After previously disposing of The Joker, Batman is faced with two new enemies in the form of a man from the sewers and a disgruntled assistant with a feline fancy who threaten to take over Gotham and destroy the Dark Knight.
Director: Tim Burton
Starring: Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Michael Gough, Michael Murphy
Run Time: 126 Minutes
Release Date: 19 June 1992 (US)
Coming off the monster success of Batman three years prior, Tim Burton was given total control over the franchise and what resulted was Batman Returns. Along with Burton, Keaton returned in the lead role after impressing many with his performance previously. Burton also stayed faithful to his impressive and staggering set designs for Gotham, though there seems to be more gargoyles this time. One thing that is very noticeable, very early on – inasmuch as the first scene – is how much darker this outing is. Considering the tone of the previous film, no-one was expecting this to be a light-hearted rom-com, but equally no-one expected the first scene to be the Cobblepots throwing their deformed first-born son over a bridge into a river. The deformed son, of course, would be Oswald, later The Penguin. Now in the comics Cobblepot was a sophisticated criminal who happened to have mild similarities to Penguin, whereas here he is born a disfigured creature and then abandoned, left to be raised by the penguins who found him in the sewers. This troubled – to say the least – upbringing manifests 30+ years later when Cobblepot returns to civilisation, helped along the way by the tyrannical Max Shreck, played with sleaze and creepiness as only Christopher Walken can. When Penguin’s mayoral ambitions go awry, he turns to his back-up plan of sending his crew around Gotham kidnapping and murdering the first born sons in the city.
So thus far – with just Penguin alone – we have child abandonment, and plans to kidnap and murder children. Dark indeed, and it wasn’t just the villain. After spending the first film happily beating – but never intentionally killing – his enemies, Batman now all of a sudden seems to have no issue going that one step further. One scene in particular shows Bats attach a bomb to one of Penguin’s henchman, before dropping him into an open hole in the ground. The subsequent explosion fills the background while Batman simply walks off. And this comes after a scene where a nameless thug meets his end thanks to the tail of the Batmobile.
Stepping away from the dark overtone, there are some great performances on display here. Keaton has clearly grown in confidence from the first film, and this is reflected in his Bruce Wayne and Batman. After his second-fiddle positioning behind Nicholson’s Joker, Keaton is clearly not prepared to have the same thing happen again. And thankfully his director ensures we don’t get a repeat either. Batman gets a more sufficient amount of screen time and is firmly presented as he should be, despite the darker tone and attitude at times. Keaton isn’t alone, however, with DeVito on top form as Penguin. Clearly having fun in the role and equally clearly having no intention of upstaging the lead, he delights, scares and creeps with every scene, whether it be as the sympathetic orphan Oswald or the deranged Penguin. He is just an enjoyable character to watch, and his – and the film’s – tragic finale manages to add a tinge of sympathy despite his previous actions. The character may not have been as the comics originally displayed, but he is a good Batman villain either way and that rings true here.
Another famous Batman villain is also brought to the forefront here, with Catwoman being given her deserving place in big-screen Batman history. Pfeiffer is extraordinary, first as the meek and timid Selina Kyle – making tea and misguided comments as Max Shreck’s assistant – and then post-transformation as the wily and scheming Catwoman. How Burton got there is a little iffy, with Kyle’s Shreck-assisted fall seemingly countered with licks from roaming and nearby cats, and an explanation on why at times Kyle appears to actually be a cat. Most comic book iterations – and later The Dark Knight Rises – portray Kyle as a thief with high tastes, but here, much like Oswald’s Penguin, she is more actual feline. Comic deviations and lack of explanation aside though, once Pfeiffer pulls on the memorable leather outfit, it is cinema gold from then on.
Pfeiffer’s subtle shift from Kyle’s timid, mouse-like demeanour to the sultry Catwoman is marvellous and really sets her apart from Penguin. Having two villains often dilutes their individual effects, as many other superhero movies have found, but Burton gets the balance right here. Besides, given Catwoman’s comic history of flitting between Batman friend and foe means she is never firmly in the bad guy camp.
Burton undoubtedly goes much darker here than probably anyone expected – definitely the studio, leading to later director changes. But despite the darker and at times macabre tones, this is a significantly better and more rounded Batman film than his previous effort. The characters are better and more evenly developed and are given time to grow. Gotham looks even more beautiful and haunting than before, and the drama, emotion and action once again deliver. Given what was to come from the Batman franchise in later years (before Nolan, at least), this film should be treasured and enjoyed.
[tabgroup][tab title=”The Good“]
Great casting, with all the main players excelling in their roles
A better, more rounded Batman film than the first
[/tab][tab title=”The Bad“]
Too dark in places – even for a Burton Batman film
Lack of explanation for Kyle’s transformation into Catwoman
Several liberties taken with the source material