“Being the Batman fan that I am, I pretended to like the film. I passionately defended it to my ‘non-Batman’ friends who found it ‘weird’ or ‘dumb.’ But eventually, I gave in to the fact that this film plain sucked. This macabre, morose, dark abomination was a Batman film in name only. Frankly, I felt screwed by Warner Brothers and Mr. Burton.”–Bill “Jett” Ramey, “Batman on Film”
“It’s human nature to fear the unusual.”–The Penguin, Batman Returns
FEATURING: , , Danny DeVito,
PLOT: The film sets Batman against three new villains: Oswald Cobblepot, a deformed outcast who lives in the sewers and adopts the name “the Penguin”; “Catwoman,” former secretary Selina Kyle turned feminist avenger after a near-death experience; and Max Shreck, a wealthy retailer who wants to build a power plant opposed by Gotham City’s mayor. With differing agendas and shifting loyalties, the three form a plan to run Cobblepot for mayor and to frame Batman for the city’s crime problem, while Batman’s alter-ego Bruce Wayne and Selina pursue a romance, not realizing that they are sworn enemies. After the superhero foils the initial plot, the Penguin pulls out a more elaborate, apocalyptic plan.
- Tim Burton, who had scored a blockbuster with the original Batman (1989), was reluctant to produce a sequel. Warner Brothers convinced him to helm the film by giving him almost complete creative control. Heathers‘ Daniel Waters was brought in to shade Sam Hamm’s too-sunny original script. It was a move the studio came to regret (the film was profitable, but not as big a hit as its predecessor, and parental complaints that it was too violent/sexy/weird for kids spooked the suits). Neither Burton nor star Michael Keaton returned for the third movie in Warners’ Batman franchise, which went in a lighter, more family-friendly direction under Joel Schumacher.
- Angry parents boycotted McDonalds for (unwisely) including Batman Returns action figures in Happy Meals, complaining that the movie was too violent for kids.
- Oscar-nominated for Best Visual Effects and Best Makeup. Also nominated (unjustly, in our opinion) for a “Worst Supporting Actor” Razzie for Danny DeVito.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: I’m going to go with the army of penguins equipped with missiles striped like candy canes (remember, this is a Christmas movie).
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Kitty corpse revival; poodle with a hand grenade; missile penguin army
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Let loose with a budget of $80 million and almost complete creative control in 1992, Tim Burton smuggled weirdness into the cineplex in the guise of a superhero sequel. The resulting picture has as many excesses as you can possibly sneak into a blockbuster: suggestive S&M duels between sexually repressed loners clad in fetish gear, a carnival-themed gang who unleash their surreal clown fury on Gotham at Christmas, and an army of penguins led by a deformed sociopath.
Original trailer for Batman Returns
COMMENTS: Earning over 260 million simoleons at the box office—although some ticket buyers probably asked for a refund—Batman Returns is one of the most mainstream movies on this list. Criticize the righteous puritans who demanded McDonalds stop promoting this exploitative sleaze in Happy Meals aimed at the kindergarten crowd all you want, but they sniffed out another winner. After his colossal success with 1989’s dark-toned but cineplex-friendly Batman, Warner Brothers put too much faith in Tim Burton’s hitmaking talents, and handed him the keys to the kingdom. He immediately set about to wrecking their vision of Batman as fun for the whole family, delivering instead a movie that begins with an attempted infanticide, features a core plot involving political corruption and an apocalyptic Biblical plague, and whose emotional center revolves around a destructive co-dependent relationship between a whip-wielding feminist avenger in skintight black vinyl and an icily stoic hero struggling just to hold his own against her prrl-power. This is not a kids’ film; it’s a gloomy, erotically confused adolescent’s film. It’s part genius, part sprawling excess, and it just crosses the line from acceptable eccentricity to giddy weirdness.
