This is part of my “Batman on Film” blog series. To read other entries in this and other Batman-related blog series, head over to my Batman page.
“Batmania” once again gripped the nation, and people everywhere wanted to get in on the Batman action. Toys featuring Michael Keaton’s Batman were flying off the shelves. I even remember eating Batman breakfast cereal! A sequel was inevitable.
Burton initially refused to return for a second film due to mixed emotions about the first one, but when the studio agreed to give him more creative control over the film, he relented.
Filming began in June 1991, and the film was released on June 19th of the following year. Batman Returns had a budget nearly twice as much as the previous film, but the film grossed only half as much. Because of this, and a handful of other reasons, Burton was removed from the director’s chair for the forthcoming Batman Forever.
Batman Returns opens with the birth of a baby to the Cobblepots. The baby turns out to be a deformed, monstrous child, and the parents throw him into a river. The baby’s carriage floats through the river and ends up in the care of—you guessed it—penguins.
Thirty-three years later, this mysterious child is the leader of a terrorist group known as the Red Triangle Circus Gang. The gang appears in Gotham City during the annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony and causes a riot. Batman arrives to put a stop to the riot and help the police clean things up. During the chaos, the gang kidnaps one of Gotham’s most prominent businessmen, Max Shreck.
The Penguin uses Shreck as a way to gain notoriety in the city, while Shreck uses the Penguin to try to remove the mayor from office.
Meanwhile, Max Shreck’s secretary, Selina Kyle, stumbles upon Shreck’s secret plan to use a new power plant to suck power from Gotham. Shreck catches her and throws her out of a window, effectively killing her.
While this film doesn’t suffer from the glaring plot holes its predecessor does, several of its characters have unusual, outlandish, or confusing motives. The Penguin plans to kill all of Gotham’s firstborn children, but then he wants to become mayor. Next thing you know, he wants to kill children again. The whole time I was watching the film I kept wondering why he was doing what he was doing. He seemed to have very little stated reason for his actions except revenge against his parents.
Catwoman teams up with the Penguin in order to eliminate Batman, but there’s no explanation as to why. Her first fight with Batman seemed completely unprovoked, and then following that fight she wants to get rid of him. Why? Because he’s a crimefighter and she’s a criminal?
The film works well if you view Max Shreck as the primary villain, but it’s still confusing and messy.
Visually the film departs drastically from the tone set in the previous movie. Batman seemed interested in creating a very dark world, but it maintained a level of realism and relatability that is completely gone from Batman Returns. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; Batman Returns has a beautiful visual style all its own. Where it suffers is in its lack of connection to its predecessor.
The movie seems to be set in a fantasy world. Where Batman sought fairly realistic explanations for things, Batman Returns enters a much more fantastical realm. Oswald Cobblepot is a deformed, elephant-man type of creature. Catwoman is someone who has evidently returned from the dead.
The world these plotlines are set in is a gorgeous fantasy world full of varying levels of blacks and whites. The stark contrasts are quintessentially Tim Burton, and even Danny Elfman’s score departs from his work in Batman to more closely match Tim Burton’s work. While it still draws on the themes created in 1989’s Batman, it’s less “Batman” and more “Burton.” I couldn’t help but think of Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, and The Nightmare Before Christmas when listening to this score.
The Batsuit received an upgrade as well. As cool as the suit in Batman looked, I never was too fond of the “molded-armor” look. The mask fits Batman’s face better and the plated-armor look is sleeker and more modern. It seems much more utilitarian and less showy, which I personally like. You might disagree, but I appreciate the change.
Batman/Bruce Wayne: Michael Keaton
Keaton returned to portray the titular character yet again, and his performance as Batman is even better this time around.
Catwoman/Selina Kyle: Michelle Pfeiffer
This version of Catwoman is interesting, to say the least. Pfeiffer does a fantastic job with the role, but I wasn’t convinced that this was the best way to portray the character. I think she had great chemistry with Batman, and her quirkiness fits well with Bruce Wayne’s own oddity. I’ve always seen Catwoman as a femme fatale, but in this movie she comes across as a woman perpetually in heat. It’s somewhat overblown and at a few points a bit unnerving. I think the performance was good, but the character wasn’t written too well.
