One word that comes to mind to describe Batman Returns is, unusual. Whenever I talk to people about Batman movies, I generally hear the exact same things. The Nolan Trilogy is fantastic, Batman ’89 was also good and Batman Forever and Batman and Robin both suck. However, there seems to be an interesting divide on Batman Returns, Tim Burton’s second (and final) film about the Caped Crusader. Some say it’s an underrated classic while others like to pretend that this movie never happened. I’ve seen Batman Returns multiple times myself and, I’ll be honest, the first time I watched it I didn’t really know how to feel about it either. It was just such a bizarre movie, even by Batman standards. However, over the years, and several viewings later, I’ve come to appreciate this film; enough so that, in fact, it’s my personal favorite Batman film.
What is Batman Returns?
Batman Returns is the second film in Warner Bros original Batman film series. Back in 1989, newcomer Tim Burton’s first cinematic take on Batman went to theaters and was a big hit both with critics and at the box office making well over $ 400 million worldwide. Given those numbers, it only made sense for Warner Brothers to invite Tim Burton back for a sequel. At first Tim Burton was reluctant, given how horrible production on the first Batman film was for him. However, after being promised greater directorial freedom he agreed.
The result was that Batman Returns was really more of a Tim Burton film than a Batman film. Critics received it well enough, but audiences were a little more melancholy. Many were turned off by the more adult themes and darker material, as well as Danny Devito’s revolting portrayal of the Penguin. While Batman Returns did do well at the box office, producer’s found it’s box office performance underwhelming thus leading to Tim Burton being benched and having the reins passed to Joel Schumacher for the final two films in the franchise (unfortunately).
What is Batman Returns About?
Batman Returns begins sometime before the events of the first film. One of Gotham’s aristocratic families (the Cobblepots) have their first son. However, they are horrified by his hideous deformities and they discretely toss him into the sewers and leave him for dead. As luck would have it, though, he is found by a flock of penguins from the Gotham Zoo.
33 years later, Gotham City is being harassed by the Red Circus, a criminal gang of misfits and freaks done up to look like circus performers. When they attack a Christmas gathering at the town center being attended by the Mayor and Gotham’s leading businessman Max Schreck (Christopher Walkin), Batman (Michael Keaton) arrives to subdue them. However, in the chaos, Schreck is captured and taken into the Gotham City Sewers where he meets the gang’s leader, a horrendously disfigured little man that tabloids are calling the “Penguin Man”. The Penguin (played by Danny Devito) proposes that Max help him to reemerge into the outside world so he can “find out (his) real name.” At first, Schreck refuses. But, when Penguin blackmails him with proof of Schreck’s multiple illegal activities and the murder of one of his former colleagues, Schreck agrees.
Together they stage the kidnapping and subsequent rescue of the Mayor’s infant son in which the Penguin is seen as a hero. The public embraces him with open arms, but Batman has doubts about the Penguin’s sincerity.
What Happens in Batman Returns?
The first Batman movie received criticism for having a fairly uneventful plot. Perhaps in direct response to this, Batman Returns has the exact opposite problem. There are so many plots and characters in the film that, my first time watching it, I was a little lost. I actually had to drop quite a few things from the prologue above to keep it from being absurdedly long.
In that time, Batman Returns also establishes a side story about Max wanting to build a power plant, one about his secretary Selina Kyle (played incredibly well by Michelle Pfeiffer) and more…THAT’S JUST THE PROLOGUE! During Batman Returns’ run time even more side plots seem to crop up. Selina Kyle becoming Cat Woman and her quest for vengeance against Schreck and Batman, Schreck wanting Penguin to run for mayor as his puppet, Bruce and Selina’s relationship; it’s all over the place.
It’s bad enough, in fact, that the Penguin himself (Batman Returns’ supposed antagonist) doesn’t even feel like a threat until the last 20 minutes (in this 126 minute film) since his plot is always being side tracked so he can get intertwined with Cat Woman and Schreck’s plots. I’m fine with a film having a lot going on, but in Batman Returns there’s so much going on that it actually hurts the film as a whole. Say what you will about the first movie, but the Joker always felt like the main antagonist. Here the Penguin feels more like an errand boy and Schreck feels more like the villain until Penguin’s actual scheme is revealed (which happens so late that it actually lacks the impact it should have had).
