Batman Returns

by Alex Kirschenbaum Jun 19, 2022

For my money, director Tim Burton and star Michael Keaton’s second Caped Crusader collaboration Batman Returns (1992), written by recurring podcast guest Daniel Waters and TFH Guru Sam Hamm, might very well be the best theatrical Batman flick ever. The Dark Knight has appeared in 15 theatrical feature films as of this writing, if you include his two LEGO movie appearances. Released 30 years ago today, Returns was a definite hit, but received a slightly more muted box office reception than its 1989 smash predecessor.

When it was first unspooled, the moody, morbid and magnificent sequel grossed $162.8 million stateside (and $266.8 million worldwide), making it the third-biggest domestic blockbuster of 1992. Per The Numbers, that sum is equivalent to $359.8 million in 2022 dollars, a tastier tally than that brought in by the latest celluloid matchup between the Bat, the Cat, and the Penguin, the Robert Pattinson-starring three-hour crime epic The Batman.

The film received mixed-to-positive notices from critics, notching a 68% rating from review aggregator Metacritic. The great Roger Ebert awarded it just ** stars out of ****. But movie critics weren’t among Batman Returns‘s crucial voting bloc. The blockbuster sequel was also met with more pushback from concerned parents upset over the level of grotesque gore and fetishistic leather eroticism in what ostensibly was expected to be a kid-friendly adventure. This critic first saw the flick on home video as an impressionable six-year-old, and immediately demanded all the accordant action figures and tie-in graphic novels.

Three years after the events of the first Tim Burton film, eccentric reclusive billionaire Bruce Wayne/Batman finds himself facing off against a strange new group of creepy carnival workers in his crime-ridden hometown of Gotham City, the Red Triangle Gang. Amidst the chaos, crooked real estate tycoon Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) is kidnapped into the sewer lair of the Red Triangle Gang’s leader, a crude, deformed, nose-chomping maniac, nicknamed “The Penguin” (Danny DeVito), cast aside by his wealthy parents to live among underground water fowl beneath the Gotham City Zoo at birth, who attempts to bribe Shreck in an effort to be introduced into public life as a sympathetic figure.

Max Shreck, hellbent on developing a power plant in town, sees in the Penguin a golden opportunity to get what he wants. Shreck engineers a mayoral recall campaign to replace the current mayor (Michael Murphy), who is resistant to the power plant concept (as is billionaire philanthropist Bruce Wayne), with the Penguin, who essentially will operate as puppet for Schreck. A fly in the ointment proves to be a bit peskier in death than she had been in life. Shreck’s put-upon cat lady secretary Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer) inadvertently discovers that the power plant is actually a cover for an energy-draining Shreck scheme to make the city wholly dependent on him. Shreck pushes Kyle to her death out of his office window — but what he hadn’t been counting on was that Selina would be rewarded for her loyalty to the street kitties of Gotham with a convenient feline resurrection.

Now packing quite the grudge, a furious Selina heads home, where she sews together a gothic black leather get-up worthy of Batman. As the Catwoman, Selina doles out her own unique brand of street justice in Gotham, before testing her free agent allegiances in a botched team-up with the Penguin, unaware of his loyalty to Shreck. Ultimately, her goal is relatively unchanged: vengeance on Shreck, by any means necessary.

Both Burton Batman movies succeed in part because they make Batman into a side character, deferring to a dastardly rogues’ gallery of colorful villains. Gangster Jack Napier/The Joker (Jack Nicholson) stole the show in the original 1989 hit, while the Penguin and the Catwoman take center stage here, though at the end of the day Shreck is the true twisted puppet master pulling their strings. Keaton is subdued and masterful as the dour, moody Wayne, operating in the shadows and engaging in a delicate flirtatious dance with Pfeiffer’s brilliant Catwoman interpretation. The chemistry between real-life ex-lovers Keaton and Pfeiffer is palpable. This critic dares you to find any movie scene cooler than the very revealing Siouxsie and the Banshees dance between Bruce and Selina at a pivotal costume ball, during which they are ironically less costumed than they are throughout much of the picture. It can’t be done!

“I think the actors got that very well, because they certainly had been going through it for some time,” Burton reflected to author Mark Salisbury in Burton on Burton, the essential book on his filmography. “In some ways it’s crazy, because there were so many restrictions with the kinds of outfits, make-up and masks they were wearing … they began to feel that they were not emoting at all, but they were. So, by the time it got to the ball scene I think they could just feel it, it was just there.”

DeVito’s grotesque take on the Penguin, aided by a terrific character design courtesy of Burton and Stan Winston, is a far cry from the cheery cigarette-puffing gangster seen in the original ’40s comics or on-screen as portrayed by Burgess Meredith. Like Batman and Catwoman, the Penguin is driven by base impulses and a violent need for revenge. In his case, the corrupt mayoral candidate wants to wreak karmic vengeance on the family that shunned him, and is hellbent on lying, cheating and stealing to reclaim his birthright to Gotham high society.

The action sequences in Batman Returns operate as something of an afterthought. What’s far more central is the way these bizarre people and their ruthless agendas collide, and the sparkling dialogue they spew at each other in the process.

At its core, though, this is one of the ultimate tragic gothcore romances. That niche sub-genre may not be particularly robust in cinema, per se, but it certainly should be. Batman and Catwoman, even when moonlighting in their “civil” personas of Bruce and Selina, enjoy a strange, verbose, moody flirtation that is like nothing we’ve ever seen before or since. It’s smart, it’s strange, and it’s utterly compelling. Everything is perhaps best summed up by this key bit of repartee between our doomed couple: “Mistletoe can be deadly if you eat it.” “But a kiss could be even deadlier if you mean it.” That’s the stuff of a million moody teenage diaries right there.

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