By: Garrett Collins
Starring: Michael Keaton, Danny Devito, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Pat Hingle, Michael Gough, and Michael Murphy
“The Batman. Or is it just Batman?”
These are the first words uttered by Pfeiffer’s Selina Kyle upon meeting Batman (once again portrayed by Keaton) for the first time. But in a film that in its very title declares the return of Batman, I wonder how much also returning director Tim Burton wanted to explore that fact. He seems more in love with his monstrous looking, morbidly tortured villains. With this in mind, I have something to admit. When I first walked out of that theater all those years ago, I couldn’t have been more disgusted. Here was a sequel to one of my favorite films at the time just getting butchered, because the guy who did Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands was completely discouraged from exploring MY favorite character. It was a film that came out the summer after Terminator 2 (another of my favorite films), and I was really starting to question my taste in blockbuster filmmaking. However, in looking at it again after the over twenty years since its release, I ask: are all the decisions Burton made, really bad?
Producers Peter Gruber and Jon Peters, in trying their best to reign in their previous film’s director (which probably took a lot of convincing, as Burton reportedly clashed with both gentlemen on a number of occasions), they gave him full creative control. So, Burton decided to get Daniel Waters (Heathers) to do some dark shedding of the film’s script. The result is a movie decidedly more mean-spirited film then its predecessor. In other words, this is about as Burton-esque a Batman film as one is ever going to get.
One thing that hasn’t changed about my opinions of Batman Returns are my feelings behind its plot. It is a disjointed, admittedly mess of a narrative, and one that is never clearly focused. One minute we are watching Kyle thrash her apartment in a fit of newly formed cat rage. The next we are on a journey with The Penguin (DeVito) to find his parents. It reads more as a mish mash of completely random events then a well-formed narrative. Notice throughout this description of the entire first fifty minutes of Batman Returns, I have not mentioned the title character once. I don’t think Burton WANTS us to think about him, and that is more than a slight deterrent for the movie’s overall feel.
Adding to the disjointedness of Batman Returns’ mood is the score by returning composer Danny Elfman. Completely absent are the triumphant crescendos of the previous entry’s music. Instead, again, Elfman makes the hero stand in the background, as his themes outline the complete tragedy surrounding each of the film’s villains. Batman Returns is also projected on a palette that, with all the black leather suits and white colored snow, could almost be classified as black & white. The doomed to fail feel just lends itself to be thrown in with the remaining reasons why Batman Returns is anything but a super hero film. Burton does pepper in a few moments of tension. These include an admittedly tense first meeting between Batman and Penguin (‘you really don’t think you’re gunna WIN, do you?’). Also, the realization by both the characters of Selina Kyle and Bruce Wayne who the other’s real identity is, despite a pretty sloppy line involving mistletoe, nicely pulled off by both Keaton and Pfeiffer (who supposedly dated in real life for a New York minute).
You may be reading this review and thinking I STILL feel as I did all those years ago coming out of the movie theater. You may read me saying that the finale still feels sloppy and hastily put together, & feel that I am completely putting the film down. Truth be told, I respect Batman Returns. I respect how mean a spirit Burton had around this time, as he did everything from have a woman be on the receiving end of a Bataarang, to biting the nose off the neighbor from that 80s TV show The Hogan Family. It was a bold move to do what he did, which is push the laws of over consumption down the throats of those looking to make a buck off his work. But that does not help the overall feel of the film. Batman Returns is full of pathological nightmares within its storytelling (Penguin driving the Batmobile using a department store ride-esque duck), not to mention an incredibly bad performance by Walken. It is one of those rare films that is most certainly worth a watch, but not of any praise. It shouldn’t come to anyone’s surprise that Burton’s reign of directing “The Batman” came to an end with this entry. Though I’m not sure ANYONE was prepared for what came next.