Directed by Tim Burton. Screenplay by Daniel Waters; story by Daniel Waters, Sam Hamm; based upon characters created by Bob Kane and published by D.C. Comics. Produced by Tim Burton, Denise Di Novi. Music by Danny Elfman. Photographed by Stefan Czapsky. Edited by Bob Badami, Chris Lebenzon. Production designed by Bo Welch. Starring Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Michael Gough, Michael Murphy, Pat Hingle.
We would all reasonably agree that it would be no fun to be Batman. Your town is in shambles, your secret identity is vulnerable, and you’re constantly set upon by costumed weirdos. You can’t have too many personal connections to weigh you down, your personal life is nonexistent, sleep is probably hard to come by, and while you may have a cool car and clothes, maintaining them is tricky. In fact, it would be kind of awful to be Batman. I think even Tim Burton would agree with me on this.
But…I think, within the universe of comics, Batman serves an important function, and this is where Burton and I, apparently, disagree. In Batman Returns, for the second time in a row, he tells a colorful, gothic fable that has a black hole where its hero should be, and that is damaging in ways that he cannot calculate. There is little heroism in Batman Returns. Just deep, angry moral confusion with a side of impotence. In Burton’s universe, Batman is a useless figure who is no better than the freaks he consorts with, and Burton is no more interested in hearing an alternate view than he is at exploring the tragedy central (one presumes) to his own reimagining. The result is a movie that is dark, nasty and joyless, but that’s not the issue. It’s inadvertently nihilistic, which can be useful as a seasoning, but not a main dish.
Consider this: for the protagonist of a movie franchise, Batman (Michael Keaton) achieves shockingly little over the course of Batman Returns, and doesn’t even have the gravitas to show it. As played by Keaton, the Caped Crusader is a leather-armored Clint Eastwood-type who refuses to carry a conversation, has no viewpoints to share, and sits in the darkness, waiting to be summoned to fight crime. Yet when he does, there is no moral victory to be found, because he drives in like a bully with a cool car, administering destruction and pain unto others with an iron fist. The fact that he triumphs over street gangs and fulfills a societal feels immaterial. His relationship to the police is murky and ill-defined. When he retreats to Wayne Manor and puts on his normal clothes, he’s so milquetoast and laid back that you’d never believe he’s the only hope for an entire city plagued with crime.
And for that matter, is he? What does he really do? In Batman Returns he deals with two villains: The Penguin (Danny DeVito) and Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer). The Penguin, a rotund, deformed miscreant who was shipped into the sewer by his two horrific parents (we see in a prologue), has deep wounds and emerges from his lair to both investigate his parents and run for mayor of Gotham City. But both of those are mere pretenses for his plot to kidnap all of Gotham City’s children and drown them. Charming. He loses, but his plan is so inept that Batman merely pushes a button to foil it; you would have little trouble imagining it self-destructing on its own. As for Catwoman, she vows to murder her murderous boss, Max Schreck (Christopher Walken). And she—get this—succeeds, as Batman essentially sits off on the sidelines. What’s a guy.
Is that supposed to be the tragedy? That Batman achieves nothing, does nothing, and his existence cannot stem the tide of depravity? Then why not get an actor who can play that tragedy? Michael Keaton shows, even moreso than he did in Batman (1989), that he is wrong for the role, because he refuses to bring depth to the proceedings, even depth that is clumsily laid out for him (but laid out nonetheless) by the direction of the screenplay. A word about depth, by the way. Mumbling is not depth. Looking sullen is not depth. Showing an internal thought process that bubbles with guilt, self-doubt, and ambiguity…that’s depth.
It’s more clear with Batman Returns that Tim Burton does not care about Batman at all except as an action figure who wears a cool cape—notice how everything else about him is so sketchily detailed. No, Burton’s attention is firmly on the monsters in his gothic netherworld: Penguin, Catwoman…even business Max Schreck, who is human, but just like his namesake you’d never be able to tell. The Penguin, far removed from the monacled, borderline-classy version from the Batman TV show, is played by DeVito as a sour, lecherous, thoroughly loathsome creature who even for a baby raised in the sewer descends to new depths of disgust. He seems like a compiled manifestation of human sins, refuse and fetishes, and there are tragic notes played here, but not enough of them, since eventually we discover everything the Penguin did was a lie, already consumed by hatred is he. His fate is predetermined, but only by himself. The Penguin’s final exit tries for pathos, but stops at pathetic, and stays there.
