Director: Tim Burton
Cast: Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Michael Gough, Pat Hingle, Michael Murphy
Screenplay: Daniel Waters
126 mins. Rated PG-13.
- Academy Award Nominee: Best Effects, Visual Effects
- Academy Award Nominee: Best Makeup
On this day in which we celebrate the caped crusader, let’s take a look at the strangest, and dare I say, greatest, live-action Batman film, Batman Returns.
It’s Christmastime in Gotham City, and the rich businessman Max Shreck (Christopher Walken, Catch Me If You Can, Irreplaceable You) is showing his holiday spirit by secretly trying to get a power chemical plant built in the city. When he gets kidnapped by the sinister Oswald Cobblepot (Danny DeVito, Matilda, TV’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), a man more known by his moniker, the Penguin, Max sees a way for each of them to get what they want as he attempts to get Cobblepot into public office as Gotham’s mayor. It’s during this time that Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton, Birdman, Dumbo) begins looking into Cobblepot’s background and see him as a threat to the city.
There’s a surface-level love for Batman Returns that springs out of the fact that it was my first experience with Batman of any level. I hadn’t read any of the comics when I saw the film, I hadn’t watched the cartoon, I hadn’t seen any of the other films. It was my first and most memorable experience of the caped crusader.
Michael Keaton has always been the actor I’ve most associated with the Batman and Bruce Wayne role, and I think he’s the actor that’s always embodied the conflict of the two roles and the sacrifice that he feels is necessary for him to give to Gotham for its protection. He’s better in this sequel than the previous film because here he’s even more conflicted about his role. He’s put through trials that test his commitment to Batman, most notably through his interactions with Selina Kyle and Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer, Hairspray, Avengers: Endgame).
Director Tim Burton (Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Beetlejuice) put a lot of himself into this film, more than its predecessor, and it’s especially apparent with the villains. Danny DeVito’s Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman both have some altered history with their origins, and there are liberties taken with a lot of what makes them villains, and part of that is likely from Burton’s very obvious disinterest in comic books. While that can be a death knell for a film, I really like his take here, and I think he is able to juggle multiple villain arcs alongside his hero in a way most superhero films cannot.
There’s another accomplishment to Batman Returns that most reviewers and fans tend to overlook regarding its villains. Returns features a third villain, remarkably made from scratch, in Max Shreck. Yes, he’s just as much a villain in the film as Penguin or Catwoman, perhaps a little less zany, but a villain all the same, made by a terrifically unhinged performance from Christopher Walken. Without Walken, the film may not have worked at all. In fact, I would say that I remembered Shreck more than the other two as a child. He was frightening because he was very real, and the role he plays in both the Penguin’s master plan and Catwoman’s origin makes for an effective creepy character.
After the success of his first Batman film, Tim Burton was able to really explore his version of Gotham City and its inhabitants with his special visual blend of gothic and supernatural influences. This is a very arty Batman film, and that’s mostly due to Burton being at the top of his game here. He’s playing with his cinematography, he’s exploring the sound and music of Gotham, and he’s relishing in a classical costume design within the confines of this world.
Batman Returns is perhaps the most unique of all the Batman films in that it is really experimenting with its tone, look, feel, and world. It’s hard to find a flaw, but if there’s one, it’s that the film does take a little pushing at the beginning to get it moving, and in the modern superhero landscape, some of its zanier elements might seem laughable, but revisiting this film in honor of Batman Day has reminded me of how rich an experience Batman Returns is. I highly recommend a rewatch if it’s been awhile.
-Kyle A. Goethe
For my review of Tim Burton’s Batman, click here.
For my review of Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice, click here.
For my review of Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, click here.
For my review of Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, click here.
For my review of Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows, click here.
For my review of Tim Burton’s Dumbo, click here.