By M.T.C. Gammon
I didn’t expect to find tales of class war in either slashers or superhero films, but an interest in Tim Burton’s work led me to try watching both Sweeney Todd (really more of a musical melodrama) and Batman Returns. I found that sometimes lumping everything into a genre can be misleading; the director (if worthwhile) is a far better yardstick.
Tim Burton did not create either Sweeney or Selina Kyle/Catwoman, but his versions of both are very different, and far more complex, than the originals. Both began as pulp villains; in his work, they are antiheroes, set against the true villains. Both Judge Turpin and Max Shreck, Sweeney and Selina’s respective ruling-class nemeses, use their power to commit crimes against them without fear of legal punishment. The working class victims’ hands are thus forced, and while both make mistakes, and Sweeney is derailed almost completely, they originally turn to unlawful means only when they have no lawful choice.
Also, be warned that spoilers follow.
To say that the title character of “Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street,’’ is a barber who cuts customers’ throats for his accomplice, Mrs. Lovett, to bake them into meat pies would, as far as it went, be a true statement, but as I said, would also make it sound like no more than a cheap slasher. Indeed, it began as such, but has since become far more nuanced.
The direct basis for Burton’s 2007 film is the 1979 stage musical, with music and lyrics by the recently deceased Stephen Sondheim, and book by Hugh Wheeler; however, the story is much older. The characters of Sweeney and Lovett themselves first appeared in 1846, in an anonymous “penny dreadful”- the Victorian equivalent of a pulp horror comic- entitled “The String of Pearls”. However, in the original, and in each of numerous retellings of the story over the next century and a quarter, both characters appear fully formed, their origins unexplained. (Riley)
Credit for explaining the characters’ motives goes to the British playwright Christopher Bond, author of the 1970 play whose title and basic plot were both used for the musical. In his introduction to the published script, Bond cites as influences “The Spanish Tragedy” (a Hamlet precursor by Thomas Kyd, in which the protagonist seeks revenge for his son’s murder), “The Revenger’s Tragedy” (authorship disputed, in which several characters seek revenge against a lecherous duke), and Alexandre Dumas Sr.’s “The Count of Monte Cristo” (in which the protagonist is framed by a romantic rival and transported to a prison colony, where he remains for 14 years before managing to escape, is rescued by a passing ship, and comes back for revenge under a false identity). Sondheim, in turn, improved the story in many places, with lyrics that make the characters’ motives more clear than Bond’s prose.
Sweeney, thus improved, was once Benjamin Barker, a London barber whose daughter, Johanna, was a baby when his wife, Lucy, attracted the unwanted attentions of Judge Turpin and Beadle Bamford. Turpin promptly has Barker transported to a penal colony on a false charge; then, when his advances toward Lucy remain ineffective, he tries a second tactic. Feigning remorse, he lures her to his house with the false promise of a pardon for her husband. She falls for it, only to find herself at a masked ball, where, in the only scene not depicted graphically, Turpin rapes her in front of all his guests, who crowd around roaring with laughter. When finally allowed to leave, she attempts suicide with arsenic, but only succeeds in incurring permanent brain damage. She is reduced to begging in the streets, while Johanna becomes Turpin’s ward.
Fifteen years later, a ship arrives in London, bearing a young sailor named Anthony, and an older Barker, now under the Sweeney Todd alias, who finally managed to escape, only to become lost at sea until Anthony spotted him. Returning at last to his former abode and workplace, with no knowledge of what happened in his absence, Todd finds his former landlady, the widowed Mrs. Lovett, fallen on hard times. The apartment once rented by the Barkers has been unrentable since, on account of a widespread belief that it’s haunted, and the resulting loss of income has left Lovett unable to afford proper ingredients for her pie shop, thus sending profits further down in a self-reinforcing spiral.
