Michael Keaton - Batman/Bruce Wayne
Michelle Pfeiffer - Catwoman/Selena Kyle
Danny DeVito - The Penguin/Oswald Cobblepot
Christopher Walken - Max Shreck
Michael Gough - Alfred
Michael Murphy - Mayor
Pat Hingle - Commissioner Gordon
Vincent Schiavelli - Organ Grinder
Genre - Action/Adventure/Fantasy/Comic Book
Running Time - 126 Minutes
In 1989, comic-book-to-film adaptations got a kick in the ass since 1980's SUPERMAN II in the form of Tim Burton's mainstream reinvention of BATMAN. A massive commercial and critical success, BATMAN not only made Tim Burton a director to keep an eye on, but it made all movie studios look at the appeal of transforming popular comic books into movies in a very different light. Following BATMAN's success, Burton would later direct a film he had been passionate about making for years - 1990's EDWARD SCISSORHANDS - which was also a commercial and critical hit. This helped Warner Brothers demand a sequel to BATMAN with Tim Burton back at the director's chair.
This time around, things behind the scenes were very different. Warner Bros. wanted to do a sequel right away to capitalize on BATMAN's success, but Tim Burton hadn't signed on to direct a sequel, feeling one wasn't needed unless it offered something different and unique. So while Warner Bros. was trying to convince him, Burton directed the 1990 classic, EDWARD SCISSORHANDS for 20th Century Fox. When that film was fairly successful, Warner Bros. decided to give Burton more money and more creative control over the sequel. Burton finally signed, finally feeling comfortable in creating a BATMAN film in mostly his vision - although the studio and audiences were expecting the added pressure of greatness. Although Sam Hamm, who had written the previous script, had already written two drafts, Burton fired him and hired HEATHERS writer, Daniel Waters, for rewrites [Burton hated Hamm's original vision for the sequel, which had The Penguin and Catwoman going after some sort of hidden treasure, as well as appearances by Robin and Harvey Dent]. Burton also hired Wesley Strick for an uncredited rewrite, as he gave The Penguin motivation for his plan in the film.
Casting was also pretty interesting. Michael Keaton returned out of loyalty to Burton, as well as to a raise in his salary at $10 million. Danny DeVito was cast as The Penguin, as Waters had written the role specifically with him in mind. Christopher Walken was hesitantly cast as Max Shreck [named after Max Schreck, who starred as Orlok in the original 1922 classic, NOSFERATU], as Burton was afraid of Walken due to his reputation and odd roles.
Catwoman, however, was the role many women in Hollywood wanted. Actresses, such as Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bridget Fonda, Cher, Susan Sarandon, and even Raquel Welch, competed for the role. Sean Young, who originally was cast as Vicki Vale in BATMAN but had to drop out due to injury, felt that the role should have went to her by default. Infamously, Young would create a Catwoman costume, wear, and parade around Hollywood and even on Daytime Talk Shows just to get Tim Burton's attention. Eventually, Annette Bening was cast in the role. But she got pregnant and had to drop out. Michelle Pfeiffer's name was dropped, but Burton knew nothing about her work. But after a single meeting, Burton knew he had his Catwoman and hired her on the spot. Ironically, Pfeiffer was offered $2 million more than Bening would have received for the same role, plus a percentage of the box office and any merchandise sold for the film.
After many months of shooting what would eventually become BATMAN RETURNS, the film was released in June of 1992 to very solid box office numbers - in fact, it had the highest opening weekend record at the time at $45.7 million. With a budget of $80 million, BATMAN RETURNS would gross $162.83 million in North America and another $104 million worldwide, equaling an impressive total of $266.83 million. It was the third highest grossing film of 1992 and considered a success by far.
However, Warner Bros. felt that the film should have done better than it actually did. They cited the Christmas setting as an issue, as well as parental backlash who blasted the film for being too dark, violent, and sexually explicit for children. BATMAN RETURNS also lost sponsorships because of this, especially a big one from McDonald's. Even though it did both commercially and critically well, as well as set up the massively successful and influential Batman: The Animated Series for many years, Warner Bros. decided to end their relationship with Tim Burton [concerning BATMAN movies] after the film, which changed a lot of plans for a proposed CATWOMAN spinoff [that wouldn't be released until 2004] and the future sequels that tie in to Burton's films, such as BATMAN FOREVER and BATMAN & ROBIN.
