Penguin runs for mayor and Catwoman seeks revenge in a Gotham City watched over by Batman.
Directed by Tim Burton
Starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Michael Keaton, and Danny Devito
Review by Jon Kissel
Once everyone’s bona fides are established, the film now has room for Batman to reemerge. However, there’s no arc or personal obstacle waiting for him. The film only requires him to be a foil to Shreck and Penguin, and a love interest for Kyle, whom the film plainly belongs to. Shreck is a mustache-twirling villain whose half-hearted public manipulations demonstrate a see-through contempt for the Gotham citizenry. They love him not because he’s selling his transparently false civic love, but because the film requires them to. Penguin has the sympathetic backstory but there’s never been a less sympathetic abandoned baby in cinematic history. The animalistic grunts and the lecherousness and especially the black liquid that he’s constantly spitting up allow Burton to put his finger firmly on the nature side of the nature-nurture scale. If anything, Penguin’s parents are saints for trying to keep this guy around at all. His woundedness is an act punctuated by funny jokes (I was their number one son and they treated me like a number 2) but again, the Gotham citizenry fall for it. Such gullible people are not worth Batman’s efforts. Let the clown gangs go nuts while Wayne refocuses his efforts on an education campaign about basic skepticism.
It's Pfeiffer’s Kyle who makes this film over the efforts of the repulsive Devito, the undercooked Walken, and the passive Keaton. The behind-the-scenes footage of her utility with a bullwhip has recently made the rounds on Film Twitter, demonstrating the character’s beloved nature thirty years later. Pfeiffer transitions from physical comedy to physical command over the course of the film and demonstrates a mastery of both. With the cat puns and the received folk wisdom about cats having nine lives, Kyle’s as absurd as every other corner of Batman Returns, but she’s the only one whose absurdity is flattering. The film is clumsier in placing Kyle as a feminist power fantasy, giving the character lines that indicate she’s aware of all the slogans but she also is saddled with self-deprecating jokes about her social life that are better suited for a Cathy comic strip while resenting the newspaper for overestimating her weight. This movie needs to keep the real world and its gender dynamics as far away as possible, and stick with penguins with remote-controlled rockets strapped to their backs.
Modern action gets a lot of criticism for how muddy and poorly choreographed and heavily edited it looks. Whenever the Golden Age of action filmmaking was, Burton is not one of its acolytes. Gymnasts got plenty of work on the set of Batman Returns, as Burton seems to view supreme athleticism as the ability to peel off a series of backflips. Blows don’t have much physical weight to them when Batman’s method of combat is little more than shoving goons to the ground. Car chases are weighed down by the unlimited physics of the Batmobile. It’s possible that as the characters got less interesting in superhero movies, the action had to ascend in quality lest viewers confuse one buff white Chris for another. Here, the characters are cartoonishly memorable, so who cares if they can throw a punch or turn their head? Burton’s strengths come from his imaginative production design and his campiness. The physical space looks unique even as the action that fills it is as basic as it gets.
Defiantly its own thing, Batman Returns is an insane mass-market property that knew the theaters were going to be full of children and surprised them with their first horror movie. A crisped-up Shreck corpse, the aforementioned nose biting, male-on-female violence, femme fatales in skintight leather suits, child abandonment, and attempted baby murder. Burton is responsible for a lot of nightmares and irritated parents who have to comfort their children when they’re trying to watch the Barcelona Olympics or read up on Ross Perot’s economic plans. This is a thin but entertaining piece of pop culture absurdity whose messiness is a recommendation instead of a weakness. B-