Batman Returns (1992)
This is the first Batman movie I saw theatrically, and at twelve years old, I loved it. I think it’s a much more polished movie than Tim Burton’s 1989 film with a number of charismatic, excellent performances. I’ve never perceived the film as weird or strange like many do. I just see it as a damn good movie that I highly enjoy. I think Batman Returns is far more of a Tim Burton style movie than the first, but in my opinion, that doesn’t make it a lesser Batman movie.
Gotham City calls upon its greatest hero, Batman, to combat its newest threats. From the sewers, the deformed and hideous Penguin (Danny DeVito), head of the criminal Red Triangle Circus Gang, forges a fiendish alliance with the corrupt business mogul Max Shreck (Christopher Walken). Penguin is discovered to be Oswald Cobblepot, the outcast son of a wealthy Gotham couple, and Shreck looks to set him up as the city’s Mayor to force his deceptive power plant upon the city. However, the Penguin has his own schemes to wreak havoc upon Gotham. Meanwhile, Max Shreck attempts to murder his frumpy secretary Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer) after poking around too deeply into his shady business plans, but she is resurrected as the dangerous and sexy Catwoman who seeks revenge on him. Batman races into action to combat these villains, but as the caped crusader begins to put a dent in their plans, Penguin and Catwoman plot to discredit Batman, making him a criminal in the eyes of Gotham’s citizens. While the Bat and Cat are at odds, Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle quickly become romantically involved which further strains Selina’s already fractured psyche. Batman must battle to stave off the treacherous, twisted plans of these eccentric villains before rampant destruction is inflicted upon Gotham City.
This is truly one of the very few superhero films that is able to balance out having multiple villains. The plotlines are all interconnected smartly through the Max Shreck character. The Penguin is the main villain while Catwoman is more of a subversive wild card, as she should be. Her motives are more passionate while his are particularly methodical, but do later delve into the maniacal. This film seems more character driven than the first, and has some stronger emotional context. Selina has a wild ride that takes her through a slew of emotional states. She is very conflicted between her vengeful psychotic side, and the one that is gradually falling in love with Bruce Wayne. Michelle Pfeiffer just does a stunning job in this role ultimately making Selina grossly sympathetic. The Penguin is fueled by spite for society for being rejected by it all his life, and goes through a character arc himself. First, wanting to be accepted as man instead of a monster, but later, embraces the monster he has become to wreak havoc upon Gotham City.
I also love the plot of the villains launching an elaborate smear campaign against Batman. They frame him for murder and more to position Cobblepot as the new face of hope for the city. It makes for a more dire and interesting circumstance for Batman to deal with, but Bruce decides turnabout is fair play. It’s all an excellently crafted story progression. Daniel Waters and Sam Hamm really conjured up a great story that takes plenty of twists and turns that maintain excitement and interest in the characters. It’s not just some colorful madman terrorizing the city, it’s more complex and involved than that. There are numerous motivations at play with the main characters that create a more personal set of conflicts. The Penguin does provide the larger scale threat near the end, but it’s still perfectly in line with his agenda. He reaches a boiling point, and decides to let loose upon this city that has turned on him. Everything builds up to him becoming that monster, and I believe it’s all greatly executed. In general, the film is amazingly well paced always keeping a consistent energetic rhythm going. At no point does the film feel like it drags. There’s always something developing because of the multiple main characters and interwoven plots. It never gets confusing either. It’s all competently and tightly strung together.
I love the subtle detective aspects in Michael Keaton’s Batman. While everyone else is very much buying the altruistic façade of the Penguin, he sees something that just doesn’t fit right. Something nags at that inquisitive mind of his, and that is extremely faithful to the psychology of Batman. He hardly needs to vocalize his intellect. What is said is conveyed very succinctly as Keaton did a lot of trimming down of dialogue to keep Batman’s words sharp and telling. The film also shows a little technical prowess with Bruce both having the forethought to record the Penguin’s rantings to cleverly use against him later, and showing Bruce attempting to repair the damaged Batmobile. They are just subtle things which show that Bruce has these diverse skills.
