Flush with the Yuletide spirit, Sean and Cody leave the mountain forests of Rwanda for the gritty streets of Gotham City in search of the Caped Crusader—sorry, the Dark Knight—who is to be found only sparingly in this 1992 superhero blockbuster. In Batman Returns, fed up secretary Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfieffer) suffers the ultimate #MeToo moment when her megalomaniacal boss (Christopher Walken) pushes her out a window and unwittingly transforms her into the vinyl-clad Catwoman. Meanwhile, sewer-dwelling crime lord Penguin (Danny DeVito) is terrorizing the streets with an army of Juggalos. Looks like a job for Batman (Michael Keaton), if he ever manages to show up. Environmental issues discussed include the history of sewer and sanitation infrastructure in modern New York, the rise of cats as America’s most popular pets and the ecological consequences of that popularity. Oh, and Christmas, as this is ostensibly a “Christmas special” episode.
What happened to your poop in 19th century New York after you flushed it? How many miles off the coast of New Jersey was it legal to dump sewage sludge in the 1980s? What did Ronald Reagan and austerity economics have to do with the rise of cats as apartment-dwelling pets? Under what circumstances will your adorable feline fluffball transform into a cold-blooded killer? Can zoo penguins go feral? What was Batman’s involvement with Japanese-American internment during World War II? How did Michelle Pfeiffer put on that skin-tight suit? What did Michael Keaton need the money that he made from his movie to pay for? Why are these films so dark, meaning, why can’t you ever see anything? How did the McDonald’s Happy Meals made to sell this movie turn into a big sad for parents and their kids? What’s the definition of a “Christmas Movie” and does Die Hard qualify? Why does this picture make so little sense? Is Adam West still the best Batman? All these questions and more are riding the Batmobile in this holiday-themed episode of Green Screen.
The original 1992 trailer for Batman Returns.
Additional Materials About This Episode
The infamous “Catwoman transformation” sequence from Batman Returns is made all the creepier by the iconic score, by former Oingo Boingo member Danny Elfman.
The Penguin (Danny DeVito) is talked into an impromptu political campaign by department store magnate Max Shreck (Christopher Walken).
The repartee between Batman (Michael Keaton) and Catwoman (Michelle Pfieffer) illustrates the chemistry between the two stars. Despite title billing, the Batman character is on-screen for a surprisingly small amount of the film’s running time.
The Environmental History
Sewers and Sanitation in “Gotham” (New York City)
The Sanitary City: Urban Infrastructure from Colonial Times to the Present by Martin V. Melosi (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000). Archive.org link; can be borrowed for free with an Archive account.
Dr. Melosi’s C.V.:
“The History of Plumbing in New York City,” Sanitary NYC, October 1, 2020:
“Urban Wastewater Management in the United States: Past, Present, and Future,” by Steven J. Burian, Stephan J. Nix, Robert E. Pitt and S. Rocky Durrans, Journal of Urban Technology, Vol. 7, No. 3 (2000):
New York City’s Wastewater Treatment System, Toilet-Guru.com:
Jay Foremen, one of YouTube’s “Map Men,” discusses cholera and wastewater in 19th century London. This video mentions the career of John Snow, also mentioned in our episode as an important figure in environmental sanitation history.
Cats (and Penguins) in Urban Environments
An article on the rise of cats in the 1980s. This article deals with the subject specifically in the context of the commercial history of Alpo brand cat food and the use of the Garfield cartoon character.
“Gambling on Garfield: The Creation of Alpo Cat Food and its Brand Identity,” by Kelli Huggins, Madison Historical Review, Vol. 10, Article 2 (2013):
“Cruel for Cats: Hard Times For Humans Lead to an Epidemic of Stray Pets,” by Charlie Cooper, The Independent, October 12, 2012:
“First Emperor Penguin Egg Laid in China,” China Daily, February 11, 2009:
This was the first time an Emperor penguin was bred in captivity. It was done again in 2017.
Kreator, the German heavy metal band, cut a track on their 1990 album Coma of Souls about climate change. It was likely inspired by climate scientist James Hansen’s 1988 testimony to Congress, as its lyrics include a quote from him, “Global warming has begun.”
John Batman (1801-1839), Australian explorer, is generally credited with the founding of Melbourne in 1835. He called the land “Batmania.” He is a notorious figure in the history of aboriginal genocide in Australia.
Batman’s first appearance on the silver screen, in a 1943 serial (episode 1). Content warning for racism and jingoism. The section involving Japanese-American internment begins about 9 minutes in.
“Did Bob Kane Steal Batman From Bill Finger?”, BoldEntrance.com, March 24, 2020:
Jamie Logie, “The Great Marketing Deregulation,” Medium, July 31, 2020 (discussing the regulatory changes that resulted in a surge of movie tie-in merchandise marketed to kids on TV, discussed in the episode):
The commercial for Diet Coke, recut using footage for Batman Returns. Another version featured Michael Gough as Alfred.
1990s moral panic in full swing. In this clip from TV talk show A Closer Look from July 1992, carefully-coached kids and their parents denounce the violence and kid-centric marketing for Batman Returns. This is part of the “torchlight mob” referred to in our episode.
The real Max Schreck (1879-1936) was a stage actor most active in late imperial Germany. He later appeared in several films, most notably F.W. Murnau’s classic Nosferatu in 1922. Contrary to his portrayal in the 2000 film Shadow of the Vampire, he was not really a vampire.
Schreck as Count Orlock, the Dracula-inspired villain in Nosferatu.
Next Movie Up: Great Expectations (1946)