It's been almost 20 years now and time has been very kind to BATMAN RETURNS. While a majority still consider BATMAN to be the superior film, there are some [like me] who prefer the sequel and consider it the best of the original anthology. Not only is BATMAN RETURNS Tim Burton's vision of what his BATMAN universe looks like, but it's the best BATMAN film [until 2005's BATMAN BEGINS] due to its narrative, direction, and acting. Let's see why this film deserved more love than it did back in the day...
It's Christmas time in Gotham City. While there's the usual merriment, shopping, and snow, crime still doesn't take a holiday. The Midnight Circus Gang have no problem sharing their festive spirit violently - traumatizing the citizens, destroying tree lighting ceremonies, and even kidnapping a shrewd businessman, Max Shreck (Christopher Walken).
The man behind the violence is a short, bird-like man calling himself The Penguin (Danny DeVito). Dwarfish, round, and owner of two unfortunate penguin fins for hands and a noticeable beak, The Penguin was born as Oswald Cobblepot - the first son of a very prestigious family. Unfortunately his parents (Paul Reubens and Diane Salinger) were ashamed of his appearance and dumped him at the local zoo, where he was raised by Emperor penguins. Wanting revenge on those who lived lives he feels he should have lived, as well as those who look down on him as a freak, The Penguin blackmails Shreck into helping him destroy Gotham City. Max agrees to it, having devious plans for The Penguin as well.
Meanwhile, Shreck's unlucky secretary, Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer) is having a really bad day. First, she spoke her mind when she wasn't supposed to during an important conference meeting. Then she forgot to give Shreck his speech for the Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony. And finally, Selina stumbled upon Shreck's secret plans to build an energy-sucking power plant that would endanger Gotham City. Seeing her as an annoying insect and a liability for his future plans, Shreck decides to give Selina an early Christmas gift - a one way ticket to death's door as he shoves her out of an office window. However, Selina's fondness for cats in her previous life was a good thing, as many cats heal her and give Selina more lives to play with. Now angry and a bit crazy, Selina creates a leather catsuit [with a trusty whip], calling herself Catwoman. Under her new identity, she plans to take care of Shreck and any other men who cross her.
Looks like Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) has a lot to deal with, as both himself and his alter-ego, Batman. This will be the most interesting and violent Christmas Gotham City has had to deal with in years.
I caught BATMAN RETURNS during its opening weekend in 1992 with a sold out crowd who probably had mixed feelings about this sequel. I, for one, loved the film due to its bleaker and grittier look and mood, compared to the first one. But a lot of people I knew weren't as big of fans of the film like I was for the same reasons I loved it. Nowadays, I'm sure the appreciation level has grown immensely, especially due to later sequels like 1995's BATMAN FOREVER and 1997's BATMAN & ROBIN being considered more silly and not as good as Burton's BATMAN films. I think a lot of people at the time were expecting an 'easier-to-digest' comic book movie - one that wasn't realistically violent, one that wasn't so adult with sexual references, and one where the villains were the stars rather than the hero the film was titled after. They were also probably expecting more action, rather than the drama and atmosphere BATMAN RETURNS thrives on. Twenty years later and countless superhero adaptations later, BATMAN RETURNS stands out as a film that became a template for many comic book sequels - multiple villains, more freedom with characters and storylines that origin stories couldn't allow, and stories that could lead into the next couple of sequels and/or spin-offs that could make studios a ton of money. Unfortunately, BATMAN RETURNS didn't quite accomplish all that. But in retrospect, we all see that it should have.
BATMAN RETURNS, in a major way, is one of the better films in the BATMAN franchise due to its multi-layered narrative. Instead of going for something that's all style, with explosions and CGI effects to enhance the action and story, BATMAN RETURNS decides that substance is where it's at. In fact, BATMAN RETURNS was probably the most subtle and human comic book adaptation at the time [until X-MEN in 2000 took over]. While the motivations and action of the characters are your typical comic book fare, they still happen to be as realistic as one could get with this type of movie. Batman, Catwoman, and The Penguin all have abilities and weapons that we can admire, but not necessarily be able to relate to. But their humanity and how they see the world and each other is definitely human, making us sympathize with them quite easily.
The Penguin's arc is strong because while he looks like a freak, he's a man beneath his odd appearance. His rich parents, without hesitation, abandoned him as a baby because he didn't fit the mold of what a Cobblepot should look like. Dropped in a zoo and raised by penguins for 33 years, he wants revenge on those who have lived the life he should have lived. So he decides to blackmail Shreck into helping him find out his parents while trying to figure out a way to destroy Gotham City for shunning him. Even though the Mayoral campaign is his way of gaining Gotham's trust just to fool everyone with his vengeance, his social awkwardness reveals a character that's flawed. He eats raw fish like a penguin, which turns people off. He tends to speak before thinking. And his way with women is...less than desirable. In reality, The Penguin just wants acceptance. But his anger and bitterness clouds that up, which leads to his own self-destruction.
