Last Sunday I published my review of Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film. I decided it would be only fair that I re-watch the 1992 sequel, Batman Returns, and share my thoughts about the film.
Long story short, I did not think that the ’89 film was a good Batman story. My general feeling about it overall is that it was a great piece of visual art, thanks to Tim Burton’s usual sense of creativity. Batman Returns in every respect is a superior production than the first. The Blu-ray transfer for starters really is much better quality than what I saw on the big-screen back in ’92, as well as the VHS and DVD versions. The remaster really makes everything pop — from the grandiose and lavish sets to the underlying colour palette carefully picked by Burton.
It’s well known that after the major box office success of the first film, that Burton felt ambivalent about directing a sequel. And yet, the linchpin to us even getting a sequel seems to point to one very specific event. If you watch some of the interviews on the special features for Batman Returns, Burton mentions one conversation that occurred with the studios that changed his mind. Essentially, the story goes that he was offered the director’s chair and was promised free rein over the approach for the film. When given the chance to make a Batman film that was essentially a “Tim Burton film,” that was enough to pique his interest in doing something truly unique, something that he didn’t have to be so concerned with as far as staying close to the source material, or for that matter pleasing hardcore fans. Therein lies the major issue I have with the entire film. I’m going to leave my distaste for Michael Keaton as Batman out of this narrative. I’ve already explained how I feel about his casting in my review of the ’89 film, so please read that first if you want to know more.
In the sequel Batman Returns, Danny DeVito and Michelle Pfeiffer are cast in the two leading villainous roles: the Penguin and Catwoman. I actually like these two actors in general, and I believe they were great, irrespective of Burton’s misguided and twisted version of what these characters ended up being. Yes, that’s right, I said misguided and twisted. As someone who has strong feelings for these characters, they were just so way off base to me. I can respect a director’s decision to make some changes to pre-existing characters to a certain extent. Whilst Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy was overall quite good and miles ahead of anything that came before, there were changes made that bothered me, but not enough to ruin them like what happened with Batman Returns.
The origin story for Penguin is vastly different from what you’ve come to know from the comics. In the first few scenes, we see Oswald Cobblepot as a child (well, we don’t actually see him), forced to live within the confines of a locked cage. Born into privilege by very wealthy parents, his grotesque appearance — flippers hands, bird like nose, and pale skin — pose too much for his parents to bear. So what do they do? Naturally, they place him in a stroller and dump him off a bridge into the freezing cold winter water — a fate befitting any character in a Tim Burton feature) where he is carried away into the sewers. Thirty-three years later, the next time we see Cobblepot, he’s living in the sewers with the penguins that raised him (a completely asinine plot if there ever was one) and the Red Triangle circus gang. For the rest of the film, we get to enjoy seeing Penguin eating raw fish, biting people’s nose’s, dribbling black spit, and flying away on a magical umbrella that doubles as a helicopter (where the fuck is the motor that can power the blades of this thing?) He just stands on the foot rest and the umbrella takes off, as if we’re supposed to believe it can even support his weight?). In the comic, Penguin is supposed to be highly intelligent, and this is one aspect of the character Burton seems to get mostly right, but there are certain scenes I find completely unbelievable. The most egregious one being the scene where he has managed to design an impossibly detailed blueprint of the Batmobile. Burton really thinks the audience is going to buy that Penguin and his goons have the knowledge and resources to reverse engineer the security of the Batmobile? And yet, they manage to do just that. We even see the Red Triangle gang working on the innards of the Batmobile, attaching their gear that will allow Penguin to remotely control it. Later, Batman discovers the transceivers location, and punches his fist through the solid metal floor board of the Batmobile (or was it made out of cardboard?) This was a mind numbingly moronic plot device.
