne. “If my life has a meaning, that’s the meaning.”

Despite the high likelihood that his wealth is inherited (Shreck owns “half the fire traps in Gotham City”, a source of income he goes to great lengths to keep quiet), Shreck insists that he’s a self-made man, and paints himself as “a poor schmoe who got lucky”.

He deflects legitimate concerns about The Penguin’s ties to a criminal organisation by turning the conversation into a class war.

“Crime boss? Shows what you know,” he sneers at Bruce Wayne, “to the manor born with a silver spoon.” (Later, Shreck accuses Wayne of being a “trust-fund goody-goody”.)

A student of Nazi history, he advises The Penguin to take advantage of an incident “like the Reichstag fire” as part of his bid to unseat the mayor.

Of course, his interest in politics is purely for his own personal gain — by installing The Penguin as the mayor, he can get the go-ahead to build his shady power plant that will actually drain power from the city.

Unsurprisingly, Shreck is a terrible boss — he is the living embodiment of the patriarchy, and goes out of his way to belittle his female secretary, Selina Kyle.

“I’m afraid we haven’t properly housebroken Miss Kyle,” he tells his fellow rich white men when Kyle has the gall to speak up in a meeting, “but in the plus column, she makes a hell of a cup of coffee.”

How can you be so mean,” Kyle later asks him, “to someone so meaningless?”

Shreck ‘kills’ Kyle, or at least he thinks he does, by pushing her through a window to her death. In an act of sheer defiance, she comes back to life, and is reborn as Catwoman – or, as she might call herself today, Nastywoman.

Eventually, Shreck and Catwoman face off in a scene that is so Trump-like, it almost doesn’t feel real.

Realising that Catwoman wants him dead, Shreck attemps to negotiate. “Let’s make a deal,” he says. “Other than my blood, what can I do for you?”

Finally, Shreck puts it together that Catwoman is Selina Kyle, and he’s quick to take action.

“Selina? Selina Kyle?

“You’re fired.”

Yes. That’s actually the line.

Here’s the thing about Batman Returns. The previous film in the series, Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), was hailed as a ‘dark’ take on the character — and, at least superficially, it was. It was certainly darker than the Adam West TV show, anyway.

But Batman Returns was where Burton got really dark.

Batman Returns was the scary one, the one that slipped through the cracks somehow, the one parents got mad about. Batman Returns was the dangerous one.

That we are now living in a reality that so closely matches the grotesque world of Batman Returns — but without, you know, Batman — is something of a nightmare scenario.

But there is hope. If a map to 2017 can be found in Batman Returns, then Catwoman is the resistance. She is the Women’s March, and, in the film, she ultimately gets the better of her Trump.

As Batman himself put it, things change.

Things change.

9 thoughts on “The superhero movie that predicted 2017”

  1. No offence, but I think you’re stretching a little too much in drawing parallels between this film’s characters and the Trump phenomenon (which is not to argue that there aren’t at least a few).

    Firstly, Trump is clearly a child of privilege. Oswald, by contrast, was discarded by his parents a mere few months into his infancy, and raised in the sewers and then as a circus sideshow freak. Thus, he is the ultimate downtrodden victim, irrespective of his white heterosexual male identity. Likewise, his gang are not the almost exclusively white and male band of racist and misogynist plutocrats Trump has assembled for his cabinet, but a mix of male and female circus performers, of apparently Eastern European heritage (going by their apparel, and a few of their accents), who live underground in whether can only be described as poverty. They even go by the name, ‘The Red Triangle Circus Gang’, the ‘red triangle’ being the symbol the Nazis used to signify/stigmatise anarchists, communists and other political ‘undesirables’ during the Third Reich. Unlike Trump, Oswald and his fellow misfits are therefore genuine marginalised outsiders rather than privileged elites masquerading as such.

