When in Year of Our Blockbusters, One Thousand Nine Hundred and Eighty-Nine, there was only one man that could beat Indiana Jones, James Bond, Riggs & Murtaugh, Marty McFly, the Ghostbusters, and Weird Al Yankovic at the box office: Batman! There was such a demand for Batman movie tickets and bat-related paraphernalia, the country simply ran out of cash. The mints were putting in long hours just trying to keep up. Finally, and perhaps inevitably, 1990 happened. The nation could now collectively catch a breather, getting bored watching Dances with Wolves.
But over at Warner Brothers, lurking in the shadows of plain sight, everyone knew that evil would rise once more. Only a Caped Crusader who cannot easily turn his head would be needed again. Only the better half of a Dynamic Duo could stimulate a veritable fleet of criminals and their respective toys and playsets. Only the Dark Knight Detective would have the power to combat any violent threat, to thwart any colorfully psychotic ne’er-do-wells, and to convince everyone to drink Diet Coke by watching this film.
I was there in 1992. Yes, dear reader; yes, I was. Only recently can I now tell my story because I believe enough time has passed. Also, I was skimming the list of sequels I hadn’t talked about yet, and I said, “Why not?” So, I took the time to patiently answer myself in a whispery voice that masks my true billionaire secret identity, “Why not, indeed.” I then cued up Danny Elfman’s rousing Batman theme for dramatic purposes. It was time for Batman Returns!
The Sequel: Batman Returns (1992)
Original Movie: Batman (1989)
|Michael Keaton||Bruce Wayne/Batman|
|Pat Hingle||Commissioner Gordon|
|Benjamin Melniker||Executive Producer|
|Michael E. Ulsan||Executive Producer|
|Jon Peters||Executive Producer|
|Peter Guber||Executive Producer|
To Start With:
“Just relax. I’ll take care of the squealing, wretched, pinhead puppets of Gotham!”
I adored 1989’s Batman. Simply adored it. Ten-year-old me couldn’t get enough of the Bat that year and seeing the film in the theater was just one part of it. I got the comic book adaptation, most of the collectible trading card set, t-shirts, baseball hats, posters, a wristwatch, and die cast toys. I had the action figures, the Batcave playset, the Batmobile, the Batwing, the Micro Machines. I got the crappy Batman breakfast cereal just to get that crappy plastic top half Batman torso piggy bank thing that tasted a smidge better than the cereal itself. I had the Elfman soundtrack on cassette straight from the heavily advertised Warner Brothers catalog. My sainted mother ensured that I got the Batman VHS that very Christmas. It was a glorious time in those halcyon days of yore and mine.
Immediately after seeing Batman, I heard some reckless speculation about a sequel. Wild rumors were flying all around. Robin Williams as the Riddler? Danny DeVito as the Penguin? Cher as Catwoman?! (Yeah, the rumor mill was making some high-grade malarkey in some cases. Of course, they could have said that Adam West was coming back but was playing King Tut, and I would’ve bought it.) But no matter, I couldn’t wait even though I had to wait three years for it to come out.
In the meanwhile, I dealt with pretenders to the summer superhero blockbuster throne. I convinced myself that 1990’s Dick Tracy was far better than it was. Turns out, it wasn’t. (Hey, the make-up was terrific, it had a good cast, and it started me on an incredible love of Chester Gould’s original Tracy stories, but I didn’t want what was a Sunday Comics-looking, four-color musical with the window dressing of the Dick Tracy world.)
Then 1991 brought The Rocketeer and I thought that was gonna be the next huge thing, but nope. (To be honest, I didn’t even bother seeing Rocketeer in the theater, although I have a far kinder appreciation for it these days. Plus, Jennifer Connelly’s an ageless beauty and Timothy Dalton is always delightful.)
But then there was a trailer concerning the bat, the cat, and the penguin. Michael Keaton was back! My Batman was back and there’s the Penguin too! And Catwoman! And snow?! Sure, why not! Hooray! You wanna get nuts? C’mon, let’s get nuts!
Anything Done Better than the Original?
“You know what, I mistook me for someone else. Sorry.”
