Tim Burton's Batman, for its numerous flaws, continues to stand out today for creating the first superhero movie with an identifiable auterial streak. One year before Sam Raimi made his Darkman (and another decade before he would be handed the reins to an established character, Spider-Man), Burton applied his love of Gothic aesthetics to an Art Deco vision of Gotham. Yet Burton, as is his wont, clearly cared more for the sets than anything else, leading to an ultra-hammy performance from Jack Nicholson and whatever it is that Robert Wuhl thinks is acting.
Impossibly, Batman Returns displays an even wilder look, filled with gigantic rubber duckies, a gang of criminals dressed up as mad carnival performers, a rotating ball fashioned on a cartoon cat that rests on top of the headquarters of a serious and a set of Bat signal reflectors on Wayne Manor that no one ever notices or comments upon. This is a movie where Christopher Walken must hiss menacing lines whilst wearing a party hat. This is a film that uses the premise of Catwoman to make so many cat-related innuendos that a counter tallying them all should have been place in the bottom corner of the screen. This is a movie that ends with a penguin army armed with rocket launchers taking to the streets of Gotham.
Yet somehow, Returns is a marked improvement over its predecessor, and in some ways even stacks up favorably to Christopher Nolan's rebooted franchise. Left to his own devices after the runaway success of the first Batman, Burton used his unaccountability to dive into his auterist tendencies (such a massive display of his favorite visual tricks and pet themes would not be seen until Big Fish). Where the Gothic styling of the first film informed only the mise-en-scène, Returns casts a pall over its script, crafting a dark version of the Caped Crusader that rivals the bleakness of The Dark Knight.
Opening in flashback on a pristine yet chilly and antiquated manor, Returns shows a wealthy man waiting as his wife gives birth. The midwife and doctor run from the bedroom, but the aristocrat does not heed them as he hears his new son crying, and the last thing we hear is the man's own screams. Saddled with a deformed child that would bring social shame, the rich couple sneak their baby to Gotham Zoo in Christmastime and callously dump the baby into the icy sewer. We come to understand that the child grows up to become the Penguin (Danny DeVito), raised by the aquatic birds that inhabit the abandoned zoo, and Burton aligns the character with his cast of warped characters whose physical quirks are at least partially attributable to his loony take on Spielbergian father issues.
Burton makes the focal point of the Penguin's character his resentment over his abandonment, and thus he fleshes out Bruce Wayne more than he did with the first film by casting Oswald Cobblepot as Bruce's foil. Both, after all, lost their parents, one from their murder and the other from their abandonment, and their losses inform every moral action the two make. Burton, not a particularly avid comic reader, did not infuse the first Batman with an incisive and studied reading of the character, but an interview he gave regarding this sequel demonstrates a surprising understanding of the character. On the subject of the Joker dominating attention in the first film and the villains also getting the most screen time in this film, Burton notes that Batman prefers to stay in the shadows. That's not quite true -- Nolan has done a fine job focusing on the Bruce Wayne side of Batman with his films -- but Burton is right to place the focus on Batman's villains, as they bring out the distinct traits of the hero in clearest terms. Stacked against Penguin, Batman must confront his own abandonment issues, and the first emotion Wayne feels for Cobblepot when he emerges from the sewer to seek out his family is sympathy. Once the Penguin's true motives are revealed, however, Wayne acts to stop him, yet beneath his heroism is the darker implication that Wayne's trauma isn't quite so bad as he might think; at least his parents didn't choose to cast him into the world alone.
Max Shreck, a character invented for the film, rounds out Bruce by offering a contrast for Wayne's business side. Where Bruce uses his inherited position to fuel social programs and other charities in the hopes of improving the standard of living so that the poor would not feel compelled to steal and kill to survive, Shreck sits at the top of his garish corporate headquarters, making sexist comments to his secretary/assistant, dumping toxic waste down drains instead of paying to dispose it safely and even killing a business partner who fell out of favor (luckily for the Penguin, he discovered all of this to use as handy blackmail material). Of the three villains, Shreck is both the least spectacular and the most truly evil, unburdened by the psychological issues that burden Cobblepot or Selina Kyle and left to use his wealth to purchase political power to achieve his greedy ends. When Penguin abducts Max, he mentions, "You and I are both perceived as monsters. But, somehow, you're a well-respected monster and I am, to date, not." One of the more amusing aspects of Batman Returns is its spotlight on how easy it is to win public support, and Max helps Cobblepot stage a hilariously transparent rescue that turns him into a hero that takes no effort because Max has clearly done this sort of thing before.
That angle also informs the darker side of the film, as the villains conspire to destroy Batman by tearing down his public image. They stage a grand murder that frames Batman and turns him instantly from Gotham's savior to its possessing demon, even sabotaging the Batmobilie to careen through the streets running over everything and everyone in its path. Just as seeing Cobblepot emerge from the sewer holding the mayor's baby turned him into a hero, so to does seeing the Dark Knight near the scene of a crime make him into a terror. As much as the fickle nature of the public is funny in a cosmic sense, their inability to parse out any information from single moments make them a dangerous mob.
