Batman Cinematic Universe Retrospective: Batman Returns

With a superhero landscape that has included Rocket Raccoons, gladiator battles pitting a God against a genius’s bigger, greener side, and a guy called Steppenwolf picking up his last MacGuffin from a car park while the heroes of the story were proving themselves to be completely useless, it’s still safe to say that superhero movies are still fucking weird. It’s only when you look back on the era before X-Men and Sam Raimi’s Spiderman kicked off the dominance of these movies to see that much of what a company like Marvel is producing these days feels almost traditionally mundane by comparison.

Batman has always been a good character to get a fix on the styles and views of what Hollywood thought of as a good superhero movie. Despite his dark characterization – at least the post-Burton one that we are used to – Batman has morphed into different versions that suit what studios were going for at that time. Arguably the only time this didn’t happen was Tim Burton’s sequel to the superhit that was Batman: Batman Returns.

By the time I was aware, then obsessed, with Batman, Batman Returns was already out on home video, meaning that I watched it very quickly after watching the first movie with my child’s point of view seeing the movie as nothing more than an enjoyable feature-length second episode to the first installment. For years, I enjoyed the first movie much more than Batman Returns, manly due to the Joker being my favorite villain, and the overall easier viewing experience offered by Tim Burton; the thematic complexities flew bat-like over my head.

My opinion of Batman Returns has changed drastically over time. I always thought it was a fun movie, and I was already aware that Danny DeVito was something of a comedy superstar at the time, so his casting as The Penguin excited me for that very reason. I liked the Christmas setting, I thought Michelle Pfeiffer was great as Catwoman, and it was the first movie in which I had the pleasure of understanding just how weird Christopher Walken can be.

Then, like many, I opted out of Batman media thanks to the Schumacher movies, and took Tobey McGuire’s Peter Parker/Spiderman as my personal favorite superhero. It wasn’t until Christopher Nolan made me believe that Batman could be good again that I revisited the Tim Burton movies. You already know my thoughts on Batman and, apart from being more and more literate in terms of films and TV storytelling, that first Batman stood up well after years away from the character.

Then I watched Batman Returns and have been watching Batman Returns at least once a year for the last 15 years. I’m not exaggerating when I say this, but Batman Returns gets more insane every time I see it. This movie is an absolute blast to watch as Burton decided to blow up the whole system rather than doing something as traditional as turning what was great about the first movie up to 11. This movie is overflowing with darkness, insanity, Gotham’s particular brand of Christmas cheer (if I was a hack, and I am, I would call it Christmas Fear), and, in big bold capital letters: SEX! While re-watching the movie I kept thinking to myself, “I haven’t a fucking clue where to begin with this insanity”, so I might as well begin with what I don’t like about Batman Returns.

I’m being completely honest here, I can’t think of much to nitpick. Unlike Batman, Batman Returns is a better made and more coherent movie. While I hate the trope of the female villain being hypersexual, something that Batman Returns’ portrayal of Catwoman certainly helped popularize, I think this movie justifies this portrayal because Catwoman isn’t supposed to be an ideal version of the female hero, anti-hero, or villain in the context of Batman Returns. Each main character is so obsessed with sex in this movie, as well as having their own share of personality disorders, that Catwoman’s characterization doesn’t stand out as much as this trope does in other movies. Another nitpick is that Batman doesn’t seem to be that bothered that Gotham thinks he’s responsible for murdering a bunch of people when the Batmobile was out of his control. Batman becoming the villain was such a crucial part of the Christopher Nolan trilogy that its lack of impact here sticks out.

So, what’s to like about Batman Returns? For one thing, it’s the best Christmas movie of all time. I can feel the Die Hard fans getting their pitchforks ready (that’s right, I mean you, Martin) but Batman Returns is less a movie that takes place at Christmas, like Die Hard, and more of a movie that uses the traditions of Christmas as part of the story’s structure, like Gremlins. There is so much Christmas iconography that Tim Burton gleefully corrupts.

The Penguin is the main symbol of this as an anti-messiah figure. He was born at Christmas, he becomes a famous symbol of progress in Gotham by returning on his 33rd birthday, though he ascends from the sewer, and when the whole messiah thing goes to shit he takes a leaf out of King Herod’s book by planning to murder all of Gotham’s first-born sons. There’s also bats flying out of a Christmas tree, Christopher Walken as the Ebeneezer Scrooge of the darkest timeline, as evil industrialist Max Shreck. It’s all great stuff and the setting helps differentiate the look of Gotham from the first movie.

The action in Batman Returns is a little better than the first movie, mainly due to the more dynamic use of gadgets, and the Batmobile chase at the end of the second act is great despite its lack of consequence for Batman. The hand to hand combat is a little better, though there is still no villain who can match Batman in a proper fight, though the Penguin does give it a good try. The evil plans are also hilariously campy, and it’s really only due to Burton’s mastery of tone that this silliness doesn’t undermine the movie. Exploding penguins in Gotham Square, Batman defeats the Penguin because he’s got a compartment in his batboat that shoots actual bats at him, and
Catwoman really does have nine lives. What the fuck is this movie!?

