PG Cooper: Batman Returns Review

Posted: July 5, 2012 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in Retrospectives

*Disclaimer: Review contains SPOILERS!!!

Release date: June 19th, 1992

Running time: 2 hours and 6 minutes

Written by: Sam Hamm and Daniel Waters

Based on: The character Batman, created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger

Directed by: Tim Burton

Starring: Michael Keaton, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Danny DeVito

The huge hit that Batman was prompted Warner Bros. to make a sequel. While Burton was initially uneasy to return, he was eventually coaxed into directing a sequel. Released in the summer of 1992, Batman Returns, while not as big a success of its predecessor, was still a big financial hit. Critically though was a different story. While the film was not panned, critics and fans were divided on how to feel. To this day, fans are divided. Some love it, some hate it. Personally, I fall more into the middle camp.

The film opens with a deformed baby being born to rich parents. Disgusted with their child, the parents toss their child into the sewer. Thirty three years later, that child has grown into a deformed sewer man known as The Penguin (Danny DeVito). Tired of life in the sewers, The Penguin longs to return to the surface world, so he blackmails corrupt millionaire Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) in order to return. While the people of Gotham sympathize with Penguin, they don’t realize he has more sinister intentions. Meanwhile, Shreck gets into a disagreement with his secretary Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer) and tries to kill her by pushing her out a window. But Selina survives and becomes the villainous Catwoman. Batman (Michael Keaton) sets off to bring down all three.

The biggest problem with Batman Returns is the plot is a huge mess. The film tries to introduce three villains and their stories while still delivering a solid Batman story, and it doesn’t succeed fully. The main reason is that Batman feels like a secondary character in his own film. Now I realize most Batman stories are driven by the villains. The villains have their goal, and Batman is there to stop them. This was true of Batman after all. But in Batman it still felt like Batman was at the forefront of the story. In Batman Returns, Batman mostly just responds to what the villains are doing. Now a colleague and I have argued this point extensively, and he brings up that while Batman may not play that direct a role, all of the villains are meant to reflect Batman. Catwoman is an obsessed vigilante, The Penguin is motivated by the loss of his parents (albeit a different type of loss than what Bruce feels), and Shreck is a businessman. All three characters represent a different side of Batman. This is a very good point, and one of Returns biggest strengths is the underlying psychological material. I will admit that I do enjoy the way it analyzes Batman through his foes. That is a very clever storytelling technique. However, that doesn’t excuse the fact that Batman feels like a secondary character in his own movie. There’s actually a scene that does a great job representing the struggle Batman Returns has with literal storytelling vs. metaphorical storytelling. After Penguin’s henchmen attack the city, Gordon flashes the Batsignal. Cut to Bruce sitting alone in his darkened mansion. Bruce has several smaller lights which reflect the Batsignal into the mansion. Bruce sees the signal, and rises to fight. The imagery is very good, showing Bruce has nothing in his life but being Batman. But on a logical level, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Why does Bruce have a bunch of lights with the Batsignal around his house? That seems like a dead giveaway of his alter-ego. And why is Bruce just sitting around? Shouldn’t he actually be out in Gotham, actively fighting crime? In this scene, and throughout the film, the metaphors and underlying themes work, but the logic doesn’t hold up.

It doesn’t help that a lot of the story material isn’t very good. A large part of the story for example, involves The Penguin trying to be elected Mayor of Gotham. Seriously? In what universe would I deformed and demented creature who bites random people and lived in the sewer his whole life be elected mayor? He doesn’t actually get elected mind you, but he comes very close. In fact it’s only through Batman’s tampering that Penguin doesn’t succeed. Then there’s Shreck’s plans to make a power plant that actually takes power from the city rather than creating his own. This is brought up a few times, but there are so many other stories you quickly forget about it. Oddly enough, the villain who’s story works the best is the most basic story of the three. Catwoman begins reeking havoc in Gotham. Why? Because she’s gone crazy. She can’t rationally explain why she’s doing what she is, she just feels a compulsion. This simple story makes this most sense and is easily the most interesting. The only Catwoman story aspects that don’t work are the scene where she is revived by cats after being pushed out a window, and the element that Catwoman has nine lives, like a cat. These story elements are just weird and feel out of place. Finally, there’s the climax, where Penguin tries to kidnap and murder all the first born sons of Gotham. Batman foils that plan, so Penguin instead straps missiles to the backs of actual penguins and sends them to cause damage in Gotham. Yes, penguins with missiles attached to their backs. If that sounds stupid, that’s because it is. I also feel like the build up to the climax is kind of sloppy. One of the great things about Burton’s first film was the way the story built on itself. Everything kept building, and it led to a great climax. But here, it just feels like we watch a bunch of scenes, then we have a climax and the movie’s over. It doesn’t flow very well.

