Batman Returns

Batman Returns

Tim Burton's first Batman movie was a classic black swan event. Like Star Wars, it was a genre film by a fledgling director whose quirky vision inspired little confidence in the corporate office and the press. Also like Lucas, Burton defied expectations to create a genre-redefining cultural landmark that launched the biggest franchise of its kind.

Frankly, I was a little surprised upon rewatching Batman to find that it held up to my childhood memories. The movie still evokes a captivating mood and tone that no other superhero flick has managed to replicate.

Its sequel, Batman Returns, also elicited the same reaction on a recent viewing that it did when I fist saw it in the theater.

First, some background. Batman  was the work of many hands, including screen/comic book writer Sam Hamm, veteran Hollywood scribe Tom Mankiewicz, producer John Peters, and Burton himself. Peters especially was able to dictate terms to Burton, meaning that the director's more eccentric tendencies were reined in. The result was a classic pulp Western in a cape.

You don't direct the #1 DC Comics movie to date and not get approached to film a sequel. That's where the Bat-franchise and Star Wars started to diverge. Unlike Lucas, Burton had no interest in making a sequel to any of his films. He held out for greater creative control and agreed to direct Batman II once Hamm and Peters were no longer attached to the project.

Hollywood being Hollywood, Batman II was already in pre-production before Burton came back. Hamm had already turned in a first script featuring the Penguin--who'd been cut from the first film--and Catwoman out to steal a hidden treasure. Which makes sense, because in the source material Penguin is driven by upper class pretensions, and Catwoman is a jewel thief.

When Burton took over, he brought in Heathers scribe Daniel Waters to do a front-to-back rewrite. Waters reimagined the Penguin as a sort of anti-Moses figure who is set adrift in a basket, except he's raised by zoo animals instead of Egyptians. Waters also ditched the treasure heist plot and took a page from every other comic and movie by adding a corrupt business tycoon.

Max Shreck
You gotta love that Walken asked Burton for a set of human molar cuff links.

Another bit of background lore: Beloved character actor Billy Dee Williams played DA Harvey Dent in the first Batman with the understanding that he would return to play Two Face in the sequel. Instead, his contract was bought out, and most of Dent's lines from Hamm's original script were given to Shreck. That's why the character often acts more like a corrupt official than a corrupt businessman. The tazing Selena gives him at the end was meant for Harvey and would have turned him into Two Face.

Waters retained the movie's third villain but started her departure from the classic comic book portrayal.

Sam Hamm went back to the way comic books in general treat women, like fetishy sexual fantasy. I wanted to start off just at the lowest point in society, a very beaten down secretary.

-Daniel Waters

Then Tim Burton came in and stipulated that Catwoman should look like this:


Already we're seeing the villain creep that critics lambasted the Schumacher films for. Batman Returns has no less than three antagonists, although they're not who most people think they are.

Because even though she's a villain, Catwoman is the movie's main protagonist. She is the character who's clearly out to achieve a concrete goal.

The characters who put obstacles in her way are Shreck, the Penguin, and Batman. The Dark Knight falls from his place as the first film's swashbuckling pulp hero to the sequel's secondary antagonist.

As for DeVito's Penguin, he's billed as the movie's main villain, but he has the least effect on the story. The studio recognized his lack of a master plan and cosigned Waters' idea of having him kill Gotham's firstborn sons, but Batman foils his plot with such summary ease that it never generates dramatic tension. In fact, all of the Penguin-related conflicts lack suspense. To his credit, he does deliver the movie's best lines. They pale in comparison to Nicholson's Joker, though.

Quick aside: Batman Returns is beautifully photographed. The phrase "every frame a painting" definitely applies.

Batman Returns Set

Even still, the sets are plagued throughout with a weird feeling of shrinkage. They seem smaller in scope than the sprawling Gothic canvas of the first film. This is probably due to the departure of Production Designer Anton Furst, the only member of the original Batman crew to win an Oscar.

All of that might have been forgivable had Batman Returns featured a coherent plot. Instead it's a mess of "and then" plotting and disjointed Burtonisms. Why does Gordon say that the Red Triangle Gang is "back" immediately following their first appearance? How did the Penguin get the plans for the Batmobile? Why does falling out a window and getting licked by dozens of cats (I am not kidding) give Selena Kyle Olympic-level gymnastics ability and nine lives? Why does Batman reroute a penguin-based missile attack (again, this is real) projected to inflict 100,000 casualties to the Penguin's lair while he is fighting there?

You won't know, but Michelle Pfeiffer's 34-year-old pleather-sheathed legs might keep you from caring.

Let's compare: Batman is a moody, pulpy Western about a driven hero confronting a truly wicked villain who's just as ruthless in his pursuit of evil. The story fills the lulls in the action with copious amounts of character, so the end result feels like a nonstop thrill ride.

Batman Returns is a self-indulgent, subversive feminist allegory that, when it can wrangle its ADD, focuses on a ball-busting villain protagonist facing a crowded roster of antags that includes the first movie's hero. The checkbox-style action set pieces and muddled motivations make this picture a grind to sit through.

And never forget, it gave us this:

Which ended up leading to this:


  1. Yeeeeeeep. I wasn't a huge fan of the original Burton Batman but thought it was fine. I found BR very meh, and didn't think it held up at all.

    Michelle Pfeiffer did steal the show though. Yes, I know, that costume, but really though. She was compelling every time she was on screen - a testament to her performance, not the writing.

