Unbelievably, it’s been almost 30 years since Tim Burton’s Gothic melodrama-disguised-as-a-superhero-movie hit our screens. Batman Returns was the eagerly awaited sequel to Burton’s game changing blockbuster, Batman. Though well received at the time and later a bonafide cult classic, in the decades since its release, Returns has often been seen as lacking in comparison to the dark and subtle surrealism of Burton’s first foray into Bat-lore.
With Batman, Tim Burton brought to the screen a film that had been a decade in the making and changed the face of cinema all together. With its distinct visual flair, unexpected lead in Michael Keaton, and Jack Nicholson’s star turn as the Joker, 1989’s Batman broke box office records and ushered in an age of branded merchandising that’s still with us to this day. After the immense success of the first film, a second was quickly greenlit and Burton was given free reign to create his unbridled vision of Gotham.
Batman Returns is a sumptuous feast of a movie, with dazzling set design and incredibly detailed costumes by Colleen Atwood alongside state of the art special effects. This Gotham is so expansive and expressive that it becomes a character within the movie, as it has always been in the source material. In a medium such as film, it could almost consume the story itself, yet its inhabitants never allow that to happen. Although Batman Returns is beloved for darkly stylized over the top visuals, the cast never let the setting shine more than themselves, often almost seeming to work in collaboration with the unbelievable world they inhabit to create truly memorable moments.
When we first see Bruce Wayne, it’s in one of the most fitting and iconic representations of him ever committed to celluloid. Bruce sits brooding (and what suits Bruce Wayne more than brooding?) in his dark library as the Penguin and his Red Triangle Circus Gang create chaos in downtown Gotham. The Batsignal shines through the window, Bruce stands up, staring towards the darkened horizon. It’s one of many moments that looks as if it’s taken directly from the pages of a comic book.
Dedication to source material can often be the biggest failing of a comic book adaptation. But with Returns, screenwriter Daniel Waters managed to strike a balance between understanding the motivations of Batman and his antagonists whilst still working to create an original, engaging, and relatable story that any viewer can enjoy without ever reading a comic book. I mean, when have you ever seen a holiday themed gang jump out of a giant present and slide down a Christmas tree? Though the film’s palette is dark, there’s an unabashed sense of fun in the story beats. The duality of Selina and Bruce awkwardly dating whilst also battling each other as vigilantes is always knowing and often verges on the ridiculous. This balance of humor and darkness creates a nuanced tone, a subtle juggling act which other superhero blockbusters have failed to replicate.
One of the things people often say about Batman is that he would be nothing without his villains, and Batman Returns is no different. The film finds strength in its rogues gallery, specifically Bruce’s on-again off-again foe, Selina Kyle, a.k.a. Catwoman. Introducing Selina before Bruce/Batman creates a focus that strays from the notion that the Dark Knight is our singular protagonist, or even the only person we’re meant to root for in this film.
Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman is everything. A tired, overworked, and lonely woman so sick of society and the men who rule over it that she sees no other choice than to burn it down. Her resurrection is revelatory, realigning all that she thought she had to put up with and creating an entirely new version of herself. Selena’s awakening is one that’s both physical and psychological, her freedom coming in the form of a sensuality she’d never before felt able to explicitly express. The ultimate final girl, Selina returns from the dead like a pleather-suited ghoul to make the man who killed her pay. She might be the hero Gotham truly needs, but she never gets to fulfill that potential. Sadly, she falls into the hysterical woman trope, at least managing to take out her tormentor in one of the more memorable deaths in Batman canon.
The counterpoint to Bruce’s grown man in a Batsuit life-long crisis–for there’s always a counterpoint–is the Penguin. Played with grotesque relatability by Danny Devito, this sewer dwelling orphan is a version of Bruce that never had an Alfred and whose parents rejected him rather than meeting a murderous end. Bruce sees himself in the Penguin, immediately realizing that this new addition to Gotham must have something to hide because Bruce himself is defined by his secretive duality.
Whilst Pfeiffer’s Catwoman stands the test of time–becoming more iconic and inspiring, leading to more intricate and expansive readings of her relevance–On rewatching, the Penguin falls flat. Utilizing Penguin as a twisted reflection of Bruce’s privilege has such strong potential, but the final character relies too heavily on the ableist trope of ugliness equating to evil, immediately diminishing Oswald Cobblepot’s resonance. The Penguin is regularly played for grotesque laughs instead of subversive thoughtfulness, diluting his impact. We’re told to not only laugh at his appearance but also his desperation around the opposite sex, which often borders on harassment. His failed attempts to seduce Selina Kyle fall flat, not only for him but also for the audience. When she finally turns him down he attempts to kill her, also killing any final bits of empathy the viewer may have had for him.
The world of Batman Returns is an engulfing experience and that’s in no small part due to Danny Elfman’s soundtrack. After creating the iconic Batman theme in the first movie, Elfman came back and crafted a score that’s just as vital to the story of Batman as Gotham itself. Elfman’s score guides us through the moments when characters are silent, and that silence is vital in the world of Batman Returns. The film ends as it began, devoid of dialogue, lifted by Elfman’s score. Bruce walking through the snowy streets of Gotham, lost in his own trauma, the silence only broken by Alfred, whose Christmas wishes seem to bring Bruce back to reality.
Returns stretches the boundaries of what we expect from a blockbuster. It manages to be visually unique whilst also delivering a story that has become as iconic and instantly recognizable as any number of the comics it’s inspired by. Arguably the peak of Burton’s stylized filmmaking, Returns showcases Burton’s inimitable personal style, sharing so much with Batman’s visual history that has throughout the years been not only pitch black but also kitschy and camp. Burton’s understanding of these different sides of Batman–his favorite comic is the Killing Joke–gives Returns a balance and authenticity all its own.
Though Tim Burton’s first Batman is a masterclass in subtle Gothic storytelling with splashes of comic book vibrancy, Returns embraces everything that makes Batman fantastic and runs with it wildly through the painted sets of Gotham City. The reckless abandon with which the filmmakers revel in Gotham and all of its dark corners gels with their dedication to telling a great story creating something incredibly special that still stands up after more than two decades.