Yes, Batman Returns is 25 years old.
In 1992, Tim Burton’s sequel came on the heels of its 1989 predecessor. Batman Returns is a financial success, but many critics would complain of it being “too dark.” Even McDonalds would call it inappropriate for kids. This would lead to Warner Brothers letting Burton go and bringing in Joel Schumacher. Well, you know the rest.
But is the film really too dark? Is it misunderstood? Or is it somewhere in between?
During Christmas, a sinister inhabitant of the sewers plans to make his return to the world. He is Oswald “The Penguin” Cobblepot, a former sideshow freak who heads the Red Triangle Circus Gang. Despite being born into wealth, his parents chose to abandon him due to his deformities. After teaming up with businessman Max Schreck, Penguin makes his public debut and becomes the media darling of Gotham City.
Meanwhile, Shreck is planning a power plant that will siphon energy from Gotham. His timid secretary Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer) stumbles upon the scheme, only to be thrown out of a window. However, she is revived by a multitude of cats and has a nervous breakdown. She is reborn as Catwoman, who is a more assertive, dominant individual.
When Cobblepot decides to run for mayor, Bruce decides he must stop his plan. However, Penguin frames Batman for murder, and the Dark Knight must clear his name. In the process, though, he finds himself falling in love with Selina, who’s out to kill Schreck in revenge.
Keaton gives a quiet, compelling turn as Batman. His devotion to a war on crime has left him isolated and, apart from Alfred, without any major relationships. As he grows closer to Selina, Bruce realizes she is very similar to him in many ways. His final speech about wearing masks to her is one of his best moments.
Many fans complain Batman is a supporting player in this movie. In a way, this might be true, but it also works for the character. As the Dark Knight, he’s chosen to isolate himself from others. It is unfortunate that Keaton chose to quit the franchise, because a third Burton film would have been great.
Danny DeVito was born to play the Penguin, and he does so with relish. In contrast to Jack Nicholson’s Joker, he is boiling with rage and bitterness. He can be chilling in the character’s plotting to murder the sons of Gotham, but he’s vulnerable in seeking acceptance. He’s also full of dark humour, such as the “Gushing blood from my nose” scene. Another fine example is the speech to his army of penguins.
Yet it is Pfeiffer steals the show as Catwoman. The actress goes through a wide range from the nervous, mousy secretary to a tough vigilante. Her revival and breakdown scenes are chilling to behold. In real life, she and Keaton were in love during the filming, so their chemistry is realistic.
Christopher Walken plays up his sinister side as Max Shreck, and he seems to be just as much a villain as Penguin and Catwoman. In a sense, Batman Returns is the first film to have three antagonists. Pat Hingle’s Commissioner Gordon doesn’t get much to do. As Alfred, Michael Gough has a decent amount of screen time, such as working on the Batmobile.
The film is as dark as the first movie, but it contains a lot of Burton’s signature style. This is especially true with the Penguin’s underground lair. Gotham City has a lot more Expressionist and Art Deco influences this time around.
Yes, the film does have several deaths, especially coming from Batman. Look no further than the scene where he sends a goon to his death with a bomb. While Batman is a dark character, having him kill bad guys is cold blood seems a little too grim. Then again, look at Zack Snyder’s take on the Dark Knight.
Batman Returns is a decent follow-up to the first Batman movie. Although it suffers from sequelitis, the film does contain great performances. This is one of Tim Burton’s most artistic works. If only he had done Batman 3, he would have made the first ever Bat trilogy.