Originally Reviewed – 5/19/2012
The world embraced The Bat like no other superhero to date. Smashing box office records and satisfying a legion of fans who wanted a return to creator Bob Kane’s original vision, Tim Burton’s Batman was a commercial and critical success. To a young Bill Tucker, Batman was a beast. From a Party City bought Halloween costume to the exceptional NES game, Batmania was in full swing in the Tucker hosehold. When Batman Returns hit theaters in 1992, there was no way six months was keeping young Bill from seeing the film in theaters. PG-13 be damned.
Back then, I don’t think I appreciated the scope of the sequel. Tim Burton didn’t just rehash the beats and rhythms of the successful original. He unleashed his full vision on the movie going public, creating an even darker interpretation of the Dark Knight. As a youngin’, the film terrified me. The Penguin was grotesque, the architecture unsettling and Batman didn’t triumph at every turn. Not even Michelle Pheiffer in a skin tight cat costume could make this fun. The fan in me loved it but the child inside was a little freaked out. Looked at nearly twenty years later, Batman Returns not only ranks as my favorite film in the original franchise, it ranks as one of my favorite superhero films of all time.
The second adventure finds Batman (Michael Keaton) battling two foes in the defense of the citizens of Gotham City: a squat sewer dweller who calls himself Penguin (Danny DeVito) and the slinky Catwoman (Pheiffer). Despite how good Jack Nicholson was in the original film, the villains of Returns have far more depth and more interesting stories. DeVito’s flamboyant Penguin starts the film on a quest to find the parents who abandoned him and Catwoman opens as the meek Selina Kyle, working as an administrative assistant for the town’s number two business mogul, Max Shreck (Christopher Walken). The two antagonists straddle the line between good and evil, perfectly reflecting the duality of the man in black. Both Penguin and Catwoman are attempting to right wrongs in their own psychotic way and this positive motivation is among the most interesting of the series. That and Walken is just fantastic in the role of the slimy industrialist . Why? Because it’s Christopher freaking Walken.
Many fans complained that the character of Batman was diluted by the Pheiffer / DeVito duo but that actually speaks more true to the source material. Batman was written as an avenger from the shadows and just because Keaton lacks some screen time, doesn’t mean his presence isn’t felt. Keaton’s Batman is still nuanced and interesting. We don’t learn much more about why Bruce Wayne dons the cowl, but with such a quality supporting cast, we don’t need to. DeVito is wonderfully over the top and Pheiffer walks the line between hurt kitten and claw bearing wingnut, giving Batman two dangerous foils to battle. This leads to some entertaining set pieces involving a giant Christmas tree, a rooftop fistfight and missile toting penguins. The action isn’t as visceral as the latest installments, but they’re good fun nonetheless.
The rest of the film maintains or exceeds the quality of the original. The most interesting enhancement was the newly realized Gotham City. Emboldened by the success of Edward Scissorhands, Tim Burton unleashed his full artistic vision on the project and created a darkly beautiful world of maniac gang members and towering cityscapes. Danny Elfman again provided a stirring soundtrack, the cinematography is top notch and there’s imagination in every frame.
Despite it being a better film, Batman Returns made about half the money its predecessor made. Critical response was less enthusiastic, audiences didn’t get the darker tone and overall opinion was one of mild disappointment. The film started to alienate younger viewers and their parents. Joker’s bloody face was OK but Penguin burping up black liquid while Michelle Pheiffer modeled fetish wear was a bit too much for family viewing. One of those kids in the audience was me, but despite being a little grossed out, the film was still magnetic. I still loved the shadowy adventures of the Caped Crusader. Looking at the movie with modern eyes, I appreciate it more as a natural evolution in the art of Tim Burton. Deeper, more interesting and just as exciting as the original movie, Batman Returns was an art house action movie that not only elevated the genre, it cemented Burton as a director of vision and visual ingenuity. If only 1992 Bill knew that he wouldn’t get another quality Batman movie until he graduated college. Things in the Batman universe were about to slide downhill. Rapidly.
Score – 90%