    1. That's the main source of this movie's subversion. Waters deliberately wrote her as a vehicle for third wave feminist agitprop. The wokeness has been around for a long time.

    2. Oh no, you're completely right and I'm not defending that aspect of it. Just her performance.

  2. I don't like this movie and I never have.

    There's no heroism here. There's no good. Nothing really matters in the end, and nothing is really solved except two bad guys dying. The villains are all victims (except '90s business man, of course) who were forced to be what they are and are punished for being it. Everything looks, feels, and sounds, grimy, murky, and disgusting, far away from the sleek noir feel of the original. The titular character barely does anything except become a plot convenience. It's a total mess.

    Say what you want about Schumacher, but there is an elephant in the room with him. This film is what allowed Batman & Robin to be made. Why? Because it was deliberately sold as the anti-Batman Returns. This is a better and more ambitious movie than Batman & Robin, but it's still bad, and it is what set superhero movies back . . . possibly forever, actually.

    Your mileage may vary, but I've rarely ever enjoyed Tim Burton movies as it is. This isn't his A-game.

    1. Batman Returns was the first sequel in a beloved childhood franchise that was comprehensively worse than its predecessors.

      Ironic that the movie that ended the 80s/90s "Every day is Christmas!" trend was set during Christmas.

  3. I think the tone was darker (less heroic) than the first and that's why it didn't quite work. Yeah, Pfeiffer is hot, but that doesn't save the movie. And yes the fact that her performance lead to a the Catwoman movie is a crime against humanity.

    1. To this day, I do not get why everyone drools over Michelle Pfeiffer in this movie. Her character's personality is grating, her face already foreshadows onrushing middle age, and her body's OK, but others are much better.

      Kim Basinger in a formal dress is orders of magnitude hotter than Pfeiffer in a faux leather catsuit.

    2. Granted, she's no Emma Peel.....

    3. I wonder how many ot the Pfeiffer-droolers have a porn habit. A self-respecting lady in a proper formal gown is elegant, and thus beautiful. A porn addict might not be able to appreciate that kind of beauty.

    4. Since I was only a kid when I saw this I distinctly remember being confused by her transformation.

      I actually thought she had suffered brain damage.

  4. It reflects another phenomenon that came a decade later with The Matrix. The Wachowskis were given a modest budget and came up with a visually appealing movie with a fun plot that sounds complicated enough to be interesting, but is simple enough to be easily understood. Because it was a success, they got a sequel (divided into two parts, in this case) with a vastly inflated budget and more creative control. The budget was all spend on special effects (including one of the coolest car chases ever), which could have made for an Empire Strikes Back style better sequel, but the creative control was spent on shallow, college freshman level philosophical monologues that, unlike the brief mind bend a third of the way through the original, did little more than pad the run time. Compare the 'this is what the matrix is' speech from the original to the 'free will is an illusion' speech in Reloaded.

    The third one is just indulgent. Everything that's not fauxlosophy is an action scene so ridiculous that it loops around and becomes boring.

  5. I am in a minority here, but I like this film more than the its predecessor. Sure, there is hardly any plot and nothing makes sense. But that's how I like it. Batman Returns is a crazy vaudeville-freakshow that doesn't even try to be nothing more than a self-indulgent fantasy.

    Well...is it a really a good movie? No. A healty story? No. I'm just a bit of a freak myself so I relate to these kind of stories, sometimes. It's subversive but at least it's entertaining without pretensions of anything else. Compare it to a movie like Last Jedi that insults the audinece with its endless "gotcha"-moments and drools with pretense. Even the humor in that film is condescending: "look, here is your childhood hero milking alien tits!" Batman on the other hand is a chartacter that lends himself easier to idiosyncratic visions, him already being a freak of a kind.

    Back in the day even the subversives were better.

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  7. "I am Catwoman, hear me roar." /ninjaflips away

    I think a lot of people see this one with rose-colored glasses, but if they bothered to watch it again...yikes. Does not hold up. And thank you for being brave enough to speak your mind.

    Certainly a Burton fetish project. Since Pfeiffer and him were an item, it seems some of their kinky bedtime antics found their way on-screen. He had one too many breakout hits that were expected to fail--especially after the meteoric success of the first Batman movie--to be surrounded by anything but yes-men who think his every decision is 'genius'.

    With full creative control and no one to reign it in, you get a movie too cluttered and clunky to realize that none of the actual Batman fights held any tension or heft, and fail to inform us about Batman the character. This is how you get empty conflict, stray cats with mysterious healing scratchy tongues, a giant rubber ducky mech, and an army of penguins with rockets strapped to their backs.

    And, like you said, the Catwoman portion of the denouement led directly to the legendarily-awful Catwoman movie which was originally supposed to star Pfeiffer.

    1. "I am Catwoman, hear me roar." /ninjaflips away

      Say what you will about the "Holey rusted metal!" line from Batman Forever, at least it was a crafted joke that landed.

      "Since Pfeiffer and him were an item,"

      Were they? Or was it Pfeiffer and Keaton? Either way, the director and the two main leads clearly telegraphed that they'd rather be elsewhere and were only on set for the paycheck.

    2. Ah, so it was her and Keaton? I misremembered. Thank you for the correction. But yeah, the Holy rusted metal line worked because they lampshaded it to help the joke land. The REAL cringe didn't start until Batman & Robin.

  8. My dim memory only recalls disliking the movie for being hokey and stupid, and really wishing Basinger had been in the black leather instead.

    1. I checked, and Basinger was actually a year older when she made Batman than Pfeiffer was during the sequel's production. Must be clean living.