“What are you waiting for? The signal!”
Batman Returns was released in cinemas 25 years ago (plus a few days!). So what better time to review what was then only the second superhero sequel out there! Tim Burton was hemmed in by the demands of Warner Bros for Batman (1989). However, for the sequel, Burton had free rein to do what he wanted. There’s no denying he went full-Burton for Batman Returns…which is both a blessing and a curse. It’s the most stylish Batman film thus far. The plot and the pacing are all over the place. Sometimes too much Burton can be a bad thing…But he must be commended for creating a sequel that doesn’t pander to the audience or to studio executives, like most of the superhero sequels we see today.
Batman Returns takes place sometime after Batman. But, unlike the change from Batman Begins to The Dark Knight, Gotham City looks the same over Burton’s two Batman films (the Gotham of The Dark Knight is almost completely unrelated to the Gotham of Batman Begins). It’s possibly even more Burton-esque than before. Max Shreck, an evil capitalist/industrialist/businessman, wants to create a power plant. The mayor doesn’t agree to his plans, but fortunately Shreck is kidnapped by the Penguin. They manipulate and use each other. Thrown into the mix is Selina Kyle, hurled out of a window by Shreck and transformed into Catwoman. There’s also Batman/Bruce Wayne brooding in the background, sometimes coming up to save the day…
“Give the Constitution a rest, it’s Christmas”
There’s is a lot happening. It’s overstuffed. The introductions of the main characters are fantastic, unsurpassed in superhero films. At the beginning of the movie, we see baby Penguin/Oswald Cobblepot being thrown into a river by his parents (because he’s a freak). We follow his cot down tunnels and sewers, to a haunting and mournful tune by Danny Elfman (whose work is superb in this, as always). It’s hypnotising and haunting. Max Shreck, played by the inimitable Christopher Walken, is more than a stereotypical capitalist villain, just from the fact that he’s played by Walken. He’s introduced in a boardroom, where he at once mocks the mayor and assistant Selina Kyle. Her later transformation into Catwoman is one of Burton’s finest scenes (and Michelle Pfeiffer’s). We see Bruce Wayne brooding, and suddenly stand up when he sees the Bat signal, which glimmers just behind him.
I’ve heard Batman Returns called the most faithful comic book adaptation, and it feels like a comic book come to life. Not just from the subversive yet scintillating style from Burton, but in every sense. Dialogue comes in one-liners, bordering on camp but never crossing it. Fight scenes are filmed like they appear in a comic book (with better filming than you see in Nolan’s Batman films). The aforementioned introductions may not be faithful to the comic books literally, but in terms of general comic book style, they are second to none. Frame by frame, it looks like it could be a comic flick book. But, unfortunately, the style comes at a price.
“One can never have too much power”
After the introductions are over, and the plot kicks in, things start to spin out of control. It feels like an overly complicated comic book story. The Penguin uses Shreck to find acceptance in Gotham (and to wreak revenge), Shreck uses Penguin to usurp the Mayor of Gotham…Kyle wants revenge on Shreck for trying to kill her, but also battles with Batman on a few occasions…and Batman/Wayne seems relegated to a secondary character for much of the movie. I’m still not sure if Wayne’s stoicism is in the script or just because Keaton looks disinterested in the whole thing. I’ve read that he cut his dialogue in half. Yes, Batman’s actions speak louder than words. But the most interested Keaton seems is in flirting with Kyle. Perhaps his version of Wayne is demoralised by years of playing the superhero. Either way, he doesn’t seem to have much motivation in this movie. He seems strung along by the plot, rather than stringing along the plot (and he also violates his no-killing rule on several occasions, once with a smirk, which makes his later plea to Catwoman not to kill Shreck hypocritical!).
The plot itself is so full of half-formed ideas that one is dropped before becoming something viewers can follow. But, in spite out the plot, I still found enjoyment in Batman Returns. The main reason I enjoy it is because it is so different to any superhero sequel we’ve seen since. There’s an incredible amount of sexual innuendos, for one. You may get the occasional wink and nod towards intimacy in today’s superhero films, but you’ll never get an exchange like the one we see between Wayne and Kyle towards the end of Batman Returns (“so…no hard feelings?” “Well, semi-hard”) or the Penguin’s overt but failed seduction of Kyle (I don’t think we’ll ever hear the words “Just the pussy I’ve been looking for” in a superhero film every again!).
The sexuality on display is shocking. But sexual repression plays a key part in the characters of Kyle, Penguin and probably Wayne. They’re all very horny…and possess dual identities. This is just a part of the darkness of Batman Returns. And it’s dark, very dark in a very different way to the Nolan Batman trilogy. The Penguin’s character is dark enough, a grotesque villain in more ways than just the physical. But his plan at the end…to kill all first born males of Gotham’s adults? It does morph into a more generic attempt to destroy Gotham City, but attempting to kill children? In a superhero film?
“I am not a human being, I am an animal!”
Batman Returns is a mixed bag. Burton truly makes the Batman his own plaything, and that both reaps rewards and disappoints. The main characters, from the introductions to the performances, are spot-on (with the possible exception of Bruce Wayne/Batman). Every frame shows a degree of care and attention that you just can’t achieve with CGI. It’s simply beautiful to look at. However, the plot is stretched to ridiculous lengths. Ideas for several films have been shoved into one film. There’s attempts to link them by themes (duality, sexuality, etc), but these fail more often than not.
But Burton should be commended for creating a superhero sequel that breaks the mould. It doesn’t repeat the plot of the original with bigger effects. It doesn’t cater to the younger audience (or any audience, apart from Burton aficionados). It doesn’t cater to the whims of studio executives who care about the dollar bill more than creative freedom. There’s a scene where a poodle carries a grenade in its mouth, for goodness sake! In a time where Disney gets rid of directors for not following the rulebook (Lord and Miller are the latest victims), you must wonder what the Warner Bros executives thought when they first saw Batman Returns. Probably “how can we market this to children? Pretend the goo coming out of Penguin’s mouth is cola?”). It strives to be something different, both to its predecessor and to everything else. That’s something that most studios should aspire to do when greenlighting the endless sequels (including superhero and non-superhero ones) that gobble up our cinema screens.
VERDICT: 7/10. Batman Returns is one of the most stylistically brilliant superhero films out there. In plot terms, there’s plenty of room for improvement, but as a rough blueprint of how to make a sequel that truly breaks the mould, Burton’s Batman sequel is unparalleled.
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Thought-provoking review. With such a visual display by Burton and great secondary-character presentation, I think many would be happy to overlook the defects. This is actually the Batman film where Batman himself takes the secondary role, and if this is the film where we see the director given a lot of freedom to improvise, it’s a pity that many in the early 1990s just did not have that choice.
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That’s one thing I like about it above all else: it’s anti-blockbuster nature
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