It’s nearly four years since I took an in-depth look at all the bastards and badassery of 1989 mega-hit Batman. Beyond making household names out of Michael Keaton and Tim Burton, it demonstrated that darker, edgier, sexier super-hero flicks could hang with the square-jawed, frothy wholesomeness of Superman. A sequel, nay a harem of sequels, was inevitable. And so was this review.
Okay so this was probably the first sequel I’d ever seen or heard of that didn’t have a two in it, or use Roman numerals to denote it’s sequelness. This was 1992, and I hadn’t figured out the whole confusion relating to the Rambo/First Blood silliness, so cut me some slack.
Batman Returns certainly was returning. The ’89 offering had done insane business, and Warner Brothers were keen to tap into the seemingly unmolested cash gland. Everyone came back for another shot. Michael Keaton returned as Batman/Bruce Wayne. Tim Burton once again took the reins as director, as did long-time collaborator composer Danny Elfman. Original Batman writer Sam Hamm teamed up with Daniel Waters (who’d later pen Movie Bastard favourite, Demolition Man). Pat Hingle and Michael Gough would return as Commissioner Gordon and Alfred respectively, continuing in these roles for a further two films each.
But with Jack Nicholson’s Joker in the ground (literally), who is going to be stirring up trouble this time around? Well it looks like Hamm and Waters flicked to page 2 and 3 of the Batman encyclopedia, selecting Catwoman and Penguin as the villains.
The origin of the Penguin AKA Oswald Cobblepot opens the film.
Christmas, 30 something years ago. Gotham. Screams from a huge mansion. Mrs Cobblepott is giving birth. But it’s not the bouncing baby boy that she and Mr. Cobblepot had dreamed of. Instead it’s a tri-fingered abomination, with a violent temper and a taste for cat meat.
Distraught the pair decide to put him out of his misery as painlessly as possible. By casting him into a stream at the local, spooky Gotham zoo. Seems legit I suppose. I mean, I can think of a hundred more bullet-proof ways of killing him off. But I guess it’s cinematic enough.
Together they throw his sealed black pram-crib into the water, which drains into the unknown. We follow the baby’s screams down into the blackness, and Elfman’s impossible-to-beat Batman score kicks in. The music is slightly jazzed up this time. The tempo is faster with a few more frills thrown in to let us know they’re chucking a bit more money at this one as if to tell us this shit is gonna be turned up a notch.
I loved this title sequence. I still do. It’s one of those hairs standing on your arms cinematic triumphs. Seeing the title “Batman Returns” literally unfurl on the screen may seem a bit dated now, but it really blew my 10 year old mind. However, I still prefer the original ’89 sequence. It’s slower, darker, Batman-ier. But we’ll get into that later. Here, instead of the camera following the lines of a giant stone bat symbol, we instead track alone with the sealed black pod/crib thingy. Eventually it comes to rest among a group of giant penguins. While I have no idea how the hell they’re gonna get him out, they’re clearly gonna either eat him or raise him as a weird man-penguin hybrid thing.
Gotham city will find out which 33 years later.
Batman, by this point, is the zeitgeist. In fact, he’s old news. He’s been running shit for years now, so much so that Bruce Wayne actually chills out most nights at Wayne Manor until he’s called in via bat-signal by Commissioner Gordon. The public now want something new to latch onto. How about the weird Penguin-man supposedly living in the sewers? While reporter Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl – Bodyguard) doesn’t return in the sequel, I’m totally sure he’d have been hot on the case.
It’s Christmas in Gotham, and they’re doing a big tree lighting ceremony. As all the denizen’s of the dark city mill about cheerfully, some big wigs are 30 storeys above, chatting business. Chief mover-and-shaker Max Shrek (Christopher Walken – Waynes World 2) wants to build a power station but the Mayor isn’t buying it. His awkward assistant/secretary (who thankfully makes a hell of a cup of coffee) interjects with her own opinion and everyone laughs. She’s totally embarrassed. She’s totally Selina Kyle played by Michelle Pfeiffer (Scarface).
There’s a lot of behaviour in Batman Returns that really dates it, and how Kyle is treated is certainly one of them. It makes really awkward viewing now to see a woman so invalidated. It is part of the story – she’s totally small and insignificant, and becoming Catwoman totally flips that around – so we’ll have to accept it for what it is, and try not to get too bent out of shape over it.
Before the argument over the plant intensifies, Shrek’s son Chip (Andrew Bryniarski – Street Fighter) emerges and announces that the crowd is ready for them down below.
