Batman Returns does not elicit the same sense of nostalgia for me that Batman does, so it should be easier to remain objective. This one is again directed by Tim Burton and stars Michael Keaton (Jack Frost, Herbie: Fully Loaded). One clear memory I have from 1992, regarding the movie, is one of my dad’s friends complaining about the movie’s content. I think he wrote a letter to someone (I have no idea to whom). Despite the controversy that mostly went over my head, I saw the movie.
I remember liking it well enough. The Penguin was disgusting and scary. I cannot imagine I understood the Max Schrek (Christopher Walken) storyline at all. There were a few iconic moments that I especially remember. Penguin biting the guy’s nose, Catwoman blowing up the building, Penguin driving a duck car/boat, or even Penguin’s gruesome death scene. That last one was the scene that angered my dad’s friend especially.
To watch the movie now is a very different experience. It is not even that I am an adult (I am sure I have watched it in the last five years or so). It is that I am a father. That (rightly so) changes things. It changes how I view and take in media. Watching Batman Returns, I found myself thinking, “this is very inappropriate for children.” So I did some research into it.
I guess the massive success of Batman gave Tim Burton more creative control over the follow up. And it shows. The character of Batman is darker in this movie. I have already written about his breaking his rule in Batman. In this one, it is even more drastic. He sets fire to one goon, blows up another. He talks a lot less and broods more. The Penguin’s plot to kill all of Gotham’s first born is as morbid as it gets. Then there is the innuendo, that I certainly did not understand as a kid. Though, to call it innuendo is being generous. Often times, the dialog is pretty explicit. Needless to say, when the movie came out, parents wrote letters and boycotted McDonald’s for selling Happy Meals with Batman Returns toys. The movie was wrongfully marketed to children.
Anyway, getting back on track, re-watching it now, it certainly is not the best Batman movie. It is loosely based on the source material. It is more of a Tim Burton movie than a Batman movie. This is not an entirely bad thing. The characters are larger than life and even sympathetic in their own ways. Penguin is orphaned by his parents, grows up in the sewers, and finds his way into a circus gang (naturally). Catwoman was a mousy secretary before being pushed out of a window by her crooked boss. After being resuscitated by alley cats, she seeks vengeance.
Burton has a flair for visuals and setting a particular mood. Even now, the Penguin’s death is haunting, and I find myself getting caught up in it. Danny Elfman’s score adds to the creepy gravitas of the penguin pallbearers, which in any other filmmakers hands, would have been completely goofy.
But there are goofy moments in the movie as well. Burton does well creating atmosphere for this movie but comes up short with story. It was hard for me to suspend disbelief and believe that this grotesque Penguin (who bit a man’s nose in plain view of hundreds of people) could give the sitting mayor of Gotham a run for his money in an election. The plots to frame Batman were silly. Hijacking the batmobile with a strange device? Framing him for murder? Batman walked right into that last one, something the Dark Knight would not do.
At the core of my complaints with Tim Burton’s Batman movies, and I know I am not alone, is that he tweaks the character of Batman. This is common in the world of comic books, when several artists are involved. However, I am not a fan of the changes he makes. They are not as interesting and take away from the story. That said, I am actually okay with the major changes to Penguin and Catwoman, mostly because both are played wonderfully by Danny DeVito and Michelle Pfeiffer.
Batman Returns is dark and moody with good performances and a great score. It is definitely not for kids, but it does stray into the realm of cartoonish at times. Radio controlled penguins packing heat, anyone?