Like those who latch on to their first James Bond, Michael Keaton is my Batman. Nothing against those that came after him, nothing against those that came before. Keaton simply managed to be an unusual casting choice that simply paid off in dividends. And here Keaton shines, freed by getting that first movie out of the way so he can have a bit of fun. As Bruce Wayne, he conveys some growth too. Keaton plays it wonderfully with some much-appreciated moments of humor. Ultimately Keaton should be given more to do, since he’s awesome, but more on that later. (And Timothy Dalton is the best Bond. Yep, I said it. Two Dalton references and they’re jammed that close together?! Where’s an editor when you need one?)
I also dig the updated Bat-suit. The 1989 one was a molded plastic/rubber muscularly chiseled body suit. Here the suit at least appears to be more functional, less human-looking, more practical. They also ditched the weird extra li’l wings on the bottom of the chest symbol and for that I thank them. And the remolded cowl fits Keaton’s face better this time around. Of course, once again in the Burton-verse, Batman still can’t just turn his head to look left or look right given the limitations of the cowl; he must move his shoulders if he wants to look 90 degrees at any moment. Fortunately, Keaton perfected that move, making it flow as the character. Unfortunately, this Batman is one that is more susceptible to getting killed because he can’t easily look both ways before crossing the street.
On a personal note, thank you Batman Returns for not rehashing Batman’s origin yet again. Seems that each time there’s a Batman movie, the audience must be simply spoon-fed that Batman does what he does because he witnessed his parents get murdered. Let me clue in everyone by this point: we all know where Batman came from, so let’s move along! It would be like watching Krypton explode with each Superman film or seeing a lighthouse keeper make wild passionate love with a gorgeous mermaid with each Aquaman movie. Let’s just get to some crime-fightin’!
Anything as Good as the Original?
“I was their number one son, and they treated me like number two.”
The casting is top notch throughout. Danny DeVito shines as the Penguin, even with the elaborate make-up. He evokes sympathy, has moments of humor, and doesn’t shy away from some gross physicality with the character. Like Nicholson’s Joker made you forget about the painted-over moustache of Cesar Romero, DeVito’s Penguin is many moons removed from Burgess Meredith’s characterization.
Michelle Pfeiffer is an excellent Catwoman and her Selina Kyle is also fully realized. She has a good chemistry with Keaton and her scenes with Bruce Wayne are romantic and inevitably tragic. Not to compare, but I will: I never really bought the Vicki Vale/Bruce Wayne relationship in the first movie, but I can fully believe Wayne and Selina Kyle here. However, as the movie is rather overstuffed with characters, Pfeiffer should have had either her own solo movie or at least her own Batman movie as the sole villain instead of being a supporting player here.
And Christopher Walken as Max Shreck is great. Just great. Shreck’s a kind of anti-Bruce Wayne, a full-on manipulator for selfish gain. He’ll lie about the true purpose of his power plant, he’s willing to kill off business partners and secretaries, he’ll promote blatantly unbalanced and homicidal mayoral candidates just to get political favor. Why even have villains like Penguin or Catwoman when you have Max Shreck, aside from the fact that Shreck doesn’t make for an exciting action figure in comparison? (And Mr. Walken sir, I apologize for that whole View to a Kill debacle. It was a misunderstanding and certainly not your fault since you were an enjoyable villain in Batman Returns. If anything, I’m angry that the 007 folks didn’t give Bond a Max Shreck to combat instead. Such a waste.)
Danny Elfman’s music is again a triumph. His score for Batman was a delight, and here he continues to expand on some fantastic themes. The melancholic music that leads off the film into the opening credits, the use of choir voices, the ability to convey such a shadowy world: Elfman is fantastic. Burton and Elfman have shared a historic and creative collaboration in film. Elfman’s work on Batman Returns is exceptional.
Anything Not-So-Good as the Original?
“Why are you now determined to prove that this Penguin is not what he seems? Must you be the only lonely man-beast in town?”
Let me start off by saying that I was never really fooled into thinking that the 1989 Batman was filmed in an actual city, but the production value was top notch. Even though the built sets and miniatures were stylized, they still appeared somewhat tangible, providing layers and layers of Gotham. There were even some outdoor shots of Wayne Manor and when the Joker kills the mob boss with his quill pen in broad daylight. My highest compliment for that execution: you could smell the atmosphere of the Gotham City in Batman. (Let me just sneak in here to say that’s a big issue I have with the Nolan Bat-trilogy. Because no matter how much the residents bizarrely love their overblown burg, Chicago is not Gotham. And I’ve smelled Chicago so I can confirm this. Frankly, if I can picture the Blues Brothers driving through it, it kills the Bat-magic for me.)
