Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman was a huge hit and ushered in a wave of superhero films, which, despite several peaks and valleys, shows no sign of stopping. It was inevitable that one of those films would be a Batman sequel and in 1992, Tim Burton and Warner Bros. gave us Batman Returns. This film was criticized for being too dark, too violent, and too focused on the villains. As a Batman film, I can see how it might disappoint people. As a Tim Burton film, I think it’s great.
A deformed penguin-like man, Oswald Cobblepot (Danny DeVito), blackmails crooked industrialist Max Shreck (Christopher Walken). They arrange to have the mayor’s child kidnapped so Cobblepot a.k.a. the Penguin, can come to the rescue and look like a hero to the citizens of Gotham City. Meanwhile, Shreck throws his meek secretary Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer) out a window after she discovers that his proposed power plant will actually drain power from the city. Selina survives the fall and, after a psychotic meltdown, takes on the identity of Catwoman, hellbent on revenge.
I want to make a couple things clear: 1.) Despite being a member of the demographic, I’m not a comic book reader, so I have no idea what I’m missing or what the filmmakers should or should not have done, and 2.) I can accept the film on its own, without going back to any source material. (This doesn’t work all the time, though.) I like this film. In fact, there are even days where I like it better than the first film. I’m sympathetic to the criticisms and I wasn’t surprised when, during the DVD retrospective, screenwriter Daniel Waters - who rewrote Sam Hamm’s original script and whose script was, in turn, rewritten later - admitted to not being concerned with the mythology or what fans might want. In fact, the studio managed to persuade Tim Burton to sign on only when they promised him that he could make “a Tim Burton film starring Batman” as opposed to simply “a Batman film.” Burton has since justified some of his decisions. For instance, he always felt that the nature of Batman was such that he wouldn’t go around making grand speeches and other PR-friendly displays of superheroics. He’s a creature of the night and would prefer to stay in the shadows, being seen only when necessary.
Many reviewers seem to love Catwoman and hate the Penguin, or vice versa. I love ’em both. They’re almost sympathetic: the Penguin (at first) only wants what we all want, a normal life. He wants to find out what happened to his parents and why they felt the need to throw him into the river as an infant. Catwoman might be a villain but she’s not “evil.” She doesn’t want to watch the world burn; she only wants revenge on the man who killed her. (Yes, I’m simplifying a bit here!) Christopher Walken is at his slithering best as crooked industrialist Max Shreck, who only lives for power (literally and figuratively). Batman veterans Michael Gough and Pat Hingle return as Alfred and Commissioner Gordon, respectively. The rest of the supporting cast is rounded out by Michael Murphy as Gotham’s beleaguered mayor, Andrew Bryniarski as Max’ son Chip, and the late Vincent Schiavelli as a member of the Penguin’s gang of circus freaks. Paul Reubens and Diane Salinger (of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure) briefly show up in the opening as the Penguin’s parents.
It’s not all roses, however. I can’t buy Catwoman’s origin in the film. I understand being driven to the brink of insanity but she’s pushed out a window, falls a dozen stories to her death, and is brought back to life by… cats? And once she starts prancing around in her slinky leather get-up, she’s suddenly athletic? She can do cartwheels and back flips and this all came from… where, exactly? In any movie like this, there are certain leaps in logic to be expected but a film still needs to play by its own rules. Oh, and Batman manages to foil all the Penguin’s plans with relative ease, to the point where the climax isn’t nearly as exciting as it should be. The Penguin’s mayoral ambitions? Thwarted with a convenient audio recording. The kidnapping plot? Batman appears just at the right time. The penguins armed with missiles? Diverted via frequency jamming.
And there are some minor inconsistencies with the Batmobile. Early in the film, Batman activates a hydraulic “foot” which lifts the car and spins it 180 degrees… except there doesn’t appear to be any room in the car body for the foot when its not in use, not to mention Batman manages to punch a hole through the bottom of the Batmobile later on, and he even activates the “Batmissile” mode in which most of the exterior parts are jettisoned, making the car small enough to fit through a narrow alley… so where did the foot go?! Also, unlike the Nolan films, this film portrays the citizens of Gotham City as mindless drones, gullible and easily led astray. Nothing wrong with that per se but it's a bit cynical, and even worse than that, a bit lazy.
The costumes are quite beautiful, especially Catwoman’s outfit which (for obvious reasons) is one of the more memorable costumes in film history. And Christopher Walken’s cuff links are actually human molars... naturally. Danny Elfman’s operatic score reprises the famous Batman theme from the first film and features two new themes for the Penguin and Catwoman, both full of melancholy. The Oscar-nominated visual effects still hold up (mostly), including some early CGI, beautiful matte paintings of Gotham City, and animatronic penguins by the late, great Stan Winston.
Like I said above, I understand the problems that Batman fans have with this film. I even got into a brief argument with a friend (a big Frank Miller fan) who simply could not understand what I saw in this film. After all, how could I possibly like a Batman film where Batman barely shows up? Well, I just do. And I’ll watch it a hundred times before most of the generic cookie-cutter superhero movies we get today. (I'm looking at you, Green Hornet!) Sadly, I’ll also watch it a hundred times before Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows - it’s time for Burton to disengage the autopilot!
“You're just jealous, because I'm a genuine freak and you have to wear a mask!”