Catwoman's arc is even richer. While her appearance doesn't hinder her social status, her gender does. Selina Kyle's world revolves around men who treat her like crap and tell her what to do. Her boyfriends dump her over the answering machine, not respecting her enough to do it in person. Her boss and his colleagues see her as nothing but a servant who should keep her mouth shut because she has ovaries. When she learns too much information than she should, Shreck sees that as overstepping her boundaries as both a worker and as a societal role. The fact that Shreck 'kills' Selina without considering any repercussions, especially prison, shows how little he values her [in fact, no local authorities or even citizens flinch or make any noise after a woman crashes through a window and falls to her death from many stories above]. However, her death is also her resurrection. Filled with anger and revenge, Selina uses the Catwoman persona in order to take out her frustrations on men physically, as well as on women who are victims verbally for not being strong enough to stand up to a man. She's a symbol for female empowerment - she's never better than the men, but definitely becomes equal to them through her physicality and her intelligence in figuring out that her sexuality is an asset rather than a curse. But like The Penguin, she doesn't know how to handle her double life. She's tortured by the fact that she has no idea how to be a strong woman in normal society outside of the costume. Her death has changed her mentally and emotionally, unable to trust good men [like Bruce Wayne] who want to help her, seeing that as a weakness and a one-way trip back to where she started at. She wants to be normal and powerful at the same time, but realizes that Gotham City will never accept that. So in favoring the Catwoman persona, Selina loses her humanity in order to keep the power she refuses to lose. We all want acceptance, but we also want control. That makes Catwoman flawed, yet interestingly human.
Max Shreck doesn't have as many layers as The Penguin or Catwoman. In fact, he's pretty much a douchebag from beginning to end, enjoying the fact that he's the evil puppeteer that sets all the action in BATMAN RETURNS in motion. He thrives on complete power, willing to destroy Gotham City just to get what he wants. But then he reveals a softer side when The Penguin wants to kidnap and kill his first born son after his plans go awry. For much of the film, Shreck comes across as cold and uncaring about the world around him. But when his son is threatened, Shreck reveals that he does have a heart and would do anything to make sure he's safe. He's not as sympathetic as the others besides that moment, but this does show that Shreck is also living a double life. He comes across as an icy businessman, but really does care about his son and what others think of him.
As for Bruce Wayne/Batman, he doesn't get much of a fleshing out as the other major characters do. In fact, many see this as a negative to BATMAN RETURNS since the hero barely has as many scenes as the villains. But Batman already had his origin and story told in the 1989 film, so he doesn't really need to be the focus of the sequel in that sense. Batman may seem unimportant on paper, but he's really the bridge and glue of the film. He's the connection between each character and the reason they even interact with each other. He sees himself in The Penguin due to the parents issue. At first, Batman feels sorry for Penguin, but then realizes the story is too good to be true and trusted. In a lot of ways, Bruce's life is what The Penguin's life would have been if he'd look normal. With Max Shreck, Bruce is the opposite of what Shreck represents. They both have money. They both have power. They both have successful businesses. But Bruce wants to use his name for good, while Shreck wants to use it for evil intentions. They're on opposite sides of the business world, which makes them instant rivals.
With Catwoman, Batman's relationship is a bit more complex. Under their costumes, it's a cat-and-mouse game - a battle of sexes if you will. There's a sexual tension between them, where their frustrations are expressed through flirty banter and physical violence. Both are getting something out of this - Catwoman feels equal to Batman on the gender plane, while Batman gets a sort of sexual excitement out of it. Batman has never met a woman who can keep up with him and understand the appeal of the costume until Catwoman, which makes it somewhat fun and thrilling for him.
When it comes to outside the costume, it's a bit more awkward. While they're comfortable sparring in costume, Bruce and Selina have no idea how to interact in normal situations. They both share the idea of duality, both split right down the middle, not knowing whether the human side or the freak side is who they really are. These two people are made for each other as they completely balance each other out and understand each other's lives. But before, and even after the reveal, both of them are still afraid to be themselves around each other because they're so used to being individuals. If they truly become one, both of their goals are lost. In fact, the moment where Bruce and Selina find out the truth about each other is probably my favorite moment in BATMAN RETURNS. It's a truly human moment, where both are happy to finally understand their mutual attraction in their dual lives. But at the same time, they understand that they can't really be together because they both want different things in life. Bruce is more stable in his lives while Selina is still trying to figure out hers, which causes her to have a nervous breakdown which she feels will be cured once she murders Shreck. It's a relationship you root for because you believe in these two, but you know there won't be a happy ending.
