by Steve Habrat
While I credit Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman for shaping me into the hardcore fan of the Caped Crusader that I am, my favorite Burton Batman film is without question the bizarre 1992 sequel Batman Returns. Darker, uglier, and meaner than the 89’ original, Batman Returns is a macabre circus of freaks that goes right for the jugular in more ways than one. Burton punches up the violence, the gore, and the sexual innuendos that would make overly sensitive young children cower in fear and nurse scars for life. Burton still makes the grave mistake of putting more emphasis on the formation of the foes rather than Bruce Wayne/Batman’s demons that plague him but Keaton does still get the chance to elaborate on the classic character, giving him more depth here than in Batman. Criticized by many critics and fans for putting more thought into the gothic world of Gotham City than the storyline, Batman Returns does have an even more flamboyant style than the original film but with this style, Burton piles on a sense of dread that practically snaps the film in two. With Batman Returns, Burton goes full goth on the viewer and I love it.
Batman Returns flashes back thirty-three years and ushers us in to a the lavish home of the Cobblepots, a wealthy couple who has given birth to a deformed child that they quickly smuggle out into the snowy evening and dump into the Gotham City sewers. The film jumps to present day with the deformed Penguin (Played by Danny DeVito) readying his plot to reveal himself to the world. It is the Christmas season and hundreds of Gotham’s citizens have gathered in Gotham Square for the Christmas tree lighting ceremony held by the Mayor (Played by Michael Murphy) and crooked businessman Max Shreck (Played by Christopher Walken). The Penguin unleashes his merry gang of freaks onto the city as a diversion so he can kidnap Shreck and blackmail him into helping him re-emerge into the world. Shreck, meanwhile, takes out his frustration with the incident on his timid secretary Selina Kyle (Played by Michelle Pfeiffer) by threatening her and then shoving her out of a window in disgust. She survives the fall and in the wake of the accident, she takes to the streets as a mysterious leather-clad vigilante who enjoys helping women in trouble while also leaving a trail of destruction across Gotham. As the violence escalates, Commissioner Gordon (Played by Pat Hingle) is forced to call upon the mysterious Batman (Played by Michael Keaton) to protect the city.
You’d never guess that Burton was hesitant to return to the world of Gotham City because Batman Returns comes at the viewer like, well, a bat out of Hell. The film begins with the disturbing images of a horrified couple dumping a baby into frigid waters and then quickly shifts over to the Penguin unleashing the Red Triangle Circus Gang on the city to commit mass murder. He cuts the scene up with the Batsignal shooting up into the sky while Bruce Wayne sits sulking in his darkened study, alone and away from the world yet completely comfortable in this isolated world of darkness. He notices the signal in the sky and he dutifully stands up to ready himself for battle. This is one of my favorite scenes in any of the Batman films that have made it to the big screen. Now you understand why I prefer this film to the original blockbuster. Burton isn’t playing it safe anymore and he keeps the gloom up for slightly over two hours. We get to spend quite a bit more time with the man behind the cowl and Keaton continues to fascinate us. He has apparently learned to let love in, yet this time, the destruction is deadlier and he fidgets if he has to make a dash to the Batcave. Keaton sizzles when he plays off of Pfeiffer, who is both his love interest and his villain here. When the two are all dressed up and prowling the rooftops, get ready to have your world rocked. Their showdowns are explosive.
Batman Returns gives us a brief look at the tragedy that has given birth to the Penguin but it takes its good old time to really give us Catwoman, a sultry menace who aligns herself with both Batman and the Penguin. Her shift from timid to seductive is compelling and is a testament to Pfeiffer, who single handedly creates one of the best villains in this series of Batman films. In many ways, she overshadows most of the other villains because you never quite known if she is going to be playing friend or foe. Her origin, though slight cheesy, is one that will have the feminists cheering as she ditches the “His Girl Friday” routine and becomes a snarling liberator who warns the women she saves that they shouldn’t count on the BatMAN to save them anymore. After slicing up a mugger’s face, she whispers to the victim, “I am Catwoman. Hear me roar!” When she is paired up the slobbering sicko Penguin, a perverted freak of nature, it becomes a gothic Beauty and the Beast. DeVito is absolutely perfect as the sad sack Oswald Cobblepot, one who is eager to drain the citizens of their empathy and cackles behind closed doors at people’s gullibility. When he finally reveals his master plan, many may be covering their mouths in horror. Oh yes, Burton plans to go there and when one of Penguin’s gang members speaks up and tells Penguin that his plan may be a little too dark, he quickly reaches for his shotgun and blows the softie away. When I saw this in the theater, my jaw was on the floor.
Burton scales back some of his action in Batman Returns, making things a bit more claustrophobic but still thrilling nonetheless. There are lots of brawls in the snow-covered streets of Gotham between the vicious Red Triangle Circus Gang and Batman that are a lot of fun. The opening riot is appropriately shocking, especially when you see the whacked out appearance of the gang members. There is a fire-eater here, a pair of maniacs on stilts, and tons of freaks on motorcycles that don some horrifying skull masks. Near the end of the film, things take a turn into silliness with the Penguin unleashing hundreds of armed penguins on Gotham. It takes things into campy territory, which is a bit perplexing considering how dark the film was up until this big reveal. Burton regroups with a gruesome four way stand-off between a maskless Batman, a battered Catwoman, a dying Penguin, and a desperate Shreck, who seems slightly out of place in this trio of freaks. Much like the 89’ original, the effects have held up marvelously. Wait until you get a load of the scene where Batman glides over the chaos riddled streets of Gotham City, blending in with a swarm of bats that are filling the streets.
Batman Returns is certainly not a film for children and it erases some of the goofier elements that bothered me in Batman. Luckily, there is no villain dancing around the tunes of Prince, which was a giant relief. The plotline does get a bit weak in points, with the style masking the fact that the story is flying off the rails. Burton botches it at the end with the army of penguins and a funeral procession with six gigantic penguins, but I am willing to forgive due to how great the other 95% of this film is. Once again, Burton wastes the character of Commissioner Gordon, with the beloved ally only making a few minor appearances in all the action. Michael Gough shows up again as Alfred, the kind butler who realizes that he may have to aid Bruce in his battle against two foes looking to level Gotham. Walken is also a lot of fun as Shreck but he sort of clogs up the story at times. Overall, if Burton were hesitant to make this film, you’d never know it because it seems enthusiastically made. It also seems like he got a bit more freedom from the studio to really get weird. Once again, there are some minor tweaks to the stories, which will no doubt drive the fanboys like me nuts but I love this film because it dares to venture deeper into the darkness of the comic books. For that, Batman Returns remains my favorite Batman film from Burton.
Batman Returns is available on Blu-ray and DVD.