Tim Burton’s second Batman outing was a typically stylish, gothic (I’ll try not to use this word too much) and nightmarish vision of the Bat legend. Granted much greater creative control than with his first Batman movie after that film’s incredible success at the box office, the director assembled another impressive cast and created some deliciously deranged and tortured characters for them to play with. Whilst the director himself hasn’t always agreed, I’d go as far as to say that this movie was a far darker affair than its predecessor. The violence seems somehow stronger, the sexual fetishisation is more prevalent and the recurring theme of childhood trauma and its mentally scarring affects is thrust to the fore.
This time round, filling the considerable shoes of Jack Nicholson’s Joker as arch-villain, is Danny DeVito’s The Penguin. Born a deformed freak and left to die by his parents as a baby, yes, that’s right folks, a spot of infanticide to open proceedings with, he is raised by penguins in Gotham’s sewers simmering understandably with resentment and determined to return as an adult and discover why his parents abandoned him. Just a quick side note, obviously this is a comic book movie and logic doesn’t always have to come into play, as if a young baby can being raised by penguins isn’t mental enough, you really have to ask how they were able to teach him to speak perfect English. Anyway, we’ll let that go for the moment.
Once he returns to the surface, Oswald Cobblepot - as he is now known - kidnaps corrupt and heartless millionaire Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) and blackmails Shreck into helping him become ingratiated into elite society. The duo then go one step further and hatch a plan to get Cobblepot elected mayor of Gotham, thus cementing Shreck’s considerable stranglehold over the city while they’re at it. The Penguin’s gang of circus freaks cause havoc across Gotham and pressure begins to mount on the existing mayor. Meanwhile, after Shreck catches her rifling through some incriminating documents, his put-upon secretary Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer) gets thrown from the top of Shreck tower and is left for dead.
Unfortunately for Shreck, she survives thanks to the revitalising and rejuvenating powers of cat saliva (don’t ask) however ends up having a serious psychotic breakdown which sees her embracing the traits of a cat and becoming a purring and deadly kitty hellbent on revenge. Creating her own S&M-inspired leather outfit, Selina becomes Catwoman and teams up with Penguin to rid Gotham of Batman. It’s telling that in two paragraphs of plot synopsis, I’m yet to really mention the titular hero. Michael Keaton’s Batman is a prominent part of the story, as one might expect, but he takes a back seat for large portions of the movie to allow time for the assorted psychotic villains to hatch their schemes. Later in the movie, focus does shift to Batman after he has momentarily become a citywide scapegoat before being forced to use his considerable wits to once again save the day. As is often the way with superhero movies though, this one is all about the bad guys.
All three of the villainous actors put in a suitably memorable and OTT performance. Walken is full of wide eyed menace and cold-hearted callousness, though to be fair he can play this kind of role in his sleep. Pfeiffer meanwhile is a revelation, mousey downtrodden secretary one minute and then oozing sex appeal and viciousness the next. Her stance on the hero/villain divide is never too clear and she slinks her way through Gotham’s streets equal parts seductress and vigilante killer. DeVito is the icing on the cake however, a classic Burton grotesque, his lobster hands, blackened teeth and ghostly white make up render him a haunting and yet tragic figure. The Penguin is one of the Batman comics’ greatest ever villains, right up alongside The Joker in terms of level of infamy, and in Batman Returns DeVito really brings an extra surreal edge to the character. Keaton is puts in a solid performance as Batman in what is in reality a fairly thankless role. He imbues his Bruce Wayne with an added sense of burden, emphasising that the role of Batman is weighing heavily on his shoulders and that he is doomed to forever be a cursed loner. This is of course an angle much utilised by Chris Nolan in his Bat-outings to brilliant effect.
The main triumph of Batman Returns though is the superb visuals on display. This was Burton in his pomp, before his gothic (only the second time) quirkiness was done to death and when it was still used to create a nightmarish rather than campy world. His Gotham is seemingly in permanent night and bathed forever in a blanket of snow. The large looming skyscrapers tower over the darkened and crowded city streets and the various gargoyles with adorn its buildings hammer home the haunted house feel. As I touched on earlier, it’s not just the imagery but also the tone which feels incredibly dark in this movie. Its three leads are all mentally damaged freaks, the only difference being how they act upon it. Two seek revenge, be it on society as a whole or more directly on men who have wronged them, the other utilises his childhood trauma to fight back and act for good. By the end of the movie, none of them, or the reprehensible Shreck for that matter, are happy, and all have suffered due to their actions.
It is not a faultless film however; the major criticism being that the plot is extremely stop-start which gives the whole film a disjointed feel. One minute the focus is Cobblepot’s status as media darling, then his quest for mayor, then Catwoman’s thirst for vengeance, then Cobblepot wants to kill all the first born, etc etc etc. It’s almost like they kept adding bits in so they could give all the characters plenty of screentime. There is definitely a mid-movie sag, and in general the film seems to lack a coherent plot structure. It’s as if the director had some great ideas for spectacular set pieces and just worked the plot around them all later. There’s also a fair bit of clunky dialogue throughout the movie too, a lot of which falls at DeVito’s feet, eg: “You lousy minx! I oughta have you spayed!“ but then this is almost to be expected in a comic book movie as delirious as this.
Despite feeling a little cluttered and over reliant on spectacle at times, Batman Returns is still an enjoyable blockbuster with plenty to enjoy. Watching it afresh now, it has aged pretty well and still holds up to repeat viewings. In his prime, few could create a hauntingly freakish world as well as Burton and with a prominent vicious streak, Batman Returns is even darker than you might remember. Seriously though, how did those penguins teach him the concept of blackmail?