Released: 16 June 1992
Director: Tim Burton
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
Budget: $65 to 80 million
Stars: Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, and Michael Gough
Gotham City’s preparations for Christmas are interrupted by the emergence of Oswald Cobblepot/The Penguin (DeVito), a deformed former circus performer who quickly wins the hearts of the city and is manipulated into running for Mayor by Machiavellian businessman Max Shreck (Walken). While Bruce Wayne/Batman (Keaton) works to uncover the Penguin’s truth motivations, he faces a secondary threat when Shreck attempts to murder his assistant, Selina Kyle (Pfeiffer), instead causes her to become Catwoman and wage a vendetta against him and Batman while also being romanced by Bruce!
In the eighties, DC Comics readers saw the culmination of a long period of alteration for Batman who, for the majority of the sixties, had been transformed from a ruthless vigilante and into a colourful, camp, family friendly figure. One of the principal examples of this change was Batman (ibid, 1989), a dramatically different take on the DC Comics staple that saw noted auteur Tim Burton bring his signature gothic flair to the character, transforming both Batman from a spandex-wearing goof and into a stoic, armour-clad urban legend and “Mr. Mom” Michael Keaton into a brooding, tortured vigilante, and resulting in a surge of popularity for the character as audiences flocked to see the movie. Despite some criticism regarding the film’s tone and pacing, Batman was an incredible success, making nearly $412 million against a $35 million budget. Although Warner Bros. wished for a sequel to begin as early as 1990, Burton held back on returning to the franchise until he was ready, and, when he did return, he was successful and proven enough to be granted far more creative control over the film’s production.
Originally known as Batman II, Batman Returns underwent numerous rewrites, with both Harvey Dent/Two-Face and a version of Robin originally being included and the original character of Max Shreck originally intended to be the Penguin’s brother. The majority of the filming took place on sound stages that included full-size sets of downtown Gotham City and the sewers, the many real-life penguins featured in the film were given special treatment, and Keaton received not only top billing this time around but also a significant salary increase. Upon release, Batman Returns received largely positive reviews from critics and made over $280 million at the box office. However, there was a prevailing sense that the film was too “dark”; parents, especially, were horrified at the film’s macabre content and McDonald’s weren’t too thrilled at being associated with such a controversial picture, this backlash, of course, led to Burton being replaced by Joel Schumacher and a dramatic reinvention of the franchise for the two subsequent films but, for me, Batman Returns remains one of the quintessential formative movies of my childhood and an often overlooked entry in the series.
Right off the bat (no pun intended), Batman Returns separates itself from its predecessor in a number of ways: first, it’s set at Christmas so Gotham City is blanketed by flurries of snow and full of Christmas trappings (if not yuletide cheer); second, it’s far darker and much more brooding in its atmosphere and tone. Burton’s vision for Batman and Gotham is of a nightmarish, gothic landscape full of ominous, intimidating structures, gargoyles, and an overall sense of foreboding hanging in the air. All of this is expertly punctuated not just in Burton’s distinct aesthetic style but also Danny Elfman’s peerless Batman theme, which is now mixed with a haunting chorus of chanting and a tragic ambiance amidst its bombastic and heroic overture.
Some time has passed since the events of Batman; it’s not clear or made explicit exactly how much time but Gotham has adjusted to the presence of Batman, with Police Commissioner James Gordon (Pat Hingle) calling for the Caped Crusader’s assistance at the first sign of the Red Triangle Circus Gang. Though Batman’s relationship with the police, particularly Gordon, is much improved, he’s still a stoic and mysterious individual, talking very little and in a blunt, gravelly whisper. It seems avenging the death of his parents has done little to assuage his grief at their deaths or bring him any semblance of peace; instead, he’s more brooding than ever, literally sitting alone in the dark at Wayne Manor until being called into action by the Bat-Signal and more than willing to kill even regular thugs like the Penguin’s colourful goons.
Max Shreck is introduced as “Gotham’s own Santa Claus”, a beloved and well-respected businessman who has captured the hearts of the city between films. Shreck is, however, a devious and snake-like individual; he plots to construct a massive power plant to monopolise Gotham’s energy supply on the pretence of having a legacy to hand over to his cherished son, Chip (Andrew Bryniarski), but truly desires simple accolades such as power and control. In a world seemingly populated by freaks and monsters, Shreck fits right in as he is twisted on the inside, more than willing to threaten the Mayor (Michael Murphy) with a recall and to kill to get what he wants (he pushes his absent-minded assistant, Selina, out of a window with the intention of killing her and it’s heavily implied that he killed his wife).