    Similarly, I’m not sure where you get the idea that Max Shreck’s ‘self-made’ shtick is phony. In the pages of the Making-Of-Book, Christopher Walker even states that Max “didn’t have a lot of formal education, and sort of had to make his own way”, which makes perfect sense in view of his constant digs at Bruce Wayne’s privileged background. Fair enough, his son, Chip, was born-with-a-silver-spoon, and was no doubt a mini-Trump in the making, but, if anything, Max Shreck is more akin to Fred Trump, and, for all his underhand methods and skullduggery, is a genuine rags-to-riches story, and a much subtler and shrewder figure than Trump (befitting of someone who had to duck-and-dive their way to immense power, rather than have it simply handed to them via an inheritance/the family business).

    So, in essence the fictional likes of Oswald and Max, for all their wicked deeds, arguably evoke more pathos than the, unfortunately, all-too-real new President, who has no such tragic or hardscrabble back-story to account for his grotesque nature.

    I think your attempts to make a direct parallel between Batman Returns and the 2016 election also fails in other areas. Unlike Oswald and Max, Bruce Wayne/Batman truly is the essence of aristocratic (and white male) privilege. He was born into vast wealth, and, unlike Oswald, he wasn’t cast into the sewers as soon as he could crawl. So I’m not sure if he serves as the best parallel with Trump’s closest political enemies, Obama and Hillary (who have arguably, at one instance or another, faced discrimination and hurdles in their political careers for being a black man and a woman respectively).

    Furthermore, although one can certainly make a case for her as a feminist icon, Catwoman is not an unequivocally upstanding character, as perhaps your narrative would have it, but a vicious enemy of Batman, and someone who is complicit in a person’s kidnap and death (that person being the Ice Princess, who, contrary to the 15/16-year-old girls Trump barged in on during the Miss Teen America contest, is an adult woman who was already fully clothed when the Penguin, and his female assistant, snuck into her dressing room unannounced).

    Which is not to fully argue against your, often clever and mostly well-supported, analysis, but simply to point out a few fundamental inaccuracies in your interpretation of a few of the characters (Max Shreck and Oswald Cobblepot in particular).

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  2. Well, I, on the other hand, quite enjoyed this article and I think you made some interesting parallels. Marco should probably be a little less pretentious and simply enjoy what other people write, and, for the sake of every writer, he should leave out the pettiness. Well-written article. Keep it up!

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  3. Thanks for taking the time to comment, guys. Marco, you definitely make some good points, but at a certain point I think a parallel is just a parallel — Max Shreck and Oswald Cobblepot are not LITERALLY Donald Trump, sure, and Catwoman is an anti-hero at best, but there are enough similarities and echoes there to make the experience of watching the movie now a strange one.

    Glad you liked the article, Alex! I’ve got no issue with Marco’s comment, though — I’m impressed he took the time to think about the piece in that level of detail.

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    1. It’s a great piece Rohan, as I hope I made clear in my earlier post. And the parallels definitely make sense. Shreck was always a Trump-like character, and the election has, if anything, made those parallels even more acute.

      It’s just that Batman Returns and politics are two subjects I feel very passionately about, so that’s perhaps why I came across as a little pedantic and precious about certain details.

      I actually think there is more nuance and depth to Oswald Cobblepot and Max Shreck than there appears to be with the new President (which is not to say Trump would ever attempt to drown children in raw sewage, or murder a business partner). From my perspective, Oswald is a pitiful, tragic, mistreated character, albeit a truly malign one, and Max, as detestable as he may be, strikes me as someone who grew up fairly poor and felt the need to cut corners and even commit serious crimes in order to install himself as Gotham’s prime ‘mover and shaker’, hence his resentment of ‘trust fund goody-goody’ Bruce Wayne. Clearly Trump is neither pitiful (pathetic, for sure, but not pitiful), nor a self-made man, neither of which negates your overall argument, but simply highlights a few essential elements to those respective characters which I feel are quite fundamental to their essence.

      Anyway, I look forward more articles from you, particularly more analysis of Batman Returns, if you feel so inclined. And thank you for indulging my comments.

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  4. That’s a good point, Marco – Shreck and Cobblepot really are more nuanced and sympathetic than the new President. What a sad state of affairs.

    For what its worth, the reason I’m skeptical about Shreck’s claim to be a self-made man is because he’s such a fundamentally shady and dishonest character – and if someone like that makes a point of repeatedly insisting that they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, they probably didn’t. But you’re right; there’s nothing in the film to prove that he didn’t.

