With Batman‘s huge success, Warner Bros. obviously wanted another movie, and obviously wanted Tim Burton to direct it. However, Burton wasn’t sure he wanted to direct it, and had a story of his own he was passionate about. That movie, Edward Scissorhands, became the film that is probably most quintessentially Tim Burton. Release by 20th Century Fox in 1990, it was a modern fairy tale that utilized many of Burton’s already-known quirky styling and enhanced them. It was a hit.
Eventually, Burton went back to Warner Bros. and agreed to do the next Batman. The biggest thing he wanted, though, was the kind of control he’d had over Edward Scissorhands. As such, producers Jon Peter and Peter Gubers became executive producers while Burton and longtime collaborator Denise DiNovi became producers. A script by Batman writer Sam Hamm was rewritten by Daniel Waters (as well as a ghost-rewrite by Wesley Strick) and eventually passed muster. With Burton on board, Michael Keaton agreed to resume the roles of Bruce Wayne and Batman.
When Batman came out in 1989, I was fresh out of elementary school having just finished 6th grade (in these parts, 5th grade now constitutes the end of elementary school). Junior high school (7th-8th grade, as opposed to today’s middle school, 6th-8th) was pretty bad. Some of the worst years of my life. My freshman year of high school was only marginally better. I transferred schools after 2 months, not happy with the original high school I’d attended and opting for the area’s vocational-technical high school to do art. The two things I looked forward to for the 1991-1992 school year were Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare and Batman Returns. At least one of them delivered.
The cast is quite good. Keaton’s second go-around as Batman and Bruce Wayne is more interesting than the first. Maybe it’s the redesigned suit, which features a thinner mask/cowl than its predecessor and torso armor that looks more like armor than the 1989’s sculpted muscles. Maybe Keaton just grew more comfortable moving around as the character. Either way, his Bruce Wayne is more interesting, willing to smile and actually try to be a part of his world, while his Batman kicks a little more ass, and is even more like the Batman from the comic books from that time period.
Michelle Pfeiffer as Selina Kyle/Catwoman starts off a little rocky, my guess is mostly due to the script, but quickly becomes a scene stealer. Pfeiffer is confident, sexy, and smart and it comes through. As the movie progresses, her character is more and more interesting and her performance gets better and better, no easy feat considering movies shoot scenes out of order. She is a great foil to Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne/Batman. The scene at Max Shreck’s masquerade ball is easily their best together without the masks. In masks, all their scenes together are great.
Danny DeVito’s Penguin is ridiculously over-the-top and hilariously evil. It shouldn’t work. Upon rewatching the movie for this essay, I didn’t think it would work now that I’m an adult. But I couldn’t help but laugh at the double- and triple-entendres I missed as a 14-year-old high school kid. The movie is wildly inappropriate yet most kids wouldn’t know it because the humor is above them. I found myself quite mesmerized by the character this go-round.
Christopher Walken’s Max Shreck is the true villain of the piece. A corporate do-nasty, he has plans for Gotham City and uses the Penguin as a means for more control. When Batman foils the plan to get Penguin elected mayor of Gotham, Shreck disassociates himself with the deformed man, leaving the Penguin to fend for himself, which sets up the last act of the movie. Walken plays Shreck in a way that is subtle but scary. While DeVito is chewing the scenery and give a broad performance, Walken pulls it in and allows his eyes and increasingly wild white hair to do the work.
There’s better pacing this time around. Maybe because there are so many characters that the audience has to keep track of, maybe the filmmakers took a cue from some of the negative comments about Batman, but there’s more action in this movie, and more interesting things happening. It’s actually quite insane. The costumes and shenanigans of the Penguin’s Red Circus Gang are ridiculous, but create a world that one almost wishes existed. If these were the villains we had to deal with, life may be crazier, but maybe we’d be safer in the long run.
The movie is actually quite funny in places, and appropriately so. Unlike the campy satire of the 1966-1968 Batman, Batman Returns has the aforementioned risqué humor from the Penguin, as well as cute scenes, like the one involving Bruce, Alfred, and Selina. Bruce and Selina are on a date (that in itself is funny, since a heavy make-out session–that was about to go farther–had to be stopped since they both suffered from wounds they gave each other the night before in their alternate personas) when trouble happens. Bruce, scatterbrained as usual, tries to get Alfred to tell Selina a lie so he can run off and be Batman. The moment Bruce leaves, Selina comes in and does essentially the same thing.
