Batman Returns (1992)

Batman was a roll of the dice for Warner Bros.  The only successful superhero movies prior were the first two Superman films, as much of the Marvel and DC catalog sat around in development hell.  Tim Burton had two hits under his belt, but Batman was his first blockbuster.  There was also doubt that Michael Keaton was a good fit for the role.  It went overbudget and suffered a number of problems while filming in the UK.  In the end, strong performances by Keaton and Jack Nicholson made the movie a worldwide hit.  Burton, and the set designers that helped him realize his vision, added a unique take on the Caped Crusader.

Inevitably a sequel was planned.  Originally the romance with Vicky Vale was supposed to continue, but Batman would face new foes in the form of Catwoman and the Penguin.  Burton, however, had no intention of making a direct sequel, preferring to make a standalone film that acknowledged the original.  For his part, Keaton wasn't excited to reprise the role, but was given a decent paycheck to return.  The new villains remained, although Robin was once again written out of the film.

It's Christmas in Gotham City and the mayor (Michael Murphy) and businessman Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) are hoping the new year will be prosperous, as Shreck has plans for a new power plant.  However, their festivities are interrupted when attacked by a group of circus performers known as the Red Triangle, their goal being to kidnap Shreck.  Batman (Keaton) shows up to help restore order, and in the process saves Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer), Shreck's secretary.  He unfortunately can't save her from Shreck; in an effort to prepare for a meeting with Bruce Wayne she discovers the power plant is not what it seems to be.  Shreck, with no further ado, pushes her from a window.

She is killed but Gotham's feral cats bring her back to life, only changed.  Meanwhile, a new character shows up in Gotham: the Penguin (Danny DeVito), who is revealed to be an abandoned, deformed child named Oswald Cobblepot, captures the city's heart with his story.  Of course, the Penguin is behind the latest wave of terror in Gotham, and Shreck tends to use that to get Cobblepot elected mayor in a recall election.  The Penguin and Catwoman form a brief, tenuous partnership to frame Batman, but they soon go on their own separate paths of revenge as Batman tries to keep them from destroying the city. 

Despite Keaton getting a bump in his bank account Batman is noticeably less of a presence in Batman Returns.  He's a side character to the villains.  DeVito, like Nicholson before him, knows that the movie requires a solid adversary to keep the audience's interest, and with the help of Stan Winston's makeup he changes the Penguin from his normal role as a scheming crime lord to a feral creature driven by his baser instincts.  Catwoman is supposed to be the more complex of the two, with her character changed from the thief she was in the comics to a wronged woman bent on revenge and fighting to keep her humanity in the meantime.  Unfortunately, she is reduced to an item of sexual fetishism that spouts rote feminist catchphrases in lieu of actual character development. 

With so many villains - Shreck, Catwoman, the Penguin - and a largely absent hero things tend to fall apart as the movie goes along.  Shreck disappears for a good span, while Selina is more interesting out of the Catwoman disguise when she is truly trying to reconcile what has happened to her.  It's not as bad as the movies to come, but being less concerned with selling toys and more concerned with a strong villain/hero relationship would have made this movie much better. 

What is improved are the action sequences, with the car chases feeling more a little less hindered by the sets.  Much of what I found darkly humorous when I saw the movie in 1992 I now see as Burton trying too hard to be Burton, which is a problem that many of his movies after the first Batman suffer.  While I understand that many fans prefer this over the original, Batman feels more like an actual Batman movie, while Batman Returns feels like a Tim Burton film with a veneer of a DC property.  There are effective parts, some others that still retain the dark humor over the years, but there is barely anything keeping this movie from falling to pieces.  To Burton's credit he almost holds it together, but if the following Joel Schumacher movies didn't make it quite clear, the original should have stood on its own. 

Batman Returns (1992)
Time: 126 minutes
Starring: Michael Keaton, Michelle Pfeiffer, Danny DeVito, Christopher Walken
Director: Tim Burton



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