The Gotham in Batman Returns just looks like it was filmed in an enclosed set. The streets seem more cramped because you’re trying to jam Gotham into two city blocks. Thankfully, the miniatures cover over some sins, especially the wonderful flying shots of the closed zoo that ultimately lead to the Penguin’s lair. In Batman, I could believe that the Batmobile could most definitely shoot out a hook to make a wide turn into a tight corner. In Batman Returns, I don’t think the Batmobile would have enough room to parallel park.
Also, I’m all for a filmmaker’s vision and Tim Burton certainly has one. Plus, since Batman has a dark history with dark villains, Burton was a great choice to bring these elements to the fore. Yet there’s some bizarre character/plot elements brought forth in Batman Returns that make it creepier than one might expect from the typical summer superhero movie fare.
Here are some examples:
- Apparently, Penguin is a huge horndog now? I know that his options for finding a rewarding relationship were limited given his circumstances, but mid-film he suddenly wants to share ointments with Catwoman, fill Jan Hooks’ void while showing her a French flipper trick, and jump all over buttoning some cute blonde political aides. Why does this come up? No idea. Does this get paid off story wise? Not at all. Is that character trait even needed?
- What did the Penguin baby do with the Cobblepot cat? Seemingly the baby was a toddler, hence the cage, but later the basket makes it seem as if within a week of being born, Pee Wee helped to launch Kid Penguin into the drink. But if he’s a teeny baby, how did he grab the cat? What did he do with it? Why were his parents so nonchalant and resigned about the cat getting sucked into the baby cage? Did other family pets suffer the same fate? Did no other family or friends see this child one day and wonder what happened to the baby? If nothing else, I’m sure Oswald made for a memorable baby so he wouldn’t be easy to forget, unlike the myriad of vanished pets that managed to get too close to the cage bars.
- Think about the circus gang, which is an exceedingly weird idea that fits into the Batman world very well indeed. At times there’s even whimsical circus music and goofiness abounds with firebreathers and sword swallowers aplenty. And yet…Bruce Wayne reads newspaper clippings about how this same circus group moved suddenly from town to town because there were reports of…missing children?! What exactly were these circus folks, and likely the Penguin as well, doing with these kids? Do I even want to know? Do just hope for the best and these missing kids just up and joined the circus instead of experiencing a much more likely grisly fate?
- As a follow-up, when the gang starts kidnapping the firstborns of Gotham later in the film, obviously these folks have job experience in this arena. Although I would question the use of a not-incognito circus train driving down the middle of the streets of Gotham with cages full of children. Then again, Bat-villains aren’t historically known for subtlety. Then again again, why were no Gotham City PD members trying to stop this slow-moving train abducting the spawn of the city’s elite?
- While the Penguin is then motivated to lead the kiddos into glowing toxic waste to kill them because of how his parents abandoned him, what was the motivation for the earlier missing children from the travelling circus days? Remember back then Penguin didn’t know he was Oswald Cobblepot. Again, what was the circus doing with those kids? Yeah…the unspoken implications make it creepier, taking a bit of the shine of being a sympathetic villain from the Penguin, right?
Anything Far Worse than the Original?
“Why is there always someone who brings eggs and tomatoes to a speech?”
As Spider-Man will gleefully tell you, when the superhero becomes a guest star in their own movie, some fat needs to be trimmed. Besides the Penguin and the Catwoman, there’s also Max Shreck gumming up the works for Gotham. All three of these folks are given far more screen time than Batman which is unfortunate. I guess it takes three people to attempt to replace Jack Nicholson, which certainly is flattering for Jack’s incredible work in the first movie.
Come to think of it, I would rather see Batman deal with Max Shreck as a lone villain trying to take over Gotham via corporate means instead of having to battle whips, claws, and mechanical umbrellas. At the utmost least, perhaps have Shreck involved with either Penguin or Catwoman in a movie, but not both since the structure gets overly messy and these actors deserve more moments to shine individually.