As the Mayor and Shrek argue under their breath, they’re getting patted on the back by Gothamites. They’re kissing each others ass in public, but throwing shade at each other that only the other can hear. Shrek advises that he has enough employees working for him that he could order a recall for the Mayor’s position. Jeff Mayor counters with the fact that Shrek has no issue to fight him, nor a suitable candidate to replace him. At least not yet.
This was definitely the first time I saw Christopher Walken on screen. It was also one of his first big roles. While we all know and love Walken for delivering intense, scary performances, he suits the guise of the wild-haired business tyrant. Unfortunately, I never really warmed to him as a villain. While I’m loathe to say it, he occupies too much screen time, and as a non-super villain, I felt he was almost too conventional to have such a central bad guy role. But we’ll get to that in the follow up Bastards Of article.
Finally at the podium in front of cheering Gothamites and loads of media, Shrek realizes he’s forgotten his speech. Like a twat he immediately moves to blame that Selina Whatshername for the mistake. But the improv talk he delivers is actually pretty good. I can’t see him topping that one, unless it’s that badass one from Independence Day. That speech is the king of all speeches. Unfortunately, Shrek’s is spoiled by the emergence of a giant red Christmas present across the street. Dwarfing the surrounding people, it slowly moves towards the crowd. It wasn’t part of the Shrek plan, and things really go bad when some Red Triangle circus gang freaks suddenly are shot out of it like a jack-in-the-box.
The Red Triangle Gang are effectively loads of clowns with guns. There’s no known relationship with the Joker who isn’t even mentioned in this film. Plus, the Joker gang weren’t actual clown cast offs. He was the clown, they were just goons in snazzy leather jackets and sunglasses. The Red Triangle boys feature all sort of circus silliness corrupted for evil. You’ve got incendiary flame blowers, sword eaters, stilt walkers, a mini-gun mounted organ grinder (played by the great Vincent Schiavelli – Night Shift). Basically, they’re just an evil clown posse that terrorize Gotham.
It’s far too much for Gordon’s boys to handle (they’re throwing chairs and shit!) so they immediately light the signal. Special mirrors reflect the signal beam straight into Bruce Wayne’s chillout room. We don’t hear what he’s listening too. Elfman drowns out what I’d expect to be some Ministry of Sound number.
Anyway, work is calling so he rubbers up and heads to the office in the Batmobile. Upon arrival he starts his usual killing and maiming strategy. But this time there’s no stealth. No appearing silently from the shadows to annihilate some guys balls or what-have-you with a kick. No ninja tricks or smoke bombs. Instead it’s all up front. He literally is just walking about twatting people.
Selina, who has lovingly ran out of the office to hand deliver Shrek’s lost speech, is caught up by one deviant clown guy wielding a taser (these were all the rage in the 80’s and 90’s – cinema’s go-to non lethal weapon). He barks a warning at Batman that if he takes one step closer, he’ll spark her up. Like the slickest fox, Bat’s uncorks his shooty-bat-grapnel and fires it at the pair. But it misses, embedding in the stone wall behind them.
“You missed” Stungun Clown (legendary cinema jobber Branscombe Richmond – Action Jackson) snarls.
Batman tugs on the mono-filament wire and half the concrete wall comes away, smashing the clown in in the back of the head. Down he goes, unconscious.
Selina is stunned but grateful, and attempts to make some pathetic small talk. Batman stands and listens for a second; just long enough to look totally badass, before turning and leaving. He probably wasn’t even listening to her. He was probably thinking “lol, that shit actually worked!”. He’s definitely saving that one for the Bat-wank-bank later.
Any way, Selina see’s his departure as just another of a slim line of men who just leave her behind. The only guy who hasn’t left her is Mr. Clown. But he, she correctly observes, needs therapy. She pockets his taser and moves on.
Batman doesn’t even bother to do a disappearing act. As the Mayor and the Commissioner reappear to announce the circus gang may be back, “We’ll see” is all Batman can muster. He then casually walks out of frame, presumably to the Batmobile. He doesn’t need to any of those impressive tricks these days. Clearly he’s tight with the right people.
The Mayor kind of highlights that Shrek is still missing. During the initial scuffle, Chip had stepped in “You’ll have to go through me”. Like a total weasel, Max didn’t stand up for his son and chose to do a runner instead. He’s weaving about the dark Gotham alleys, before falling down a trap door into the realm of the Penguin.
