After the release of Batman in 1989, and my subsequent discovery of it in 1990, I became enamored by Batman’s gadgets and his foreboding presence in a morally dilapidated city. I enjoyed the character so much that I made sure my parents bought me any Batman merchandise that crossed my vision. Clearly, I fit Warner Bros. merchandising mold. I pushed the limits of my fandom even further by being Batman for Halloween two years in a row. The second year found me feeling extra heroic as I trudged through a blizzard, cape and all, to collect candy from strangers. Batman had invaded my life, and I couldn’t wait for his film return. Finally, the summer of 1992 arrived and I got my wish in his next cinematic adventure:
Batman Returns (1992):
If Batman was an exercise in restraint for Tim Burton, then Batman Returns is representative of Burton unleashing his flair and fully realizing Gotham through his warped mind. From the use of spirals and a Gotham City enveloped by a blanket of melancholic snow, Returns feels much more alive than its predecessor. Matching the visual wonder of Burton is a screenplay that goes deeper into the abyss of human misery and isolation. Upon the opening scene we’re quickly introduced to Oswald Cobblepot (a creepy Danny DeVito), a deformed creature that seeks solace in the sewers after his parents abandon him on a snowy night. Deep in the sewers of Gotham, Cobblepot plots his revenge against the citizens that righteously live above him. Our introduction to Cobblepot is sinister, but not nearly as demonstrative as the birth of Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer). We meet this ambivalent character through a harrowing experience: Selina Kyle is launched through a skyscraper window and crashes onto cold concrete. Born from a misogynistic world and a level of romantic regression, Catwoman represents a shifting attitude of female empowerment. Ultimately, Kyle’s rebirth as Catwoman leads to a conflicting romance with Bruce Wayne and his alter ego.
These three characters dance around Gotham in an attempt to assimilate an identity that is truly representative of their selves. Complicating things further is Christopher Walken’s character Max Shreck, a corporate puppeteer that intends to use Cobblepot’s sad beginning as a power grab. Unfortunately, Shreck’s presence is underwritten, no matter how awesome Walken is. Regardless of a weak character, the actors that make up the toxic trio are stupendous. Keaton maintains the elusive nature he established in the previous adventure, while DeVito and Pfeiffer make for exceptional antagonists. Pfeiffer is especially memorable for establishing her character’s fragmented prism without sacrificing the sexual release Catwoman represents. Courtesy of the screenplay and the actors involved, this Batman doesn’t feel like it revolves around one actor. There’s an equilibrium present that gives each character the proper time to be just as fucked up and confused as the others. For all the film’s flights of fancy and well-conceived battles, Burton has somehow made Returns an intimate film.
Seductive, introspective and oddly romantic, Returns was the quintessential Batman film for me up until 2005. Making the proceedings far more haunting is the enduring work of Danny Elfman. Elfman took his original Batman theme and expanded upon it by providing more orchestral texture than the first film. If I had to describe it, the score is an even mix of Elfman’s haunting chorus based work in Edward Scissorhands and the sounds of a nightmarish carnival. To say the score supplements the blistering world of Batman Returns would be an understatement. One could certainly argue that Returns has absurd moments that are either tacky or overbearing with cheese (I admit its use of penguins as tools of destruction is silly), but despite Burton’s embellishments, it’s a brooding affair that affectionately tells the tale of a sordid few who can’t escape their past, nor resist masking their fractured personas.