At this point she demonstrates, for the first but not the last time, that while she never instigates an adverse situation, she never misses a chance to profit from it when it occurs. Thinking that she recognizes her former tenant, she informs him of what happened in his absence in such a way that he explodes, thus revealing himself; however, coveting him for herself, and anticipating how he’d react if he knew she’d thrown Lucy out into the streets, Lovett conveniently forgets to mention that Lucy survived; by the next scene, she is already telling him that she “always had a fondness” for him.
Todd vows revenge. Meanwhile, Anthony happens to meet Johanna through the window of Turpin’s house, only to be caught by Turpin, who, now lusting after Johanna, has Beadle flog him and throw him out into the street. As he staggers off, he sings an aria vowing to rescue her.
The “crux of Bond’s play”, as Sondheim phrases it, is how Sweeney “is transformed instantaneously from someone who kills only for specific and justifiable reasons into a mass murderer”. Bond’s breakthrough, as explained above, was to figure out what the characters’ motives should be, but Sondheim’s lyrics convey those motives more clearly. More so than anywhere else in the story, it is at this crucial turning point that Sondheim demonstrates this ability.
The basic synopsis of this pivotal sequence is as follows: Sweeney has managed to ingratiate himself to Beadle, who recommends his services to Turpin, who comes to see Todd, with the instruction to make him more “seductive” for Johanna. Everything seems to be going perfectly, but just as Todd is about to kill Turpin, Anthony rushes in, blurting out that Johanna has agreed to elope with him that night. Turpin bursts up, vowing to make sure that neither Anthony nor any other man shall ever set eyes on her again, and furthermore, never to return to the barbershop.
Of course, this raises the question of why Todd didn’t kill Turpin instantly when given the chance. Here, Sondheim’s lyrics make it easier to suspend disbelief, not because people actually go around bursting into song, but because he explains the delay. First, in the aria “Wait”, Lovett urges Todd to do just that before killing anyone, “on the proverbial grounds”, Sondheim explains, “that revenge is a dish best served cold”. This, in turn, leads to the duet “Pretty Women”, which basically consists of Todd playing cat-and-mouse with Turpin, until Anthony interrupts.
Up until this point, Todd’s only kill has been that of “Pirelli,” a con artist who tries to blackmail him after recognizing Benjamin Barker. Until he explains, Lovett is shocked; she also talks him out of killing Toby, an orphan whom Pirelli bought from the workhouse. (Toby is presumably told that they bought him from Pirelli). However, she also wastes no time in taking Pirelli’s purse, remarking “waste not, want not” as she does so.
This still leaves the question, again answered by Sondheim’s lyrics, of how they become genuine serial killers. The two numbers explaining this each come from passages in Bond, both of which are only a few lines long, and neither of which are as clear as Sondheim’s verse.
TODD: A second chance may come. It must, it shall! Until it does, I’ll pass the time in practice on less honored throats.
MRS LOVETT: I don’t understand you. You let that judge escape one minute, and the next you’re on about slicing up any Tom, Dick or Harry. This revenge business don’t blow half hot and cold, it don’t.
TODD: Revenge? Oh no! The work’s its own reward. For now I find I have a taste for blood, and all the world’s my meat.
In the musical, this became “Epiphany”, which Sweeney sums up as follows:
In all of the whole human race, Mrs. Lovett,/ There are two kinds of men and only two:/ There’s the one staying put in his proper place/ And the one with his foot in the other one’s face/…. We all deserve to die!/ Even you, Mrs. Lovett, even I./ Because the lives of the wicked should be made brief/ And for the rest of us death will be a relief.
In other words, although class-conscious in one sense, he has become class- unconscious in another: death will be a relief to him, therefore he thinks that he will be doing the oppressed as much a favor by killing them as by slaying their oppressors.
Despite this, it is Lovett who comes up with the idea that, “with the price of meat what it is”, an industrial production line of corpses could be highly profitable. Todd, for the reasons specified above, is capable of being manipulated into such a scheme, but she is the one manipulating him, and her only motive is money.