Catwoman, like the Penguin is really only similar to the comic version of her character in name and costume. Instead of Selina Kyle being a resourceful thief who just happens to wear a leather cat costume, she’s portrayed as a somewhat dysfunctional and insecure secretary, who becomes the butt-end of sexist jokes by her misogynistic boss, business tycoon, Max Shreck. After discovering the password for Shreck’s protected files, Selina uncovers his true plans for the power plant that he wants to build in Gotham. Catching her in the act, he ends up pushing Selina out of the window, where she plummets (many stories) to what should have been her death. Instead, Burton infuses the supernatural into the story, and we see dozens of alley cats come to her rescue — which at this point we’re supposed to believe are able to revive her (the magic healing power of cats!). This scene is so amusing. I burst out into laughter when Selina’s eyes start rolling back into their sockets, as if she’s possessed. After finding the way back to her apartment, Selina suffers a major psychotic break and goes bat shit insane, destroying practically everything of value in her home. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Tim Burton film if Selina didn’t have the perfect materials readily available to sew into a sexy fitted Catwoman costume. Yep, the first thing that comes to Selina’s mind after her revival, is to make a cat-like costume. Given the ludicrous nature of her supernatural transition, I guess we just have to accept that she has cat-like powers (great reflexes and nine lives). Okay fine, I’ll go with that, but where you lose me is how she acquired the skills to use a whip so expertly.
In the first film, it’s very clear that Batman has no issues with being responsible for the Joker’s death. In the sequel, Burton goes full force and let’s Batman continue this trend. Oh yes, it’s even worse in Batman Returns. At one point, Batman sticks dynamite down one of the Red Triangle gang members pants, and walks away whilst he explodes. Yep, just another day in Gotham where Batman kills criminals left right and center. There’s even a scene where Batman sets one of the goons on fire with the jet exhaust from the Batmobile.
Plenty of silliness is abound in Batman Returns, including some very bad dialogue. During a fight scene between Batman and Catwoman, Batman knocks Catwoman to the ground and says: “eat floor; high fiber.” How can you not laugh at that? Sadly, there are almost too many things in this film that bother me, all varying in degrees of badness. I’m not going to list them all here, lest this piece turn into something far too long. The overarching big problems I have occur during the denouement. It starts with the bat ski-boat (a new means of transportation for Batman) racing through the massive sewer system. There’s barely any water for which even a hydrofoil boat could be move on, so I find this completely improbable (they used a miniature for this scene). Around the same time this is happening, Penguin sends his army of missile toting penguins through the city (luckily, none were harmed during the making of the film). This is yet another preposterous plot device. It’s amazing that all by himself, Penguin manages to devise the technology to control the minds of other creatures to do his bidding, all whilst living in the sewer! Either Burton thinks the audience will attempt to draw their own conclusions about how this could be accomplished, or he just doesn’t give a shit about how inconceivable the story might be.
The film concludes with Batman revealing his true identity to Selina, mistakingly right in front of Shreck, one of the main villains (did he not think there would be consequences by doing that?). Bruce rips off the cowl as if it’s made out of rubber. Think about this for a moment, let it sink in, and then read that again. He rips off the cowl as if it’s made out of rubber. Correct me if I’m wrong, but if you were to go gallivanting around in an intimidating costume and fight the forces of evil, would you not want to make sure your cowl is made out of a strong enough material to protect you from easily getting a concussion? If you’ve seen Batman Begins, you will see Christopher Nolan goes into detail about how Batman acquires his gear, including how Bruce and Alfred order a cowl from a manufacturer in China, but it ends up that the graphite material selected contains a flaw (Alfred smashes the cowl to display its weakness). In Burton’s universe, the cowl appears to be made out of rubber, so how can the audience be expected to suspend its disbelief that the rest of the costume is bullet proof? It seems like Bruce Wayne is rather daft in this Batman story. Finally, Selina kills Shreck by electrocuting him, while sacrificing herself in the act (or so we are led to believe). Right before the credits roll, the bat signal lights up the night sky, and Catwoman is seen alive. I found out many years after watching Batman Returns that this scene was added in post. Originally Catwoman was supposed to die, but the studio wanted to leave it open that she could come back in the third film. Michelle Pfeiffer was unavailable to film that scene, so they used a body double.
There you have it folks. An absolutely terrible Batman story, and yet, I feel compelled to re-watch this film once every few years or so. Purely for the nostalgia factor and because the sets and general design are so well done. I really wish someone else had directed this film though. It would be been better in someone else’s hands with Burton’s role relegated to art and design consultant.