In the lead up to the debut of Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice, I’m reviewing every single Batman film. Check out more Batman-related content in my Dark Knight Discussion column.
In the wake of the box office success of Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989, Warner Bros. Studios put a sequel to the blockbuster on the fast track. And along with that came far more creative freedom for Burton, who took his aesthetics and eccentricities to new heights with 1992’s Batman Returns – a supremely weird, dark, and mean film that has polarized Batman fans ever since its release.
That response is quite valid on both sides. Batman Returns is the product of a director’s vision run rampant on a massive budget. Here, Burton throws in all manner of gothic themes, macabre carnival characters, and sociopathy in both heroes and villains. That results in a film that is far more even and clear in artistic vision than its bumpy predecessor, but also a comic book movie that has little regard for its superhero inspirations. Those looking for a faithful adaptation of Batman and his world will find many aspects to dislike, even when the movie succeeds in fulfilling the vision it seeks.
In a film that sees Batman face off against a mentally broken Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) and a sewer-dwelling mutant Penguin (Danny DeVito), it’s obvious that this entry into The Dark Knight’s big screen adventures will be going a far darker route than what may be expected. Multiple women are pushed to their deaths, leather and rubber outfits are sexualized in a manner that turns subtext into outright text, and basically everyone has an addiction to murder.
What’s supremely strange about the tone of Batman Returns is that given a more than 20 year time lapse, the film has simultaneously grown both more cartoonish and grimmer. Modern comic book films most often aim for either a lighter tone that appeals broadly or a grimmer outlook that tries to feel more adult and grounded. For some, seeing a criminal dressed up like a circus performer being flambéed by the Batmobile’s jet engine may be unevenly macabre, while others may delight in the funhouse-like darkness of it all. But whether or not it lines up with a viewer’s personal taste, Burton manages to infuse every scene with a gothic sense of horror heroics.
Returning as the protagonist, Keaton is actually in far better form as Batman/Bruce Wayne than his original appearance as the character. Armed with an improved costume (armored detail beats molded muscles every day) and a much more convincing love interest in the equally scarred Selina Kyle, Keaton is able to sink his teeth into the role to a greater degree, which benefits both the character and the film as a whole. However, it’s hard to actually say that this is Batman’ film, given the amount of screen time dedicated to the movie’s antagonists. Realistically, this is a narrative owned by mostly everyone outside of its title character.
It’s no wonder that Pfeiffer’s Catwoman stayed an iconic character in the public consciousness for so long. While her crazed take on the villainess shares little in common with the cat burglar comic version, her sexual and psychotic take on Catwoman is bold and fierce. While her humble beginnings as put-upon secretary Selina Kyle leave much to be desired and are dweebish enough to be uncomfortable, the character becomes far more compelling once she is transformed through a failed attempt on her life. The bigness of her take on the character may feel somewhat too cartoonish years later, but Catwoman’s look and chemistry with Batman are still unforgettable. It’s her relationship with Wayne and the tragic conclusion of her story that gives Batman Returns its strongest emotional beats, which help the film be more than a paper thin costume party.
Filling out the role of true villain, DeVito’s slobbering, screeching, and scowling Penguin doesn’t just chew the scenery, he’s on a quest to devour every set in sight. As a freakish mutant man raised in the sewers by penguins, it’s clear that this is a character with little relation to the comic book counterpart or any sort of reality from early on. However, he’s also saddled with a laughably unbelievable story arc as an urban legend who turns out to be true, rising from the sewers for the first time in order to place his bid as the future mayor of Gotham City. It’s an idea that is so ludicrously unreal as to stick out in even the heightened Burton world of Batman. Combine that with DeVito screaming at the top of his lungs when he isn’t salivating over the nearest female, and you have a character that is impossible for any viewer to connect to as a person. However, his forceful performance mixed with some outlandish costume and prosthetic choices make The Penguin an instantly recognizable villain who can become quite frightening at the right moment.
And there’s also Christopher Walken as corrupt businessman Max Schreck, who’s doing his darndest to be as Walkenish as is humanly possible, even to the point that the actor playing his son is forced to do a Walken impersonation in order to seem convincing as offspring. It’s all a sort of surreal cinematic gold, like a vision that Christian Bale’s Batman would have while on a bad trip from Scarecrow’s fear gas.
Weaknesses from Burton’s previous entry into the franchise remain, such as a lack of compelling action and the difficulties that come from a heavy reliance on unrealistic sets. But the deeper dive into the macabre and bizarre help even it out a little bit more, as these aesthetics are joined with a far greater portion of the film world than in 89’s Batman, which leads to a more cohesive setting. But when the world created is so dismally cruel that ditsy blonde models are thrown to their deaths and The Dark Knight explodes random thugs in the street, the narrative begins to feel less and less enjoyable. That said, moments between Bruce and Selina, Batman’s high speed boat ride, and even The Penguin’s interplay with his army of killer penguins jump off the screen in outlandish and unforgettable ways.
As a whole, there’s still something cold and removed about most of Batman Returns, but the artistic vision and chemistry between the leads make this something far more unique and vibrant, which helps the film stand out among the ever growing pack of comic book movies. Even when Batman Returns wildly misfires in its intentions, it’s the result of a team trying to do something really different.
Best Batman Moment: Batman crashes the final confrontation between Catwoman and Schreck, promptly punching the businessman in the face and telling him that he’s going to jail, followed by an appeal to Selina’s better nature and their deep connection. Both aspects are spot on for the character and use Batman’s thirst for justice and longing for a deeper relationship to portray a Dark Knight far truer to the character than much of his on-screen depiction in the rest of this film.
When They Got Batman Wrong: During a fight with The Penguin’s many goons, Batman finds himself up against a massive strongman. So he sticks a bundle of lit TNT to him and kicks him down a sewer where he explodes, psychotically grinning all the way. So Batman gleefully murders a guy. What the hell.
Comic Book Inspiration: Besides taking Catwoman and The Penguin from the comics and playing fast and loose with them, there are no specific comic storylines used for Batman Returns. However, The Penguin’s political run in the film takes inspiration from the ‘60s Batman TV series episode “Hizzoner The Penguin,” which saw the character also running for mayor.
Fun Fact: Batman Returns underwent major changes in the rewrite process. While the original version included Catwoman and Penguin, it also had Robin and Two-Face, but they were cut from the script when new writer Daniel Waters took over. Waters also called Robin “the most worthless character in the world.”