All of Batman Returns’ side stories culminate in a finale that just has too much to tie up. Granted, it all looks cool, but it took me several viewings to really grasp everything that was going on. Actually, parts of it are still confusing. Again, it’s shot well enough that it still feels satisfying and in the end the baddies all get their comeuppance. It’s just a shame that, unlike the first movie, Batman Returns’ finale was too mired up in giving all of the side stories closure to give the big final brawl everyone wanted.
However, despite all of the stuff going on, all of the side plots in Batman Returns are, individually, done pretty well. In the film’s defense I never felt that anything that was going on seemed like it was tacked on or unnecessary, and each of the side plots are developed and interesting enough, again on their own, that none of them felt like they were dragging the film down. They were all interesting and suitably gripping.
I guess another comment to the film’s credit is that none of what was going on felt forgettable. Even after seeing Batman Returns for the first time, I remembered these characters and they stuck with me. The lines are memorable and the writing never felt too bogged down, unlike the first film. On top of that, the characters were all well developed and they never did anything that seemed particularly out of character, unlike the first movie (*cough**cough* Alfred *cough**cough*).
As a whole, the story in Batman Returns is definitely flawed but, in a weird sort of way, it seems to work to the film’s benefit. With each passing viewing, I found that I caught more and more that I hadn’t noticed before and, once I was able to wrap my head around everything that was going on, discovered that I actually kind of liked the story overload. Again, all of them are done well on their own and once you have one or two viewings under your belt, Batman Retuns is much easier to follow and you can appreciate the quality of each scene to a much greater extent.
How are the Visuals in Batman Returns?
Batman Returns is a Tim Burton film. That alone should tell everyone that this film is very visually impressive. I’m not talking about the special effects, which are pretty standard for a big budget film from the early 90s, but the film’s visual design as a whole.
In the first Batman film, Gotham City was designed to look almost like New York City from the Great Depression, but set in the modern day. In Batman Returns, Gotham looks a little less dark and grungy, but still carries a lot of that same Gothic feel. Furthermore the film is set around Christmas time with everything covered in a layer of snow and surrounded by Christmas paraphernalia. It sounds a bit odd, but it looks fantastic on screen.
As a whole, Batman Returns just comes across as a bit cleaner in appearance the first Batman film. The colors are more vibrant and the shapes feel more pronounced. The designs for Batman, Cat Woman and Penguin are also fantastic with Danny Devito’s makeup effects almost stealing the show every scene he’s in. He looks disgusting, but you just can’t keep your eyes off of him.
Apart maybe from the acting, the visuals are Batman Returns’ strongest aspect. Even when some of the effects felt fake, I found that it never really bothered me (except for the guys in penguin suits…that was dumb). In this unique visual world that Tim Burton has created, it’s easy just to be sucked into the artistic style, as well as pleasant.
How is the Soundtrack in Batman Returns?
Danny Elfman gave us an incredible soundtrack for the first Batman film. It seems that for Batman Returns he tried to outdo himself, and succeeded. The Prince songs are all gone (which I actually enjoyed, but they did seem out of place) with the entire soundtrack being dominated by Elfman’s fully orchestrated score. Every theme feels unique and memorable, and Elfman made a point not to repeat too many tracks making sure that what music plays never feels repetitive. In short, Batman Returns’ soundtrack is truly phenomenal, enough so that I can’t actually think of anything about it that I didn’t like.
Is Batman Returns a Good Movie?
Whether or not Batman Returns is a good movie is kind of hard to answer. Given all of the aforementioned problems with the story, I don’t think that it’s particularly “good”. However, I do think that this is a very “enjoyable” movie. I will give fair warning to all viewers though that this film is probably not for the Batman crowd, but more for the Tim Burton crowd. In other words, it’s a Tim Burton movie rather than a Batman Movie. Fans of both should absolutely check out Batman Returns, but Batman fans who don’t like Tim Burton’s style would probably be better off skipping this film.
In closing, this film is the closest out of the Caped Crusader’s long movie career that can be safely called a cult film, and there’s nothing wrong with that.