This brings us to passage two:
TODD: Your pies shall be the wonder of the town, for every customer that comes up here shall serve the ones down below.
(They both start to giggle, then fall into each other’s arms laughing helplessly. The Curtain falls.)
Which, in the duet “A little Priest,” became:
The history of the world, my love/ Is those below serving those up above./ How gratifying, for once, to know/ that those above shall serve those down below!
Likewise, the same duet also contains these lines:
What’s the sound of the world out there,/ those crunching noises pervading the air?/ It’s man devouring man, my dear/ And who are we to deny it in here?
Which may sound like true revolutionary rhetoric, except that they contradict themselves in the song’s final lines:
Have charity toward the world, my pet./…. We’ll take the customers that we can get./…. We’ll not discriminate great from small./ No, we’ll serve anyone- and to anyone- at all!
Thus confirming that they will be just as willing to literally feed a worker to a capitalist as vice versa.
From this point onward, what was once a righteous quest for revenge has mutated into an indiscriminate bloodbath. However, there are still underclass heroes, namely Toby and Anthony, in this story.
For all her greed and wickedness, Lovett still cares for Toby as the child she never had, and he is devoted to her in turn. He does, however, start to become suspicious of Todd, and ultimately recognizes Pirelli’s purse, but warns her instead of suspecting her. She soothes him enough to lure him into the underground cannibal-meat-processing room, then locks him in; it is the only act that she appears truly sad about. Shortly thereafter, he discovers where the meat comes from, and flees into the sewer.
Anthony, meanwhile, has continued to search for Johanna, finally locating her in an asylum. With advice from Todd, he manages to rescue her.
In the end, Todd succeeds in killing both Beadle and Turpin, and when he achieves the latter, he’s ready to retire from murder forever. But it turns out to already be too late.
All this time, Lucy had been trying to get in, only for Lovett, knowing full well who the beggar was, to chase her off. Just before Turpin, she wanders into the barbershop, but her husband fails to recognize her. He hesitates, still capable of empathy towards a crazy beggar babbling “Don’t I know you?”, but upon hearing Turpin’s voice, he quickly kills her and dumps her down the corpse-chute.
It is only afterward, in the light of the baking oven, that he sees his wife’s face clearly. He is fully awakened at this point, realizing how Lovett had been deceiving him all along, but there is nothing more that he can do except to throw her into her own oven, before allowing his own throat to be cut by the re-emerging Toby. The final shot is of him clutching his wife’s body as he dies.
Although Batman Returns predates Burton’s adaptation of Sweeney Todd by 15 years, Burton had been interested in the story of Sweeney Todd since he saw the stage musical in 1980. Given this, and the degree to which the characters of Catwoman and Max Shreck respectively parallel those of Sweeney and the Judge, I wonder if the one was not a source of inspiration for the other.
Also, he was clearly inspired by several German Expressionist films, including Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). Metropolis seems, at the beginning, like a masterful socialist allegory, presenting as it does a dystopian vision of a future society where the elite live in splendor, literally above the subterranean hell reserved for the enslaved masses; however, the story swings to the right as soon as the question of what to do comes up, preaching reconciliation between master and slave, and concluding with the epigram “The mediator between the hand [worker] and the brain [ruler] must be the heart”. In fact, Lang himself would go on to denounce Metropolis for precisely that reason: “I was not so politically minded in those days as I am now. You cannot make a socially-conscious picture in which you say that the intermediary between the hand and the brain is the heart. I mean, that’s a fairy tale.” He would also go on to divorce his wife, Thea von Harbou, who wrote the script, and who went on to become a Nazi propagandist while he fled across the ocean. As we shall see, however, Burton does not end BR on any such “fairy tale” note.
On top of it all, BR has come to seem like a remarkable prophecy of events that would not happen until a quarter century after its release.