Speaking of Selina, of all the characters in the film, she is the one who undergoes the most dramatic development throughout the story. She begins as a meek, helpless woman; she stutters and struggles to speak her mind to her boss, is little more than a witless hostage for one of the Penguin’s goons, and lives alone with nothing but her cat and her nagging mother’s voicemail for company. After her brush with death and subsequent…resurrection (seriously, Selina’s rebirth is one of the stranger aspects of an already-batshit (also no pun intended) film), she becomes an enraged, vindictive, aggressively confidant and capable woman. As Catwoman, she begins a short-lived campaign against Shreck but comes to violently oppose all men, especially those in positions of authority, and even women who allow such men to walk all over them.
Catwoman’s outward transformation into a monster pales in comparison to the Penguin’s position as an actual monster; far from an upstanding crime boss or distinguished member of high (and low) society, Burton reimagines the Penguin as a horrific circus freak who eats raw fish, spits black goop, and is completely maladjusted to humanity and society. And yet, the Penquin is an eloquent, intelligent, and ruthless villain; while Shreck believes that he is the one manipulating Oswald, the Penguin is actually the master manipulator as he uses Shreck to glorify his ascension to the outside world in order to enact his twisted plot to kidnap and kill the first-born sons of Gotham. Like Shreck, the Penguin is fully capable of blackmail, murder, and violence but he takes this to the next level, eventually launching a desperate campaign against all of Gotham City once Batman scuppers his scheme.
While Keaton’s range of motion is still restricted by his absolutely bad-ass Batsuit, Batman’s action scenes are much improved over the previous film; Batman fights with a simple, blunt efficiency, making full use of his many bat-themed toys and even busting out some new ones, like his inexplicably rigid gliding ability. Batman’s suit is far less anatomically correct this time around, resembling armour more than anything; as a kid, I disliked these changes but, now, I’ve come to regard the Returns Batsuit as one of the top live-action costumes for its impressive appearance, being both practical and frightening. Burton’s awesome Batmobile also makes a return, now sporting all kinds of new gadgets and even being featured in one of the most entertaining sequences of the film when the Penguin is bizarrely able to take control of the Batmobile, with Batman in it, and take it on a destructive joyride through the snow-strewn streets of Gotham.
One of the most appealing aspects of Batman Returns is its fantastic use of practical effects, camera tricks, miniatures, and elaborate sets; Gotham feels noticeably more claustrophobic this time around but that actually adds to the ominous nature of the film and positions the city as an gloomy presence in its own right. Not every effect is a winner, of course; Batman’s glide through the bat-swept skies of Gotham hasn’t aged too well but the digital effects of the Penguin’s rocket-firing troops is still impressive, Penguin’s prosthetic make-up makes for an unsettlingly horrific villain, and Batman’s Batskiboat chase through the sewers and the destruction of the Penguin’s frozen zoo hideout are all impressively realised through the use of models and miniatures. The film also goes to some effort to tie up some loose ends and complaints about Batman; Vicky Vale (Kim Basinger) is mentioned a couple of times, with Bruce explaining that their relationship “didn’t work out” because he couldn’t give up being Batman and he and his father-figure and loyal confidant, Alfred Pennyworth (Gough), debating his much-contested decision to reveal Bruce’s identity to Vicki. As I’ve explained, I never had a problem with this scene but I’m sure it did a lot to quell the complaints.
Batman Returns contains some of my favourite moments of any Batman film, from Batman and Penguin’s intimidating first meeting outside of Shreck’s shop to the heart-breaking death of Oswald at the conclusion (I remember, as a kid, being somewhat distraught at Penguin’s emperor penguins being left without their master and wondering who would look after them with him dead). It also stands out as being one of the first big-budget superhero films of its time to not only feature multiple villains and masked characters but also to balance them extremely well. Sure, Batman still doesn’t have as much screen time as you would expect considering his name’s in the title but it’s easy to infer much of his motivation and development from Keaton’s characteristically stoic and haunted portrayal of the character and through the parallels between Batman’s dual nature and those of his villains.
I can understand why parents and audiences were more than a little perturbed by Batman Returns when it was released as it’s not only full of dark, gothic imagery but also some puzzlingly ghoulish choices on Burton’s part. However, I watched this film as a kid both alone and with my parents and it never did me any harm; plus, I feel like Batman is a character and concept that can never be “too dark” and grisly as he works best when depicted as a dark and terrifying force in an increasingly insane world. Furthermore, Batman Returns is rife with subtle (and explicit) themes duality, humanity, and deception. All four of the main characters wear a mask of some kind, whether explicit or metaphorical (or both) and is hiding their true, darker nature. Bruce is, of course, one of the most obvious since he literally garbs himself in a heavily armoured suit and becomes an entirely different person when acting as Batman. There’s again a sense that he’s not entirely comfortable being in public or out of the suit as he is only truly able to confide in Alfred before becoming attracted to Selina and, though he openly opposes Shreck’s plans as Bruce, he’s seemingly only able to make a real impact on the city when operating as Batman.