The star of the movie, for my money, is Pfeiffer as Catwoman, and not just because she prances around in a shiny bondage outfit…although I will be honest, that sometimes helps. Pfeiffer has a good handle on the fractured psyche of Selina Kyle, who essentially is turned into a monster by overcompensating at her job (I’ll ignore the puzzling sequence where stray cats bring her back from the dead). There’s an awful moment when she returns home and goes through routine, in shock, until she finally snaps and transforms her cuddly apartment into a goth nightmare. She fashions a costume and goes into the night as Catwoman, wreaking destruction. Where she learns martial arts is a mystery, but nevertheless she encounters Batman and overpowers him: physically, mentally, conceptually. There’s an underdeveloped side plot involving her affair with Bruce Wayne, which is so passionless and by-the-numbers that you would be forgiven for wondering during these scenes who the hell these people are. Oh, right. I forgot. Nobody cares.
Shreck, though played by the always-welcome Walken, is a strange presence in the movie, not just because of his overdone hair and bizarre demeanor, but because he changes shape to whatever the plot requires. Try to figure this out: he’s a department store owner who is good friends with the mayor, and is plotting to turn his power plant (his what?) into a giant capacitor, creating an energy deficit. How does this help him? Oh, no matter, it’s just an excuse to give Selina Kyle information she shouldn’t have and set her on the Catwoman path; the power plant plot is forgotten moments later. Shreck endorses The Penguin for mayor, with only cursory explanation for how this can be done, is blind to the Penguin’s massive character shortcomings, doesn’t notice the potential PR problem, and then bails at the first sign of trouble. In the end, he almost gets off scott-free, since Batman isn’t interested in him at all. If it weren’t for that pesky Catwoman. The role was originally written for Harvey Dent (Billy Dee Williams, from the first Batman), and hastily repackaged. It doesn’t work.
Lots of things don’t work about Batman Returns. The cluttered plot, for example, which set the tone for comic book sequels to pile on villains like fire wood. The goofy attempts at humor, which feel out of place in this serious-minded fable. And the central storyline, which involves Batman being framed for crimes committed by The Penguin, is ridiculous, and when combined with the mayoral election subplot, feels awfully mean-spirited, because both threads posit that the people of Gotham City are idiots. That could work in satire, but instead it is played straight, and the result is a mean-spirited joke, going against the kernel of hope for mankind that propels the Batman saga. The tone of the thing is irresponsibly grim, and the studio paid the price when their marketing tie-ins became poison to concerned parents. I don’t object to the fact that the movie’s not for kids; I just dislike the fact that I don’t know who it is for.
There are other things about Batman Returns that actually do work, and I would be remiss to mention them. First is Danny Elfman’s score, which combines the gothic opera sensibilities of the first film with Christmas rhythms, and it creates a chilling undertow through the proceedings. The production design, by Bo Welch (filling in for the late Anton Furst), is a triumph over the earlier work. The sets feel less like sets. We see more detail, and appreciate the little touches like frosty breath and constant snow; the actors apparently didn’t enjoy the refrigerated sets so much, but c’est la vie. And it’s altogether a prettier film than Batman Returns, with more color and depth; cinematographer Stefan Czapsky does nice work in visualizing the sewers in an interesting way. We feel entranced instead of wanting to hurl.
And I must give Tim Burton credit: he made his movie. The earlier Batman clearly had Burton in a position that was half-auteur, half-mercenary, and it showed. Here he has more freedom, more control, and dare I say more vision. He tries, like he did last time, to contort the legend of Batman into a shape that does not flatter it, but here he has more strength and confidence, and I like his style. The film feels more unified in its approach, more willing to discard aspects that are strictly commercial in favor of Burton’s dark dream. Of the two Burton Batman films, many cling to the original and sneer at the sequel, but I honestly feel that while the original felt rote and dispossessed, Batman Returns is most certainly his, and arguably contains his thesis statement for the franchise.
I, simply, reject that thesis. In the world of Gotham City, Batman is a crucial figure and a necessary one. In Burton’s funhouse, he’s a diseased figurehead that is on equal footing with the criminals, the monsters, the scum. And yet that epiphany–antithetical as it is–is not even anywhere on screen; Batman’s scenes of detection and violence are so rote, and performed with such little nuance, that the screenplay feels less like an attack on the Bat’s philosophy and more a vindication of his lifestyle that actually forgets to do any vindicating. The story of Batman is a canvas for parables of surprising depth and power; why is Burton’s aim so small? He bets against the grain of everything Batman can provide, and ends up with nothing to show for it. He mainly succeeds in drafting a cold, ugly, small-minded movie, a lump of coal in a stocking that can hold more and should hold more. Sorry, Batman. One day, someone will really get it. You’ll see.