Burton’s appetite for destruction is apparent right from his first big set piece. It’s a few days before Christmas, and Gotham City’s tree-lighting ceremony—hosted by favorite son/Dickensian retailer Max Schreck (!), of Shreck’s department store—is interrupted when a giant present wheels itself onto the plaza. Underworld boss the Penguin has a surprise gift for the city: killer clowns in a box! In a spray of smoke and confetti, out pops the most improbable and impractical array of greasepainted urban psychopaths ever assembled (this was, remember, in a pre-Juggalo era). Motorcyclists in oversized skull helmets pop wheelies and run through police roadblocks. An organ grinder fires a Gatling gun into the crowd. Clowns on stilts mill about juggling fire, adding more mood lighting than mayhem. Jesters ride by on unicycles, firing Uzis. A man dressed as Satan breathes fire onto passersby. It’s up to Batman to clean up the mess, running down half the harlequins in his Batmobile and whacking others on the head with cinder blocks (making us wish all this happened in a post-Juggalo era).
What a world Burton has set out to build, then destroy! Gotham City lives up to the “goth” part of its moniker: the entire burg seems hewn from a single granite block. In the film’s establishing shot it looks just like the city of Metropolis, circa future 1927, complete with roving spotlights and elevated bridges. Art deco sculptures of two muscled supermen pulling levers flank Gotham’s main plaza. The gray color palette is further drained by the blanket of winter snow that coats the street; thank God for the bright Christmas lights and decorations that splash color across what otherwise would be a monochrome metropolis. (The city must be especially bleak and depressing once these are taken down in early January). Stone heads can be found littered about, like artifacts left by some Easter Island civilization that abandoned the city before the white man moved in. These antiquities are found in the elaborately wrought sewers, too, especially underneath the Gothic zoo with its ice-encrusted giant crab statue, where, attended by clowns and small flightless birds, the Penguin holds court poolside in a massive domed chamber.
Black-clad Batman fades into the background, to better allow the villains to pop. Christopher Walken’s Max Shreck is relatively tame—Walken shows unusual restraint, turning in one of the most un-Walken-like performances in his career, letting the other two villains shine. It’s the perfect choice for a character who prefers to hide in the shadows and let others do the dirty work, but he has his moments, as when he pushes an employee out of a penthouse window, or when he quietly tells a reporter “it’s Christmas, give the Constitution a break.” That leaves DeVito and Pfeiffer to spar for the role of primary villain. The Penguin is a repulsive creation, physically and psychologically. He has flippers for hands, a beak nose, a pallid Burtonian complexion, and sharp teeth; he also oozes, inexplicably, some sort of black bile from his mouth. Rotund, he looks like a deformed Humpty Dumpty when he’s caught in his stained undergarments, and his personality is as vile as his appearance (he bites the nose of an image consultant and makes crude advances not only on Catwoman, but on a young campaign volunteer). To add a layer of weirdness to his character, the Penguin is cast as an anti-Moses. Like Moses, he is cast adrift in a basket by his parents, but rather than being adopted by a king, he’s adopted by animals, and rather than shepherding the people through Biblical plagues, he inflicts plagues on them. It’s an extremely random characterization choice, but it somehow works.
As powerfully loathsome as DeVito’s Penguin is, however, Pfeiffer’s Catwoman steals the show. She’s more complex; like Batman, she retains a secret identity. Her flirtation with Bruce/Batman makes her seem capable of redemption: the audience is constantly nervous that she may someday become a good guy. It goes without saying that she’s sexy rather than repulsive; her bright red lips scream desire, while the random wire stitching in her skintight costume projects her dangerous impulsiveness and unpredictability. She’s more mysterious and magical than the Penguin; whereas he’s given an elaborate backstory and years in the sewers to hone his skills, Catwoman arises spontaneously out of resentment. Her origin makes no sense. She somehow survives a fall which should have killed her. (Unwisely, her would-be killer doesn’t even check the body, or make any attempt to remove the corpse). A tribe of cats flock to her; one kisses her (transferring his feline soul?) and licks the blood off her fingers, reviving her. Suddenly, she’s a whip-cracking, kickboxing acrobat, with skills that it took Batman and the Penguin years to perfect.
