I don’t remember seeing Batman Returns in theaters in 1992, but I know I saw it sometime around its original release (possibly that Christmas on VHS). I remember not only disliking the movie, but being offended by how bad it was. In the 22+ years since, I don’t recall ever giving Batman Returns another look until last night. It was worse than I remembered. Much, much worse.
I think the biggest reason Batman Returns is so bad is that it mistakes campiness for avant-garde. There were certainly campy moments in the original Batman film, but they were subtle and sporadic. In this movie, 1966-style campiness reigns from the first to last frame. This is quite ironic, because the major reason (in my opinion) that Batman worked the way it did was because it wasn’t afraid to be bold, daring, and quite violent. Not that it was in any way realistic or earnest, just that it was not overt with its lighter side and it had a smart, satirical tone to it.
But this… this is just…. dumb. How dumb? Let me count the ways:
The very premise is ludicrous
I’ll never hold it against a comic book movie for not staying true to the source material (it’s not their job to translate the comic, it’s their job to make a good popular movie). Obviously, this Penguin is much different than his comic book counterpart. But then again, so was The Joker in the previous film and it didn’t seem out of place. We’re supposed to believe that a potty-mouthed freak with no apparent skills, superpowers or even intelligence, is capable of running an organized crime gang? We’re supposed to believe that the townspeople would believe that he’s some kind of charity case and worthy of being mayor?
We’re supposed to believe that Selina Kyle can be revived from the dead by cats? There is nothing in this universe that would indicate there are supernatural forces at work. In fact, the movie doesn’t even go that route (which might’ve been a bit more plausible) even to pander to the audience. Clearly, realism is not something Tim Burton concerns himself with. That’s fine if the tone fits and embraces fantasy, but it just doesn’t work here.
Max Shreck is clearly the token evil tycoon, so the screenplay doesn’t bother to waste time with details of his master plan. You’re just supposed to accept that his “reverse power plant” makes sense. I actually thought Christopher Walken was great in this role (in fact, of the four main stars he delivers the best performance). It’s too bad this character is just stock and one-dimensional.
Batman is still a wussy
I mentioned in my review of the first Batman movie that this Batman was in no way intimidating, and in Batman Returns he’s even more of a milquetoast. Keaton actually has many more lines and more screen time in this movie, but his Batman is even more timid, flat, and just plain uninteresting this time. There’s very little action in this movie, too. Well, action that involves Batman doing anything other than driving, that is. Back in 1989 he fought a bunch of goons hand-to-hand, but here he fights Catwoman for all of 10 seconds. His “heroics” all come with him at the helm of the Batmobile and the Batboat. He rarely talks and when he does it’s just whispers. How could anyone be afraid of this man? He really does look like a nutjob in a costume.
The people of Gotham City are complete and total rubes
The entire plot of the movie is based on the fact that the city folk are gullible imbeciles. That was true, to an extent, in the original movie (e.g. the scene where Joker gives away all the money). Here, all the major plot points are both dependent upon and advanced by the idiocy of the masses. To wit: the Penguin “saves” the mayor’s baby from a crazy criminal. Though no one actually sees him save the baby, they just buy the fact this obese, disfigured freak somehow managed to foil a kidnapping in literally five seconds. Later on, Penguin and Catwoman try to frame Batman through a series of overly elaborate stunts and conspiracies (I would never in a million years believe that the goons of the Red Triangle Gang were not only capable to break into the Batmobile that they had the technical know-how to re-wire and hack it). There’s also the scene where the “Ice Princess” falls to her death and they look up and see Batman and immediately conclude that he pushed her to her death. And of course the whole Penguin running for mayor campaign even though he hasn’t done anything to gain the people’s respect and trust other than “foil” the “kidnapping.”
It’s hard to root for the superhero if the people he’s trying to protect are morons.
DeVito and Pfeiffer ham it up/Keaton is stiff
I still think Danny DeVito was indeed well-cast as The Penguin; however, his performance is just too much. Whereas Nicholson “chewed scenery” as The Joker, DeVito destroys scenery. Every line is loud and over-enunciated. He’s meant to elicit pity from the people when he reveals his sob story of how his parents abandoned him as a baby, but even when he does this he still sounds like a cliché villain. When a villain needs to garner sympathy he usually tones it down, but in this instance The Penguin stays at a consistent level of brash annoyance.
Much like DeVito, I do feel that Michelle Pfeiffer was well-cast as Catwoman… but not as a Selina Kyle. Pfeiffer has always been known as a bombshell, so it’s difficult to buy her as the frail, homely, socially awkward Selina Kyle. Her performance in costume as Catwoman seems to be a direct emulation of Julie Newmar’s character from the 1966 Batman TV show. She talks as though she’s sexually aroused whenever she’s in character; she’s not intimidating as a villain, she’s just annoying and distracting.
Both of these performances would be ignorable if Michael Keaton wasn’t totally stiff. He’s supposed to be a super friggin’ hero, but he comes across as an ordinary shmuck with a monotone voice. Where’s the anger? Where’s the passion? Where’s the attitude that would strike fear in the heart of criminals?
It’s difficult to rally around this character.
Too many WTF moments
In addition to Selina Kyle’s resurrection, there are plenty of other WTF moments scattered throughout the film, namely:
- Batman punching a hole through the Batmobile floor.
- The Batmobile still being able to pinpoint the exact location of the foreign object despite being completely stripped and hacked in the previous scene.
- The Penguin is supposed to be only 33 years old and his parents are both already dead.
- Catwoman having fighting skills comparable to Batman with no training whatsoever.
- Batman foolishly ripping off his mask with Max Shreck right there (and no black makeup around his eyes)
- The army of remote-control penguins
- The Batsymbol on the CD player and Bruce Wayne “scratching” the CD like a D.J.
- The Batmobile “ride” inside The Penguin’s command truck.
As annoying as the constant plotholes and ridiculous story elements are, what really sinks Batman Returns is that it doesn’t seem to care. You’re just supposed to accept the silliness as genuine action and suspense rather than campiness. I’m sorry, but I just can’t do that.
FUN FACT: DC Comics launched another on-going series as a tie-in to this film: Shadow of the Bat, which ran until 2000 after 96 issues.