Batman Returns’ greatest asset is the main three characters. Christopher Walken is superb as the slimy and cunning Max Shreck, but it’s the Penguin and Catwoman that get the biggest spotlight. Batman Returns is also the first movie where Batman is a supporting character. While Keaton had at least half as much attention as Jack Nicholson’s Joker, he has much less time in Returns, but he makes every second count. In most superhero movies the villains are supposed to be the mirrors of the heroes. In Batman Returns these roles are flipped. Batman doesn’t have a proper arc in this movie. He’s really there to be both an obstacle and a symbol of what could have been for each villain. While he and Oswald were born into privilege, Bruce lost his parents and kept the wealth while Oswald was abandoned by his parents. Bruce puts on a mask and persona to inflict fear, where as Oswald was born a monster and treated like one. Even Bruce’s hope that Oswald finds his parents, in a scene which Keaton sells the hell out of Bruce’s empathy for his situation, his old cynicism kicks in and he starts to dig into Oswald’s criminal past.

Then there is the relationship between Batman and Catwoman, or Bruce and Selina. This dynamic, whether they are wearing masks or not, is easily the movie’s biggest strength. Selina is a brilliant character because, like Nicholson’s Joker, she is dealing with the effects of a traumatic event: being nearly killed by Max- and has been driven insane by it. Bruce puts it perfectly after he rips off his mask in the final confrontation: Selina, like Bruce, has been split right down the center by her trauma. Everyone remembers each purred line delivery from Pfieffer, but her best acting is as Selina, not Catwoman. There’s a fantastic little scene that takes place after Catwoman has joined forces with the Penguin to screw with Batman, where Selina looks into a shop widow and asks herself why she’s doing what she’s doing. It’s a moment of horrific clarity that is undermined by the arrival of Bruce who snaps her out of it.

Which brings me to my favorite scene of the movie. There is no action, no really darkness, it’s Bruce and Selina’s date. The red-hot chemistry between Phifeer and Keaton go a long way to making this relationship sing (they have only known each other for two days) and how they talk around their similar secrets makes for some great comedy. This leads to them both running off and suiting up once the Penguin’s plan begins. Bruce suits up with maximum ease, showing how comfortable he is with his persona. Selina, on the other hand, can barely concentrate on the road as she tries to suit up. It’s also a great symbol of Selina’s psychological deterioration as her suit becomes increasingly damaged throughout the movie. Bruce provides a powerful mirror for Selina. He became someone else due to his trauma but has turned it into a positive quest for justice. He offers that life to Selina, and if the talks about a spin-off movie were true, that is where her character was heading, but Selina declines Bruce’s offer of a fairytale ending and kills Max instead. This is Batman Returns’ masterstroke. Unlike the first movie, which had a positive ending with Batman triumphant against the man who killed his parents, Selina loses herself to the monstrous persona that her trauma created. It’s a fucking tragedy, but it feels so damn good to see Selina get that revenge, even if it ultimately destroys any chance of her coming back from this decision.

OK, we need to talk about sex (baby). Batman Returns is one horny-as-fuck movie. There’s boner jokes, The Penguin is a proper sleaze, though gone are the days when terrible politician could be taken down by bursting in on a beauty queen in a state of undress, and Michelle Pfieffer had the role that launched a thousand libidos. Yet what I want to specifically talk about is Batman’s ridiculously funny reactions to Catwoman in this movie. I realize that Batman loses his shit over Catwoman every corner of Batman media -the pair are even getting married in the comics this year – but I want to point out Bruce’s very immature obsession here. The way that Batman reacts to Catwoman, despite the violence she inflicts on him, is how a teenage boy reacts to finding an attractive girl with the same interests as him. It’s the superhero version of the girl that is just as into Doctor Who as you, except instead of Doctor Who it’s more like “you dress up as an animal in leather to beat up guys too, can I buy you a drink after whoever wins this fight?”.  It’s well-observed, and at times extremely funny, making the conclusion all the more emotional.

Lastly, I would like to write a short tribute to Michael Keaton in Batman Returns. As I’ve already said, with shorter scree-time Keaton evolves his version of Bruce and Batman into a person who is more comfortable in his own duality. Thanks to defeating the Joker, this version of Batman is slightly lighter, more quippy, and much less angsty. Even so, this is a version of Bruce that lives to be Batman, literally staying at home to brood until the call for adventure comes. Sadly, Batman Returns would be his final call.

If you enjoyed this retrospective, please be sure to tune in next week for our look at the Mask of the Phantasm movie. You can also take a look at our other cinematic universe retrospectives, for the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Jurassic Park movies! And, as ever, if you enjoyed this and want to see more stuff like it, please consider supporting us on Patreon.

By Kevin Boyle

(header image courtesy of Collider)

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