Before X-Men, Blade, and Harry Potter, studios and filmmakers didn’t really have a clue how to do sequels or the whole franchise thing. There was Wrath of Khan and Empire Strikes Back, but there was also Batman Returns. The first Batman was a huge success, so naturally Warner Bros. wanted Tim Burton to trot out another movie. Problem was no one kept a leash on the guy. He ended up laying down the groundwork for what would become one of the most colossal fuck-ups of a franchise in film history. You think the campy bullshit started when Joel Schumacher came aboard? Well, everything in Batman Returns gets amplified tenfold in Batman Forever, then a hundredthousandfold in Batman & Robin. “Escalation” is right, Gordon. Those movies are dumb, but the grating dumbness starts here.
I understand Batman Returns has its fans. If you like completely unrestrained grotesque production design, sophomoric dialogue that consists entirely of sexual euphemisms, cat and penguin puns, nonsensical monologues that stretch on forever and say nothing, midgets in penguin costumes with mind control devices connected to their skulls and rockets on their backs, then, yeah, you will love all two excruciating hours of Batman Returns.
So, call a doctor. QUICK.
Off the bat, the movie’s biggest crutch reveals itself: Out of control production design. And I guess Burton instructed Danny Elfman to loosen his belt and go all out. The soundtrack is so overbearing and so loud it devolves into a cacophonous wall of noise, a blaring cavalcade of organ music, carnival tunes, and choruses. It’s like the Rosetta Stone for Elfman’s scores. Sometimes it’s possible to hear hints of his future themes for Spider-Man, Hulk, and Mars Attacks. “This is Halloween”, the opening number from Nightmare Before Christmas is definitely in there. And you know the movie takes place at Christmas time because there’s snow, Christmas trees,and decorations all over. I can’t derive any special symbolic significance of the Yuletide setting except for maybe Selina Kyle’s ridiculous resurrection or the real-world desire to buy Catwoman, Penguin, and Batboat action figures, so I’ll assume the decorations and snow and were thrown onset to cover the hideous new additions to Gotham’s architecture.
“The sets for Gotham City are completely new,” Burton says in the DVD production notes. “There are lots of new elements in the visuals that haven’t been seen before.” Yeah, all right. The new visual elements are men. Giant naked men. And faces. There, congratulations, Burton. Your new visual elements are nude visual elements. Maybe it’s all a big ode to classic art or the statue of Atlas or something, but it’s ugly. It’s obviously the one motif Joel Schumacher got incredibly excited over and decided to carry over into his movies. Eventually Gotham would become a whole city of big, muscular statues holding up buildings and standing over the population, craning their necks to see the huge balls above. It’s like Abercrombie & Fitch: The City. Or Chronicles of Riddick.
Christopher Walken stars as an original Burton character, Max Schreck (a nod to the actor who played Nosferatu), who chokes Gotham with political and corporate machinations. He does his usual Christopher Walken schtick — talk weird and act weird — with the special addition of Albert Einstein/Dr. Wily hair and generous eye make-up. His goofy line delivery is fun to watch until he meets the Penguin and some sort of plot tries to kick in. Schreck wants the Penguin to become mayor because with a puppet mayor in office he can do all sorts of dastardly evil big business things. Makes sense right?!
Except the Penguin is played by Danny Devito, who pukes up black snot and wears horrible skin-tight underwear. The credits say the late great Stan Winston worked on the Penguin’s make-up. What really makes the character work is believing Danny DeVito is really like this in real life. With that thought in mind the movie improves quite a bit — he’s a sexually frustrated deviant who bites off peoples’ noses. It would all be good bizarre fun if there wasn’t so much bullshit talk about becoming mayor and whatnot. It started out great when Walken came in with a fish for a present, but there can only be so much drawn-out rambling about nothing before interest wanes. I thought plots are supposed to move in a direction? In Batman Returns things just kind of circle around a drain. Like a toilet. Get it? Because the Penguin was abandoned and grew up in a sewer.
Hey, speaking of toilets, there are entire scenes that revolve around penguin jokes, cat jokes, sexual metaphors and, hey, a whole character dedicated to female empowerment jokes and cat jokes! When Michelle Pfieffer shows up she’s Shreck’s coffee-churning secretary, subjugated and humiliated. When Shreck KILLS her every cat in Gotham City licks her to bring her back to life. Mm-hmm. Her subsequent wigging out scene, in which she trashes her apartment, goes on far too long. Burton’s I-don’t-know-how-to-end-scenes problem from the first Batman crops up a lot more here. Imagine the apartment-trashing scene without Elfman’s crazy score and would people even put up with it? At this point the writing’s on the wall — the neon writing on her wall, “Hello There”, turns into “Hell Here” when she smashes up the place — Burton could give less of a shit for Batman/Bruce Wayne. Batman returns? Pssht. It’s the ghoulish villains he cares about. Catwoman also has the ugliest couch in movies. What kind of landlord lets Selina Kyle get away with this? Good thing she’s Michelle Pfieffer. Meow.
