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Batman Returns (1992)
Tonight's Feature Presentation


Starring: Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Michael Gough

Written By: Daniel Waters (also story), Sam Hamm (story) Directed By: Tim Burton

The Short Version

After a landmark beginning, Tim Burton shifts gears on the Batmobile.

He spends too much time signing his name to the proceedings.

If the byplay between Michael Keaton and Michelle Pfeiffer were the whole movie, it’d be good.

But then there’s all that other stuff and the violence against kids and pour me a drink already.

Many call Batman Returns the best of the series, but I don’t get why people like this movie.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


Well, those were disappointing.

Pairs Well With...


It’s not cheap, but it’s nasty.


The first Batman was the last Great Film of the 1980s, and Tim Burton’s proof to the world that he could be a powerhouse.  With that game-changing success firmly in his pocket, restraint was allowed to fly out the window, and he was able to give Batman Returns “the full Burtonesque.”  For many people (often firmly entrenched in the Cult of Burton), the results are brilliant, and no small number of them have declared to me that they consider Batman Returns the single best Batman movie ever.  (Even after considering the Nolan trilogy, though this brings a moment’s pause for some.)

For me, I look at Batman Returns in much the same way I look at the James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service: a good movie stuck in the middle of a really awful one.  Unfortunately, “the full Burtonesque” means that a lot more attention is given to the awful one. 

Let’s have a look at the good, bad, and ugly of it all, shall we?

Good.  Michael Keaton is back as Bruce Wayne/Batman!  And, when given a chance, he still delivers a good performance, especially as Bruce Wayne, but...

Bad:  Unless one specific catalyst is present, his heart just doesn’t seem to be as into it this time around as it was during the first film.

Ugly:  Despite being the title character, at its core, Batman Returns isn’t really about Batman, and he doesn’t get nearly enough screen time.  Guess Nolan didn’t invent that trick after all…

Good:  Danny DeVito is an inspired choice to play the Penguin, and he absolutely excels at performing the character as written.

Bad:  Batman Returns is much less about Batman returning than it is about the Penguin showing up and waddling his way through chaos and mayhem.  Anyone who thought the Joker was a show stealer in the previous film hasn’t seen anything yet.  Come to think of it, maybe this should have been called Penguin Arrives.

Ugly.  With the exception of the thespian skill of the man playing him, everything about the character of the Penguin is ugly.  The ugly makeup is fine (though the inexplicably green bile is a bit much), but the rest… ugh.  I get that Burton is presenting a treatise on civilization vs. animal behavior, but the Penguin is just too extreme, and his crudity often comes at the expense of sense to either the story at hand or the character as otherwise presented.  Particularly out of place – and exceptionally uncalled for – is Penguin’s constant sexual piggishness, a point that is emphasized to and beyond the point of distraction for no sensible reason and indeed nearly always to the detriment of the story.  I already hear the argument that having the Penguin as a poster boy for “casual rape culture” is supposed to be just more proof of his grotesqueness, but 1) I’m not buying it, and 2) it’s absolutely not entertaining and doesn’t belong here.  (Let’s not forget, folks, that children are a large part of the intended audience here.  If Burton and company really want to go there, they can make an ‘R’ rated movie.)  As a character, Penguin sells a disgusting product far past the close.

Good:  Christopher Walken plays a villain!  In theory, he’s even the main villain, since the paper thin plot revolves around a conspiracy his character cooks up!

Bad:  Remember A View To A Kill, the James Bond flick wherein Walken played the main villain?  Remember how his performance seemed restrained, and what a waste of potential it seemed to have an actor capable of such volatile gold reined in like that?

Ugly:  If anything, that situation is even worse in Batman Returns, because having him so restrained in this movie makes even less sense than it did back in 1985.  After all, this is Tim Burton going for “the full Burtonesque” – in other words, the full-on weird treatment.  One would think that allowing a guy like Christopher Walken to just let loose and go completely nuts for the camera would be exactly what’s called for here… but it doesn’t happen.  Sigh.  (Bonus ugly: the guy playing his son tries a horrible Walken impression whenever he talks.)

Good:  Michelle Pfeiffer is Selina Kyle/Catwoman, and she is far and away the best thing about this movie.  (Tim Burton himself would later reflect that he considered Pfeiffer’s performance in this film the best by anyone in any of his movies.)  Those who never bother to look past how well she wears that vacuum-sealed cat suit are missing out on all the best parts of what this lady has to offer.  Whether playing the mousy side of Selina (I see what they did there), the suddenly confident side of Selina, the utterly confused Selina, or the always intriguing Catwoman, Pfeiffer’s got this part nailed.  What’s more, she’s got wonderful chemistry with Michael Keaton; something that’s both more subtle and more visceral than what happened between Kim Basinger and Keaton in the previous film, and that’s also the heart of everything that’s good and watchable about Batman Returns.  While the majority of the film’s attention goes to the Penguin’s grotesque displays, the real story of interest involves the byplay between Bruce/Selina and Batman/Catwoman.  (The couch and ballroom sequences are easily the two best in the movie.)  The actors get it…

Bad:  But the Director and the writers don’t.  Along with making what should be the main arc of a movie that’s allegedly about Batman into a sideshow, they waste many of the opportunities they do have, dropping the ball several times when the players could easily have taken things to the next level.

Ugly:  Hey, does Selina Kyle think of anything other than her relationships (or lack thereof) with men?  It’s a major testament to the skill of Michelle Pfeiffer that this character doesn’t end up coming across as one dimensional, because the script sure wants her to be.

Good: Danny Elfman is back with another fantastic score, and the Selina/Bruce signature tune “Face to Face” by Siouxsie and the Banshees is dead solid perfect.  (Alas, no concept album to go with it a-la Prince, but I suppose that would have been an unrealistic expectation.)  As for the physical production design, the abandoned Carnival park that Penguin has made into his lair is nicely done, but…

Bad:  …what happened to the rest of Gotham City?  The previous film’s sprawling metropolis (ha!) of Art Deco and Gothic deliciousness has given way to a claustrophobic dearth of variety that suddenly has all of Gotham proper being represented by a single city square that looks like a Soviet riff on German Expressionism and one extra alley.  Where are the sets?  Did they go on strike?

Ugly:  Tim Burton spends too much time signing his name to the proceedings to remember to make a Batman movie.  Yes, it’s supposed to be dark, and it’s supposed to be weird.  We get it.  But dark and weird aren’t enough, and frankly, there’s just too much of both, and not enough of anything else.  (Violence against children?  Really?  Even the Penguin’s own henchman has the good sense to call him on it.)  The potential is there for at least two good movies to come out of this one, but instead, the audience gets just half of one wrapped up in a much larger grotesque crud fest.  This is especially disappointing after seeing what Burton was capable of in the first film: namely, balance with an edge.

Bottom line, Batman Returns is a dark, ugly waste of potential hiding a vastly superior story that’s been relegated to the backwaters of being a subplot.  To some followers of the Cult of Burton, that may seem like blasphemy, but for the audience at large, the biggest crime committed by the Penguin during this flick is making it all about him and not about Batman.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, November, 2013

You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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