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Director: Tim Burton
Writer: Daniel Waters (story), Sam Hamm
Starring: Michael Keaton, Michelle Pfeiffer, Danny DeVito, Christopher Walken
Release Date: June 19, 1992

Rating: 4.5 stars

Holy crap, it’s been a month since my first installment of this little “Batman on Film” series. Well, I think that should have been more than enough time for you readers out there to absorb all of the sage insights and revelations of the first piece, preparing you for this installment. That’s right, today I’ll be discussing the best of all the Batman movies, 1992’s Batman Returns, why I think the film is nearly pitch-perfect, and some where I think it fits in terms of public exposure to the character and franchise. Going forward, I’m going to assume you’ve seen the film: if not, please do so immediately.

First off, a little background: Returns is actually the first movie I ever took the time to see twice, and the first movie I saw alone*, unaccompanied by an adult. I suspect that’s part of what gives the movie its power over me: sitting there in the darkened theater opening weekend, allowed to let the pure cinematic experience wash over me. At that point, I was seriously into my comics-buying habit, Batman ’89 remained relatively fresh in my mind as a transformative film experience, and as we were still in that glory period where a movie could maintain a great deal of mystery in advance of its release. This would also mark the fourth mainstream film by Tim Burton that I’d have the opportunity to see, and it’s weird to think that at the time, at that age, I was starting to become cognizant of directors and their impact on films.

And so it, went: I saw Batman Returns (alongside apparently everyone else in America that summer), and I wonder if, at the time, I was aware of how truly odd it was as a piece of summer entertainment. We’re used to dark, violent, stylized, intensely sexual superhero fiction on film now, but I wonder what people thought of the parade of grotesques that populated Returns? For all of its theatricality and artifice, it’s a movie about profoundly damaged human beings, a couple of whom just happen to put on latex and traipse across the rooftops at night. Even if the conflict between the bat, the cat, and the bird didn’t grab you, the imagery alone contained powerful emotional content that remains impossible to ignore. I love how that great man of words, Roger Ebert, in his fairly negative review of the movie, still finds poetry in the opening:

“The film opens in cruelty and shame, as the parents of a deformed baby put him into his bassinet and drop him into the river on a cold, snowy Christmas night. The frail little craft floats downstream and into the sewers of Gotham City, where the infant is rescued and raised by the penguins who luckily happen to live there.”

Of course, that baby would grow up to be the Penguin, (DeVito), a masterpiece of Stan Winston make-up effects and highly theatrical performance on the part of the man in the suit. DeVito’s Penguin is essentially Batman/Bruce Wayne’s mirror throughout the film, in one of the screenplay’s obsession with parallels and masks. Where Bruce’s childhood tragedy forged him into a tightly controlled hero, Penguin (aka Oswald Cobblepot) was shaped into a misanthrope, a thing of the dark, of bitterness, and wild id. Likewise, Christopher Walken’s corrupt industrialist, Max Schreck, was the poisonous, amoral shape of wealth and privilege, where Bruce remained invested in the public good.

I’m not sure how well my thesis on mirroring holds when it comes to Selina/Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer): it’s thematically appropriate, perhaps that she’s alone in her experience, given that her character’s arc is one of a woman outside. After being “killed” by her boss, she’s pushed outside of herself into a new, outlaw identity, she’s pushed outside of sympathy, away from morality, and most importantly, driven towards reclaiming her sexuality. Which is, you know, a lot of a kid and movie-going audiences to process for a summer action blockbuster.

Still, consider that the original script for the movie—before Heathers screenwriter Daniel Waters took a crack at it—involved some nonsense about the Penguin and Catwoman teaming up to hunt down buried treasure, and you see that we were gifted with something special in 1992.

Back to Pfeiffer: she is brilliant in a role that requires an almost bipolar disposition, as Selina struggles with frequent betrayal from her boss and later, her collaborator, the Penguin. A running bit throughout the movie is how she keeps “dying,” losing one of her 9 lives each time. By the time her final scene under the sewers occurs, she’s been through physical and emotional hell, and her death scene is one simultaneously one of the most poignant and thematically appropriate in the entire franchise.

I have a good friend who actually hates that entire sequence set in the Penguin’s lair, when Batman unmasks alongside Selina in front of Shreck. He confessed that he felt it was off-putting—that Batman peeling off his mask in front of Shreck was out-of-character and out of the moment. From a technical standpoint, I’d have to agree with him that it doesn’t wholly make sense. But from a thematic standpoint, man, it’s perfect. At this point in the movie, everyone has either been figuratively or literally unmasked: the Penguin is revealed to be a homicidal maniac to the city; Shreck is a coward and his collaborator; Selina is the rooftop-traipsing villain. What would be more correct at that point than Batman to remove his mask, not only to bring Selina back from the edge and attempt (futilely) to keep her from killing Max, but also to draw an interesting line under this version of Batman: that Batman is the mask and Bruce Wayne is the true identity.

This clashes with much of the established fiction about the character and distinguishes the movie from so many other conceptions of Batman. We’ve been told for so long that Bruce Wayne is the mask that Batman wears but here it seems to be the opposite. For all of its moodiness and brooding, he might not be doomed to wear the costume forever. The ballroom scene, set to Siouxsie and the Banshee’s “Face to Face,” between Keaton and Pfeiffer, where each realizes the other’s alter ego is so powerful and so affecting—and ultimately, so tragic—because both people have created these literal and figurative masks, and for one brief moment, there’s the possibility that they might be able to move past them. It has one of the most knowing, but also well-delivered lines in the film, when Selina asks, “Oh my god. Does this mean we have to start fighting?” And then Bruce calmly, gently starts to lead her outside, and for a moment, minus the expectation of typical action movie beats, you might think that these two damaged people might be able to fix things.

And that’s perhaps what I love about the movie and this period of Burton’s films, leading all the way up to his masterwork, Ed Wood: it’s not just about damaged outsiders, but about how misfits can find a place for themselves (it’s just that in Burton’s visions they tend to get martyred before they can do so). It’s a pessimistic vision, sure, but it’s not especially dishonest in any way. I’ve reached a point where I could gladly never watch another new Tim Burton movie again, but this movie, this piece of art (in service to a big budget comic book franchise, no less) reminds me of the original power he had as a director and when a franchise could truly transcend its source material to become something new. And beautiful.

*The Ralph Bakshi flop Cool World from that summer being the second movie I was able to check out solo. I should really write something up on that in the near future. 

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Batman on Film: Batman Returns (1992)
4.5Overall Score