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Friday, May 20, 2022

Retrospective Part 2 of 8: Batman Returns (1992)

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This is Part 2 of an 8 part series discussing the production, influence and overall quality of the modern live-action Batman films. With The Batman (2021) approaching release, it’s the right time to take a look back at how we got here, examining the highs and lows of Batman’s cinematic career.

See Part 1 here:

The success of Batman (1989) had an immediate effect on the industry. Studios began looking at comic book and other pop culture characters as legitimate box office prospects. Yes, Superman (1978) had already taken the world by storm 11 years prior, but Superman was already a cultural icon far greater than any comic book character. Batman set the precedent for how tentpole films would be produced, distributed and marketed. This success led to Bruce Tim, Paul Dini and Mitch Brian’s Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995), which became a classic and groundbreaking show in the animation sphere. Director Tim Burton was the only one not thrilled by Batman, so he relished the opportunity for greater creative freedom on the sequel. The result was Batman Returns (1992), arguably one of the most auteur driven studio films ever made.

Danny DeVito as The Penguin.

As with the first film, Burton’s work here shows he was less concerned with accurately depicting Batman than he was with showing off his dark imagination. With complete control in Burton’s hands, Batman Returns essentially became a more extreme version of its predecessor. The design of Gotham City went from being a heightened 1940s to a darkly eerie fever dream. The action went from pushing the edge of family-friendly violence to full blown depravity. The moments of self aware comedy turned into entire scenes of complete nonsense. The idea of duality transformed from a minor motif to the main theme. All this is most exemplified by how Burton approached the depiction and development of the characters.

When deciding on a villain worthy enough to follow Jack Nicholson’s Joker, it seemed like a no-brainer that The Penguin was the next logical choice. In the source material, the character is an intellectual British crime boss. However, Burton had other ideas, instead creating a freakish blend of The Elephant Man, The Grinch and The Creature from the Black Lagoon. This abandoned and depraved monster version of The Penguin was conceived from the ground up to be a vehicle for Danny DeVito long before he was officially cast. Similar to Nicholson, DeVito was given untapped potential to be as outlandish as possible, resulting in a Penguin that was both fun and uncomfortable to watch in equal measure. DeVito’s various grunts, growls and ticks were enough to make children scream and adults cringe.

Michelle Pfeiffer and Michael Keaton as Selina Kyle and Bruce Wayne.

Burton also introduced his version of Selina Kyle/Catwoman with Annette Bening in the role. Michelle Pfeiffer was brought on to replace her when Bening fell pregnant, which ultimately proved to be a blessing in disguise. Pfeiffer’s femme fatale persona, the iconic Catsuit and the unhinged script, allowed this Catwoman to tell us more about Burton’s strange sexual fantasies than we probably needed to know. Even so, Pfeiffer’s performance added some much needed nuance. At the time, this Catwoman was criticised for just being a woman who simply loses her mind, as opposed to her perfectly sane comic book counterpart who is one of the few Batman antagonists who does what she does because she wants to. However, Pfeiffer’s work has deepened with time, as it’s now evident she is a vengeful force protecting women against abusive men. 

With that in mind, Burton further developed the theme of duality. The actual plot made little sense, but every moment was crafted to show that everything has two sides. Selina Kyle was scared and sexually powerless, whereas Catwoman was confident and sexually powerful. The Penguin was a depraved monster who came from the sewers, yet he is nearly elected to the Mayor’s office. Most obviously, Bruce Wayne is a rich and charismatic public figure, but Batman is a dark and mysterious vigilante. The duality extended beyond general comic book minutiae, as there’s plenty of thematic development paid to the differences between men and women. Granted, none of it is particularly deep or arrives at any kind of point, but it is fascinating to see a Batman film try to unpack darker aspects of gender identity.

Michael Keaton as Batman.

The strange hodgepodge of psychological analysis and thematic concepts resulted in Batman Returns being a wonderfully bizarre experience. The plot barely holds together and the story itself is so nonsensical that it’s a miracle the film even works. Even so, it’s never boring as every moment leaves your jaw on the floor for a myriad of reasons. Whether it’s Batman killing goons indiscriminately, Catwoman cutting mannequin’s up with a whip, or The Penguin biting noses off, Burton held none of his insanity back. Burton’s madness wasn’t just displayed in the extreme darkness, but also in the outlandish comedy. Entire sequences would oscillate between depraved violence to campy nonsense on a dime. Happily, Burton’s gothic tone kept the entire film feeling cohesive.

Batman Returns resembled the source material even less than the previous film. Even so, it was arguably a greater artistic achievement than its predecessor due to the unhinged directorial vision. As expected, the film was a massive hit for Warner Brothers, but it still made less than the studio projected. It wasn’t hard to figure out why, as the film was met with an overwhelmingly negative response from viewers. Specifically, parents who took their children to see the film were horrified by the level of violence and sexual innuendo. People argued that such a depraved film shouldn’t have been marketed to children. The studio had to go as far as make multiple public apologies.

With the Bat Signal beaming directly into his house, how is his identity a secret?

Warners certainly wasn’t expecting this kind of reaction and therefore took extreme measures to set things right. The studio began discussions as to whether or not they wanted to continue with Burton at the helm. Despite Batman Return’s mixed reception, Burton’s work still made a lot of money for them, so they were keen to keep him if possible. The studio wanted to take Batman into a lighter direction and Burton wanted to do other things, so they mutually decided to part ways. In the end, this decision would change the course of comic books films forever.

Continued in Part 3.

Batman Returns Poster.