At least the villain count has a great cast to justify having them. The titanic plot issues don’t have such luxury. What plot issues I can pretend to hear you ask about even though I’m doing the typing here by myself? Well, I’m glad I brought it up!
- Even Batman went to reasonable lengths to explain how the Joker got the wonderful toys he had. Joker was established as having a knowledge of chemistry in his Jack Napier criminal file. Joker had Axis chemicals at his disposal to make his Smylex cosmetics and gas. There was the Grissom criminal empire along with the consolidation of the gangs which provided him the capital to get started. He was even shown to be a snappy dresser, so his vanity and his dandy aspect was right there from the start. Obviously, he knew someone who could get him reams and yards of purple material. But in Batman Returns? How does Penguin get his array of lethal umbrellas? Were those contracted out? He had them before meeting Shreck, so we know Max didn’t provide any funding along those lines. Did Penguin build them? How did he know to do that? He had an education that consisted of being raised by penguins and circus folk. Did Penguin somehow take weekend Advanced Lethal Umbrella classes at DeVry?
- That reminds me, how does Oswald get li’l rockets for his penguin army? How does he have the tech available to remotely control those penguins, let alone give them little goggle scopes that they don’t need? How long was the gang at the zoo? Were the penguins at the zoo before they came? They’re awfully familiar with Penguin so were they perhaps with him before the circus gang arrived at the zoo? Were these penguins ever trained to do any of this? Also, where did that giant Christmas present come from that launched the circus gang into the crowds of Gotham at the start of the movie? Where does one find an organ grinding gatling gun? Awfully elaborate for an obviously disheveled and rundown circus gang.
- But here’s the most egregious of all: Because of the complexity of the repair work involved, Alfred says that they cannot take the Batmobile to just any Joe’s Body Shop. That makes sense. But what I do not understand is how in the name of the almighty Frank Gorshin did the Penguin somehow get elaborate blueprint schematics for the damn Batmobile? And yet, there they are, right up on the wall of his air-conditioned attic offices. Did Penguin also find a Batmobile wall poster from the Warner Brothers catalog because there’s no other explanation that is even close to being plausible? (Perhaps he found a nice Daffy Duck tie too?) If that wasn’t bad enough, how did Penguin develop a remote to shut down the Batmobile’s shields? How did he make a module that would override the systems to remotely drive the vehicle? How did he patch in a video feed into the Batmobile’s camera system? How did Penguin get a kids’ sized shopping mall Batmobile ride to stick in his campaign RV to control the whole thing? Are circus folks just a hitherto untapped resource of technological geniuses? Perhaps they all went to DeVry? But how’d they have the time with so many shows a day in those pre-Interweb days? Did they even get tuition assistance?
- And finally, did you know that if you cut the movie from where Penguin finds out that the kidnapped children were saved via Batman’s note to the Poodle Lady’s radar report that the large and fast Batboat is rocketing towards the zoo, you’d miss absolutely nothing story wise? In fact, it delightfully eliminates the goofy rocket nonsense outright while also getting rid of the plot cul-de-sac that it provided at the same time. It even makes better narrative sense, because you could show that the deducting Batman put a tracker on the monkey that returns to Penguin’s Zoo HQ. Therefore, that’s why the Batman can home in on the Penguin with ease. Aha! Brilliant, right? The movie is tighter, we get to the climax quicker, and I’ve even saved a child from the shame of receiving a lame two-pack of rocket penguin action figures at the same time!
Argh. Just argh. And this is a movie that I like.
“Seems like every woman you try to save ends up dead… or deeply resentful. Maybe you should retire.”
Oh yes, there have been a plethora of Bat-follow-ups since 1992, but I’m only going to focus on the original other sequels to 1989’s Batman. The violence, the weird sexual overtones, and the overall Burtonness of Batman Returns, ensured that Tim would not be returning to helm the next Batman installment, despite the good box office returns. He was tagged as a producer for the next one but didn’t really have that much to do. The reins were handed over to director Joel Schumacher. Presumably this was because he directed 1987’s The Lost Boys, which had vampires, so therefore that meant he had experience with bats, I guess. And the garish Technicolor yawn of Batman Forever was the result in 1995.
