The Bat, the Cat, and the Penguin: ‘Batman Returns’ 25 Years Later

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In the summer of 1992, perhaps one of DC Comics’ greatest cinematic epics was released, a movie that doesn’t typically get a lot of love, but one which is near and dear to my heart. I’m speaking of course about Tim Burton’s underrated 1992 gem Batman Returns, a delightfully macabre superhero adventure that was a direct result of 1989’s Batman, a robust entry in the comic book movie universe in its own right. 2017 marks the 25th anniversary this fun sequel and with comic book movies being the blockbusters they are as of late, this seems to be a rather appropriate time to celebrate Burton’s cinematic work.

For those who don’t know, Batman Returns follows the first film and focuses on Oswald Cobblepot, a deformed baby who gets abandoned by his aristocratic parents in Gotham City. Raised in the sewers by an underground circus group, Oswald knows little of the world above, and develops slightly psychotic tendencies over time. Fast forward 33 years, and it’s now Christmastime in the city. A Donald Trump-esque figure named Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) teams up with Cobblepot to run for mayor, control the city, and destroy Batman (Michael Keaton). Shreck’s lowly assistant, Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer), gets thrown into the mix when Shreck attempts to murder her, only to find that her “death” has transformed the once-meek secretary into the confident, sexy Catwoman.

Batman certainly has his hands full in this loaded sequel, and the action sequences reflect that. The circus assault in the beginning is a nice way to set the dark – yet still cartoonish – mood, and Batman’s fight choreography with Catwoman is very appealing to watch. The Batmobile also has a decent chase scene when it slims down to a Batmissile, narrowly escaping its pursuers through a slim alleyway. There is even a cool new vehicle introduced in the Batskiboat, an attempt at besting the Batwing in the first movie. All in all, these special moments provide for a very action-packed and exciting romp.

However, what makes Batman Returns a particularly strong film is the cast, and with actors like this, audiences are definitely in for a treat. Michael Keaton reprises his dual role as The Dark Knight and the emotionally-scarred billionaire Bruce Wayne, and we get from him a performance just as strong as the first film, while we learn more about the man behind the mask. His romance with Selina Kyle is sexy, and exposes a vulnerable side to the dark hero. The beautiful Michelle Pfeiffer is also perfect in a dual role. Her chemistry with Keaton is delicious, and their scenes together are not only steamy but tense and unpredictable. Christopher Walken is over-the-top and very Walken-y here, making this one of his more memorable performances. His Trump-ish persona fits that of a villain well, and new audiences watching the film today will certainly see the comparison. Lastly and most importantly there’s Danny DeVito, who in creepy makeup, a long nose, ink in his mouth, and extra body padding, is a true Tim Burton-inspired take on the birdman bad guy. His performance is tragic, powerful, and downright eerie. It is because of this stellar cast that the film succeeds the way it does.

With the cast being fantastic, there are other crew members that deserve praise. Of course, there is the captain of the ship, auteur Tim Burton, who has created a nightmarish world full of questionable characters and pure artistic gloom. The character of Batman was dark and brooding in his first foray on screen in 1989, and three years later we have an even darker, more complex hero. The first scene in the film has him sitting in a chair in his study lamenting, almost as if he was sitting in the same chair in the same position for all those three years. The Bat Signal soon snaps him out of it, and the new adventure begins

Batman Returns is the quintessential Burton film because of many key aspects. First, there’s the look: a snowy metropolis with gothic architecture and 1940s wardrobes gives the film a sort of timeless feel, as Burton has transported us to a world similar to our own, but strange, crazy, and utterly beautiful. The case can also be made for his previous works, like Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, and of course Batman. Burton’s signature is all over Returns, and continues to be stamped on his movies to this day, though with varying results of success.

With the look and feel being pure Burton, there is also the sound of the film, and that sound is provided by musical genius Danny Elfman. Originally with the 80s pop group Oingo Boingo, Elfman is a self-taught musician and a longtime collaborator with Burton. In fact, Elfman has provided scores for just about all of Burton’s feature-length films since 1985, and their work together is some of the most profound in cinema history. Elfman scored Batman with a pounding march theme for the hero and very exciting action cues. He took a gentler approach with Edward Scissorhands, with a twinkly bittersweet theme. Batman Returns fuses these two scores into one, making for (in my opinion) Elfman’s greatest score. The music perfectly captures the bipolar mood of the film, going from character to character, motif to motif – just an absolute pleasure to listen to. This score was actually one of my first cassette tapes, and it was replayed quite a bit on my 90s Walkman.

The superhero movie formula is a simple yet strong one, and was really established in 1978 with Richard Donner’s SupermanBurton’s Batman films continued and solidified that formula by introducing opposing characters (hero and villain), a potential love interest, gradual integration into society, action sequences, and finally a climactic battle which usually ends in the hero being triumphant. Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s troubled crime fighter has been through a number of variations, but his live action film appearances are some of his most memorable. Burton’s Batman is simply wonderful, and though it has been built upon with Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever (produced by Burton), the franchise quickly ended up in embarrassing neon nonsense with 1997’s Batman and Robin, a movie so bad that basically shelved the Batman character and universe until 2005’s Batman Begins (directed by Christopher Nolan), a respectable reboot which injected life into the superhero we all know and love. The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises completed this exquisite trilogy and made Batman relevant again (film-wise).

Batman Returns remains one of my absolute favorite superhero films because of two key reasons: nostalgia and artistic merit. At 7-years-old, nothing was better than watching this movie and playing with the Kenner action figures; dressing up as Batman was a Halloween tradition, and listening to the melodic score over and over was simply therapeutic. There are many interesting characters in the film, and the visual style is just out of this world. Batman’s rebirth courtesy of Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) owes quite a bit to Burton’s film, and with a new generation of fans being exposed to the character of Batman (the upcoming Justice League), one must go back and watch one of the films that started the superhero trend. Batman Returns is still influential after a quarter of a century, not only holding up when compared to its modern relatives, but remaining really just a lot of fun to watch.

Randall J. Unger (Randy) is a film critic and interviewer who reviews movies of all kinds. He interviews actors, filmmakers, composers, dancers, and even special effects makeup artists for his film review show / podcast ‘Unger the Radar’. Some of the talent he has interviewed includes Jude Law, Liam Neeson, James Franco, Marisa Tomei, Elijah Wood, Kevin Pollak, Robert Rodriguez, and Kal Penn. He is a regular fixture at screenings, comic cons, and other special events. He is based in New York City. Twitter: @randall_unger