This time out, Michael Keaton was given a wider canvas to stretch his talent across. He still executes Batman amazingly well. He is able to convey so much just through those intense eyes, and that sells the demeanor and intimidation of Batman so powerfully. Of course, with the Catwoman dynamic, Keaton has more chemistry to strike up under the mask, and a few appropriate humorous exchanges while fighting with her. Keaton has rich chemistry with the whole cast, and is able to offer up more as Bruce Wayne as well as Batman. His relationship with Michael Gough’s Alfred is a little more light hearted and open. One has to love the little jab about Alfred letting Vicky Vale into the Batcave. Opposite Christopher Walken, Keaton holds up quite well, but Walken never makes it easy for anyone to stand up to his charisma. Still, there’s a nice contrast in Keaton’s more grounded, respectable businessman to Walken’s wheeler and dealer type who definitely has skeletons in his closet. What really shines, though, is that Michael Keaton and Michelle Pfeiffer have electric chemistry both in costume and out. The romantic relationship is perfectly complicated as Batman and Catwoman are supposed to be. There’s always some ethical or moral divide between them that cuts the pinnacle of their love short. You can feel the affection Keaton puts into the performance to have the emotions strike deep within Bruce’s soul, and create the powerful connection Bruce and Selina are meant to have. Even as Batman, Keaton shows that sparkle of fascination and intrigue for this seductive and dangerous Catwoman. She, figuratively, hits him very close to the heart, and he sees someone possibly cut from the same jagged mold that he was. There is much less of a sense of the brooding lone man in Batman Returns, but with the stronger love interest aspect and the story ties with Max Shreck, it naturally pushes Bruce Wayne out of the shadows and into a more active situation. He no longer feels like the recluse he seemed to be in the first film. He feels both like a real executive businessman and a human being here. Bruce Wayne does have that dark shadow on his soul, but he has loved many woman in the comics and has been a responsible and quite public businessman. So, it’s all perfectly in line with the source material, and Keaton, nor anyone else, could have done it better.
Danny DeVito is fantastic in this grotesque version of the Penguin. In the comics, he’s just a short, stout crime boss dressed in a tuxedo and top hat with an affinity for birds. Here, he’s made into a freakish man in both appearance and psychology. DeVito just throws all of himself into this role making Penguin a disgusting, crude villain full of gross rage and despicable deceitfulness. It seems like he purely enveloped himself in the character, and had the time of his life with it. He puts on a sinister performance of a man who revels in his own vile intentions, and it couldn’t be better. DeVito is immensely entertaining and charismatic. The make-up design of the character is equally excellent creating a look that can be effectively unsettling. Still, DeVito is easily able to show the wide range of subtle and verbose emotions of the character through the prosthetics. It’s a masterful execution all around.
However, the absolutely stunning standout in this cast is definitely Michelle Pfeiffer. She passionately embodies all phases and mental states of Selina Kyle. From the meek and mousy secretary that awkwardly blends into the background to the bolder, more aggressive and seductive woman to the playful, sultry Catwoman to the ultimately fractured person whose emotions are strained between the love she has found with Bruce and the bloodthirsty vengeance she is driven towards with Shreck. When she is that more lowly woman at the start, there is such a timid, oppressed quality about the character that you can’t help but feel bad for her. Nothing seems to go right for Selina, and she couldn’t be more undeserving of Max Shreck’s intimidating and belittling treatment of her. Then, when that nervous breakdown occurs, Pfeiffer turns on a truly manic performance that shows the traumatic transformation Selina has now gone through. It’s the character violently breaking free of the restraints she’s had all this time, and out the other end of it comes this confident, aggressive woman. This is a Catwoman that excites. Beyond just the sizzling hot sexual aspects, she is electrifyingly dangerous between her ferocious fighting skills, the razor sharp claws, and the leather whip. Pfeiffer slinks very smoothly into being Catwoman lusciously embodying her feline grace. As Selina herself, she shows an amazing ability to subtly shift tone from humorous or casual to just plain dark and unsettling. That venomous dark side seeps through beautifully. Michelle Pfeiffer brings out such intense emotional pain and conflict which forges together an immensely fascinating and sympathetic character. There’s so much subtle texture and emotional range in her performance that one could go on all day detailing it all. Simply said, she put in a remarkably diverse and emotionally intense performance here, and greatly enhances the depth of the film. From what she did in this role, you can definitely see why Selina Kyle had such a strong emotional impact on Bruce Wayne by the film’s end. Pfeiffer absolutely left me wanting more in absolutely every good way imaginable.