    Thanks for the kind words about the new site. Batman Returns was a huge part of my childhood and is still one of my favourite Batman films, so I’m sure I’ll come back to it pretty often.

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    1. I hope you’re enjoying this exchange as much as I am. I don’t want you to feel compelled to indulge my comments.

      With respect to Shreck, I guess I’m partly going by the Making-Of-Book where Christopher Walken says “I think Max probably didn’t have a lot of formal education. He sort of made his own way, and really believes it when he says ‘There’s no such thing as too much power.'” Also, Christopher Walken has such a gaunt look about him, unlike the overweight Trump, or the muscle-bound actor, Andrew Bryniarski, who plays Shreck’s son-and-heir, Chip, that it’s hard to imagine him as the type to have been born-with-a-silver-spoon. Moreover, Max may share a sense of entitlement with Trump (in terms of the way he treats women and general ‘underlings’, including his personal assistants), but he’s also a lot subtler and more calculating in his machinations. You can see the wheels spinning in Shreck’s head. Unlike Trump, this is a man who tends to think before he speaks.

      What’s interesting, and something you reference in your piece, is that Shreck was originally intended to be The Penguin’s elder brother and the family’s ‘blue-eyed boy’, and thus would have clearly descended from a similar gilded background to Bruce and indeed Trump. I wonder if the script was changed to accommodate Walken, an actor who does share many of Trump’s vocal rhythms, hailing from the same part of Queens as the new President, but projects a much more haunted and genuinely intelligent demeanour in addition to his emaciated physical appearance, that sets him apart from the glib, complacent, unsubtle, and clearly well-fed Trump (who I feel represents something of a combination of Max’s ambition and status, Oswald’s grotesque nature, and Chip’s overprivileged background).

      Anyway, I like the ostensible class dynamics between the self-made Max and the aristocratic Bruce in Batman Returns. They add a layer of pathos to what might otherwise be the film’s least complex villain.

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      1. Interesting – I have to admit I haven’t read the Batman Returns Making Of book in many a year, so you’ve inspired me to dig it up.

        I guess another difference between Shreck and Trump would be that, for all his many faults, Max seems to genuinely love Chip and goes out of his way to protect him at one point. Hard to picture Donald doing that for Eric, but I guess we can’t know for sure.

        Certainly, I agree that Walken brought a lot to a character that might not have been as interesting in another actor’s hands.

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  5. I was too young to see Batman Returns when it was on initial release but I do remember all the merchandise, mostly at WH Smiths and John Lewis, which I used to peruse through on my way home from school, circa 1992. And that Making-Of-Book, and the novelisation, by Craig Shaw Gardner, were two of the things I read, some time before I ever got round to seeing the film. So that’s partly why they have heavily informed my perception of the movie and its various characters (even though various scenes and shots, like say the Ice Princess shoving a little old lady down whilst running away from the Red Triangle Circus Gang, seem to have been omitted from the final cut). Anyway, I hope you get a chance to look at the book and possibly share your thoughts.

    As for Walken, he does indeed bring a lot of depth to the part of Max. Out of interest, who else do you think could have played the part if not Walken? I think Jon Voight would have come across as even more Trump-like had he been cast, as I can imagine him better channelling Trump’s born-with-a-silver-spoon essence in contrast to Walken’s ‘self-made-man’ vibe. Voight of course is now a notorious Trump supporter, but I think he was still fairly liberal back in ’92.

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    1. Wow, that’s a good question. Max Shreck IS Christopher Walken to me, since he hasn’t appeared in any other media, so I’ve never really thought about it.

      Jon Voight is an excellent choice, though. Another fun one might be Willem Dafoe, who actually played ‘Max Schreck’ (the German silent film star) in Shadow of the Vampire, and who did a great job as a creepy industrialist in the Spider-Man films. Of course, they couldn’t have known any of that in the early ’90s…

      The Batman Returns merch was huge for me, too. I remember a department store here had a whole little shop set up with Batman Returns toys and tie-ins; it was just about the most beautiful thing I had ever seen (in my defence, I was six).

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