Batman Returns (1992)
Release Date: June 19th, 1992 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Tim Burton Actors: Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Michael Gough, Michael Murphy, Cristi Conaway, Pat Hingle, Jan Hooks, Vincent Schiavelli
t least, it’s dark. The follow-up to the incredibly successful first Warner Bros.’ Batman film is once again helmed by the master of the macabre, Tim Burton. “Batman Returns” reunites nearly the entire original cast, while the set designs/decorations, art direction, makeup, visual effects, cinematography, and the tone of the film perfectly mirror the previous Dark Knight outing. The story involves more villains and more action, but the characters themselves seemed to have lost their motivation to be anything more than mediocre. Still resolutely morbid, a little less serious, and certainly not as much fun, “Batman Returns” is nevertheless exponentially better than the next two installments in this flourishing motion picture franchise.
Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), one of the wealthiest businessmen in Gotham City, plans to build a new and unnecessary power plant for nefarious means. Only Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) stands in his way – along with Shreck’s secretary, Selena Kyle (Michelle Pfieffer), who unwittingly peruses confidential files at the office. Intent on guarding his secrets, Max throws her out a window, failing to anticipate that Selena might survive the ghastly fall. Not completely insane, but driven by a knocked-loose alter ego that insists she become more like her constant stray cat companions, Kyle becomes Catwoman, a villainess bent on destroying her employer – and then the burdensome Batman.
Meanwhile, Shreck introduces the city to a revolting penguin-man, rumored to live in the sewers of Gotham. Claiming to desire only the truth about the parents who abandoned him years ago and the reason behind his miserable existence, Oswald Cobblepot (Danny DeVito), a hideously deformed human with a penchant for umbrellas and a strange control over armies of sewer penguins, warms up to the public’s hearts – and soon runs for mayor. Using a strong sympathy vote devised with the help of Shreck, the “Penguin” eventually teams with Catwoman to frame Batman, who continually gets in the way of their goals to destroy Gotham City. It’s up to Batman to protect the frightened townsfolk from the Penguin’s army of machinegun-toting clowns (quite Joker-esque) and from utter annihilation at the hands of the two new, mentally unbalanced antagonists.
The familiar theme song by Danny Elfman, gothic opera music, and glisteningly black sets reappear in this second Batman feature – and the last one of the ‘90s that spends time on the origins of the villains. “Batman Returns” certainly proves that a hero is only as good as the villain – both Catwoman and the Penguin are unique, formidable, brilliantly costumed, and perfectly ghoulish; however, their motives and dialogue frequently disrupt the acceptable unnaturalness of their geneses and appearances. Realism is not a strong point with any of the Batman films, but Catwoman’s unexpected martial arts skills and her mastery of a whip and the Penguin’s influence over flightless aquatic birds (apparently, one of their natural habitats is the sewer) reminds audiences just how comic book-based this episode really is. Each character could have used a much larger dose of sinisterness. But even the personas aren’t as absurd as many of the ideas – including killing the first-born children of everyone in Gotham City and unleashing a legion of trained penguins armed with dynamite.
“Batman Returns” nicely complements the mood, look, and themes of the vigilante superhero envisioned by Tim Burton (though he was originally unsure about being involved with the sequel), picking up Oscar nominations for Best Effects and Best Makeup. But Burton’s persistence in conceptualizing his characters a little too freakishly and disturbingly caused the production company to abandon his oversight for the comically bright, family-friendly colors with which replacement Joel Schumacher would eventually paint the following “Batman Forever.” Burton’s direction may not have been ideal, but his dismissal would prove to be a tremendous artistic mistake.
– Mike Massie