Batman Returns might not be very good as a Batman movie, because it violates many of the central rules that makes Batman who he is at his very core, but it’s one hell of a Tim Burton movie.
I also like 1989’s Batman, but its sequel, Batman Returns, is something that speaks to me on a very personal level, and I feel like it subliminally implanted in me the essentials of German Expressionism and Filmmaking 101. Tim Burton seemed to have taken every complaint he had about the first movie and doubled down on it. What we’re left with is this dark, depressing Christmas movie about alienation, freaks and shadows crawling up walls in dimly-lit gothic buildings and sewers. In fact, I think it gives Die Hard a run for its money in terms of all-time best nontraditional Christmas movies. Does Die Hard have Danny DeVito biting someone on the nose, causing a jet a blood to spray everywhere? No, it doesn’t.
The movie begins in the past, giving us a prologue on the birth and tragic infancy of the villain the Penguin (Danny DeVito). He’s a mutated baby with flippers for hands, prone to violence and his parents can’t handle it, so they throw his carriage off a bridge into the icy water below. Their attempted infanticide fails and he grows up in the sewer among penguins from an abandoned zoo, where he plots his revenge for decades.
At the time, his plot seemed ludicrous: He stages a very, very obvious rescue of the mayor’s child from his own bandits and uses that goodwill to run for mayor, where he’ll control the city under the puppetry of evil businessman Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), whose name is an obvious homage to the actor who played the vampire in Nosferatu—the homage here makes sense more than in any other Batman movie, because this isn’t a superhero flick, it’s a straight-up monster movie.
In hindsight, the only thing ludicrous about the Penguin’s plot is that when audio is leaked of him saying he’s going to play the city like a harp from hell, the people of the city are disgusted and he’s once again ostracized to the sewer. Turns out, that wouldn’t make much of a difference in real life. You can brag about sexual assault and become the fucking President.
Also joining the band of misfits and villainy is Catwoman, aka Selina Kyle (played by Michelle Pfeiffer). She’s pushed out of a window, falls through about thirty canopies that slow her fall just enough that she doesn’t quite die when she hits the pillowy snow below. She’s seemingly brought back to life when feral cats begin to gnaw on her fingers.
And then there’s Batman, who’s just as fucked up as any of them, isolated from the rest of Gotham City in a mansion that overlooks them, like Dracula’s castle overlooking Transylvania. True to the mythos of Batman, he’s technically the good guy, even though everyone—law enforcement included—is terrified of the guy. He barely speaks a word, even to those he saves, and vanishes in the night.
Batman Returns isn’t entirely faithful to the character. This is more like if Batman wound up somehow in a fairy tale on LSD. The plot of the Penguin’s that he must foil involves kidnapping and killing the children of Gotham and then… something about trained penguins with missile launcher helmets on their heads in order to wreak havoc and bring about massive destruction and untold death. Let’s be honest, it’s all a bit silly, but seriously who has time to care in a movie like this? Danny Elfman’s music has never been better; I’d go so far as to say this, along with Edward Scissorhands, are tied for his very best scores. The set design is completely unparalleled; very few movies look this damn good. And the performances… I was born in 1986, so my Batman of choice is Michael Keaton. To me, he is Batman. I think Christian Bale did a very good job, but Keaton is just where my loyalty lies, partially because that’s who I grew up with, and partially because he made that role his own. Michelle Pfeiffer is a good actress, but she’s never, ever been better than she is as Catwoman. She steals every scene she’s in. And Danny DeVito as the Penguin was the stuff nightmares are made of. Who would have thought he would have taken the disgusting character even further as Frank Reynolds in “It’s Always Sunny”?
Setting the film around Christmastime doesn’t feel like gimmickry here. Christmas enhances the ugliness of the movie. It helps us feel how lonesome the central players are. Everyone is alone, struggling with some major psychosis, and they all externalize it through fearsome costumes and violence. Blood spills and meanwhile the snow falls and the neon holiday lights keep twinkling.