As I said before, I’ve never been a superhero fan by nature; my focus is on Burton. I also agree with Burton’s own preference for his second Batman film over the first (Salisbury). Initially, I did develop a general interest in Catwoman; however, she is conventionally depicted as a fabulously successful, and thus rich, thief, who functions as a siren seeking to lure the noble, plutocratic Batman/Bruce Wayne onto the rocks (DiPaolo). From what we know so far, it seems the upcoming film will portray her the same way.
By contrast, while her character, in Burton’s version, may not always be correct, she is never corrupt. Like Sweeney, she is driven, upon surviving an atrocity, to rise up against a perpetrator too powerful for the law to touch. Unlike Sweeney, no counterpart to Lovett ever derails her. In fact, the title character isn’t even the unequivocal hero of the story. He means to be, but is too invested in his vision of law-abiding, benign capitalism to see when he’s part of the problem.
Max, the main villain, is the owner and CEO of Shreck Inc., with holdings which include department stores, so-called “clean” factories which in fact excrete toxic waste, real estate (“half the fire-traps in Gotham”), and undoubtedly much more. He is named after the actor who played the titular vampire in F.W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu”. Max the character is not a literal vampire, but in the allegorical sense, he is. Marx described capitalism as “dead labor, which, like a vampire, can only live by sucking labor”. Max, likewise, is sucking labor, money, electric power, and every other form of power from Gotham City.
His skyscraper headquarters, which I will call Shreck Tower, is visually modeled on the New Tower of Babel, headquarters of the dictator of Metropolis. We are introduced to Max, and to the unnamed mayor, at a meeting in Max’s top-floor office suite. The mayor clearly regards Max as a key ally, but Max still can’t get him to approve a proposed power plant; the city has a power surplus, which every study shows will last into the middle of the next century. What the mayor doesn’t know, and what we only learn later, is that the “power plant” is not intended to generate power at all, but drain it from the city and store it at Max’s fingertips.
They leave to attend a ceremony, en route to which the following exchange takes place:
MAX: I have enough signatures, from Shreck employees alone, to warrant a recall. That’s not a threat, just simple numbers.
MAYOR: Maybe. But you don’t have an issue, Max, and you sure as hell don’t have a candidate.
During the meeting, though not the exchange thereafter, the secretary, Selina Kyle, is present to serve coffee, but kept more or less in the background. In fact, we haven’t even heard her first name yet; Max mentions her only twice in passing, first as “Ms. Kyle”, then as “what’s-her-name”. (Although she does stand out on account of being the only woman in the room).
Thus, for the first 23 minutes of 2 hours, she only has a small fraction of the screen time. This changes, however, over the course of the next 10.5 minutes, in a sequence which begins when she gets home that night, and ends with the birth of Catwoman. Apart from her black cat, Miss Kitty, and a number of stray comrades thereof, she is alone. Her apartment is cramped and dilapidated, the walls and ceiling covered in peeling pink paint, with decor to match, including a pink neon sign reading “Hello There”. Her taste, or lack thereof, is shaped in part by her budget, and partly by the lonesome weariness of her existence. Speaking to Miss Kitty for want of any other audience, she describes herself as “a working girl” who struggles to pay the rent. However, she is not yet radicalized. Her fantasy, at this point, is still that she might somehow impress Max and be promoted.
The messages on her answering machine – a nagging mother, a boyfriend dumping her, a telemarketer vending “Gotham Lady Perfume”- are the first time we hear her first name. The last of these messages is a reminder to herself, which sends her back to the office. There, she uncovers the truth about the so-called “power plant”, only for Max to catch her and shove her out the window. Whether she undergoes death and reincarnation, or whether she’s simply knocked out, is left ambiguous; she later refers to her “nine lives”, but we don’t find out whether we’re meant to take it literally. Either way, she is found and revived by Miss Kitty and the strays.