Another great moment comes later on and also concerns Alfred. The Batmobile has been compromised and needs repairs. As Bruce Wayne is accessing a secret way into the Batcave, via an iron maiden, Alfred reminds him that they can’t just send the Batmobile to any old repair shop.
“Hey,” Bruce says. “Who let Vicki Vale into the Batcave? I’m sitting there working and it’s like, ‘Oh. Hi, Vicki. How are you?'”
It’s a great moment acknowledging the outcry the fans made over Vickie Vale entering the Batcave and the interaction between Michael Keaton and Michael Gough helps show Bruce and Alfred’s relationship.
Which is why I’m going to give Michael Gough more accolades here. While Gough gave Batman some much-needed humanity, here he reinforces the humanity of others. Whether it’s the playful interplay between him and Keaton, or him and Pfeiffer, or it’s him alone discovering something or working some sort of Bat-equipment, Gough is phenomenal. He manages to make Alfred seem both put-upon and fatherly simultaneously.
Again, Tim Burton and his production designers, costumers, make-up artists, and prop people create a world unto itself. Gotham City in Batman Returns feels as though it belongs in the world set up in the first movie but takes it in different directions. The former amusement park where the Penguin has lived (and retreats to), Shreck’s Department Store and its offices, the rooftops of Gotham, and Gotham Square are all familiar and alien at the same time. Again, it’s hard to pin down the era in which the movie takes place, though it does feel more of its time (1992) than its predecessor, much of the costuming has a 1940s/1950s feel, except for Bruce Wayne, Batman, and eventually Selina Kyle/Catwoman.
Danny Elfman’s score was great in the first movie and is even better here. Maybe in the three years between movies he grew more as a composer? Maybe he’s more comfortable with the subject? Either way, his score in this movie builds from Batman’s theme and goes way, way beyond. And without Prince’s crappy music to force into the movie, the music really soars. (And before you leave angry comments about me calling Prince’s music crappy, let me say that I don’t think all of his music is crappy. I actually like a lot of it. But his music for Batman was just bad, man.)
No Harvey Dent. Apparently, he was in some of the earlier drafts of the movie but was eventually deleted because they had too many characters. Even Commissioner Gordon’s role was diminished in this movie. While Pat Hingle isn’t my favorite James Gordon, Gordon is such a huge part of the Batman mythos that hardly seeing him onscreen is a little disconcerting. I think Dent’s character growing through the movie, even if it was only a few short scenes, would’ve been pretty cool. Yeah, that’s more of me as a fan-geek than as a serious critic, but that’s how I see it. Besides, I’m hardly a serious critic.
The film is a little too…theatrical? Is that the right word? One of the things that Tim Burton is known for is his distinct style. There were glimpses of it in his first three movies (Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, and Batman) but it really took shape in Edward Scissorhands. His movies are very stylized and have a specific look to them, from the use of the camera, the use of miniature sets, to the way characters enter and exit a scene. It’s all very theatrical, which isn’t a terrible thing, and is arguably one of the things that makes his movies (well, most of them) fun to watch. Here it’s a little silly sometimes. Two examples I remember from when I was 14 and noticed (and made me smile) now have to do with Michael Keaton.
In these early Batman movies (and many other action movies of the 1980s into the early-1990s), there is a scene when the hero suits up. Whether it’s John Rambo in Rambo: First Blood Part II, or Schwarzenegger in one of his movies, or Batman, there is a scene when the hero goes from being…well…the hero to the, um, hero. In this move, Bruce Wayne goes to the Batcave for the final act’s suit up. He goes into the new vault where all the Batman costumes are located (he must’ve renovated the cave since the first movie). There’s a drawbridge that leads right up to the first costume, which takes up the doorway. It’s quite apparent that you can’t go into the room with the costume where it is, yet Michael Keaton walks right up the small drawbridge and into the room–and obviously nose-to-nose against the first costume. I know what they were going for, and it would’ve been a great shot. Except that you can see at the last minute Keaton has to stop and stand awkwardly, trying not to dump that first costume.
