Batman Returns is the sequel to the hugely popular Batman film by Tim Burton. It was released three years after the original, retained Burton and Keaton but introduced two new villains – Danny De Vito as Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer in probably her most famous cinematic role as Cat Woman.
I mentioned in my review of Batman that I thought the film didn’t age particularly well. I think Heath Ledger is a much better Joker than Jack Nicholson and that the choreography and childishly simple script stick out like a sore thumb today. The most enjoyable aspect of Batman was Burton’s gothic interpretation of Gotham City which in 1989 was a revelation.
Batman Returns is also a pretty highly regarded film so it was interesting to revisit the film. I don’t think I’ve seen it since the mid-Nineties. Here’s my assessment: it is a seriously weird and muddled film that I doubt would get made today. And I guess I mean that in a good way.
It’s definitely got a lot more going on than the original film but the tone and content of Batman Returns is absolutely all over the place. As with his interpretation of The Joker in Batman, Burton either chooses to ignore or purposefully rewrite the characters of Penguin and Cat Woman. In the comics, Penguin gets his nickname from his short stature and his hooked nose but is otherwise a physically unremarkable person who commits crimes. In the film…he’s a goddamn man-penguin complete with flippers and an appetite for raw fish. I had complete blocked that out from my mind and didn’t remember those scenes in the film at all. And if thats enough to make you think that maybe the rest of the film is still largely targeted at children, along comes Burton’s vision of Cat Woman who behaves not just like an actual feline (drinks milk, licks self) but one with an enourmous sexual appetite. You can expect a ‘G’ rated film with kids in the audience to throw the occasional wink and a nod to the adult audience by throwing in a discreet double entendre here and there. I didn’t actually expect to hear Penguin talk about playing with Selina Kyle’s pussy however.
As you’d expect with a sequel thats had a few years in development, most of this film is bigger, louder and more polished than the original. The action scenes are an improvement over the original, the Batmobile is once again a highlight and Michael Keaton is still a fantastic Bruce Wayne. The film at least has some measure of depth and explores themes around American elections, an ill-educated electorate who clamour to single issues and voting against your interests. Michelle Pfeiffer is memorably sexy in her iconic Cat Woman costume too. But what made the film so unusual compared to contemporary super hero films that are a lot more consistent in their tone is how this film pinballs between Adam West levels of campiness and darker, adult content. It’s weird film but entertaining all the same.