He awakens in the Red Triangle Lair – the penguin house at Gotham Zoo. They’re led by the infamous Penguin-man. Looks like the tabloids were true for a change. The Penguin (Danny DeVito – Twins) is the child from the first scene, grown to manhood, and time in the sewers hasn’t done him any good. He’s impossibly shaped (like a human sphere), dangerously pale, with a long beak-like nose, and sunken eyes. He’s wonderfully portrayed by the Hollywood great.
While DeVito bemoaned the lengthy make-up process, the body suit and prosthetics enhances his already characterful appearance. They don’t cover him up. And it’s the little details too. The scraggly hair, the “flipper” hands and the voice. A gravely, aggressive sound coupled with some really rank black spit that is continually running down his chin. Plus the noise he makes when he grinds his teeth…bravo sir.
The whole attack was designed to get Shrek down here though. If he wanted him dead, he could have done it easily. Instead, he needs his help. He needs his powerful connections, his savvy, and his ability to manipulate the pinheaded puppets of Gotham. As he describes it, he wants to ascend, to return to the surface, to be reborn like some weird mutant Jesus character. He wants to find his parents, and with them, his human name.
Why, dare he ask, should Max help him? The Penguin grins. He has loads of dirt on Maxy-boy and he was ready just for this very conversation. How about some toxic waste from his “clean” textile plant? He has a lagoon of the shit in the back. Or how about the severed hand from his old partner, Fred Atkins, who is on “extended vacation”? You see, whatever Shrek flushes, the Penguin is gonna flaunt. Ever the survivor, Shrek agrees to help him.
Back home after the mugging, Selina is in a daze. But we get the sense this is every day for her. Her sense of self-worth is microscopic, and the depressingly childish bedsit she lives in only makes her feel worse. She listens to some voicemail messages. One from some douchebag blowing her off for Christmas, the usual messages from her Mum, and one from herself reminding her that she needs to pull some files for the Bruce Wayne meeting tomorrow. Like the pathetic dolt she thinks she is, she’s totally forgotten.
Late in the night, Shrek has returned from the sewer. He finds Selina going through his files, even the protected ones (she’d correctly guessed the password – the name of his stuffed dead dog – Heraldo). She rattles off how she’s read about the power station not actually being a power station, and instead it being a giant energy-sucking factory of sorts. She only realizes how it sounds after she says it.
But she’s gonna say this to no one. It’s not like Shrek can kill her to keep her mouth shut, right? Actually, it’s a lot like that. He pushes her out the window and she falls to ground, far below. Only some cat-faced (the Shrek brand logo) awnings break her fall. She lands in the snow, obviously dead.
Now something weird happens. While there is some crazy, less-than-possible shit that goes down in Batman, it’s never got really supernatural. There has always been an explanation or technological possibility that all the stuff he does could be real. Tim Burton decides to take this and throw it out the window. Selina Kyle, the dead secretary to Max Shrek, is resurrected by a bunch of alley cats.
They surround her, nipping at her, somehow bringing her back to life. And not just to life. She’s somehow better than human now. She’s inherited a load of cat powers, like agility, and…martial arts and stuff.
Look, I’m not moaning about it too much. It never really detracted from the greater narrative for me. It just never felt in tune with the rest of the world. Any way, she returns home (again), parodying her previous visit. This time when she hears the same inane bullshit answerphone messages, she flips out. Destroying her apartment, she forges a rubber cat-suit out of some PVC jacket she had at the back of the closet. The cats, which surround her (and never really feature again), seem to love it.
Oh, I loved how she smashes the “O” and the “T” on the giant neon “Hello There” sign in her bedroom, so it spells “Hell Here”. Very clever. I bet whoever thought of that went home with a giant, satisfied smile that day. And shit, they deserve it.
It’s a bit lame that Selina can only become comparable to the male badasses by becoming mental. She’s a very weak character prior to her death, intentionally written as a pathetic loser who is transformed into a confident, sexy predator. You could see this as interesting character development or a sign of the times. It’s certainly not like the comicbooks, but I’ll get into that another day.
Shrek stays true to his work and organizes the kidnapping of the the Mayor’s newborn baby. When the gangly circus goon is “defeated” by Penguin, he emerges into the limelight with the Mayor’s baby and as a hero. With Max by his side he declares he is no longer to live in the sewer, and that all he wants is to find his birth records, him name and ultimately his parents.
Batman is suspicious of course. He knows the Penguin is behind the Red Triangle gang, so he’s keeping a watchful eye on him from the comfort of the Batmobile. I know it’s winter and it’s snowing so it’s probably cold as fuck, but Batman is patrolling Gotham in a giant black car. Now if Gotham is anything like NYC, it makes you question how the fuck he gets anywhere quickly or discretely.
