The Darkest Knight of all?
Who made it?: Tim Burton (Director/Co-Producer), Daniel Waters (Writer), Denise Di Novi, Larry J. Franco (Producers), Warner Bros. Pictures.
Who’s in it?: Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Michael Gough, Michael Murphy, Pat Hingle.
Tagline: “The Bat, the Cat, the Penguin.”
IMDb rating: 7.0/10.
There’s nothing quite like Gotham City in the winter. The gritty metropolis depicted in Batman (1989) is seen here tinged by snowfall, allowing director Tim Burton to push his Dark Knight’s melancholy into overdrive. It is a seasonal shift that affects the very fabric of the film. Batman Returns is a cold and bitter sequel that many would argue is the bleakest of the motion pictures to date. Fewer would argue, however, that it is superior to its predecessor in every way. They really should. Batman Returns is one of the most interesting, layered and daring superhero follow-ups in the genre’s short cinematic lifespan.
The reasons for this are numerous. Audiences (read: parents) were horrified by the violence, bloodshed, and overt sexuality in 1992. And it’s hard not to get a weird S&M vibe from a film where two characters in rubber and leather get awfully friendly with one another. Batman was dark. Batman Returns is borderline nihilistic. It dared to push things as far as they could go, and the comic fan in me applauds it for representing a truly unique take on a well-trodden character.
It all works due to Burton’s visual creativity. It was what wowed audiences of the original, although he always kept one foot in the world of Bob Kane. Returns is all-out Burton. Having just finished his Goth classic Edward Scissorhands (1990), he more or less had full control of the picture, despite his initial misgivings about doing a sequel (to date, this is the only time he has revisited his work). He recognised that there was still fertile ground to cover in Batman’s world, especially in the chosen villains, Penguin and Catwoman. The Bat-Cat-Penguin imagery is certainly interesting, and the film at its best could almost be described as a carnival freakshow. It really has more in common with Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) than it does Batman, but Burton makes it a logical extension of the previous film. Where do you go after the larger-than-life cartoonishness of The Joker?
This film opens on a night in Gotham’s past, when the well-off Cobblepot family welcome their newborn to the sound of screaming. It is the mother. Their child is deformed, with flipper-like hands. After keeping the tyke locked away in a box, the evil parents (played by Pee-Wee Herman himself, Paul Reubens, and Diane Salinger) decide to toss their unlucky spawn into the river. If it wasn’t for his enclosed crib, he’d have perished. The child grows up in the sewers, slowly morphing into the villain we know as the Penguin. This version is more literal than the comic’s diminutive man in a top hat. Burton’s Penguin dominates Batman Returns – the film’s extended prologue makes it his story, complimented by an opening credits sequence of operatic intensity. The sight of Cobblepot’s crib drifting through Gotham’s underbelly is a twisted image made all the more powerful by Danny Elfman’s reprised theme. As “action movie” beginnings go, it’s quite a shocker.
As the story begins proper, thirty years have elapsed, and the tales of the mythic “Penguin Man” are front-page news. The grown-up Oswald Cobblepot (Danny DeVito) is determined to leave the sewers and join Gotham’s elite, a destiny he was so cruelly denied. He sets his sights on slippery corporate millionaire Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) and blackmails him into aiding his cause. This includes kidnapping the Mayor’s daughter, just so he can set himself up as a “hero.” Gotham welcomes the bird man, and his next step is to run for office and oust the troubled Mayor (Michael Murphy). Naturally, Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) is onto his schemes and Batman returns to dispense some justice.
The Penguin isn’t his only problem, however. Shreck’s personal assistant, Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer), stumbles onto his scheme to drain Gotham City’s electricity with a super power station. He pushes her out of the top window of his building, and assumes she is dead. Selina survives, claiming the first of her nine lives, and re-emerges as the leather-clad Catwoman. Her moonlighting as a destructive “cat” burglar brings her to the attention of the Penguin and, before you know it, they are conspiring to bring down the Bat. This is all the more complicated when she falls for Mr. Wayne. He always did have a weakness for blondes.
You might have realised that I’ve spent more time discussing the villains in Batman Returns than Batman himself. If there is one problem I have with the original films, it is that the Caped Crusader feels like a supporting character in his own adventures. Jack Nicholson got more screen-time and top billing in Batman, and while Keaton leads the marquee here, it is DeVito and Pfeiffer that get Burton’s full attention. Which isn’t to say Bruce Wayne and his alter-ego are wasted, since Keaton makes the most of his final round with the Bat. His chemistry with Pfeiffer – a surprisingly strong element of the film – succeeds in revealing new sides to the character, and his sarcastic ribbing with his long-suffering butler, Alfred (Michael Gough), gives us a Dark Knight that is wittier and funnier than before. That might be down to the blackly comic talents of screenwriter Daniel Waters (Heathers) who succeeds in fleshing out a cast composed of too many characters. This is also the most brutal Batman in screen history. He kills quite liberally in the film’s 126-minute runtime. Among the departed is a man set ablaze by the Batmobile’s booster, and another blown up by craftily-placed dynamite. While it should be noted that Kane’s Batman did kill in the early issues, I’ve grown so accustomed to the virtuous, non-homicidal incarnation of the character that to see him offing mofos like The Punisher seems immoral. The modern interpretation makes more sense, but a lethal, ruthless Batman feels at home in Burton’s world.