As for the superhero stuff, it's your typical comic book adapted sequel. The hero must stop the bad guys to save the day. But like I mentioned, the relationships between all principal characters makes the cliches fresh and the film more unpredictable. There's no clear black-and-white issue here. BATMAN RETURNS revels in being in that shade of grey, creating a ton of depth that modern superhero movies have taken since. I see BATMAN RETURNS more of a drama with action than an actual film based on a best selling comic book. That's why I still find it so appealing.
I also think BATMAN RETURNS works on a narrative level due to its snappy and witty dialogue. Each character has their own voice. Each character gets dialogue that makes them shine. They speak like real people in a surreal situation. From Catwoman's "Hear me roar", to her banter with Batman over kissing under a mistletoe, to Shreck's sarcastic remarks about what goes around him - the dialogue is extremely memorable. I think The Penguin does have the best lines, only because they're so sexually explosive, that it gives him a perverted persona that makes him a bit comical. Even to this day, anytime BATMAN RETURNS is mentioned or discussed, the first thing that comes to my mind is The Penguin's first line to Catwoman, "Just the pussy I've been looking for!" I laughed when I was 11 years old and I still laugh at it at 31. It's no wonder parents were offended by the film, but I'm sure they were dying underneath the concern. He's the stereotypical male pig who does and says the most inappropriate things to women, but happens to do it in a sarcastic and witty way. In terms of the dialogue, The Penguin is The Joker of BATMAN RETURNS, although everyone has good dialogue that helps move the story to a satisfying and fun conclusion.
Is the screenplay perfect? No. Other than Batman not being more of a major character than he should be in his own film, some other issues could have been explored more. For example, I felt that The Penguin's Mayoral campaign subplot could have been a bit stronger. It's an interesting way to give this character a power he's long wanted, but it never really goes anywhere. Besides, would citizens of Gotham be so quick to vote for this guy anyway? After all, does he have law experience? Hell, does he even have any social experience? I guess if Mr. Freeze could become Governor of California, The Penguin as Mayor is possible. Still, the film does have fun with the subplot so I can't hate on it. But it would have been nice if more was done with it. There are other plot holes, but they don't make the film less fun or less watchable in any way.
The special effects and make up teams do a fantastic job on BATMAN RETURNS. Unlike the London locations on the original BATMAN, many of the soundstages were moved and/or built in Los Angeles to create Gotham City. Due to Burton's control over the project and the bigger budget [due to faith in the franchise], we truly get to see the Gothic and neo-classical set pieces that describe a city that's been decaying both socially and physically. Gotham City doesn't look like any city you'd want to live in, as its dark and brooding as its main hero. In a lot of ways, Gotham is as important of a character than the human ones. The city looks beautiful in a degrading way.
The make up and costumes are also fantastic. The Penguin looks great, with webbed hands and a bird beak for a nose. Plus his shape and clothes create what a human penguin would probably look like. Catwoman's leather outfit has become iconic. I love the fact that it's visibly stitched together, representing Selina's emotional and mental state, which is fragile at this point. Even Max Shreck, with his white hair and wiry frame, sticks out compared to the rest of the citizens. He truly looks like a Tim Burton creation. And Batman's rubber suit was about 25-pounds lighter from the first film, allowing Michael Keaton and his stunt doubles more freedom in their movements during action sequences. This helps those scenes quite a bit and makes Batman look less stiff. Plus we get the typical explosions and action stuff like that. Just a great job by the visual teams.
The direction by Tim Burton is definitely better than BATMAN. In fact, I feel BATMAN RETURNS is one of his better directorial efforts. The editing is great. The picture, with help by cinematographer Stefan Czapsky, looks awesome. The action sequences are definitely handled better than in the first film, as Burton displays a level of confidence in what he's shooting. They're not the most exciting action moments, but they're still choreographed and done better than in the first. Burton really comes into his own, creating a fantasy world out of Gotham City - a beautiful place that has a visible ugliness to it. Burton really holds the film together in terms of the multiple subplots, as they all feel organic flowing into each other. Sure, some things seem ridiculous - like a giant rubber ducky and penguins with rockets strapped to them. But Burton knows how to handle this type of surreal and quirky tone and mood, so you're okay with it all. It's really sad that this is Burton's last BATMAN film, as I would have loved to have seen what he could have come up with next for both Batman and Catwoman. Until BATMAN BEGINS, this is the best directed BATMAN film by a mile. I really dig the visual work here.
