I owe a lot to Batman Returns. If it had not been in theaters around the time I found myself in a toy store sometime in 1992 (it must have been 1992 because that’s the year the movie was released) I might not have bought my first-ever Batman action figure (but who am I kidding, I didn’t actually pay for it, I was like three, my uncle bought it for me). And if that hadn’t happened when it did, I may not have fallen in love with Batman when I did, and my life today would probably be a lot different.
But up until recently, I hadn’t actually seen Batman Returns. It occurred to me a few weeks ago that this amounted to a massive oversight on my part so I watched it. Twice. And boy oh boy, do I have some thoughts I’d like to share.
With the release of Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice next week, there was no better time to re-watch the original Tim Burton/Michael Keaton Batman films. I had seen the original one when I was a kid, but had never seen the sequel. I had mixed memories of the 1989 film but upon re-watching it I found it to be quite good, and was very pleasantly surprised by how much I ended up liking it.
Michael Keaton is a very appealing Bruce Wayne. There was quite the fan uproar when he was first announced as Batman, but nowadays his portrayal of Batman is well-regarded (this is worth mentioning when you consider the similar fan uproar that arose when Ben Affleck was cast as Batman).
Keaton’s performances as Bruce Wayne/Batman are emblematic of the films themselves: serious without being too serious, campy without being too campy. If the Christopher Nolan Batman films represent the dark and gritty Batman and the Joel Schumacher Batman movies represent the cheesy and over-the-top Batman, the two Tim Burton movies fit nicely in the middle.
I really like the visual design of both movies. Gotham City looks great, as do the vehicles, costumes, and makeup effects, and for the most part the special effects hold up well, although there are a couple shots that look a little fake for viewers whose eyes are accustomed to slick modern special effects. Gotham looks dark and gothic and somewhat stylized, but it’s not so stylized that you stop believing it’s a place that could actually exist.
Remember that ridiculously awful chase scene in Batman & Robin where the Dynamic Duo chase Mr. Freeze down the arms of this stupid building-sized statue that’s just hanging out in the middle of the city? Yeah, there’s nothing that dumb in the Tim Burton movies. Both 1989’s Batman and 1992’s Batman Returns do an admirable job of striking a balance between the more serious aspects of Batman as a character and some of the potentially sillier aspects. Tonally, they’re both pretty consistent, which is a tricky feat to accomplish with this kind of subject matter.
I will readily admit, however, that Batman Returns goes a bit overboard in this respect. What else can you say about a film whose climax involves the hero stopping the villain’s army of mind-controlled, rocket-launching penguins?
So yes, Batman Returns is more than a little over-the-top. In many ways it is just damn weird, even ranking among the strangest movies I have ever seen. But for all of its weirdness, it’s still more faithful to the character of Batman than either of Joel Schumacher’s attempts.
The Burton films come close to the precipice of being too over-the-top, but somehow they are able to pull back from the edge. Just barely, but they do make it. And as we all know, Schumacher’s movies light themselves on fire and go flying off that precipice, screaming nonsense all the way.
But what is it, exactly, that makes Batman Returns such a weird movie, aside from the aforementioned rocket-launching penguins?
Well, let’s start with the villains. The problem with Catwoman and Penguin in Batman Returns is that I have a hard time taking either of them as serious threats to Batman. Catwoman is a woman suffering from a complete psychotic breakdown, and Penguin is a freakish fat man who lives in the sewers. Neither of them seem very threatening.
It’s not that Michelle Pfeiffer and Danny DeVito give bad performances. Their acting is somewhat over-the-top, but still in keeping with the overall tone of the film. It’s just that neither of them is particularly scary or intimidating. Penguin is gross but not really scary, and certainly not in the way that Jack Nicholson’s Joker is scary in the previous film (seriously though, if you can’t make the Joker scary, then you have failed).
All right, so here’s the Penguin’s master plan (spoilers ahead for a 24-year old movie). He was abandoned by his rich parents shortly after he was born because he was so freakish, and I guess he was raised by penguins in the sewers. He eventually makes his debut in Gotham by pretending to save the Mayor’s son, so that the people of Gotham like him, and feel sorry for him when he reveals how his parents abandoned him.
He forms an alliance with a corrupt businessman named Max Schreck (played by Christopher Walken), who tries to get Penguin elected Mayor. How desperate must the citizens of Gotham be in order to think that the freaking Penguin would be a good choice for mayor? I mean geez, maybe they just figure that they couldn’t do any worse. Batman foils this plan by recording some of the Penguin’s rants and threats (like “I’ve played the people of this city like a harp from hell!”) and playing it back when Penguin tries to give a speech, turning the people of Gotham against him.
Penguin then sends out his henchmen to kidnap every firstborn son in Gotham and bring them back to his lair in the sewers so that he may kill them. Batman foils this plan as well. So after all that, Penguin is REALLY pissed, and he straps rocket launchers to the backs of his fleet of penguins and sends them out into the city to create havoc (he controls them with radio waves or something). Batman foils this plan by hijacking the radio signal that controls the penguins (I think).
Can you see what I mean when I say that the villains in this film aren’t very threatening? I mean, Batman foils Penguin’s schemes fairly easily every step of the way. And Catwoman doesn’t have much to do with the overall plot, she’s just kinda there. Penguin and Catwoman don’t accomplish anything in this movie. Think of the Joker or Bane in the Nolan films, who are able to bring the entire city of Gotham to its knees. Penguin and Catwoman in Batman Returns, by contrast, don’t achieve much of anything.
As I mentioned earlier though, both of Burton’s Batman films look great. I really like the Batsuit that Michael Keaton wears, it looks very good, although you can tell how uncomfortable in must have been to wear, and how much it must have restricted Keaton’s movements (instead of just looking up for example, Keaton has to throw his entire head back because the way the suit was constructed didn’t allow him to move his head independently. This issue would finally be fixed in The Dark Knight).
I also quite like the Bat-vehicles. The Batmobile in these films is one of my favorite versions of Batman’s iconic ride. It looks fierce and the armor plating that covers it when Batman leaves it alone is extremely cool. The Batplane that Batman uses to drag away Joker’s poison-gas-spreading balloons in the first film is also pretty badass, and Batman gets to use a sweet Batboat during the climax of Batman Returns. All of these vehicles look and sound great, and the effects that created them have held up quite well.
I do have one significant beef with these movies, however. Namely, Batman kills people. No two ways about it, he just straight-up murders several people. In the first movie he chucks a henchman off a clock tower, and blows up an entire factory full of bad guys. In the second, he sets a dude on fire with the Batmobile, and later he attaches a bomb to a henchman, grins at him, then punches him and walks away as the bomb explodes. Yep, they’re dead all right. As a Batman purist, this does bother me, but I would still argue that the Burton films are better interpretations of the character than the Schumacher films are.
Despite their quirks, I have come to quite like the Burton Batmans. They’re far from perfect, but they’re both utterly unique (especially Batman Returns). It amuses me that Batman Returns is rated PG-13 for “brooding, dark violence.” How many other movies have the MPAA described as “brooding?”
Fun fact: Batman Returns was so dark that either McDonald’s or Burger King (I forget which) cancelled a marketing tie-in with the film after parents complained. I don’t know why, but this kind of thing always amuses me. It’s kind of hard to blame them though, since Batman Returns includes scenes where the Penguin bites a dude’s nose off and Catwoman cuts a guy’s face open with her claws. No wonder parents complained.
There’s never a bad time to talk about Batman, but with the fast-approaching release of Batman vs. Superman, it seemed an appropriate time for a rewind of the earlier films. See you in a few weeks to talk about the new movie!