Where Burton’s original Batman flick stood as a gangster movie with fantasy elements, Batman Returns is more of a journey into the director’s own dark imagination. This feels more like a Burton film than the original and from the opening credits, where an abandoned baby floats through sewers to be adopted by penguins, it’s clear we’re closer to Edward Scissorhands territory than to Scarface.
The plot is only convoluted if you worry about it too much. Danny Devito’s Penguin forms an uneasy alliance with ruthless tycoon Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) to replace Gotham City’s Mayor while Michelle Pfieffer’s Catwoman seeks to destroy both Shreck and Batman, while falling in love with his alter-ego Bruce Wayne.
Batman is superb here, a grim, mostly silent avenger often several shades darker than his enemies. His impact is heightened by the fact that Michael Keaton is the last person you would expect to see in such a role. If the square-jawed likes of Val Kilmer and George Clooney would later look as though they were dressing up in a batsuit mostly to show off their pecs, Keaton’s brooding everyman really has an edge of psychosis.
Pfieffer is also on top form and, in spite of a long and varied career, it seems likely that her leather-clad Catwoman will be the role for which she is remembered. There’s not even a hint of camp as she somersaults around in a leather catsuit, and the choice to play it completely straight means we can laugh at the cat litter gags and still take seriously scenes where she thwarts attempted rapes.
Devito and Walken are brilliant, of course, but Devito deserves special praise. The Penguin is a stunning character. Vicious yet vulnerable, he’s frequently just one step from being an animal, but clearly really just wants to be loved.
Danny Elfman’s music has never been stronger. Recycling elements from the first film and Edward Scissorhands, the score is a bizarre but magnificent combination of orchestral pomp, choral screeching and twinkly bells.
And the film has deeper narrative concerns, being Burton. The man’s obsession with nasty fairytales is particularly apparent in the Penguin’s story arc as he acts out his role as the Pied Piper of Gotham, getting rid of street gangs but then taking revenge on the town’s children after the city betrays him.
Equally, Catwoman’s relationship with Bruce Wayne carries echoes of frog princesses and she even acknowledges this. I would love to come away with you to your castle and live happily ever after, just like in a fairytale.’
The point of all this folk tale referencing is to give the film a surreal floss so that the audience does not feel cheated or patronised when cities are threatened by armies of penguins. Also, Batman is mostly a man in a mask. The running theme through the two films is Bruce Wayne’s attempt to reconcile the two sides of his personality. Ripping away his Batman mask, he finally does just that.
Burton’s narrative tricks are the icing on the blockbuster cakes, though. This is a HUGE film. The sets are enormous, from the sewers to the Penguin’s Lair to Gotham Plaza, and they are all dressed minimalistically to ensure that their scale is really noticed. From the title shot of the Penguin’s pram rounding the sewer bend under a raging cloud of bats, the epic nature of Batman’s world is stressed at all times.
Of course, this does mean that repeated or careful viewing reveals quite a few of these wonderful vistas to be model shots (Gotham Zoo) or glass slides (the Batcave), but the illusions generally convince for several viewings, with just one unfortunate exception to which we will return later…
Special effects. They can date a film quicker than a bad haircut. If you knew none of the actors, you would be hard-pressed to say whether the Godfather was made before or after Gangs of New York, but it’s fairly obvious that Blade Runner was made quite some time before The Fifth Element. Batman Returns relies mostly on physical stunts and pyrotechnics, which seems unusual and marks it out as an old film, but the action sequences are handled with such care that the movie never appears creaky. There’s even some early computer-generated trickery to depict the Batmobile’s armour and the clouds of bats. The action sequences are thrilling and full-blooded, from beating up demonic clowns at the start to a magnificent car chase sequence later on.
Unfortunately, the effects are let down by a single cock-up. After nearly two hours of skillfully blending model penguins, live penguins and extras in penguin costumes, Burton makes the uncharacteristically stupid decision to use a thirty second sequence of penguin-suited midgets dragging a large object down the ramp. You can, in fact, nearly see the zip. This also comes mere minutes after Batman slides down from the rafters with his harness clearly visible, but that’s just pedantry.
But who cares. Christopher Walken (a man who seems to have made his career through cameos, alongside John Candy) oozes ruthless charm, Pfieffer is every good schollboy’s fantasy (well, she was mine, at least), Keaton is the gruffest superhero ever and Danny Devito is one of the greatest villains ever.
He does so much within a single film. His opening encounter with Shreck is chilling due to his grotesque smoothness and mischevious glee as he cheerfully brandishes severed limbs and containers of toxic waste. One liners (you flush it, I flaunt it’) vie with sight gags like the versatile umbrellas and severed limbs to build the macabre comedy vibe. Later, he hams the part up when the Penguin stands for election as Gotham’s mayor. Given the direction the films would eventually take, it’s a blessed relief that lines like, Stop global warming, start global cooling, make the world a giant icebox’ are never backed up. But underlying Devito’s charm, and his occasional over-acting, he never lets go of the Penguin’s truly vicious streak, his animal lust and aggression.
For all the talk of giving Pfieffer’s Catwoman her own franchise (and look where THAT ended up), it’s difficult to finish Batman Returns without wanting to see more of the Penguin. So who cares if there’s a few duff costume effects? Who cares if Catwoman seems to have zero motivation for most of the film? Who cares if it suddenly turns into a bad acid-trip towards the end with giant ducks exploding through the floor? Who cares if it’s all set at Christmas despite the fact they released it in September? Batman Returns is a full-on Tim Burton voyage to the dark side, crammed with fantastic performances and awesome action set-pieces.
In spite of massive box-office and an instantly iconic Catwoman, something soured between Burton and Warner Bros. Presumably due to ‘creative differences’ Burton withdrew from the franchise, retaining only a producer’s credit on the third film and taking Keaton with him. You can now get the film on DVD for around 7 pounds, which I would recommend. You can even buy the collection of 90s Batman films on DVD for 15 in a box set, which is a pretty good deal just for the first two, and a guilt-free way of buying the DIRE Batman Forever and Batman and Robin.