With two bad movies back to back that ultimately wrecked the series, it’s hard to remember that at one time the Batman series was actually really good. Probably the best example of that is the second entry, where director Tim Burton (“Big Fish”) was given free reign to let his dark sensibilities out to play. The result is the darkest film in the series, and the closest to ever come to the Dark Knight’s noir-ish origins.
The sequel gives us the Penguin (Danny DeVito), a deformed and carnivorous baby dumped into Gotham River by his horrified socialite parents. He resurfaces 33 years later to blackmail a wealthy businessman (Christopher Walken) to help make him a respectable citizen. Meanwhile, said businessman’s secretary (Michelle Pfeiffer) stumbles upon her boss’s plans to build a questionable power plant. This results in him pushing her out a window, but she is resurrected as The Catwoman. Later, the Penguin campaigns to be mayor of Gotham, and joins forces with Catwoman to destroy their mutual enemy — Batman.
The original “Batman” was a landmark comic book film, a highly entertaining piece of grandiosity that ultimately amounted to very little. But the sequel is quite the opposite. Director Tim Burton is no longer held back by the executives of Warner Brothers, and is granted the chance to show his true vision of Batman. The result is a gothic nightmare, populated by grotesque characters and brooding atmosphere. Rarely letting up on the surreal vibe, Burton gives us the spectacle he should have been allowed to deliver in the first film. His dark approach works especially well during the fight scenes with Batman, in which the shadows enhance Batman’s menace and the whole thing just looks really cool.
The sets by Bo Welch are amazing, a Teutonic, “Metropolis”-like Gotham — perfect to house the larger than life characters. Danny Elfman’s moody score adds more gloom to the proceedings, and is the perfect musical accompaniment to Burton’s vision. The Bat suit is also given a nice upgrade; it now looks more like a modern day suit of armor, making Batman look even more formidable. The Penguin is given a frightening makeover, and is sure to inspire repulsion with his deformed pale body and short stature.
Back for a second turn as Batman, Michael Keaton (“Beetlejuice”) plays the part like he knows the character inside out. Bruce Wayne is constantly brooding, very intense, and rarely smiles — exactly the way a man with a U-Haul full of emotional baggage would act. The character’s transformation when he puts on the suit is obvious — his dark side takes over and woe to the criminals that cross his path. “Batman Returns” demonstrates why Michael Keaton has been the best Batman so far. He plays the part like he understands the duality Bruce must live with — the playboy side he shows the world, and the dark avenger he keeps locked inside.
Danny DeVito (“Ruthless People”) is equally good as the Penguin, a murderous, sexually depraved criminal with a yearning for acceptance. He may be evil, but at times you can’t help but feel a little pity for someone rejected by his parents and society purely because of outward appearances. As Max Shreck, Christopher Walken (“Man on Fire”) nails the part of the opportunistic tycoon, and at times seems to be lampooning Donald Trump and his ilk. The only wild card is Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman. Pfeiffer plays the role of a seductive villainess well enough, but how did a meek secretary learn to be so athletic overnight?
The only problem with the film is the screenplay by Daniel Waters, Sam Hamm, and an uncredited Wesley Strick. Although mostly well-written, the script starts to unravel into a pile of illogical situations two-thirds of the way through. For instance, why does the Penguin have his rocket-packed avian army available so quickly if he plans on killing the first born children of Gotham? Why couldn’t the Penguin show more subtlety in framing Batman? (Like the world’s greatest detective would leave a Batarang at a crime scene…) Also, why doesn’t the Ice Princess recognize the Penguin, when he’s been all over the news? Common sense questions like these mare “Batman Returns”.
Hopefully in June 2005, “Batman Begins” will overshadow “Batman Returns” and put the luster back on the “Batman” franchise. In the meantime, we can still watch this film and fondly remember a time when you didn’t have to cringe while watching a “Batman” movie.
Tim Burton (director) / Daniel Waters (screenplay)
CAST: Michael Keaton …. Batman (Bruce Wayne)
Danny DeVito …. The Penguin/Oswald Cobblepot
Michelle Pfeiffer …. Catwoman/Selina Kyle
Christopher Walken …. Max Shreck