After Batman proved to be a huge hit for Warner Bros they planned to move ahead with a sequel immediately. They even paid a whole lot of money to store the sets from the first film to be used again. Tim Burton though had different ideas. He didn’t want to jump straight into Batman 2 as he found the first film boring and didn’t want to come back unless there was something new in there. Also, money… maybe. Anyway, he went off and made a kooky Gothic period film with Johnny Depp called Edward Scissorhands, which is pretty much the description for his entire output over the last 10 years. After he got that out his system though he was drawn back in under the promise that he would have greater creative freedom. So Tim Burton did what, at the time, he did best. He made a Tim Burton film! Click the link for my review.
Batman Returns focuses almost entirely on the themes of identity, societal roles and animalistic nature. As far as depth goes this film has the first beat. In the first Batman film it almost felt like Jack Nicholson’s The Joker was the main focus of the film. Here the villains in the forms of The Penguin (Danny DeVito), Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) take all the spotlight. Batman only appears in one sequence in the first 25 minutes. Now you’d think this would be an issue and many critics have taken exception to this but in my opinion it’s not all that bad.
See when you have multiple villains they all need time to shine. Plus in a series like this you likely will only have that villain for one story. As long as Batman shows up and does some hero stuff how much more do you need of him? Burton’s Batman is one that’s quiet, stays in the shadows and deals with villainy when it shows up. He may not go through a major character arch here but he deals with what he has to and gets on with it. No Bat charity auctions with a date with The Caped Crusader on the line here.
Meanwhile the villains are a great mix. The Penguin has a Moses parallel running through his story that takes a dark turn. He’s constantly at odds between trying to be a respected man and controlling his more animal side. He someone who maybe wants to be normal, nearly even sidetracking his villainous plans when another scheme presents itself, but he cannot hide his rotten core. Catwoman on the other hand is searching for who she is. One minute she saves a woman from a mugger and the next she’s taking that same woman to task for being such an easy target. She’s unhinged and isn’t sure if she’s who she thought she was or how to get back to being the shy and downtrodden Selina Kyle. Or even if she wants to.. She starts as Max Shreck’s assistant but after discovering one of his nefarious schemes he pushes her from a window. After surviving the fall,l it’s like the part of her that held her back has been knocked loose and soon she’s heading out to mess with anything and everything Shreck does. Meanwhile Max Shreck is the real bad guy pulling the strings of not just Gotham’s citizens but even the villains.
At times the plot can feel a little direction-less. Because we have two villains both figuring out who they are neither have a clear goal in mind beyond causing chaos. They flit from one idea to another as the story demands. There is elements of The Penguins final plot earlier on in the film but it’s a thread that isn’t followed consistently. What helps though is that the plot trundles along at a good pace and each sequence has enough of it’s own feel to be different to the last. There’s even a few genuinely great scenes here such as the masquerade ball towards the end where Bruce Wayne and Selina have both come minus a mask, because they sort of already are wearing one. The dialogue and scripting in this scene are superb. Always loved how the big reveal plays out in that scene too.
As there is a bit less of Bruce and Batman this time around we really don’t have a major story of his own. It feels like we’re catching him at a point in hi life where he’s only Batman, there really are only a handful of scenes where he’s not fighting crime in some way. I would normally bemoan the lack of anything for him to do but because the villains are busy being so much fun I always find I end up not minding that Batman is just there to save the day. I do wonder though if the reason Burton doesn’t enjoy the first film and the reason why batman is in this less is because he doesn’t really know what to do with a character he feels should always be hiding in the shadows.
On a technical level the film is still pretty stunning. Gotham somehow looks even more spectacular than it did in the first film with it’s Art Deco and Germanic influences being plastered everywhere. A special mention should go to the costumes too because they’re pure Burton-esque brilliance. One of his greatest talents has been taking certain looks and tweaking them to be a little bit twisted. He makes the clothes the characters wear truly be an extension of who they are. Especially in the gradually decaying designs of Catwoman’s costume. It’s a costume only this version of Catwoman could wear. It wouldn’t make sense for any other iteration of the character to be kitted out in head to toe PVC all stitched like it was designed by Frankenstein’s monster. She’s falling apart as the film goes on and as she does the costume breaks apart at the seams to reflect her change in character. The Penguin meanwhile is dressed in a messy romper suit like a baby would be but when he runs for mayor under the guidance of Shreck he does a Gothic gentleman’s attire with a big top hat, creating a dark mirror of Burgess Meredith in the 60s series. When he reverts to his animal state he tears away his human clothes returning to his one piece suit. Batman has an armour type pattern on his stomach now. That’s probably the extent Burton cared to redesign that costume. He can’t even turn his neck yet.
Overall Batman returns is a slightly messy film when it comes to plot and it’s lead but it’s so twisted and genuinely a Burton film that it benefits greatly from it’s chosen direction. A lot of parents complained that it was too dark on release which is likely what pushed Warner in the more child friendly directions of the films following two sequels. So in a way this dark tone Burton went for was responsible for Batman & Robin. I know which film I’d rather watch multiple times though. The art directions, cinematography and score all combine with the great villains and speedy pace to create a film that I feel is better than the first. Next film will be Batman Forever. I really don’t wanna go through what comes after that…