When she reenters her apartment, she stumbles around in an amnesiac daze. Forgetting that she ever returned to the office, she attempts the same tasks as before, which include checking her messages. The telemarketer returns, this time with an added selling point: “One whiff of this at the office and your boss will be asking you to stay after work for a candlelight staff meeting for two. Gotham Lady Perfume, exclusively at Shreck’s Department Store!”. That does it; she snaps back to full consciousness, destroying first the answering machine, then every feminine fetish in sight. What the apartment ultimately comes to look like, we alas have no chance to see, but she attacks the walls with a black spray can; then, as she tears through her closet, she is inspired by a black raincoat, which she transforms, with a sewing kit, into what could be called a “Selina Clawfingers” costume, with Frankenstein stitches representing death and resurrection. In the last shot of the scene, we see that the sign, which she has broken, now reads “Hell here”. Back from the literal dead or not, the old Selina is no more; now, Catwoman is born.
Max, meanwhile, has finally found his candidate for mayor: Oswald “The Penguin” Cobblepot, whose appearance is modeled on that of the title character in “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”. Burton stated at the time that Penguin was based on “most of the political candidates at the moment”, but if the film were made today, he would be recognized by one and all as a Trump parody. (One also sees the resemblance, both literal and metaphorical, between Max and Trump).
Bird’s parents possessed riches to rival Batman’s Wayne ancestors and the Shrecks, but the baby was born with hideous deformities which, though unexplained, may well be due to aristocratic incest. His parents then threw him, under cover of darkness, into the river, where he drifted into the sewer. In fact, even as a newborn, he had already proven himself dangerous by eating the family cat; furthermore, by adulthood, he has literally become a lord of the underworld. However, the public doesn’t know this, or even that he exists, until Max stages a spectacular emergence from the sewer. Thus, he seems an innocent victim of his since-deceased parents’ intolerance and becomes an instant celebrity, the papers exploding with sympathetic headlines, including the Metropolis paraphrase “You don’t need hands as long as you’ve got heart”.
The next step for Max is to come up with an issue. To this end, Bird’s gang causes chaos in the hope of framing Batman, and smearing the mayor by association. By coincidence, Cat simultaneously attacks the department store on the lower levels of Shreck Tower, (which, of course, Bird’s gang is leaving alone). She destroys merchandise, but allows the bumbling guards to escape, not wanting to kill unless absolutely necessary. She even passes up a chance, which her comic-book counterpart would certainly have taken, to make off with the contents of a jewel case. Of course, the guards are bound to call for backup, so she has to work fast now. She severs a gas line, stuffs aerosol cans into a microwave, turns it on, and escapes.
While all this has been going on, Bat has been fighting Bird’s goons. He encounters Bird himself in front of Shreck’s storefront; then, Cat, whom neither Bat nor Bird has seen before, arrives on the scene; then, the store bursts into flames.
At this point, Bat protects Max’s property by going after Cat, while passing up a chance to expose Bird as the instigator of the main attack by allowing him to escape. In his effort to capture her, he either nearly kills her or costs her a life, depending on one’s interpretation of the “nine lives” references, and unnecessarily makes an enemy out of her. Max, meanwhile, now has both an issue and a candidate, and is able to bring about his recall election.
Hoping to get Bat out of the way, Cat initially sides with Bird. This, however, is not corruption on her part, nor is Bird manipulating her as Lovett did Todd; in fact, she hopes to manipulate him. It’s a mistake, especially since she must know that Max is bankrolling him, but one that Bat drove her to. There is no third option in the election, only a wealthy pseudo-populist vs. an establishment liberal incumbent. Bird, she hopes, will be temporarily useful for one purpose. But from the beginning, she finds him so repulsive that she almost walks out, and continues to have misgivings. He then kills an innocent person, which she would never have done, but the last straw comes when she spurns his advances, at which point he either tries to kill her or costs her a life.