I think at this point it’s good to note that the characters in this movie do not reflect their comic book counterparts at all. Whereas in Batman, the characters resembled the originals to a degree (backstories not withstanding), in Batman Returns, Burton seems less concerned with sticking to the source material. It works in some places, but in others, not so much. Catwoman is a great example of that. In the comic books, she’s a cat burglar who also happens to fight for social justice in Gotham City’s slums. She’s a spokesperson for equal rights and a champion for those living in poverty. In Batman Returns she’s an angry zombie-woman seeking revenge against the corrupt mogul who killed her.
Penguin/Oswald Cobblepot: Danny DeVito
While I thought that DeVito did a tremendous job playing the Penguin, this is another case of my desire to see the comic book version of a character come to life getting trumped by Tim Burton’s desire to create a sympathetic monster. In the comics Oswald Cobblepot is a high-society, high profile crime lord who owns a casino and uses it as a cover for his black-market weapons dealing. The only reason he’s referred to as “The Penguin” is that he’s short, rotund, and likes to wear tuxedos and black suits.
In this movie, the Penguin is effectively an Elephant Man. He’s society’s outcast due to grotesque deformities, and Burton plays that up quite a bit. It’s rather ineffective though. It’s almost as if Burton wants us to feel sorry for the Penguin by the end of the movie; he’s a misunderstood, mistreated monster whose only true friends were the flightless birds from whom he derived his name. However, it’s extremely difficult to feel sorry for a character who devises a plan to kill all of Gotham City’s firstborn children.
Max Shreck: Christopher Walken
While the movie’s marketing machine didn’t talk about him at all, this was the film’s primary villain. I enjoyed him as a character. He was conniving, misled, and quite evil. Christopher Walken’s performance was good (albeit a little too “Walken-esque”), and he convinced me to hate him by the last scene.
Alfred Pennyworth: Michael Gough
Alfred takes a step back this time, which I think hurts the movie to a degree. Michael Gough’s version of Alfred is still one of my favorites to this day, and it’s a shame he didn’t get more screen time. I definitely appreciated the banter he had with Bruce Wayne at several points during the movie. Particularly when Bruce brings up Vicki Vale. Fantastic moment between the two characters.
The film is certainly dark, which was one of the major complaints of the movie, but I don’t think that was as much an issue as people made it out to be at the time of the film’s release. The real problem with this movie is that it’s needlessly grotesque. The character of the Penguin is frightening and cringe-inducing, but we’re supposed to feel sorry for him.
It’s been said many times before, but I’ll go ahead and add my voice to the din: Batman Returns isn’t as much a Batman movie as it is a Tim Burton film that incorporates characters from the Batman universe. Everything from the stark visuals to the fantastical world and the grotesque, misunderstood monster character left me feeling more like I was watching an amalgamation of Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Sweeney Todd, and Beetlejuice.
Like the first film, it’s hard to find any real themes or character arcs in the movie. The attempts are there, but they tend to fall flat. Batman/Bruce Wayne doesn’t evolve much in the movie. The Penguin doesn’t either. Where it improves over the first film is in the fact that there is a bit of an arc that we get to witness. Catwoman’s arc is probably the most interesting we’ve seen in any modern Batman film thus far (from 1989-1992, I mean. I still haven’t touched anything between then and now.), and while it isn’t great, it’s still nice to see.
Reaction & Impact
Batman Returns is an odd movie. I started the film really wanting to enjoy it, but I finished feeling confused and annoyed by it. In one sense I actually liked it better than Batman. Its art deco evolved to a more gothic feel. The visuals are beautiful and the film feels much more personal. But with any superhero sequel, the stakes need to be raised from the previous movie, and that doesn’t really happen here.
Batman Returns received a lot of criticism from parents for what they called a darker and more violent tone than the first film. I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s darker, and Batman Returns was never meant to be viewed by children. It was certainly more grotesque, however, and I can understand how that would bother many parents. The studio reacted harshly though, and Burton was removed from directorial duties on any future Batman movies. With Burton no longer directing, Michael Keaton decided to step away from Batman as well. A big change to the franchise was about to occur.