Selina, too, hides behind a physical mask; after her rebirth, Selina becomes more and more disassociated with her former life and revels in the freedom and power of being Catwoman. Previously, she was timid and powerless but, once she has power, she exercises it without restraint or mercy; when she first encounters Batman, she attacks with a combination of sexuality and violence, seeing him as the ultimate symbol of patriarchy. He fractured state of mind only degenerates further as the film progresses and this is reflected in the explicit destruction of her alluringly skin-tight outfit; by the film’s conclusion, she’s hardly recognisable, resembling little more than a besmirched wild animal who feels she has to reject Bruce’s advances and offer of a “normal” life because of her altered nature that drives her to obsessive pursue Shreck’s death even at the potential cost of her own life.
The Penquin doesn’t hide being a mask in the way as his adversaries; indeed, because of his monstrous appearance, he is forced to literally hide from society first in the circus and then, for many years, in the sewers and when he does emerge into the limelight, it’s under the pretence of being a misunderstood outcast. Ironically, this isn’t actually too far from the truth as the Penguin is a truly tragic figure within the film but, even as a baby, his violent tendencies are made explicit so, in many ways, he’s the opposite of Catwoman: his true nature is to be a wild animal and he masks it with the shroud of respectability. It’s an ill-fitting persona for Oswald, though, as his animalistic urges and lack of social graces make him undignified; indeed, as eloquent and charismatic as the Penguin is capable of being, he descends into a monstrous individual that salivates over the merciless death and destruction of everyone in Gotham.
And then there’s Max Shreck; yes, I would have preferred Harvey Dent (Billy Dee Williams) to have returned and supplanted this character but Christopher Walken sure as hell does steal the show, every time he walks into a room, the scene becomes about him, with the camera seemingly naturally focusing on him even when he’s standing next to vivid characters such as the Penguin and Batman. As fantastically alluring as DeVito is at portraying this nightmarish version of the Penguin, Walken’s natural charisma and bombastic acting method makes him an undeniable highlight of the film. Like the Penguin, Max doesn’t where an actual mask but his is a mask that is far more subtle and all the more dangerous in its application; having won the hearts and minds of the city, and being a wealthy businessman in a position of great power, Shreck represents the horror of aggressively ambitious capitalism and the power of the social elite. Confidant to the point of arrogance, Shreck exudes authority and ensures that he is always the most powerful man in any given situation; he barely flinches when he first meets the Penguin, immediately attempts to bargain with Catwoman, and defiantly stands up to both her and Batman but his true, twisted nature is revealed for all to see after he meet his gruesome, explosive end in the finale.
When I was a kid, I always preferred Batman to Batman Returns; I think this was mainly because of the iconography of the Joker as a character and it being a little less heavy-handed with its themes and imagery. As I grew older, though, I came to really appreciate all the positives of Batman Returns; in many ways, it’s a far superior film, which a much more unique visual identity, far superior costume design, and even improving on Elfman’s already flawless score. While it’s far more of a standalone sequel than a direct continuation, Batman Returns drops us into a twisted, nightmarish version of Gotham City that seems to have been physically changed because of the city’s adoption of Batman as its protector.
My appreciation for the film’s themes of duality and humanity came to a head during my studies at university when, asked to produce a presentation on a film, I spearheaded Batman Returns as my group’s project and, in the process, delved deep into the way it deals with its complex themes. Getting an A in that presentation encouraged me to further pursue writing about the things I loved from my childhood and influenced my eventual PhD and I owe most of that success to Batman Returns, a film that, while probably not too suitable for young kids and despite not being massively accurate to the source material, remains one of the darkest, most visually engaging, and thought-provoking Batman movies ever made and, to this day, is a must-watch film during the Christmas season.
What are your thoughts on Batman Returns? How does it compare to the first film, and the other films in Batman’s long cinematic history? Did you see this as a kid; if so, did you enjoy it or were you traumatised by its dark, macabre tone? Perhaps you were one of those parents who kicked off about the film; if so, what was it that set you off and how do you feel about it now? What did you think to Burton’s twisted interpretations of the Penguin and Catwoman? Did you enjoy Christopher Walken’s performance? Were you a fan of Michael Keaton’s performance this time around? Which Batman film, and actor, is your favourite and why? Do you consider Batman Returns a Christmas movie and, if not, why not and what the hell is wrong with you? It’s set at Christmas! Whatever you think about Batman Returns, go ahead and drop a comment down below and be sure to check in next Saturday for more Christmas content!