To his credit, Bat sees through and ultimately vanquishes Bird, but he could have done so far earlier. What he ultimately does is to record him unawares, then jam the speakers at a campaign rally so that they play back the scandalous recording. The crowd riots, forcing Bird to flee. In retrospect, the notion that this would work seems like the least plausible plot element; Gothamites are clearly smarter than real-life Americans.
However, Max bails out instantly, without suffering any consequences. His power-plant plot has been temporarily delayed; it has not been thwarted. As soon as he finds another puppet candidate, there can be little doubt that he intends to try again.
As he himself boasts:
MAX: I am the light of this city, and I am its mean, twisted soul. Does it matter who’s mayor?
BRUCE: It does to me.
But unfortunately, Max appears to be right.
Meanwhile, out of costume, Bruce and Selina have fallen for each other. This, of course, would not happen if either knew the others’ secret identities; each is reacting to two different people. Let’s take a look at what this means.
Almost as soon as Bruce and Selina meet, although they like each other, they do have the following exchange:
SELINA: You don’t seem like the type who does business with Mr. Shreck.
BRUCE: No, you don’t seem like the type who takes orders from him.
SELINA: Well, that’s a long story.
In other words, it never occurred to him that anyone might need a job, any more than it occurred to him that Cat could have any justification for attacking Max’s business.
Selina, for her part, does not see Batman the oppressor in Bruce until realizing that they are the same person. When they do discover each others’ identities, both are deeply shocked, but only she comes to understand: he means well, but as a member of the ruling class himself, he can never understand why her crusade might be justified.
At the climax of the film, Bat has thwarted Bird’s desperate last attempt at seizing power by force. (I’m glad I waited until after the capitol riot to finish this). Cat has caught, and is about to kill Max, but Bat continues to stand in her way.
CAT: Don’t be naïve. The law doesn’t apply to him or us.
BAT: Wrong on both counts. Why are you doing this? Let’s just take him to the police. Then we can go home … together.
In other words, he insists that the heart must mediate between the brain and hands, but she knows better. For one thing, it demonstrates an appalling hypocrisy on his part, since he has killed more than one street criminal without hesitation or regret. He applies a double standard to Max because they belong to the same class. But more importantly, he might as well expect the justice system to work on Turpin. Max has proven himself, time and time again, to be above the law; there is no reason to think that it would be any different this time. As if this weren’t enough, Bruce then unmasks himself, while addressing her as “Selina”, even though Max is right there. At this point, though Bruce refuses to realize it, the only choice is between Max’s death and theirs.
Selina admits that she “would love to live with you in your castle forever, just like in a fairytale” but quickly adds that “I just couldn’t live with myself, so don’t pretend this is a happy ending”. One understands the heartbreak of those who wish they did end up together. However, tempted though she may be, she knows better. She also knows that Max must die, which he does, at her hands. In the resulting inferno, she disappears. Only at the very end do we learn that she has survived.
Both Sweeney and Selina are working-class antiheroes, who unwittingly run afoul of villainous overlords. They are thus forced into revolution, a choice neither would have made if they’d had any alternatives; the laws of society do not apply to either villain. To different degrees, though both protagonists are antiheroic, neither is evil.
Above all, it is not where they originated that matters, but what Burton made of them. Given that both have their roots in the pulp fiction of their day, I would have expected completely flat characters. I would never have expected their stories to turn into class struggles, but that’s exactly what I found.
Salisbury, Mark, ed., 2008. Burton on Burton. Faber & Faber, pp. 102-3
Di Paolo, Marc, 2011. War, Politics And Superheroes. Jefferson, N.C: McFarland & Co., Inc., Publishers, pp. 66-8.
Riley, Brian Patrick, 2010. ” It’s Man Devouring Man, My Dear”: Adapting Sweeney Todd for the Screen. Literature/Film Quarterly, 38(3), p. 205.
Sondheim, Stephen, 2010. Finishing the hat: collected lyrics (1954-1981) with attendant comments, principles, heresies, grudges, whines and anecdotes. Alfred a Knopf Incorporated.