Tim Burton's wildly popular Batman took more license with its source material than most comic book movies are allowed to take today (modern comic book fans will throw a fit over an incorrect costume detail, much less an altered origin story), but it's practically reverential in contrast to the sequel. Batman Returns eagerly dispenses with large chunks of the Batman mythos, taking the atmosphere and imagery of the comic books and jamming them into something that is – for better or worse – a Tim Burton movie to its very core. This isn't a tale of a Dark Knight trying to save a broken city, but of a group of profoundly damaged misfits using their conflicts as a form of violent therapy.
Perhaps the most immediately unusual thing about this Batman movie is that there isn't a whole lot of Batman in it. He's forced to share the spotlight with three other major characters (all of whom get at least as much screen time): the grotesque Penguin (Danny DeVito, Throw Momma from the Train), the volatile Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer, Scarface) and the greedy businessman Max Shreck (Christopher Walken, A View to a Kill). The film is set during the holidays, and there are subtle traces of A Christmas Carol here: these three characters seem to represent the ghosts of Bruce Wayne's past, present and future. Collectively, they are his dark reflection.
While the comics presented Penguin as a fairly sophisticated mobster of sorts, Batman Returns gives him to us as a crude, bloated gargoyle of a man who literally spews black bile from his mouth when he speaks. He was born with severe deformities (his hands look more like flippers), so his parents placed him in a basket and sent him into the Gotham sewers, where he was raised by penguins from an abandoned zoo (just go with it). Now, he leads an army of underground circus freaks, and is planning to use them to create some purposeful mayhem in Gotham. More importantly, however, he hopes to find a place for himself above ground and discover the true identity of his parents. As played by DeVito, Penguin is a complicated, magnificently repulsive figure; a gleeful monster whose sadism masks his profound sadness. With his mad face, skinny legs and improbably vast midsection, he looks more like a living Tim Burton sketch than any other Burton creation this side of Jack Skellington.
Shreck is a more conventional figure (hey, another greedy businessman!), but becomes immensely memorable by virtue of being played by Walken. Sporting a white fright wig and a series of bowties, Walken brings his singular weird energy to every line he delivers: “Mayors... come and go. Blue bloods tire easy. You think you can go FIFTEEN rounds with Muhammed Shreck?” The character often serves as the engine of the film's plot: Shreck is attempting to get Gotham City to sign off on the construction of a new power plant, which he actually plans to use to drain power from the city (just go with it). Both the mayor and Bruce Wayne (who has a lot of influence in the city) are being uncooperative, but Shreck finds an unlikely ally in Penguin. After some initial tension, they make a bargain: Shreck will help Penguin start a new life in “civilized” society, and Penguin will use his hired muscle to help Max achieve his goals.
Finally, there's Catwoman, who begins the film as a humble, socially awkward secretary named Selina Kyle. Selina is Max's diligent (if scatter-brained) personal assistant, and one day she makes the mistake of discovering the true nature of his plans. Max pushes Selina out of a skyscraper window. She dies, but then a bunch of cats run over and start biting and licking her and she comes back to life with a renewed sense of purpose (just go with it). Suddenly, the stammering, self-conscious secretary has become a furious, confident dominatrix; donning black leather and prowling the streets of Gotham with a bullwhip in hand. It's a tremendous piece of work from Pfeiffer, who takes a thoroughly absurd version of this character and makes her feel vital and iconic. It's remarkable to observe just how many different shades she captures within the confines of this performance: timid fear, sly self-assurance, sexual hunger, vengeful anger, quiet heartbreak, tormented confusion. It might be the best performance of her career.
In contrast to these wildly colorful people, Batman feels almost shockingly subdued. Above all, he is a watchful observer, silently taking mental notes on these people from the rooftops of buildings and from the confines of the Batcave. Keaton remains my favorite big-screen Batman, in part because he seems so genuinely curious about the world he lives in. He seems both fascinated and troubled when he looks at these people, because he sees pieces of himself in all of them. Penguin is a psychologically damaged orphan, Catwoman is a sadistic fetishist and Shreck is a powerful businessman. Bruce Wayne/Batman is all of these things, and he empathizes with these people to varying degrees (Shreck the least, Catwoman the most) because he understands their fears, desires and insecurities on a deeply personal level.
Thousands of movies have given us the “we're not so different, you and I” speech, but those moments feel surprisingly resonant in Batman Returns. That's partially because the speeches are more nuanced than usual, and partially because they feel more honest than usual. There's a lot of Batman in the film's villains, but there's a lot of villainy in Batman, too: this is a movie in which our hero murders people in cold blood, and smirks while doing it. Sure, he's “cleaning up the streets,” but he finds the same relief in senseless violence that his foes do.
Batman Returns is more emotionally resonant than you might suspect, particularly in the scenes between Bruce/Batman and Selina/Catwoman. Yes, it's a pretty large coincidence that they're falling for each other in “real life” while their alter egos engage in bitter battle, but their scenes together contrast so beautifully. On the rooftops, they're bold and fearless, flinging bad one-liners at each other as they tussle. In the confines of Bruce's mansion, they're quiet and shy. Bruce in particular seems vulnerable during these moments... just look at the scene where he confesses his fear that Selina might see him as a, “Norman Bates or Ted Bundy type.”
Another large part of the film's impact comes from Danny Elfman's score, which brings back the iconic main theme from Batman but adds two new ones into the mix for Penguin and Catwoman. The new themes are terrific (particularly Catwoman's theme, which is anchored around a stunning melody and cleverly employs high-pitched strings to create a “meowing” effect), and it's fascinating to observe the way Elfman blurs the lines between them in the later portions of the film. Initially, the themes clearly signify the arrival of the character they represent, but later, Elfman subtly allows them to bleed into each other and even allows one character to be represented by another's theme on occasion. It's smart musical storytelling.
This is an atypically thoughtful superhero movie, but I should emphasize that it's also a completely ridiculous, demented one. This is a movie involving an army of mind-controlled penguins, a Batmobile that has the ability to transform into a rolling phallus, an abundance of ridiculous gags (OF COURSE Catwoman falls into a giant truck of kitty litter), bizarre Biblical allusions (Penguin begins life as Baby Moses and grows up to be King Herod), murderous circus clowns on motorcycles... and that's just the tip of the iceberg. It's pure, uncut Burton from start to finish, which means an abundance of visual lunacy and an abundance of empathy for the outcasts and loners of the world. At the time, it was met with a mixed reception – skeptics found it too dark, too noirish, too incoherent, too strange – but as time passes, it looks increasingly like a wildly unique vision in a genre crowded with cookie-cutter blockbusters.
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 126 minutes
Release Year: 1992