The second moment comes closer to the end. Batman is in his new vehicle, called the Batskiboat, and rushing toward the Penguin’s lair in the abandoned amusement park. He has used a frequency changer (with the help of Alfred) to save Gotham from the Penguin’s penguins and has redirected them to the amusement park. The Penguin, quite angry, rides his motorized duck car to the surface and the Batskiboat follows, crashing from a tunnel and on top of the duck, crushing it. The lid of the Batskiboat slides open and Batman is obviously bent over, squished inside so he can stand up and get out of the vehicle. In other words, the life-size one they built for this scene was too small to fit Michael Keaton. I know I’m nitpicking, but I remember that it bothered me at 14. And that’s the thing with those small, stylistic things, as an adult I find them almost charming, but as a kid, they took me out of the story.
Gotham City feels smaller in this movie. Batman was shot in England, at the legendary Pinewood Studios, where a huge chunk of Gotham City was built. Pinewood Studios is also where portions of Superman and Superman II were shot on the famous 007 Stage. On the backlot, portions of New York City streets were recreated for the infamous fight between Superman and General Zod and his crew. In Batman, Gotham feels like a city. In Batman Returns, which was filmed at Warner Bros. Studios in Los Angeles, even though the sets were huge, it looks (and feels) like less of Gotham was built. And it’s pretty obvious that certain sets were re-used, albeit decorated differently (the exterior of Shreck’s Dept Store and the exterior of Gotham City Hall of Records). Even with the matte paintings of Gotham’s skylines, and chases on the rooftops, Gotham feels small.
Batman the murderer is on the loose. Seriously, Burton’s Batman is a killer in the same way that every action movie star of the 1980s-1990s are, and it’s disappointing. In an interview for one of the behind-the-scene documentaries on Warner Bros.’s superb Batman Anthology DVD/Blu-ray set, I believe it was Daniel Waters who said that while fans complained that Batman killed in these movies, they felt they needed to make him more modern, and in modern movies, the action heroes often kill indiscriminately. To which I say: Bullshit. Why the need to make Batman like every other action star of that time period? Batman purposely uses the Batmobile to set someone on fire, and purposely attaches a bomb to another criminal, blowing him to hell. (How many people will come to my website by searching Batman blowing? We’ll find out! Whee!). And for all intents and purposes, he kills the Penguin as well. Yet, he stands down in the Penguin’s lair, trying to convince Selina Kyle not to kill Max Shreck. He argues that they’re not like Shreck, which I read as, “We’re not killers like he is.” Except…he’s killed all those goons that worked with the Joker, the Joker, several of Penguin’s goons, and, at this point, possibly the Penguin…twice. The way I see it, if Selina Kyle/Catwoman kills Shreck, she’s doing something Batman most likely would’ve done anyway. The argument is, of course, he had no choice but to kill these people. Maybe, maybe not. But the thing that makes the comic book Batman so interesting is that he is unwilling to kill, and when he does, it messes him up.
The black gunk that comes from the Penguin’s mouth. It’s just weird. Blech.
Like Burton’s initial foray into Gotham City, Batman Returns is a tour-de-force of imaginative filmmaking. Nitpicking aside, not only do I enjoy the movie, but I like it even more than its predecessor. It’s faster paced, has more humor, and is just more fun. I saw it twice in the theaters when it came out (and still have the ticket stubs) and multiple times in the year or two that followed, once I got the videotape for Christmas.
Batman Returns was a financial hit, though the reviews were mixed. While Burton’s vision and unique storytelling prowess were often cited as plusses, they were also parts of the criticism that the movie, which was rated PG-13 (like its predecessor), was too dark and too scary. Still, it seemed inevitable that Warner Bros. would want a third adventure. And I knew, that summer in which I turned 15, that I couldn’t wait for a third movie!
A possible piece of trivia: I’ve kept movie stubs for every movie I’ve seen since June 1992. The first stub is for Batman Returns. So is the second stub, seen a month later.