So, what does Batman get to do? He kills people. Lots of people, but mostly clowns and guys dressed as gay devils and skeletons so maybe they don’t count as people, which is why he has no problem immolating them. Whoa, wait, clowns? Yeah, Burton takes the carnival shit only hinted at in the first movie and ramps it up. Penguin has the Red Triangle Circus Gang under his control and they wreck Gotham City a bit. Notably, one of them, the “organ grinder” is Vincent Schiavelli who was in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with Danny DeVito and Jack Nicholson. I guess they put in the good word for him.
Anyway, Michael Keaton. I don’t know if it’s the lighting or make-up, looks older in Returns. Surrounded by a bizarre cast, Bruce Wayne’s presence feels diminished. Maybe because he spends the brunt of his screentime pursing his lips at the TV. And he watches a LOT of TV. Shouldn’t he be out patrolling the city?! It makes sense he asks Selina to watch the Christmas tree-lighting on TV. He can’t get enough of it!
What doesn’t make sense is how Bruce, after failing with Vicki, goes after yet another leggy blonde. Their relationship has a thin layer of complexity — they’re both desperate to be normal people with normal lives, without masks — but when their romance is so overshadowed by the layers of bullshit (“Saved by kitty litter!”) surrounding them it all feels a bit disingenuous. Best Batman is sad Batman though, so there were two times I was fully behind their story and wished it was in another movie. The dance scene, when they reveal their identities to each other, is great. Bruce realizes he can’t have what he wants, that this woman is nuts, and it’s wonderful melancholy noir. Which I love!
Before the next nice scene I can recommend there’s a goofy chase scene where Penguin controls the Batmobile and destroys it, a Bat-CD Player, and Christopher Walken disappearing for a good chunk of the movie (and is actually kind of missed). Finally, the climax arrives and goes on forever. The Penguin commands a massive army of, uh, penguins, controlled by remote to shoot missiles at Batman. There are about a billion shots of penguins walking around to Elfman’s horrible carnival/parade music. As this happens there are loud buzzing noises and penguins squawking, missiles firing, and an over-powering soundtrack… it’s like, shut up, movie.
It reeks of mean-spirited auteurism, like Burton is slapping you in the face with his sketch diary, shoving each page into your nose and asking “Isn’t this QUAINT? Isn’t this CLEVER? It’s so WEIRD, isn’t it?” Imagine Natalie Portman in Garden State with a shock of black curly hair, pale skin and scissorhands driving a camera over her meticulous model sets while making airplane propeller noises. She makes sure each of her annoying swooping shots of every single damn location lasts a good full ten minutes before finally cutting. “LOOK AT OUR PRODUCTION DESIIIIIGN”, she squeals before tripping over one her naked men statuettes as she sputters up some black blood. And somewhere past that Michael Keaton is sweating in costume, unable to shake his big rubbery head, thinking “No way am I coming back for a third one.”
Batman Returns is almost saved by a really nice ending. A scarred Bruce sits in his car, Alfred at the wheel, wistfully looking out the window at the falling snow. He notices a shape move in an alley and tells Alfred to stop. He gets out, looks around and finds a cat. Not exactly what he expected, but he picks it up and brings it back to the car. Alfred and Bruce wish each other “Merry Christmas” and the movie ends. It’s almost perfect. Great scenery, a great mood, some good, quiet acting from Michael Keaton. Then it’s all dashed away with a dumb, last second shot of Catwoman. Because Warner Bros. wanted a stupid spin-off, that they eventually made years later starring Halle Berry. And now you know the rest of the story!
Without a doubt Batman Returns gave birth to Schumacher’s shitfest to follow. However, there are some neat motifs picked up by better Bat-movies. Batman has a glider at one point, something Christopher Nolan made a permanent feature of his costume for Batman Begins. And the doomed romance, and even some elements of the climax — an exploding globe, a femme fatale who wrests control from Batman and gets her revenge — is repeated with more success in the animated Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, the real best Batman movie, which came out a year after Batman Returns in 1993.
All things considered, Batfans were lucky in the early 90s. The animated series just started on primetime television, two “dark” live-action movies were successfully produced, and nobody knew of the horrors to come. Things just get better, right?