Batman Returns

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Michael Keaton as Batman/Bruce Wayne
Danny DeVito as The Penguin/Oswald Cobblepot
Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman/Selina Kyle
Christopher Walken as Max Shreck
Michael Gough as Alfred Pennyworth
Pat Hingle as Commissioner Gordon

Confession #1: this would’ve been done sooner, except my computer’s been on the fritz. Going more than a month between updates is a big gap and I do apologize.

Confession #2: my standards might not be up to par because this was my first superhero movie. As a child, I had gotten into Batman from a new show called Batman: The Animated Series and reruns of the live-action show from decades past with Adam West. I caught this on VHS and enjoyed it as well. Since this was one of my earliest indulgences into superheroes, I don’t know if I can help but be a little biased.

At any rate, Batman Returns is the sequel to the 1989 box office smash about The Dark Knight of Gotham City (basically New York City at night just like Superman’s Metropolis is NYC by day). With the Joker dead, a gang of ex-circus performers attacks a tree-lighting ceremony in an attempt to capture corrupt corporate lord Max Shreck. Despite interference from Batman, they succeed. But despite fearing what his captors are capable of, Shreck hears opportunity knocking. The gang’s leader, The Penguin, was abandoned in the sewer by his parents long ago — truly a tragic background worthy of a Mayor in Shreck’s pocket.

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People use ball-point pens these days, Pengy.

Meanwhile, Shreck’s mistreated, taking-it-in-the-rear secretary, Selina Kyle, discovers a ponzi scheme of his. Selina’s assumption that Shreck wouldn’t murder to protect his secrets proves premature. But as she dies some nearby cats deliver numerous bites to her that transfer their DNA (I think that’s what they’re trying to get across…) and nine lives to Selina, leaving her with eight deaths to go. This also has a profound effect on her personality. She now seeks vengence against Shreck, other men like him, and is openly contemptuous of women who are as weak as she once was. Sewing a costume, she calls herself “Catwoman.” Meanwhile, she builds two different relationships with Batman. In costume, they are bitter enemies. Out of costume, they’re lovers (Bruce Wayne, in case you’re wondering, has conveniently broken up with Vicki Vale, his girlfriend from the prequel, as he himself explains).

The acting is very good. Michael Keaton is again very solid. I wish he’d pumped up like other actors who played superheroes have, but he’s probably the best live-action Batman so far (no offense to fans of the new series but Christian Bale was way over-the-top as Batman, despite being a great Bruce Wayne). DeVito and Walken both make excellent villains, DeVito as a tragic but dangerously short-tempered criminal, Walken as a representative of the successful businessman whose greed and lust for power are never satisfied. It’s too bad Shreck was all but ignored in the promotional material, including merchandise because he was a very important character. Without him, Penguin wouldn’t have run for mayor and there’d have been no Catwoman. Contrary to how she was marketed, Pfeiffer’s Catwoman is really not a villainess. She shifts between good and evil throughout the movie, eventually settling on a middle ground with perhaps a slight lean towards badness. Pffeifer nails this. She has claimed in interviews to have been surprised by how serious her character was but it never shows. She expresses emotion that is extreme yet not overdone.

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In my review of Batman, I pointed out that it has “holes in the plot big enough to drive the Batmobile through.” That is perhaps less true of this movie yet the campiness of the villains is hard to ignore. I guess if I rated Spider-man highly despite that movie’s scientific bullshit I can forgive Catwoman’s nine lives. But her going from helpless secretary to kick-ass woman* is a little too much.  Meanwhile, we have Penguin being raised by birds in the sewer yet showing himself to have a high school education at least.

*Actually, the entertainment industry in the 1990s was full of kick-ass women. Other movies (leading ladies in action movies), TV shows (like Xena: Warrior Princess and Buffy The Vampire Slayer), and video games (Tomb Raider, Perfect Dark, various female characters in games with no central protagonist) showcased them.

Batman Returns is surely one of the most message-laden superhero movies on record. I’m not one of those who see political messages in lakes (I don’t buy stuff like the Dark Knight as a tribute to the Bush presidency for a minute), but the idea of the Penguin as a corporate-picked candidate for high office who turns out to be both dangerous and uncontrollable seems to be a commentary on money in politics before it was cool. Additionally, Catwoman’s very existence seems to be a response to sexism. Given that this movie came out in 1992, the year people fully realized the consequences of the Savings and Loan Crisis, a quarter-century of consistently Republican presidencies came to a end, and that women started entering big jobs around this time, you can’t say it didn’t match its time.

Some say that it’s more of a Tim Burton movie than a Batman movie. Sort of. The hot-headed Penguin is surely not the more traditional aristocratic Penguin from the comics (think Burgess Meredith without the squawking). But having Batman kill occasionally and making Catwoman a saboteur instead of a thief are not giant changes from the source material. The spirit of who the characters are is still there.

You might have noticed I’ve talked a lot about the villains and not Batman himself. That’s because of who the movie is really about. Batman Returns is evidence that Tim Burton really did prefer the villains. Batman really serves little purpose other than to catch the bad guys. At least Batman had scenes in which he considers what he’s all about.

And the tragedy of that is that Keaton played the character very, very well.

And the tragedy of that is that Keaton played the character very, very well.

Despite certain flaws, Batman Returns is a superior sequel in my book. The reason it works is because of effective tragedy and gruesomeness. In fact, it came under fire from parents’ groups and that was the main reason for Batman Forever and Batman and Robin being so different from the rest of the series (including Bruce Nolan’s contributions).

So I give a recommendation to anyone over the age of nine. But don’t expect it to be quite as serious as the new movies.

Overall: 8 out of 10

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