But even Alfred thinks he should leave off on the new face of Gotham. Super-hero/villain jealousy is actually a story angle that gets referenced more than once in Batman Returns. It’s kind of interesting, and I guess that people would think of those kinds of things. During the business meeting that Selina was preparing for, Wayne opposes Shrek’s idea to build a new power station. It’s here he formally meets Selina, which is a shock to both Bruce and Shrek. “Did you hit your head during that sky trip” he offers while trying to explain the huge bruise on her head. She doesn’t mention anything about the attempted murder or his evil power plant plan. She’s safe for now. Max confides in Chip that he’ll just drop her out a higher window should she try to blackmail him.
Meanwhile, Bruce and Selina openly flirt. She’s far more confident and controlling now she’s secretly Catwoman. It kind of throws Bruce off his game and he nearly lets slip that he’s Batman and that they met the other night during the attack. Clearly Keaton’s Batman is not as slick and comfortable on his feet as Christian Bale. He took it far more seriously (and probably had a lot less fun).
When Penguin finds his parents (dead) and his name (Oswald Cobblepot), it’s Shrek who tempts him into running against the Mayor. All he needs is an issue. The plan is to whip up the city into a fervour of crime thanks to his circus friends. Batman does his best to fight against the tide but comes a cropper against Catwoman for the first time who impales him with one of her claws (after trying to touch him up). He knocks her off the building as a thank you.
Spurned and annoyed, Catwoman and Penguin team up, and in stead of blowing up his Batmobile, they decide to turn it into a remote control car. Framing him for the kidnap and murder of the Snow Princess, and his number one piece of tech out of commission, the field is wide open for Shrek and Penguin to take over.
Plus things with Selina are totally heating up. So does Bruce Wayne even have the time to save Gotham once again? And just whose names are on that mysterious enemies list that Cobblepot has cobbled together…You better stick around to find out. Same Bat-time. Same Bat-Channel.
Batman Returns was a big deal for me. As a ten year old kid I was a huge fan of the ’89 movie. Seeing the trailer at the cinema the previous year blew my mind. It was the first “12A” film that I can remember being advertised. Basically that means 12 year old’s accompanied by an adult are allowed to see it, acting as a sort of gap-filler between PG and 15 rated flicks. But shit I was still only going to be ten when it came out.
Cue my Mum speaking with the cinema to see what could be done. Amazingly, they let me and my buddy Phil in to watch it with our Dads. Living in a small town with a tiny cinema owned by lovely old people helps I guess. Along with Masters of the Universe, this was the only film I saw with my Dad at the cinema, and it holds a special place in my memories for that reason alone.
That being said, the film has never satisfied me. There’s something off about it. Maybe it’s setting the film at Christmas? Having lots of snow and all the Christmas shit everywhere can certainly be cinematic, but it also cast everything in a much cleaner light compared to the oppressive, steam and filth ridden imagery in Batman.
Gotham doesn’t seem as large and expansive and city-like either. Instead it all seems to be focused around the one central square. Saying that there is still a lot of atmosphere something endemic only to Tim Burton films. It’s still very dark in tone, something that really pissed off the guys at Warner Brothers.
Apparently they were wanting to make a more Toy Friendly or Toyetic, as the big movie merchandise people call it. Obviously, having a weird looking Penguin man with black shit spewing out of his mouth probably wouldn’t sell many Happy Meals. Burton describes getting his vision to screen as a major battle, and one that stopped him from ever rounding out the trilogy with a third film.
There are lighter moments, and some genuine laughs, like when Alfred rips up a party invite only for Bruce to turn around and say “maybe Selina will be there…”. The look on his face!
Plus there is a lot more sexual references and overtones too. This shit would have flown over my head as a kid, but I bet mine and Phil’s Dad had a good laugh. The Penguin is the chief culprit with lines like “Just the pussy I’ve been looking for”, or “I’d like to fill her void”. Groping potential voters is one perk he seems to be pleased with as a potential Mayor (an ironic real truth when it comes to most politicians).
There is also no doubt that the sexy stakes are upped by the inclusion of Michelle Pfeiffer. While Kim Basinger was a mega-babe at the time in Batman, she didn’t have something as blatantly raunchy as a form-fitting black catsuit to wear. Pfeiffer’s Catwoman was the first character I ever recognised as “sexy”. Everyone was making a big deal out of it at the time. Apparently, getting in and out of the costume was a nightmare for poor Michelle.
