In 1989 Tim Burton delivered the fantastic, dark, and colorful Batman, throwing in a dose of his own cinematic style. In 1992, after securing greater creative control, he created Batman Returns, an absurd, macabre, and whimsical adventure unequivocally his own. He added a dash of the titular character, with Michael Keaton once again filling the role with great humanity and duality. But Returns stands as an entirely different beast altogether, namely in that Burton is primarily interested in its villains and completely disinterested in delivering a faithful comic adaptation.
The Penguin (Danny DeVito) was abandoned by his wealthy parents as a newborn child, drifted into the sewer, and was (ridiculously) raised by penguins. He’s a tortured, outcast, and “freakish” soul, driven by his animal instincts and turned ravenous, his evil focused as he’s manipulated by the slimy business tycoon Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), the film’s only true villain. DeVito inhabits the role with theatricality and dedication, bringing humor to Cobblepot’s carnal savagery.
This same atmosphere of heightened theatricality hangs throughout the entire film, with Burton’s lusciously designed Gotham a total figment of the imagination, and Danny Elfman’s score (perhaps his best) is bold and operatic. It’s rare to see a blockbuster so confident, embracing its absurdity and color (which is mostly pitch black). Burton pushes the PG-13 rating to the limit, imbuing the film with carnal eroticism, sexual perversion, murder, and the macabre. All the while it retains its sense of absurdity and whimsy, refusing to take itself seriously in the best way possible.
Even for all of its spectacle, flair, atmosphere, world building, and brilliance it is Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) who sets Batman Returns apart. Selina Kyle is transformed from downtrodden and shy to passionate and ferocious after Shreck pushes her from a skyscraper window attempting to kill her. Many of the film’s detractors have cited Batman’s lack of screen time as a fatal flaw but I disagree. Keaton is once again fantastic in the role, but Bruce Wayne is already firmly established, and Burton understands this, giving Pfeiffer sufficient screen time to flesh out her character. Selina is empowered by her “death,” but tragically suffers from a duality similar to Bruce’s, becoming a brilliant multifaceted character suffering from severe trauma. Pfeiffer’s performance uses blatant sexuality, and the costume designer responsible for her leather getup should be handed infinite Oscars. Exuding nuance, power, seduction, and energy Pfeiffer is absolutely magnetic. Selina has been transformed from a sweet “nobody” to one of the freaks, one of the outsiders, embracing it and betraying her savage side (the moment she uses her whip to behead several fashionable mannequins is quite powerful). Her line to Alfred concerning Bruce, “He makes me feel the way I hope I really am,” betrays the light and the hope and the romanticism within both she and Bruce.
Selina Kyle is ultimately a tragic character in a tragic movie. Batman Returns is hardly a great Batman film, taking outrageous liberties and brimming with absurdity, but it is certainly one of the greatest superhero films of all-time, daring to be unique, a quality that shines even brighter today. Comic book villains haven’t been portrayed this well since. It is a surprisingly compelling, exciting, teasing film; but most of all – it’s fun.