Of course, you can never go wrong with casting Christopher Walken, and in Batman Returns, he’s definitely at his best. He has fierce charisma that forces the character of Max Shreck vibrantly into the meat of the film. He never gets lost or brushed aside in favor for the more fantastical villains. There’s just too much weight and excitement in what Walken brings to the role for an audience not to welcome his presence. Walken is massively intimidating when threatening Selina just before attempting to kill her. You feel like Max Shreck is a powerhouse heavy. He’s masterfully manipulative with a mesmerizing skill of twisting people’s minds with his words. Walken just has such a fascinating delivery of lines that is a signature for him, but I think he adds something specially dynamic to this role. He could carry this whole movie as the main villain if it had called for it. Shreck is not damaged goods like Batman, Catwoman, or the Penguin, and that probably makes him the most condemnable villain of the film. He’s a corrupt, deceitful, murderous human being wrapped up in the guise of a respectable businessman. He’s an unethical vacuum of morality that will go to any crooked lengths to further his agendas and strengthen his legacy in Gotham. He’s cutthroat to no end, and Walken embraces the unsettling, shrewd nature of the character powerfully.
Again, the look of Batman Returns is much more polished than the 1989 movie. There is not as much grit in the visuals, and instead, has a stronger contrast. Blacks are thick and rich. They maintain a striking appearance as the shadows are nicely balanced with the light. Burton and his Edward Scissorhands director of photography Stefan Czapsky give this movie its own visual identity. I very much like the blue tones seen throughout which offer up a very complementary tone. Batman Returns certainly doesn’t have quite as much iconic imagery as its predecessor, but it surely has its dramatic moments that are beautifully captured. The snowy appearance of the film was a gorgeous choice as it further adds to the visual contrast and beauty. It’s strange that while the subject matter is definitely darker than the first, Batman Returns actually doesn’t look nearly as dark as the 1989 movie. It appears to be generally brighter and more inviting. It has plenty of moody visuals, but moves away from the muted color schemes and grim aesthetics. It’s definitely a pleasant experience for the eyes.
The production design is much sleeker, and that is reflected in the redesigned Bat suit. It has a cleaner, more art deco armored design which makes sense. Batman would likely evolve his suit into something generally more durable. From a production standpoint, it just looks more refined and streamlined. Gotham City looks more updated with a generally more modern feeling, but still showcasing an gothic industrial look as well as some 1930s or 1940s artistic mentalities. It’s a beautiful city no longer tainted by grime and trash, but still has its darker qualities. Even the Batcave gets a fine upgrade with more up-to-date technology and refined lighting schemes. Plus, the Bat-Ski boat is a sleek addition which gives the film a little extra something near the climax. The wardrobe is just wonderful all around. The gorgeous pinstriped suits of Max Shreck have an excellent 1900s turn of the century class to them. They make him feel like an iconic captain of industry, and the full grey head of hair was a nice touch to his look. The Catwoman outfit could not be sleeker or more sexually charged. It’s absolutely perfect for a character of this slinky nature, but also, reflects her fractured psyche with the stitched together look. Even Penguin’s more upscale outfits, somewhat reflective of Shreck’s style, still have a grungy feel to them. It creates a nice texture and contrast for the character. Penguin’s lair is exceptionally moody, decrepit, and dank perfectly reflecting the striking image of the character.
Danny Elfman really broadens the musical landscape of the franchise with this film. With more main characters come some very distinctive and marvelous themes that richly reflect the complicated natures of these characters. Catwoman’s theme is so wonderfully complex representing the chaotic and unbalanced nature of the character, and throwing in a dash of sorrow and sympathy here and there. Elfman adds a chorus into the score to enhance the operatic sense of everything, and the slight rearrangement of the main title march is very pleasing. It is a heavily and finely textured score that is vibrant and epic. The Christmas season setting of the film truly weaves its way into the score every so often, and makes for a very colorful and haunting listen. While I’ve never seen A Nightmare Before Christmas, I have to imagine there’s some correlation between those musical styles from Elfman.
There is also a vast improvement in visual effects work here. Before watching the featurettes on the Special Edition DVD, I never knew that the opening title sequence was entirely done with miniatures and effects work. It always looked entirely natural to me. Matte paintings are still great, but have a little more life to them with some extra color and integrated motion. Since digital effects had progressed into the forefront, we definitely get the benefit of that higher end work here. Being released in 1992, it was sandwiched right between 1991’s Terminator 2 and 1993’s Jurassic Park. While the digital effects are not used on a massive scale, they are very seamless with both something like the armored shields on the Batmobile, and more so with the digital replication of the penguin soldiers late in the film. Overall, it’s a very fine accomplishment from the visual effects department. Stan Winston also provided his studio’s talent with creating numerous animatronic penguins that seamlessly blend in with the real life ones.