Batman, here, is rather bland; the villains come to life in his shadow. But like all the best Batman stories, Returns main theme for the character is his duality, the fact that golden child Bruce Wayne must hide his true character as the shadowy Batman. (The white bread, all-American Superman is basically a good egg in both his incarnations, which is why his stories always lack the frisson we get from the exploits of this morally conflicted vigilante). That theme here is played more loudly by Catwoman, who doubles as Batman’s anima. (I suppose doubling a character who is already split in two technically makes for a thematic quadrupling). The story inverts the concept of persona; rather than wearing a mask to hide their real identity, these freaks use their “real” identity as a cover for the masked one. Burton cleverly plays upon this reversal at a masquerade ball where Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle are the only ones who attend not wearing a costume. They hide in plain sight. Their costumes are full of sexual connotations—Catwoman’s because it reveals her shape, Batman’s because it exaggerates his. In either case, however, the costume is their more real and authentic self, not a disguise. It’s only when they put on their mask that they become what they really are.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“This darker, weirder sequel is easy to find fault with–seamless storytelling has never been Tim Burton’s thing. But I wouldn’t trade 10 minutes of it for ‘Lethal Weapon 3…… Alien 3’ [sic] and ‘Far and Away’ put together. Burton couldn’t play it safe if he wanted to, and he doesn’t want to… Something about the filmmaker’s eccentric, surreal, childlike images seems to strike a deep chord in the mass psyche: he makes nightmares that taste like candy.”–David Ansen, Newseek (contemporaneous)
“I find it the most adventurous and imaginative American film I’ve seen this year – and also the weirdest… [Burton] is more a visual stylist than a storyteller, and in ‘Batman Returns’ he allows his talents to run even more freely and wildly than they did in ‘Beetlejuice’ or ‘Edward Scissorhands,’ which were pretty offbeat themselves. Everything in Gotham City, from the Christmas tree-lighting ceremony at the beginning to the watery funeral at the end, is bathed in a surrealist glow that flares into full-fledged nightmare every chance it gets.”–David Sterritt, Christian Science Monitor (contemporaneous)
“…for all the wintry weirdness, there’s more going on under the surface of this movie than in the original. No wonder some people felt burned by Batman Returns: Tim Burton just may have created the first blockbuster art film.”–Ty Burr, Entertainment Weekly (VHS release)
Batman Returns – Warner Brothers has kept a page devoted to Batman Returns, with the trailer and numerous stills
IMDB LINK: Batman Returns (1992)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Batman Returns (1992) – Articles – A good overview of the pre-production/casting from Turner Classic Movies
Clawing for Catwoman – Contemporaneous Entertainment Weekly article about the intense competition among A-list Hollywood actresses for the role of Catwoman
Designing the set of ”Batman Returns” – Also from Entertainment Weekly, an article on production designer Bo Welch’s sets
Unhappy ‘Returns’ – Finally, Entertainment Weekly reports on Warner Brothers’ dissatisfaction with the finished picture
Why ‘Batman Returns’ Is the Ultimate Tribute to DC’s Dark Knight – Hollywood Reporter article contending that, while not the best Batman movie, Returns is the best version at capturing the schizophrenia of the comic’s many incarnations
Revisiting ‘Batman Returns,’ The Weirdest Superhero Movie Ever Made – Writer Vince Mancini argues the title thesis and includes lots of background material along the way
Why Batman Returns Deserves Its Cult Following – Nathan Rabin offers yet another reappraisal of the film for his cult film column on Rotten Tomatoes
MR. BURTON’S BRAND OF PECULIAR MOVIES: A TIM BURTON ROUNDTABLE – This site’s roundtable discussion on which Tim Burton movie (if any) should make the List
BATMAN RETURNS (1992): A SUPERHERO BURLESQUE – ‘s article on the film for this site
Batman Returns – Novelization of the movie
DVD INFO: Warner Brothers has released Batman Returns in many different iterations over the years. The 2010 DVD/Blu-ray combo pack (buy) is the one fans of this specific movie will want. It includes a Burton commentary, a Siouxsie and the Banshees video of the theme song, multiple “making of” featurettes covering everything from the production design to Danny Elfman’s score, and various odds and ends. Bargain hunters may prefer the old standalone DVD (buy) with few special features (unless you count the outdated inclusion of an alternate 4:3 cropped copy on the flip side as a feature, written production notes are the only significant inclusion). Gluttons for punishment can also buy the entire 1990s Batman series (including the two Joel Shumacher entries with Val Kilmer and George Clooney as Batman), which includes most of the bonus content from the standalone disc, in the “4 Film Favorites: The Batman Collection” set (buy) on DVD. The single disc DVD double feature including just Burton’s original Batman and this first sequel (buy) has a higher overall quality rating, but you’ll miss out on the special features.
Of course, Batman Returns can be had on-demand (buy or rent).