Should I Watch..? Batman Returns
What's the big deal?
Batman Returns is a superhero film released in 1992 and is the sequel to the hugely successful 1989 film featuring Bruce Wayne and his alter-ego, Batman (1). Reuniting the star of the first film Michael Keaton and director Tim Burton, the movie once again sees Batman fighting against the criminal element of Gotham City but this time, he faces three very different foes. The film also stars Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer and Christopher Walken. The film was also a box office success with global earnings in excess of $266 million but opinion was divided over the film's dark tone and excessive violence. Burton would vacate the director's chair for the next Batman film Batman Forever (2), handing the reins over to Joel Schumacher while Keaton would also leave the title role after this picture.
What's it about?
With Christmas fast approaching in Gotham City, the citizens are terrified once again as a new crime wave hits the city. Criminals dressed as clowns run riot in the city until the crime-fighting vigilante Batman turns up to put a stop to the chaos. Unfortunately, shady businessman Max Shreck is cornered by members of the Red Triangle gang who escort him into the sewers to meet their boss, the hideous deformed Penguin. Threatening to expose some of Shreck's dodgy practises, Penguin manages to persuade Shreck to help him become a normal member of society as well as track down his own origins.
Thanks to Shreck's own reputation and some careful PR management, Penguin gets his wish and emerges from the shadows as the long-lost son of social highflyers Tucker and Esther Cobblepot, Oswald. But as Bruce Wayne begins to suspect the Penguin's true agenda, Shreck's former secretary (unceremoniously murdered after discovering Shreck's illegal dealings) Selina Kyle returns as whip-wielding Catwoman who has an agenda all over her own...
Bruce Wayne / Batman
Oswald Cobblepot / The Penguin
Selina Kyle / Catwoman
Commissioner James Gordon
Mayor Roscoe Jenkins
Daniel Waters *
Release Date (UK)
10th July, 1992
Action, Crime, Superhero
Academy Award Nominations
Best Visual Effects, Best Makeup
Worst Supporting Actor (DeVito)
What's to like?
Much like the first Batman, this film is carried by the strength of its villains. Pfeiffer's portrayal of Catwoman remains the definitive version seen on the big screen although considering the character's only other appearance was in the Halle Berry flop Catwoman (3), that damns her with faint praise. She's enigmatic, supremely seductive and a much-needed addition to the film despite her not really having much impact. Conversely, DeVito's Penguin is a truly wretched creature that is more repulsive than threatening. DeVito's performance is admirable as the scheming power-hungry freak but not a patch on Jack Nicholson's Joker.
The film retains much of the look and style established by Burton in the earlier film, giving Gotham an oppressive feel and almost making the city a character in itself. The story sticks close to the comic origins and works hard to keep itself feeling more like the Dark Knight than the camp Caped Crusader of the Sixties TV show. As a fan of the former, I like the Gothic vibe and brooding menace of the picture which is much darker and bleaker than before.
- Pfeiffer lost out on the role to Annette Bening, who only pulled out when she became pregnant. Pfeiffer attended kick-boxing classes and practised using a whip to prepare for the role.
- Pfeiffer's look in the movie did have one unusual complication. Posters featuring the character were often stolen from bus stops in various US cities with Warner Brothers having to constantly replace them. Today, such posters are worth quite a bit.
- Burgess Meredith, the actor who played Penguin in the Sixties TV show and Batman: The Movie (4), was asked to appear as Oswald's father but had to decline due to poor health. The role went to Paul Ruebens who worked with Burton in Pee-wee's Big Adventure (5).
What's not to like?
What's weird about Batman Returns is how Burton ramps up certain aspects of the production but other areas feel scaled back. Chief culprit is Keaton who seems thoroughly disinterested in the film, which isn't surprising given that he has already avenged his parents at the end of the earlier film. What motivation the role had has now gone and as a result, Keaton looks like he'd rather be anywhere else than on set. The film also indulges in some faintly bizarre action sequences involving live weaponised penguins and some truly odd set designs like Penguin's abandoned zoo-sewer base.
Aside from the Penguin not really being much of a threat to Batman, the movie feels like a twisted carnival ride through a circus of sideshow freaks. No doubt Burton was having the time of his life but for people not mixed up in all things Edgar Allan Poe, the film feels like it's excluding us loyal fans who enjoyed the first film. It's almost as though Burton is saying to his audience that he doesn't care for our opinion and to hell with studio expectations. Fine if the film is any good but it's too confused, too long, too dark and not that interesting if I'm being honest. I much prefer the first Batman to this sequel which was more exciting, more enjoyable and more original.
Should I watch it?
Remaining as divisive as ever, Batman Returns is a strange movie full of invention and vision but lacking a coherent story and a decent performance from its lead actor. It's little wonder that Burton, Keaton and Warner Bros moved on after this because the series felt like it had hit a brick wall and needed fresh impetus. Batman Returns is OK but not a patch on the 1989 smash - do not expect lightning to strike twice.
Great For: Goths, the S&M community, anyone who loves penguins (and who doesn't?), Pfeiffer's status as a sex symbol
Not So Great For: fans of Batman, Burton's career as a director of blockbusters (only two films since have made more than Batman), the poorly sighted
What else should I watch?
So where does Batman Returns sit in the overall list of the Dark Knight's cinematic outings? We've already established that it isn't as good as Batman and obviously, it pales into insignificance next to Christopher Nolan's masterful Dark Knight trilogy. Ignoring Ben Affleck's hopeless battle to reclaim the character in fluff like Suicide Squad (6) and Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice (7), the movie is slightly better than Batman Forever and miles better from the disastrous Batman & Robin (8), a film so awful that I could have fallen out of love with the character altogether.
This is, however, another option. The Sixties interpretation of the role, played with enthusiastic gusto by the late Adam West, remains immensely popular today with some fans. The short-lived TV show only ran from 1966-1968 but not only did it spawn a film - the aforementioned Batman: The Movie - but also two animated reprisals released on DVD in 2016 and 2017. Due to West's death in 2017, it is uncertain whether we will see more of this version of Batman who nonetheless lives on in various comic books.
© 2018 Benjamin Cox