The acting is probably the highlight of the movie. Michael Keaton has more confidence in the roles of Bruce Wayne and Batman. I think it's because Keaton gets to let his more comedic side take over a bit, as Batman adds some humor to his actions and words. He still broods, but it isn't as much as in the first film. It sucks that he seems to be a supporting player in his own film, but Keaton handles every scene he's in very well. Danny DeVito is perfect as The Penguin. He has an absolute ball in the role, giving the character a perverted and vicious personality that hides the sadness Oswald Cobblepot is really experiencing. He's so over the top with his performance that it's brilliant. I love the sexual humor during the Batmobile control sequence, as well as his banter with both Christopher Walken and Michelle Pfeiffer. Speaking of Christopher Walken, he's also great as Max Shreck. The role was originally written to be Harvey Dent, which would have led into his transformation into Two-Face in the third film, but Walken takes this Burton character and has some fun with him. He's totally Walken-esque here, with classic speech patterns in the script that are totally made for him. He's great.
Other supporting actors, like Michael Gough as Alfred and Andrew Bryniarski as Chip Shreck, are great as well. Gough is still the MVP of the original BATMAN franchise, giving BATMAN RETURNS a bit of class and humor. And Bryniarski, who would later become more famous for portraying Leatherface in THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE remake and its prequel, tries to mimic Walken's speech patterns and does it pretty well. It's kind of funny actually, as you would think the two were really related.
However, the star of the film is, without a doubt, Michelle Pfeiffer as Selena Kyle/Catwoman. Pfeiffer has never been sexier than she was in this film. She's totally believable as the nerdy secretary who transforms into his schizophrenic woman who wants to be normal, but doesn't understand what that means. She commands your attention in every single scene she's in, whether she's in or out of costume. She's sexy, sassy, vulnerable, and able to relate to - a femme fatale you know is dangerous, but are willing to have sex with her anyway. I think this is one of Pfeiffer's finest roles, which is proven by the fact that this version of Catwoman is considered the epitome of the character. The comic books and even the animated series took a lot from this Catwoman to give the character more depth and even more popularity than before. I'm sure Anne Hathaway will do a fine job in the role in a few months for THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, but she has big shoes to fill here - even if both versions of the characters are really different from each other.
And before I end this review, I have to mention Danny Elfman's awesome score as usual. Plus, I also love Elfman's collaboration with Siouxsie and the Banshees during the ballroom scene called "Face to Face". Just a really cool and beautiful song. I think it adds to that revealing scene very well.
THINGS I'VE LEARNED WHILE PETTING MY PUSSY...CAT. CAT, I SAY!
- The Penguin was dumped at Gotham City Zoo by his parents, including one played by Paul Reubens. I guess "abandonment" is the secret word...
- Max Shreck was attacked after claiming he wasn't Santa Claus and wished he could give the gift of world peace. Obviously, more people would rather he ask for more cowbell.
- The Penguin blackmailed Shreck by proving he had evidence of his crimes in collected sewage. Just like the current state of the music industry, you can gain a lot of money, fame, and power from a pile of shit.
- A gang of cats revived Selina Kyle after Shreck fatally pushed her out of a window. There's more pussy in this scene than in two hours of lesbian porn.
- The Penguin was pushed to run for Mayor of Gotham. I knew politics were for the birds.
- The Midnight Circus Gang placed a bomb in the Batmobile. Unless Batman was suicidal, I think they needed to read "Pimp Your Ride For Dummies" first.
THE FINAL HOWL
It's not perfect, but BATMAN RETURNS is still my personal favorite of the first four films - which is why I'm giving it the score it's receiving. I think until BATMAN BEGINS in 2005, this was the highlight of the franchise. A deep and interesting narrative with great characters, more confident direction by Burton, and memorable performances by the cast truly make BATMAN RETURNS one of the better comics-to-film adaptations. Unfortunately the franchise would decline a bit after this one until the reboot, but hopefully Catwoman will whip me in enough shape to get through the Joel Schumacher era. Until then, the Bat Signal will be at rest.
4 Howls Outta 4
SIOUXSIE & THE BANSHEES - "FACE TO FACE" MUSIC VIDEO (1992)