Since for all intents and purposes Tim Burton was out, Michael Keaton looked at what they were planning on doing for Batman Forever and walked. I think he made the right choice. While I bear no ill will towards Val Kilmer, he just wasn’t Batman. He’s all right as Bruce Wayne, but I’ve come to think that he was miscast and that’s not Val’s fault. He did get to act alongside the lovely Nicole Kidman, so I can see the appeal of doing it.
And no one learned from Batman Returns, so the cast was just overloaded and loud, resulting in Batman being even more of a guest star in his own movie. Not only were there two villains again, but the powers that be decided that Robin was also needed (he wasn’t). Jim Carrey gained 72 lbs. from all the scenery he was chewing as the Riddler and Tommy Lee Jones, who loathed Carrey, decided that his Two-Face should compete with Riddler by being louder while wearing even louder outfits. At least Michael Gough and Pat Hingle both got a paycheck.
Speaking of paychecks and no one learning anything, we then ended up with 1997’s Batman & Robin. At least Val had the foresight to walk away from this one and Schumacher should have followed Kilmer’s lead. I also bear George Clooney no ill will. The man is a good actor, a good director, and a handsome devil indeed. And once again, like Val, he was a good Bruce Wayne. Frankly, if the film was about Bruce’s adventures as a millionaire playboy, I could get onboard that idea. But Batman he is not.
The horrible idea of overloading with villains comes to the fore yet again. Uma Thurman does well as Poison Ivy but teaming her up with a poorly portrayed and underdeveloped Bane was terrible. Speaking of terrible, we get Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze. While there was the precedent of Teutonic Otto Preminger’s Mr. Freeze on the 1966 Batman TV show, Austrian Arnie is just the hammiest of hams throwing out an irritating blizzard of gawdawful puns about cold and ice and freezing. Given the forced tongue-in-cheek nature, I think Arnie thought he was freezing Burt Ward instead of Chris O’Donnell.
So, we not only get Robin back, but now there’s also Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl. Batman & Robin stretches credulity to beyond the breaking point, but even the brightest engineers in the world could devise a contraption that would suspend my disbelief long enough to believe that Silverstone’s character was in any way, shape, or form related to Michael Gough’s Alfred. Also, Pat Hingle gets his final paycheck as Commissioner Gordon. And since I would be remiss without saying it: bat-nipples.
There was talk about a third Schumacher Bat-entry, but that was blessedly snuffed out in preproduction. My guess is that the tie-in toys for that proposed fifth Bat-episode were determined to be too stupid even for the youth of America to play with and it was kiboshed. Various levels of development hell meant that it took until 2005 for the Christopher Nolan Bat-reboot to bring Batman back to respectful cinema.
The Penguin: “You don’t really think you’ll win, do you?”
Batman: “Things change.”
Batman Returns was the watershed superhero movie for me. The later Batman films didn’t stimulate me. Even though I enjoyed 2000’s X-Men and 2002’s Spider-Man and some of their respective sequels, I was a smidge too old for them to have the same effect that 1989’s Batman had on me. That goes for Christopher Nolan Batman films as well as the overblown Marvel and misfiring DC Cinematic Universes respectively. I just didn’t latch on to those either.
Perhaps that’s just the way those first two Batman films imprinted on me as a stubborn youth. Michael Keaton would always be my Batman and anything else was second rate at best. For all its flaws, Batman Returns at least has Keaton under the cowl, Burton at the helm, and Elfman with the baton. It is a reassuring and nostalgic and comforting feeling that at any time, I can fire up the Bat-signal and it will get reflected via an array of suspicious searchlights at Wayne Manor.
Of course, this leaves just one thing I do not understand. Batman Returns takes place at Christmas and yet it was released in June 1992?! Ye gods, that is weird! But even weirder is that Batman Returns isn’t the only Christmastime film put out in the throes of summer. Die Hard and Die Hard 2 were both released during the month of July! Even Miracle on 34th Street, which even has freakin’ Santa Claus himself in it, was released in June of 1947. What in the hell, Hollywood?! Do you people not own calendars?
Alfred: “Well, come what may. Merry Christmas, Mister Wayne.”
Bruce Wayne: “Merry Christmas, Alfred. Good will toward men… and women.”