Everyone loves Tim Burton’s 1989 opus, Batman, and rightly so. But here’s the Bat-truth: his Batman Returns is the better movie. Now, it doesn’t quite soar to greatness, and that’s because Burton weaves a literal circus around the characters. Also, Batman is oddly not in the movie enough. And YET, it’s an amazing re-watch 30 years after the fact. Yes, Batman Returns opened in the summer of 1992, and 30 years later it’s fantastic. Here’s why. Mild spoilers ahead.
As a refresher, the sequel follows Batman/Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) as he contends with several new nemeses in Gotham City, namely the ambitious, sewer-dwelling Penguin (Danny DeVito), ferocious Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer), and heartless industrialist Max Shreck (Christopher Walken). Penguin and Catwoman team up to finally bring down Batman, with Penguin drawing Shreck into their plot. (Also that's Shreck, not Shrek. But still, don’t you want Christopher Walken as Shrek now?)
Complicating matters, Catwoman wants Shreck dead, since she blames him (as Selina Kyle, she’d been his assistant) for the events that transformed her from mousy Selina into Catwoman, who craves love, sex, and, most of all, respect. She also craves milk and drinks milk like a cat, or rather, a toddler pretending to be a cat.
Burton presents a batshit crazy Gotham City. Everything is gloriously black and shiny and gloomy, like the darkest pages of the darkest comic book, all of it occasionally pierced by blasts of color that stand vividly out by contrast. The sets are remarkable. The Batcave and Penguin’s lair are brilliantly realized worlds unto themselves. The Penguin’s minions — some are actual penguins, some are puppets, some are actors in costumes — are all astonishing.
The Penguin’s physical appearance grotesquely broke too, as his various vehicles (that rubber duckie car!), toys, and weapons. Yes, Jack Nicholson was our number one a-guy in Batman, but it’s really hard to say that the make-up, character design, or production design of his Joker is somehow better than the Penguin in Returns. And, although Colin Farrell’s latest Penguin in 2022’s The Batman might succeed with gritty realism, it’s not like a corrupt gangster in a double-breasted suit makes a cool action figure. Danny Devito with flippers beats literally all other on-screen Penguins. (Apologies to Burgess Meredith’s monocle.)
Interestingly, even though the movie has a funhouse mirror quality, the action is grounded: Explosions look and feel real, while the music by frequent Burton collaborator Danny Elfman enhances the bleak mood. And you ain’t seen dark until you’ve watched penguins in attack mode with rockets strapped to their backs, or an insane, freaky penguin funeral! The studio let Burton make his film, his way, and he took full advantage of the opportunity, ratcheting his bonkers creativity up to 11 and clearly inspiring his crew to do likewise.
The performances match the physical aesthetic, which is to say they’re super-dark if you’ll pardon the pun. Keaton excels as Batman and Bruce Wayne, presenting a man who is lonely, and angry, and only appears to embrace life when he’s in the midst of mayhem and causing pain or even death. Penguin is a disgusting, disturbing goblin of a creature, but De Vito almost makes you feel sorry for the guy.
We never know for sure if Catwoman has gone nuts or was brought back from the dead by felines, or both, -- and that’s a flaw in the story -- but Pfeiffer’s purr-fect performance gives us a Catwoman who is terrifying, sympathetic, empowered, desperate, and fun as hell. Walken does what he can with Shreck, but the script lets him down a bit, as the character comes across as a stock baddie with no emotional inner life. Still, you get Christopher Walken in a Batman movie, something no other movie can boast.
So, with so much incredible imagery flooding the screen and three villains vying for attention, Batman/Bruce, as troubled a soul as he is, occasionally gets lost in the shuffle and comes dangerously close to being a guest star in his own movie. Still, there’s a ton to love about Batman Returns. If it’s not quite the sum of its parts, that’s okay, because the parts are Bat-tastic.
Where is Batman Returns streaming?
Right now, Batman Returns is streaming on HBO Max. You can also rent it on Amazon, VUDU, and elsewhere.