Perhaps the truest mark of Returns' complexity, however, is the character of Selina Kyle. Initially such a weak-willed, nondescript character that her every line is stilted and awkward. Burton's vision of Catwoman's origin is odd, involving Shreck tossing Kyle out a window for exposing one of his illegal plans, only for alley cats to swarm her body and somehow revive her, completely changing the character. Yet Michelle Pfeiffer takes to the shift marvelously, forging Catwoman into a dynamo of empowered sexuality, not using her wiles to seduce men, as Poison Ivy does, but as an uncontrollable expression of her liberation. Every man who runs into her condescends to her, including even Batman when he immediately apologizes for punching her, and Catwoman trounces every one of them to prove that she's no longer the docile secretary fulfilling an outdated gender role. Kyle's relationship with Bruce does not detract from this aspect of Kyle/Catwoman's personality, and the way that each sees the other as a means of controlling their uncontrollable id makes for the most convincing and bittersweet of all the Batman romances.
These characters provide a sturdy anchor for Burton's aesthetic explorations. There is a greater emphasis on the acting and character in this film, which is to say that there is any at all, yet the director still clearly wants to play in his gigantic sandbox. Before CGI allowed Burton to truly lose his mind, Batman Returns marked Burton's first chance to let his imagination run wild without worrying to much about budgetary concerns. So, he places a gang in mangled carnival costumes, including an organ grinder cranking a Gatling and men dressed as mad skeletal clowns on motorcycles wreaking havoc in Gotham. Frankly, some of the film's visuals overload, yet there is a logic to Burton throwing crap at the wall and seeing what sticks. The first Batman was informed by the few Batman comics Burton read before taking the job, namely Alan Moore's The Killing Joke, thus it blended the surreality of Brian Bolland's artwork and Moore's dark prose into a singular mise-en-scène. Here, however, he, whether he intends it or not, finds an uneasy but fascinating balance between the two extremities of Batman comics: the cartoony, silly books of the post-Wertham era and the darker styles of the character's roots and his '80s revival.
Yes, some parts of the film simply don't work. Batman goes against his moral history by seemingly killing two henchman at different points without compunction, setting one on fire and driving away and sticking dynamite to another. Later, Wayne brings down Cobblepot in the eyes of Gotham by playing recorded messages of Oswald's plotting, and a carelessness is shown when Wayne starts scratching with a CD to give the audience a laugh, which is impossible. That oversight defines a number of plot holes, such as Penguin and his henchmen somehow making an accurate set of blueprints of the Batmobile that they use to sabotage the vehicle. At the end, Batman and Alfred manage to halt the advance of the penguin army by knowing which frequency will override the transmitters on the birds' heads and how to direct those birds back to destroy the Penguin's lair. At least Burton acknowledges how silly he makes some of the film when the crowd turns on Cobblepot upon hearing his recorded, Nixonian rants, a group of loyalists suddenly armed with tomatoes and cabbages. It's so ridiculous even Penguin has to comment on it, asking why someone always brings tomatoes and eggs.
Still, these moments of levity, be they actually funny or simplistic, do not taint the ultimate tragedy of the story. The Dark Knight pulled its punches at the end, finally making Batman shoulder the social responsibility of his actions while also suggesting that his actions, including blatantly immoral ones, were justified. But Burton allows the two major villains to meet their end on almost poetic levels. The Penguin, rejected by his family and now the rest of mankind, retreats to his lair, only for his penguins -- the closest thing he has to kin -- to launch their rockets on his home. So, the Penguin dies feeling completely alone, "betrayed" by the only creatures he feels close to; who would have guessed that a mock funeral procession of penguins sliding his corpse into their icy pool could be so moving? Catwoman, meanwhile, discovers Batman's identity and considers heading off with Bruce so that they might rebuild each other, but she cannot deny her revenge and appears to kill herself to take out Max. The Bruce Wayne at the end of this film has nothing, having seen three people who disturbingly reflect parts of him die horribly, and the (unnecessary) final shot of Catwoman appearing to emerge alive in the distance does little to alleviate the sense of pain that informs the final moments.
Compared to the smash success of the first film, Batman Returns was just too weird, too different in tone and too unexpected of a franchise sequel to enjoy a proper evaluation. Some critics nailed it for loose structure, an odd point of contention considering how much tighter the film is than the first, which sagged in the middle. Others, still under the impression that all comics and comic movies were meant for children, said the film was too dark, while others still pegged it as too light. The tepid reception spelled Burton's end at the helm, which was likely the right decision: he needed to get back to telling whatever story caught his fancy and getting trapped forever on a franchise would just make hims stagnate (just look at his work now that he can secure a sizable budget for any project). Yet I cannot help but feel that Returns is one of the most underrated blockbusters of its day, and if Burton could have refined this further, he could have taken Batman to some wild places. He certainly couldn't have fucked up as badly as Joel Schumacher, now could he?