The powers-that-be also wanted her for a sequel too, and changed the ending (which was supposed to have her die) to include the iconic shot of her rearing her head to the sight of the bat-signal. After making out with Shrek via the medium of the tazer gun, it always left me wondering how the hell she’d survived.
Regardless, Pfeiffer plays both Selina Kyle and Catwoman perfectly, shifting from mousey feebleness to deliciously deliberate sexiness in an instant. Bravo on learning the various whip skills too, and for holding a real life bird in her mouth in that great scene when she and Penguin are plotting. While she is a very “reactive” character – she doesn’t really do much in terms of evil plot or what have you – she is a true highlight of the film.
Equally so is Danny DeVito. While he seems perfectly suited to the role, he’s so fucking evil and unlikable that you forget it’s the lovable Hollywood funny-man. While you can’t help but like Walken in everything he’s in, I did think that the story focused too much on him and less so than either of the other bad guys. Like Carl Grissom in the first film, he represents your everyday criminal. He should have been replaced or supplanted early on by one of the emerging super villains. Instead, the bastardry is diluted, similar to what happened in Spider-Man 3.
Another slight disappointment is Keaton’s Batman. Now he’s always gonna be my number one Batman. But he’s a bit too light on dialogue and things to do, especially as Bruce Wayne. He’s got the new love interest angle, but that seems about it. Unlike the first film, Batman Returns’ Wayne never see to struggle with the duality of his life. Yeah it can be a drag like when’s he’s making out with Selina and has to rush out to save the city, but he’s hardly cut up by it. Maybe he’s taking it less seriously. He’s quick to reveal his identity to Kyle with Max present. He also nearly lets slip various other times then has the front to slag off Alfred for letting Vicky vale in the bat cave!
Also, I didn’t like the change in direction from an almost supernatural vigilante haunting the shadows of Gotham (or something), to being such an upfront bad-guy puncher. He’s far more humanized here, and much of the badass mythos is dispelled.
But he doesn’t play himself off as an idiot with a giant corp behind him (like in the Nolan movies) He builds everything himself (we see him working on the batmobile after its sabotage). And that is a major addition to the film – the franchise dream of new technology. So he’s got the Bat-Ski and the enigmatically named Bat Missile – I was really curious about this. I saw a model kit for it in a magazine, and had no idea what the hell it could be. This lead to many hours of speculation between me and my Bat-Friends.
Plus you got the new Bat-Suit – looking less anthropomorphic and more armory. The addition of a new suit (and therefore new toy) is something you’ll see in every superhero sequel to this day.
Being an early 90’s film, CGI was still being eschewed for physical effects, and the film benefits from it immensely. You can feel the weight and power of the Batmobile, for example. Plus it’s the little things like when the Penguin bites that guy in the nose after devouring a raw fish.
However, it’s this reliance on the physical that I feel potentially damages the ending. After Batman sets a flock of bats on Penguin, he falls through a glass window into his watery lair below. He emerges later, dying somehow. It just seems like something was missing from this sequence. One scene probably just didn’t work and they had to cut around it. I don’t know. Perhaps it’s the lack of any final battle or gauntlet (like Batman had to run in ’89) that disappoints. In fact it all just seems pretty easy to old Batman at this stage, which probably did throw a damp squib on any drama that had accumulated.
While Batman Returns as a whole doesn’t feel as grand, as gritty or as satisfying as Batman, it’s still good. Hell, probably even great if your Bat-standards aren’t as high as mine. Every element from the casting, to the music (again wonderfully composed by long-time Burton collaborator Danny Elfman) is top notch. Maybe if it had had 20 more minutes it could ascend to true legendary status. Unfortunately, it’s always going to sit behind Batman for me, despite the positive memories of seeing it in the cinema.
Some might argue that it’s slight slip in quality denotes cinema Batman’s descent into campness and mediocrity. Technically that’s correct, but only because it’s the 2nd best none-Christopher Nolan Batman movie. So in the grand scheme of things, it’s still sitting high up there. So get it watched, you Bat Bastards!
4 thoughts on “Review: Batman Returns”
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I agree with you and will go further to say that I think it is one of Burton’s finest achievements, actually, because you can see in each frame his “trademarks” and all this excessive grotesqueness – the secondary cast is so good too. That is one of the reasons I love “Sleepy Hollow” too. He creates this vision which is just too fascinating in its darkness to ignore.
I love Sleepy Hollow. You’re totally right about the secondary cast on that one. Everyone is granted a moment or a look that makes them stand out. Fantastic looking film.