Directed by: Tim Burton
Premise: The Penguin (Danny DeVito) teams with an unscrupulous businessman (Christopher Walken) to overtake Gotham City while Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) runs amok on the streets.
What Works: Batman Returns is a bold sequel, straying even more from its source than the previous Batman film by reinventing The Penguin and Catwoman to fit within the context Burton had established. The picture is more of a character-study of the villains and Batman Returns features a terrific performance by Danny DeVito as The Penguin, who Burton and co-writer Sam Hamm have recast as a tragic monster like the creature from Frankenstein. DeVito capitalizes on the tragedy and manages to make The Penguin a very sympathetic character with a lot of depth; he’s very funny in a wild and psychotic way that is distinctly different from Jack Nicholson’s Joker. The film also presents a radically new Catwoman, played by Michelle Pfeiffer; she is a vigilante like Batman but unrestrained by his respect for law and order and eventually her appetite for destruction, personal agenda, and outright psychotic personality get the better of her. Catwoman and The Penguin are linked together by the machinations of Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) and the film uses the Shreck storyline to deepen the look into Gotham City politics and provide a more complicated storyline. The role is not exactly a challenge for Walken but it suits him well and the way that these three villains work together and foil one another provides the best element of the story. Batman Returns is also notable for its visual style. Examining these films in the context of Tim Burton’s filmography, the first Batman picture lacks the signature visuals that distinguish the director’s work. In Batman Returns, Burton clearly had more creative control over set and character design and it is much more recognizable as a Burton film in the style of Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands. This is notable in the villains and set design of Batman Returns but also in the action set pieces, which have a chaotic energy and sometimes absurd quality that distinguishes them from the action scenes of the previous film.
What Doesn’t: Batman Returns spends so much time with its villains that Batman is left without much to do except chase after them. Unlike the first film, Bruce Wayne does not come to any sort of peace with his alter ego or learn anything new about himself. The story of Batman Returns also has a much more wobbly structure. The previous Batman film benefited from a very direct conflict between Batman and The Joker but in Returns the filmmakers attempt to tell a more complex story and the agendas of all the characters remain vague. This problem is most visible in the ending. Despite bringing its characters together for the finale, it does not wrap up their stories in a satisfying way; parts of the action don’t make sense and the climax does not bring anything to a logical conclusion.
DVD extras: The two-disc special edition includes a commentary track, documentaries and featurettes, music videos, trailers, storyboards, and character profiles.
Bottom Line: Batman Returns is an uneven sequel but it is still a solid movie. Although it does not reinvent the superhero genre the way the previous film did, Batman Returns does broaden the pallet and expands Burton’s interpretation of the Batman world.
Episode: #198 (July 27, 2008); Revised #398 (July 29, 2012)