TThirty years ago, audiences flocked to see an over-the-top political satire on the mayoral campaign of a disgusting sewer mutant – a film that doubled as an offbeat romantic comedy about two weirdos with mask fetishes, exchanging blows and spitting at each other. a snow globe metropolis. The retrospective has a way of turning every box office sensation into a curious time capsule, leaving us awestruck at the strange attractions that used to put asses on seats. But through the lens of the modern blockbuster machine and the reigning superhero industrial complex that powers it, Batman Returns looks like a veritable anomaly, as strange and exciting and perhaps personal as mega-budget Hollywood spectacles can be.
It’s certainly a more idiosyncratic film than its predecessor, Tim Burton’s popcorn sensation Batman, released to crowds in the summer of 1989. To lure Burton back into the world of the caped crusader, Warner Bros. had to offer him greater creative control over the sequence. The director exercised him from top to bottom. In place of the original art deco aesthetic, Batman Returns is a full-fledged Baroque fairy tale. When the camera plunges like a creature of the night through the distorted architecture of the Gotham Zoo, it’s clear we’re all in Burtonville, formerly home to prankster apparitions and lone hairdresser droids.
With Batman Returns, Burton turned Gotham into the greatest of the greats, terrorized by a gang of criminals and populated by freaks on both sides of the hero/villain divide. This includes billionaire vigilante Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton, returning to the clumsy cape and cowl), the film’s ostensible hero, who at one point compares himself to Norman Bates or Ted Bundy, serial killers with split personalities or secret hobbies.
Bruce’s problems are doubled, his screen time halved. Almost everyone agrees that Jack Nicholson’s Joker stole the first Batman. The second throws the spotlight on the bandits gallery immediately, depriving Keaton of any dialogue in the opening half hour. The film belongs more to the deformed and anguished Oswald Cobblepot, aka Danny DeVito’s Penguin, and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Selina Kyle, reborn into the vengeful vampire Catwoman.
The other thing that drew Burton back was the involvement of Heathers screenwriter Daniel Waters, who gave the material an air of dark comic. The absurd political angle of the plot was his idea. It is an inspired joke, to imagine that a creature as vulgar as the Penguin could steal the hearts of the electorate. In the film’s funniest revelation, DeVito’s supervillain is interrupted mid-meal, eating a raw fish disorderly, by the new team of beaming agents and volunteers who applaud his candidacy. What seemed cynical in 1992 now seems touchingly naive. Imagine a politician dropping out of a race just because he was caught on a tape belittling his base.
Waters’ plot is uneven, forcing an illogical alliance between the villains. Never mind — for Burton, it’s just an excuse to clash with these oversized cartoon personalities, to build a vaudeville stage for three animal-themed tortured thugs. The director twists the classic Batman theme of the bad guys being twisted reflections of the good guy to suit his own enduring love affair with misfits. DeVito, delightfully overdoing it under loads and hours of daily prosthetic work, makes the Penguin a sympathetic monster: horrible in appearance, gross and corrupt in nature, but still a tragic figure. Burton loves him as only a father could. And he recognizes him as a soul mate to his archenemy. Who is Cobblepot but Wayne without privileges, abandoned instead of orphaned? “You’re jealous because I’m a genuine freak and you have to wear a mask,” he tells Batman. It’s a point the dark knight admits.
Pfeiffer, meanwhile, who landed the role after Annette Bening became pregnant and left him unoccupied, delivers one of the great movie stars in all of comic book cinema: a stealthy embodiment of the attitude of hell hath no fury, a venomous hiss. ocean liners with aplomb and warring against Gotham’s powerful and sexist explorers. In both the stylized performance and the iconic skin-tight, patchwork outfit, she could have come straight from the source material panels. However, Pfeiffer also invokes the raw despair of a true identity crisis, which comes roaring to the surface during a grand alter-ego, ballroom tango with the enemy in the film’s silence before the climax.
If the political dispute suggests a classic Preston Sturges comedy in superhero drag, there’s an Ernst Lubitsch twist in the wacky romance between Keaton and Pfeiffer, circling each other in different forms of evening wear, hiding their double lives, identities secrets and battle scars during a fireside canoodle. Batman Returns is easily the more eccentric big-screen treatment of these characters: the one who dares to see some S&M fantasy in people burying their slender bodies under rubber and leather. It’s one of the reasons parents were so pissed off by the weirdest sequel, and why McDonald’s vetoed the Happy McSnack line. The dialogue drips with innuendo. The Penguin, a cackling pervert, voraciously sniffs Catwoman’s boot and lusts after her interns.
Notably, the film also has a class consciousness. Its true villain isn’t the Penguin or Catwoman, but Christopher Walken’s shock wig-clad robber baron Max Shreck, named for the actor who played Nosferatu but clearly modeled on a younger Donald Trump. He is, of course, another twisted mirror image of Batman – a Bruce Wayne looking to attack people rather than protect them. “The law doesn’t apply to men like him,” says Pfeiffer’s Catwoman slyly of her boss, the man who pushed her out of a window to complete her supervillain origin story. Years before Christopher Nolan sent Bane to occupy Wall Street, Burton more casually sent a clash of class warfare across Gotham.
As an adaptation, Batman Returns plays as fast and loose as, well, the first Batman. Burton was quick to admit, in the memoir Burton on Burton, that he wasn’t much of a comic book reader – a confession that underscored his disregard for canon backstory and elements such as the character’s traditional aversion to killing. To some diehards, his Batman movies are heresy. Certainly, they come from an era less faithful to or fan-pleasing to comic blockbusters. However, its over-the-top visual delights and panel-sized performances have their own fidelity to the original medium, a kinship of the pulp spirit. They reject realism, which may be the most apt approach to the story of a guy who dresses up as a bat to beat up those with a similar flair for the dramatic.
What truly marks Batman Returns as a product of a very different era of spectacular superheroes is the decisive victory of authorship Burton claims over his borrowed intellectual property. Joel Schumacher, Nolan, Zack Snyder, Todd Phillips – all these filmmakers have found ways to put their own stamp on the Batman mythos. But none of them shaped it so completely and successfully into the shape of their own preoccupations and obsessions. Batman Returns is a Tim Burton movie first, a Batman movie later. And watching it today, at a time when finding the soul of directing a superhero movie often requires real detective work, is enjoying the eccentricity of its making. The bat sign can’t compete with the bizarre flag that Burton flies over Gotham’s skyline.