The Second Look Series takes a look back at some of the underrated or overlooked films in the Superhero Film Genre. Today’s edition is a retrospective of Batman Returns, twenty-one years after its release!
In 1992, Batman Returns followed the immense success and critical acclaim of 1989’s Batman, director Tim Burton‘s first foray into filming the Dark Knight. Aside from a few concerns about the tone and its suitability for children, the first Batman film had done phenomenally well: it had reinvigorated a genre that had not been put to popular use since 1980’s Superman II, and reinvented the character of Batman on screen after Adam West‘s portrayal.
In short, the first film was a hard act to follow.
Batman Returns was a financial success, but apparently not enough of one. The reason for Burton’s replacement by Joel Schumacher on the franchise is tied up with his second Batman picture: Warner Bros felt the darkness of tone to be partly responsible for its failure to match the international takings of the first, by limiting the film’s audience. The film is a fantastic example of what the genre can do, however; an incredible film overshadowed by its predecessor and descendants. For many, Tim Burton’s Batman was followed by Schumacher’s kitsch affairs, with Returns unfairly forgotten.
The film opens with Mr. and Mrs. Cobblepot’s reactions of horror at the birth of their deformed newborn boy, destined to become the villainous Penguin. Hoping to rid themselves of the child, they tip his pram into the Gotham river, and the title sequence plays as the camera follows it floating through the city’s cavernous sewer system. It’s an incredibly morbid opening, and it impresses me every time. From here, the film introduces odious industrialist Max Shreck, the film’s non-super villain played by Christopher Walken, and his meek secretary (“Executive Assistant!”) Selina Kyle, portrayed by Michelle Pfeiffer. An adult Penguin is introduced soon after, played by Danny DeVito, the scene-stealer of the show. The Burton Batman films are very character-focused, as opposed to the highly thematic X-Men films, with a particular emphasis on the villains. The Penguin and Catwoman are not used sparingly.
Fortunately both are fantastic performances. The Penguin is a character of great intelligence but little subtlety, and remains one of my favourite supervillains in the comics. Burton and DeVito offer an imaginative reinvention, casting him as a child of the sewers, rather than the wealthy son of inheritance he is in DC canon. It is a drastic rewriting of the character’s background, but DeVito retains the essence of Penguin’s character: he is tragic from the beginning, desperate for respect, and monstrously cruel. During the first half, Penguin attempts to run for Gotham City Mayor at Schreck’s insistence, playing on the people’s sympathy for Cobblepot’s tragic start to life. In the latter half of the film, when his campaign falls through, Penguin presents a far more threatening plan: to disgrace the Batman, kidnap and drown the firstborn sons of Gotham’s wealthy citizens, and destroy the city with rocket-carrying remote-controlled Penguins.
Read that last part again. When Penguin explains his plan to drown the children of the wealthy in payback for his own rich parents’ mistreatment of him, it is morbid, unsettling, and bordering on plausible. When he later proceeds to order his Penguin army to converge on Gotham square, it has lost this plausibility, which is slightly unfortunate for fans of the “dark” approach. In Cobblepot’s defense, this plan is no less believable than Lex Luthor’s plot to create a giant kryptonite island in 2006’s Superman Returns. It can’t be denied that there is an expectation for the plots of Batman films to be a lot more down-to-earth than Superman ones, a little like their respective heroes.
Where Returns really shines is in its portrayal of Catwoman. Pfeiffer remains my favourite portrayal, outshining even her comic-book appearances, which is something I cannot honestly say of any other comic-book character in film. The image of her lying in the snow as the strays and alley cats fuss around her blood; the scene in which she destroys her apartment and her meek former life: these scenes are definitive of her character to me on a level only really rivaled by her introduction in Frank Miller‘s Year One.
Pfeiffer plays the anti-hero with playfulness (“Hear me roar!”), but also an astonishing amount of pathos. With a reworked origin story, Selina Kyle becomes Catwoman after a complete nervous breakdown following a near-death experience at the hands of Shreck. This is one of the moments in which Danny Elfmann‘s score serves the film beautifully. She destroys everything in her apartment symbolic of her shy, unassertive personality, and goes about creating her new suit and her new self. The naff neon “Hello there” sign gets the nervous breakdown treatment too, and is left saying, “Hell here”.
She is driven by her overriding hatred of Shreck, and it is this that leads her to refuse Batman’s offer of a more normal life together. As she tells him herself, “I would love to live with you in your castle, just like in a fairy-tale… I just couldn’t live with myself”. Catwoman’s action scenes may be fluid and sleek even by today’s standards, but her character truly shines in moments like these, that build her character as well as that of Bruce Wayne. She acts as his mirror, emotionally damaged underneath the mask, and tragically proves incapable of overcoming her obsession. It is for these reasons that on my second viewing of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, I still find Pfeiffer’s portrayal more interesting, more enjoyable, and more essentially Catwoman than Anne Hathaway‘s.
Don’t get me wrong; Nolan’s films are superior in a technical capacity, it’s undeniable, and they also do a better job of showcasing Batman’s own character than ever before, in my opinion. Hathaway’s Catwoman is just the right balance of mischief and ambiguity. And yet, she lacks this tragedy and obsessiveness, this pathos that is so important to the character. Rises hints at her motivations once or twice (“You’re all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large, and leave so little for the rest of us”), but it’s never given sufficient focus, and she always comes across as one driven by her whims. Perhaps this suits her character at times; I’ve read numerous comics that show her in just the same light, but I also feel it doesn’t do her justice in the time we have to get to know her in a film.
Where Catwoman and the Penguin steal the show, Michael Keaton delivers another solid performance as the Dark Knight himself. His dialogue with Alfred (the dryly humorous Michael Gough) is just as enjoyable as it was in the first film, and his action sequences are respectable, though perhaps not quite surviving the test of time. In his most impressive moments, Batman is swooping from Burton’s incredible skyline or sending programmed Batarangs to disarm four goons at once, but these moments are a little too rare. It is a bit of a shame that Returns focuses quite so heavily on its villains at the caped crusader’s expense- the imbalance is all the more pronounced as the second film lacks the exploration of Batman’s origin that the 1989 film had.
Batman Returns has been done an injustice, overshadowed by its predecessor and followed by the replacement of its director on the franchise. It remains one of my favourite films of the Superhero genre, unapologetically dark, but representing the characters incredibly well. DeVito’s Penguin has even gone on to influence the depiction of the character in comics: the “deformed” look for Penguin was adopted by Tim Sale for The Long Halloween and its sequels in 1996, and the Battle for the Cowl Companion featured a Penguin clearly modeled directly on DeVito. Pfeiffer’s Catwoman is the centrepiece of the film for me, my favourite iteration despite her radically altered origin story. The film stands up beautifully. Give it another watch.