Movie Review: Batman Returns (1992)

Batman Returns
(PG-13, 126 minutes, 1992)

Batman Returns is the oft-maligned second child in the Tim Burton-directed Caped Crusader family. Expectations were so high after the first film that, while being an otherwise enjoyable experience, it had no other choice but to disappoint audiences looking for another Batman.

The thing is, this film isn’t supposed to be Batman, and it shows from the beginning with a dark title sequence that tells the origin story of the film’s baddie, The Penguin, to move that element of the plot along during an otherwise useless section of the film. This entry has similar visual styling to the first movie, but the color palette is brighter overall. The sets are better lit and Gotham feels larger and more open with more color added to the shadows and dour grays that dominated the original. This element reaches grotesque levels with Selina Kyle’s apartment, which is dominated in shades of pink to remind the audience (beyond the blatant sexism of Max Shreck) that she is a caricature of the stereotypical female secretary. It’s annoying (and potentially insulting) in its directness, but acts as a deliberate contrast to the strong femme fatale that is Catwoman. It also serves as a setpiece to visually facilitate her destructive transformation. The more lively palette does contrast with the darker, more violent fight scenes in an attempt to convince the viewer of the thematic duality with Catwoman and Batman.

This installment has more of the Burton/Elfman whimsical eccentricity that their collaborations have come to be known for, including sweeping camera pans over highly detailed miniatures with soaring but eerie choral scores. Additionally, the set decoration also retains the art-deco gothic noir mix of the original, melding it with elements of the ’60s camp. All of those exaggerated elements combine with some additional sexual innuendo over the first film to make a still entertaining but slightly lower quality experience. In all honesty, this film has trouble deciding if it wants to be the successor to the 1989 Batman, the 1960s series, or both. That indecisiveness hurts the experience.Regarding the themes and the plot, this film has trouble deciding how to discuss duality. Catwoman’s motivation is to kill Shreck in both revenge and an attempt to reconcile her new identity. Penguin’s motivation makes less sense, as it seems he wants to gain power over Gotham by killing all of the first born sons and becoming a dictator to, in some way, get revenge against his parents and the society that led to his exile. When Batman stops this threat, Penguin resorts to destroying Gotham to destroy Batman. Batman wants to stop both of them, but also wants to redeem Selina through (here it comes…) the power of love. Though good intentioned, that road to hell is in direct conflict with Catwoman’s thread of feminine power and independence. It also smacks of the backward idea that women who go against societal norms can be “fixed” by providing them with strong male companionship.

It repeats a lot of the romantic themes from the Bruce Wayne/Vicki Vale relationship, but removes part of the duality essential to the Batman character by squeezing the conflict between Catwoman and Batman into the shared overcoming of their split identities. They even hang a lampshade on the plot point of giving up the masks, but then reverse course almost as quickly to retain the character elements. In the end, Batman could not defeat Catwoman because Gotham needed Batman more than Bruce needed Selina. If your head is spinning right now, you’re not alone.

At least the movie addresses the absence of Vicki Vale.

In final random thoughts, the insane Michelle Pfeiffer looks a lot like a more modern Burton alum: Helena Bonham Carter. Second, it is never explained how the Penguin’s minions got schematics for the Batmobile. That plot hole is an annoyance. Last, the obvious eye makeup goof when Batman takes off his mask also annoys me. Audiences are smart enough to realize that the rubber mask doesn’t quite cover the space around Michael Keaton’s eyes.

Overall, Batman Returns is enjoyable, but suffers greatly from indecisiveness, both in themes and tones. It wasn’t horrible, but it could have been more.

My Rating: 7/10
IMDb rating: 7.0/10