The Good: Plot, Character, Acting, Effects, Costumes, Everything!
The Bad: Some of the dialogue is admittedly campy.
The Basics: In an almost-perfect superhero action movie, Batman must take on the Penguin and Catwoman while Bruce Wayne wrestles with a rival businessman and a romance with Selena Kyle.
So, I was shocked to learn that for years I've had a review in of the Batman Returns soundtrack but that I had somehow never managed to get around to writing a review for the film Batman Returns! "How could this be?" I asked myself. I mean, for years, there was only one movie I'd watch at Christmas and that was Batman Returns! Now, it's this and Love Actually but the truth is, this might be one of the few films I used to return to once a year. Over the years, I have softened from my childhood belief that Batman Returns is a perfect film (probably more having to do with how I first saw the movie than the quality of the film), but I still believe that Batman Returns is an astonishing film that is underrated. On recent viewings, only a few phrases of campy dialogue truly make me cringe.
Following the events of Tim Burton's Batman, (there is a new, recently-elected mayor) Bruce Wayne is finding the Christmas spirit hard to come by as violence begins to escalate on the streets of Gotham City with the appearance of a new gang. Batman wanders the streets at night cleaning up as part of his vigilante action while during the day Bruce Wayne deals with rival businessman Max Shreck. Shreck is interested in building a power plant, which his secretary, er, assistant Selena Kyle learns is actually a giant capacitor, so he has her killed.
Dying doesn't take well to Miss Kyle and she finds herself resurrected by cats and she takes on the persona of Catwoman, a morally-ambiguous superhero running around in the night. Catwoman attracts the attentions of both Batman and Oswald Cobblepot, a slightly deformed outcast who decides to take over Gotham City with Shreck's help by becoming the mayor. When Batman and Cobblepot clash, Oswald's political ambitions take a turn and he becomes what society creates of him, a villain known as the Penguin.
Batman Returns is the much maligned sequel to Tim Burton's darkly reimagined Batman and in Batman Returns, there is more of what was incredible in Batman with less necessary backstory, making the film overall tighter. What works in Batman Returns that is a common element from Batman? Tim Burton's direction is obsessed with scale and the Gotham City he creates is dark, overbearing and foreboding. This is accented by his partnership with composer Danny Elfman who creates an amazing and distinctive score that works with the visuals to overwhelm the viewer with a sense of scale and scope that is impressive (see my review of the soundtrack for more on that). Burton's sensibilities keep the movie dark, gritty, violent and exciting.
Writers Daniel Waters and Sam Hamm wisely up the stakes in Batman Returns by providing more conflict in the life of Bruce Wayne and Batman. On the plot front, the most clever aspect of the story is that Bruce Wayne and Batman each face one enemy; Shreck and The Penguin, respectively. The intriguing aspect on the character front is that Waters, Hamm and Burton mix it up by throwing Selena Kyle/Catwoman in which gives Bruce Wayne a love interest, but an additional adversary for Batman. This is an intriguing twist that is difficult to do in virtually any other medium, but with the dual nature of the characters in Batman Returns, this can be pulled off and the creative staff here does it wonderfully.
Part of what makes Batman Returns work so very well is that the characters (with the possible exception of the nefarious businessman Shreck) are not monolithic. When Oswald Cobblepot first emerges, Bruce Wayne feels sorry for him. Indeed, Wayne feels a sense of kinship and he sadly notes that he hopes Cobblepot is able to find what he is looking for. Cobblepot, for his part, has tragic roots, having been literally tossed out by his parents as a baby. And Selena Kyle is smart and lonely and completely insecure at work. These are universally troubled characters and watching them collide through their world is entertaining and compelling.
And then there is the Batman. Batman is an intriguing character, especially as superheroes go. He is not an alien, he has no super powers. In Batman, he is motivated almost completely by a sense of revenge, with the resolution of that movie, he is ruled now by a sense of doing right and protecting Gotham City from evil in whatever form it takes. In this case, he must use his brains. Batman's strength is in analyzing his enemies and adapting to defeat them and in Batman Returns, we see Batman doing just that as he pieces together the history of Cobblepot and designs the tools to take down the Penguin.
The refreshing thing about Batman Returns is that the villains are just as clever as Batman. Catwoman's strategy for defeating Batman utilizes similar analytical skills to Batman and Penguin's toys rival the Dark Knight's. Batman is on the ropes in Batman Returns and it is fun to watch a superhero struggle. Our heroes are only as good as the villains they confront and in Batman Returns, Batman proves just how good he can be!
Of course, being that this is a movie, a great burden for creating characters falls to the actors. Batman Returns brings back notable actors Michael Gough (Alfred) and Pat Hingle (Commissioner Gordon) and adds in Vincent Schiavelli (the Organ Grinder) and Christopher Walken (Max Shreck). Walken's time on screen is largely used for comic relief and he lives up as a wonderful foil to Michael Keaton's dark and serious Bruce Wayne. He also plays a wonderful straightman to Danny DeVito's Cobblepot.
Keaton is excellent and dark as Batman and Bruce Wayne. Because much of the emphasis in Batman Returns is on thwarting Batman, Keaton's acting challenge is to emote around a heavy bit of costuming and he does it very well. In scenes where he is Wayne, he is immensely human, which balances well with the very physical performance he is forced to give the rest of the film.
Michelle Pfeiffer is wonderful as Selena Kyle. Her slouching body language is essential to creating the mousy Kyle and the genius of her performance is there's no a hint of that when she is playing Catwoman. Indeed, Catwoman is more than just a sexy outfit (which it is as well) and Pfeiffer embodies that with her performance. She even takes on distinctly different voices for the two roles, enhancing the character conflict.
It is Danny DeVito who rules Batman Returns. DeVito could have played Cobblepot or the Penguin as completely over-the-top, but he gives a very disciplined performance, creating the realistic political threat Cobblepot embodies in Gotham City. DeVito has to act around considerable costuming and he is alternatively menacing, funny and sympathetic. DeVito steals the scenes he is in and it's wonderful to see his range as Cobblepot.
Batman Returns may well be the gold standard of what a superhero movie may be. It was certainly the best one I'd found until The Dark Knight!
For other Batman products, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
Batman R.I.P. By Grant Morrison
The Dark Knight
Hot Toys 1:6 Scale Harvey Dent/Two-Face doll
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© 2010, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.