I’m not too pleased with the treatment of the characters. My biggest grievance is the way the film handles The Penguin. I’m not a fan of how the Penguin character was treated. I much prefer the sophisticated version of the character, not the deformed and hideous monster that Batman Returns depicts. I feel like a mob boss type character would have made for a more interesting villain. I don’t find this character amusing, I don’t find him tragic, but most of all, I don’t find him threatening. As a villain, he’s a complete joke. I honestly felt a greater sense of menace from Burgess Meredith’s Penguin. It doesn’t help that the Penguin has an incredible amount of screen time. I’m also not a fan of the Max Shreck character. He’s bland and boring, and overall is very uninteresting. I feel that if Burton had gone with the rich and successful Penguin, he could have eliminated Shreck altogether and the film would be better off. Now I will say, Danny DeVito and Christopher Walken both deliver solid performances, but there wasted on characters I don’t find appealing. The only villain that truly stands out is Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman. I love Pfeiffer’s performance, and I feel she rivals what Nicholson did with The Joker in Batman. Pfeiffer brings the right balance of sexiness and insanity to the part and she’s always fun to watch. She keeps you on edge because you never know what she’ll do next. I also found myself sympathizing with her character and wanting things to work out for her. Her relationship with Bruce/Batman is where the film shines. All the scenes between the two of them are great, the best example being the scene where the two discover each others alter-egos. Bottomline, Pfeiffer is amazing in the film and creates, in my opinion, one of the best comic book villains to ever hit the big screen.

For all my complaining, a lot of the things that made Batman great are here too. Michael Keaton is still an excellent Batman, and while he never tops what he did in the previous film, his performance remains consistent. The dark visuals and cinematography also return, and Gotham City still has an atmospheric feel, though admittedly the first film had a more palpable atmosphere. Danny Elfman also delivers another top notch score. Of course some of the flaws carry over from the first film too. The filmmakers still change aspects without a care (as shown by their treatment of The Penguin), Commisoner Gordon is still pretty much useless, and Batman kills with even more sadistic glee than he did in the first one. I suppose you have to take the good with the bad, and to be fair these flaws don’t feel as apparent in Returns as they did in Batman, though this could be because Batman Returns brings a whole lot of new flaws to the table.

On the whole, Batman Returns is a film rich in ideas and ambition, but poor in execution. A film which excels in metaphor, but flounders with logic. In short, it’s a mixed bag. The film has its moments, but is plagued with too many issues that can not be looked past. I respect what it tries to do, but it doesn’t quite succeed. That said, Batman Returns is far from a bad film. On the whole, it is enjoyable, thanks in no small part to the performances from Keaton and Pfeiffer, not to mention the Gothic style and Danny Elfman’s excellent score. Besides, for all of the problems I have with Batman Returns, the film would feel like Citizen Kane when compared to what came next.

Rating: C+

  1. I have a pretty intense dislike of this film… I think I mentioned in the comment to your Batman review that I was still reasonably young when that film came out. Well, obviously I was only slightly older for this one, but it was apparently enough for my tastes to have started to take solid form, and this film repulsed them.

    Like you say, its plot is an utter mess, and logical oddities abound. But mostly I hate what it did to the Penguin… the Penguin should be an urbane, sophisticated criminal, not some sewer freak. I’m also not too fond of “crazy Catwoman”. It really says something that Burton took two of the most sane and stable Batman villains and made them both completely nuts. I did like Pfeiffer’s performance, though; I think if she had had a decent script to work with, she would have been a very good Catwoman.

    I actually think this is the worst of all the live-action Batman films. At least with Batman and Robin, it’s bad in a way that I can laugh at it. This is bad in a way that I can’t laugh at.

  2. I might bump that up a notch or two, but I have nostalgia going. I liked it when it came out, in spite of its issues. But the bar had yet to be raised on Superhero movies. The original Burton Batmans were very much blazing new ground.

    The Penguin is pretty roughly handled, that’s pretty obvious. And his plot is weak to say the least.

    Bu tI really do like Pfeiffer’s Catwoman. Meow! LOL :D Glad to hear you did too.

  3. vinnieh says:

    Interesting post, I always thought Pfeiffer was fantastic in this even though when I was younger her transformation when the cats surround her really creeped me out.

  4. vinnieh says:

    Thanks glad you like them, I dig your stuff as well

  5. This is personally my favorite of all the original Batman films. There were tons of scenes that I felt were perfect for a Batman film. You actually brought up one of my favorites, the one with Bruce sulking in the dark. I just love how lonely it feels. I also really liked when Batman, Penguin, and Catwoman all confronted each other for the first time. Being a fan of the comics since I was little, I thought this one captured the moody spirit the best. Still, I really like your review. You bring up some great arguments that I respect. I always felt cheated by these original films and they almost made me feel bad to be a big Batman fan.

    I’ll be reviewing all the Batman films leading up to The Dark Knight Rises. I look forward to reading all of yours!


    • pgcooper1939 says:

      That’s the cool thing about Returns, there may be people who hate it, but others consider it among the best. It’s a very interesting film in that regard. Also, if you’ll be reviewing Batman, you can bet I’ll be there reading.

  6. Kristen says:

    I rewatched this in film class, after having not seen it for about seven years, and I agree the film isn’t that good. I was especially horrified at the sexual harassment of Catwoman and how cliche her character was (almost making it an attack on feminism in a way). If anything this opened the door to the more silly Batman films of the Schumacher era. Great review!

    • pgcooper1939 says:

      I never viewed Catwoman’s character as an attack on feminism, perhaps I’ll need to watch it again with that in mind. Anyway, thanks for reading :)

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