The Dark Knight is also well-utilised in the film’s various set-pieces, which easily top the prior entry for overall panache. His first arrival on the scene could be one of his live-action best, dispatching the Penguin’s circus gang with badass fury (you’ve got to love the franchise’s most creative use of his trademark grappling hook). Also, the scene where he reveals his new wing contraption takes us soaring over Gotham’s rooftops with aplomb. Burton was clearly more comfortable shooting punch-ups and pyrotechnics, and Batman Returns, despite the multitude of plot threads, delivers plenty of exciting moments.
Keaton is once again fantastic and versatile in the lead role, but the acting plaudits go to Pfeiffer and DeVito. As the troubled Kyle, Pfeiffer runs a gamut of emotions and is always on a knife-edge – or claw – between sanity and insanity. In that respect, Catwoman is a lot like Batman, and the fact she is the perfect woman for him is an irony that has served the comics and this film rather well. Pfeiffer makes the absolute best of her anti-heroine, fitting into that skin-tight suit with purr-fection whilst selling the character’s lethally sexy nature.
If Pfeiffer is magnetic as the Cat, then DeVito is repulsive as the Penguin. Buried under a fat suit and prosthetics, the actor truly commits to his character’s oddball nature. Cobblepot is a tragic figure and DeVito manages to gain the audience’s sympathy, even when he’s doing awful things like almost biting off people’s noses or kidnapping the upper-class’ children. He’s a bad apple, for sure, but it’s hard not to feel sorry for him in a handful of scenes, such as when he visits his parents’ graves. Is he being honest when he says he forgives them, or is it all for the cameras? DeVito delivers the best performance in the film in my opinion, and dare I say it, the best antagonist in the original four films.
That said, I should really give a shout-out to Walken, too. Max Shreck is the true villain of the tale, moving the other characters around like chess pieces and revelling in his Machiavellian wickedness. Walken manages to be charming, deplorable, and even frightening at the drop of a hat. Unlike the mistreated Cobblepot, you want his comeuppance to be as severe as possible.
While the cast is the main reason to revisit Batman Returns, the production design and photography run a close second. Bo Welch brings a comic book artist’s vividness to Gotham’s dank architecture, allowing the viewer to sink into a world that feels tangible and lived-in. Unlike the original’s obvious sets and miniatures, this version of the city is as grounded as it is outlandish. Christopher Nolan might have envisioned a “real” Gotham in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, but Burton’s vision is bolder and more aesthetically fascinating. Stefan Czapsky’s lighting is the cherry on top, never letting the perpetual swathes of black get in the way of first-rate images. From beginning to end, this film is a visual masterpiece.
Twenty-two years after it left certain cinema-goers feeling assaulted, Batman Returns has weathered remarkably well. This is still a refreshingly adult film in a sub-genre that, for the most part, resides in PG-13 waters. It is a great and wholly unique addition to the character’s legacy, and one of the finest-looking studio films ever shot. Next to the original, Returns is the least dated and the most sophisticated. And above all else, it is the work of a once-great director who was given free rein and produced one of the least commercial superhero films there is. That’s something to celebrate.
Bruce Wayne heeds the Bat-Signal in one of the most achingly perfect sequences in the entire Dark Knight canon. Elfman, you’re a god.
- Christopher Walken’s character is named Maximillian Shreck. In addition to the fact that “schreck” is the German word meaning “terror,” the actor Max Schreck played the first-ever vampire depicted on film in the silent-era classic Nosferatu.
- Annette Bening was cast as Catwoman, but was replaced by Michelle Pfeiffer when she became pregnant. Pfeiffer’s $3 million salary was $2 million more than was offered to Bening.
- Sean Young very much wanted the role of Catwoman. During preproduction she arrived at the studio in a Catwoman costume to confront the makers of the movie. She used other people scouting the studio grounds, using walkie-talkies to communicate, to track down the producers. Tim Burton hid behind his desk so as to avoid seeing her. Young had been cast as Vicki Vale in Batman but was replaced after she broke her collarbone during filming.
- Paul Reubens and Diane Salinger were both in Burton’s directorial debut, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985).
- The first film made in Dolby Digital.
- In the US, McDonald’s were forced to cancel a Happy Meals promotion with the film, after parents protested about its violent and sexual nature being inappropriate for young children. But The Coca-Cola Company continued its promotional run.
- Bruce Wayne chastises Alfred, saying “Who let Vicki Vale into the Batcave?” This is actually writer Sam Hamm’s none-to-subtle jab at the rewrites give to his script by Warren Skaaren. Hamm’s script never included a scene where Alfred leads Vicki into the cave, and as the script was re-written during production, Hamm felt this was a particularly sloppy revision.
- Marlon Wayans was signed on to play Robin in this movie and Batman Forever – he even went through costuming for the five minutes that he appeared in the script. But when the script was re-written and Joel Schumacher took over as director, the role went to Chris O’Donnell. Wayans was paid for both movies.