Tim Burton continues to show a great sense of action in this sequel. Every single action sequence is choreographed and shot amazingly well. They are smartly scripted making sure each one is organically different without forcing it. With the eccentric nature of the Red Triangle Circus Gang, Batman has plenty of gimmickry to combat from the sword swallower to the fire breather and many more. He handles each one with originality packed with some ironic entertainment value. Igniting the Batmobile’s flaming turbine engine upon the fire breather is just too priceless. Then, things get more interesting when Batman combats Catwoman. She’s immensely skilled and agile making for a dynamically dangerous adversary that gets some stinging shots in. Mixing that in with the sensuous aspects of their peculiar relationship, it creates a great twisting psychological unpredictability to their confrontations. The climax of the film just blows me away. There’s so much slam bang awesomeness packed into it which Burton handles with so much competency and balance. The race to halt the Penguin’s missile attack on the city creates the fast paced excitement with the Bat Ski boat rocketing to its desination. The explosive and poignant conclusions to the Penguin’s storyline are nicely balanced on either side of Selina Kyle’s own emotionally charged climax. This entire sequence is tightly paced, and hits all the plot and character beats perfectly on the mark. Everything is powerfully wrapped up to a highly satisfying degree. Many superhero films with so many villains usually end up in a mess, but Batman Returns handles all of them exceptionally well all the way through to the end.
The film certainly has more impact upon Bruce Wayne than Batman, but it all ties in very nicely. The parallels of Batman and Catwoman versus Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle was an excellent idea. How both are tied into one is exceptionally strong. Just a simple unassuming line of dialogue is what triggers the revelation to them both, and injects a much stronger emotional element into the climax. It also does create a fine arc for Bruce Wayne / Batman. Seeing him connect with this woman that is very much like him, and how he ultimately wants to be able to save her from the vengeance that’s eating her alive is wonderfully done. The Batman / Catwoman relationship has always been one of the most fascinating and complex ones in comics, and I believe Tim Burton and his screenwriters did an excellent job bringing that to the screen while Keaton and Pfeiffer made it exceed any expectations.
After watching Batman Returns again, I think this might be my new favorite Batman movie. While it’s not really faithful to all the characters as, in the comics, Catwoman is just a cat burglar with no mystical type powers or psychological unbalances, and Penguin is just a sort of quirky, non-freakish crime boss, I really like what was done with these characters, and all the concepts were executed with depth and intelligence. If it was all done poorly or just fell short of its potential, I would surely have some gripes with it all, but everyone involved just couldn’t have done a better job. The tight pace is really what excites me about the movie. It’s constantly moving somewhere with one character or another, and they are all logically and organically tied in together instead of some slap dashed plot to force multiple villains into the same movie. It’s this tightly wrapped sordid web of interconnected characters and plotlines that are smartly interwoven. I will say that there was a slight missed opportunity by Batman not having to really deal with being framed for murder by Penguin and Catwoman. It is an unresolved plot point that is brushed aside rather effortlessly, and it’s a shame too. It’s a storyline that could be very fascinating to explore, but the film just didn’t have room to resolve it. Any such resolution can only be implied, likely through Batman’s rescue of the children from the Red Triangle Circus Gang. However, for the trade off we get for it, I can generally overlook this issue. I enjoy Batman Returns thoroughly now, and I think it’s gotten some bad press over the years. People seem to act like 1989’s Batman was this bright, happy, fun adventure film for the whole family in comparison, but like I said in that review, at nine years old, my parents did not let me see it in the theatre. It was a dark movie that could be unsettling to a young audience. Batman Returns at least has a bit more levity via light, appropriate humor and great chemistry to balance out the dark characters and subject matter. I would venture to say that this sequel is more fun and more exciting than the first movie. I just find this more satisfying on numerous levels. It has a stronger, more layered story with more rousing action, and a tighter rhythm and pace held together by an incredible cast. I believe Batman Returns is an amazing movie, and a great sequel. I won’t say it’s perfect, or that it will give you everything you want from a Batman movie, but it’s a damn good one, regardless. I know it almost certainly will never happen, but I would be very interested in seeing Tim Burton and Michael Keaton return to the franchise with a proper sequel to their Batman movies. I think they could still do a great job if collaborating with the right creative talents, and Burton could likely use a change of talents these days.