Fresh Eyes: Batman Returns (1992)
I’m no stranger to Batman as a character. I have seen all of the Nolan Bat films, spent a great amount of time with Batman: The Animated Series as a child, and have read a good chunk of the comics over the years. However, I somehow just missed the Tim Burton ones until getting to college, which I chose to correct last year when I sat down and watched 1989’s Batman, which I loved. So this week, I decided to return to Gotham City for some more Batman excellence with Batman Returns.
Batman Returns feels like a comic book directly transposed onto film, and the story is one of the most 'comic book' stories I have seen on film in a while. The film is about the Penguin, Oswald Cobblepot (Danny DeVito) trying to enact his revenge upon Gotham City for having forgotten him, robbing him of a childhood and, essentially, an identity. With the help of the unfortunately named Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), Penguin attempts to gain renown and maneuver into the mayor’s office. When thwarted by Batman, played again by the superb Michael Keaton, Cobblepot attempts to cause mass destruction with an army of real penguins with rockets strapped to their backs. Weaving in and out of this main plot is Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer), who begins her transformation into Catwoman after being pushed out of a window by Shreck. She is entwined in a game of cat and mouse with Batman and Bruce Wayne, as she tries to find a balance in her own life between her costumed alter ego and her unmasked self.
This plot sounds absolutely bonkers when written out like this, but it really doesn’t feel that crazy in context. Part of what makes this work, I feel, is the fact that Batman Returns maintains a sense of humor while taking itself seriously at the same time. More recent DC films have opted for a deadly serious look at this broken man who likes to cosplay as a bat and punch people in the dark, and that’s perfectly fine. But, I had more fun watching this than I did watching any of the Nolan or Snyder interpretations. I’ve never really gotten to experience a fun take on the character, and it was immensely refreshing to find that lightheartedness here.
This fun that runs through Batman Returns is furthered by the set design, which is very consistent with Tim Burton’s style. The style of Gotham in Batman Returns reminds me of an amusement park, a place meant to be stared at and appreciated, but not lived in, and everything going on in there is for show. This feeling is compounded by Danny Elfman’s score, which I found reminiscent of his The Nightmare Before Chirstmas score. This combination made it feel as if Jack Skellington was half a second away from dancing around the Penguin and dashing offscreen again. Frankly, I wouldn’t have been surprised if it had happened at some point.
Every performance in Batman Returns is greatly entertaining. DeVito steals every single scene he is in, and devours any scenery around him, sometimes literally. I have not laughed harder than when DeVito digs into a raw fish without hesitation, which was then topped by his penguin funeral procession at the very end of the film. Seriously, this character is a gift that we should treasure and remember forever. Pfeiffer is just as good, but for different reasons. Watching her transformation from timid secretary to the unstable but confident Catwoman is incredible, and her physical performance for both of these personas is enrapturing. Keaton and Walken do a good job in their respective roles, but I would have liked more of them throughout the film. Batman is featured much less than I expected, considering his name is in the title, but that leaves more room for a well-developed villain in Cobblepot, which I greatly appreciated.
Two thoughts in closing, though. Firstly, Batman sticks dynamite into a man’s pants and throws him into the sewer, which is followed by an explosion. Batman clearly killed that man and showed no remorse, so we can stop getting angry about Snyder’s Batman killing fools, there is precedent for such behavior. Secondly, this film’s most grievous crime is making me think of the movie Shrek on a regular basis. I know Batman Returns came out nine years before Shrek, but my first viewing experience occurred in a post-Shrek world, so I had to mention how distracting it was to hear and see “Shreck” all throughout the film. That being said, Batman Returns was a blast of a good time, much more than I expected it to be, while also delivering one of the best onscreen Batman stories.