The Dark Knight Retrospective: Re-Watching Batman Returns (1992)

The Dark Knight Retrospective: Re-Watching Batman Returns (1992)


With the massive success of Batman under their belt ($250 million in the U.S. alone – in ’89 dollars! With no 3D upcharges!), Tim Burton and Michael Keaton reunited for the inevitable sequel.  But that kind of success gives a filmmaker plenty of clout, so Burton seemingly cashed in on that newfound clout by making a much more Burton-esque Batman: everything is more here.  Batman Returns is darker, more gothic, more freakish, and more blackly comic than the first film.  The result may have caught audiences off guard, and some may have turned against Burton at this point, but I think Batman Returns represents Burton working at his peak.   Sandwiched between Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood, Burton hadn’t yet submitted to full-on studio hack mode yet.  This is a far cry from such soulless fare as Alice in Wonderland or Planet of the Apes.  Batman Returns was, and still is, my favorite of the first four Batman films.

Let’s jump back to 1992 briefly though.  Despite its frosty, wintertime setting, Batman Returns was released in the middle of summer.  Everyone had been asking for Danny DeVito to play the Penguin as soon as sequel talk arose, and his casting should have come as no surprise.  I was amped to see another Batman after loving the first one so much.  I remember I saw it on vacation with some friends in Michigan that summer.  I had to drag them to the theater to see it.  They didn’t really care all that much, and would have much rather just shot hoops outside on a nice sunny day.  I think both of my friends exited the theater fairly pissed off.  They didn’t like what they saw.  I went crazy for it though, and much of that affection stems from Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman.

Let’s face it – Pfeiffer owns this movie.  She’s funny, sexy, and tough – everything a good Catwoman should be.  Plus, she’s a fantastic actress who can deftly handle both the meek side of Selina Kyle and the re-energized hell kitten aspect of Selina after Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) pushes her out the window.  She looks great in the leather get-up, and her scenes opposite DeVito and Keaton have a real spark.  My favorite sequences in the movie are devoted to the Bruce Wayne/Selina Kyle romance.  There are only a handful of them in the movie, but in those few scenes, it is quickly apparent that Selina and Bruce are a more engaging match, than Kim Basinger’s Vicki Vale ever could be.

There is a great sequence towards the end, when Selina and Bruce are at a costume ball.  They are the only two people in attendance not wearing a mask (because, we are to presume, Bruce and Selina are their fake identities – they’re really Batman and Catwoman).  When they dance, and figure out who the other is, Selina asks, “Does this mean we have to start fighting now?”  Bruce just pulls her closer, and the conflict runs wild over Pfeiffer’s face.  It’s awesome.  And in a noticeable switch from the last one, this is the only scene in the movie that uses a pop song: the much more appropriate Siouxsie and the Banshees, rather than Prince.

So yeah, Catwoman is my favorite.  But what about the other villain in the movie?  Or villains, I should say.  Just as the first Batman was more preoccupied with Joker than Batman, Burton continues to be interested in the villains.  Keaton is great, but he’s even more of a supporting character in this one.  Let’s cover Penguin first.  I used to think DeVito was just playing himself, but upon this latest viewing, I think DeVito does a terrific job, and shows what a great character actor he is.  This may have been typecasting at the beginning, but DeVito and the production designers take a lot of risks with this version of the Penguin.  He is truly grotesque and often unpleasant to look at.  He’s constantly horny (something I didn’t catch as much back when I was 13), and his villainous plan is truly dark: he’s going to kidnap and kill the first born child of every Gothamite.  How a movie with that kind of plot point got toys in kids’ Happy Meals is hard to fathom.  And when Penguin bites off that one mayoral aide worker’s nose – holy cow!  Penguin is standing there with blood and previously eaten fish guts all over his face, and, as a viewer, you’re just like, “Wow.  They went there.”

The other villain is Walken’s Max Shreck, and if there is one big problem in the movie – it’s him, because: (1) Walken is just phoning it in; and (2) the character is unnecessary.  Batman Returns is often described as overstuffed and unfocused, and that’s a legitimate complaint.  The action here also fails to impress. As with the first movie, Burton is not as adept at the action and doesn’t seem all that interested in spending time on it.  He’s more engaged with Penguin’s freak side, and Selina’s transformation.  If you’re interested in those kinds of things (and I was), then you’ll enjoy this.

A few other quick notes: the prologue where baby Penguin’s parents are so freaked out by him that they toss him off a bridge into the sewer is great, and really sets the tone for the rest of the movie.  And though I knew Paul Reubens did a cameo as Penguin’s dad, I didn’t realize until now that Penguin’s mom was Sloan from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.  Awesome.  Danny Elfman turns in one of my favorite scores that he’s ever done.  The themes for each character are haunting and memorable.  He does a nice job of expanding the music from the first movie and building on it.

All in all, I think Batman Returns holds up really well.  It is inventive and gorgeously designed.  It makes you long for the days when Burton still had his shit together.   You should at least see it for Pfeiffer’s Catwoman.  Her performance here has forever spoiled the character for me.  Halle Berry made me puke, and I have extreme reservations about Anne Hathaway in the role.  Even if she’s good, she’ll still pale in comparison.  As for Burton, I have no doubt that he made the movie he wanted to make, but Warner Bros. must have had buyer’s remorse.  Batman Returns was a hit, but not a big one, and its dark content angered plenty of parents.  Burton was ready to come back for a third, but the studio said no and handed the franchise over to Schumacher.



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