This is the second part in our ongoing Batman series leading up to the release of Batman: Arkham Knight. If you would like to read the first review in the series, click here.
After the success of Tim Burton’s 1989 hit Batman, it shocked no-one when a sequel was announced. But, as I’m sure you know, he was never brought back for a third entry. Today, I am going to discuss why, in my review of Batman Returns.
In Batman Returns, Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) has settled down as Batman, and with the Joker and Vicki Vale out of his life, is returning to his form of normality. However, from the sewers emerges Penguin (Danny DeVito), an orphaned child raised alone, and alongside Selina Kyle/Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), plans to bring Batman’s city of Gotham to its knees.
The plot of Batman Returns is a very mixed bag. At times, it tells a heartfelt tale of a man left isolated in this world, becoming more of a tragedy, but then takes a u-turn by introducing ridiculous plot devices that feel out of place. The film’s plot feels slightly too bloated due to the multitude of villains, all with different plots and motives, whilst still having to be a Batman film. That is where I believe Batman Returns falls down: it doesn’t know whether it wants to be a tragedy or a comedy, which leaves it feeling very lacklustre. The second half of the film is the main culprit of this. For example, one moment Penguin is riding a duck boat, and the next he is coughing up phlegm, covered in blood and falls, dead, to the floor: the film tries to reach out to everyone with its plot, but end up falling short of wholly pleasing anyone.
That said, the best parts of Batman are still here in Batman Returns. Michael Keaton is sublime once again as Bruce Wayne, arguably (and in my opinion) better than the first entry, with an even more layered performance that proves how fantastic he is. In the suit he is also brilliant, and although given less to do than in the first film, capitalises on his screen time. As per the first film, the design of Gotham city is superb, and I can’t get enough of Burton’s gothic and dark vision of Batman’s city. The Batmobile is also back and as stylish and sleek as ever, and it makes me sad that the film’s hero gets pushed to the sidelines, because Keaton’s Batman is easily one of my favourites as Batman.
Michelle Pfeiffer is also fantastic as Catwoman and Selina Kyle, giving a performance as layered as Keaton’s due to the various personalities of both Selina and her feline alter-ego. She has great chemistry with Keaton and when on screen together they are electrifying, but more importantly believeable as a couple, something that couldn’t be said for Keaton and Kim Basinger in the first. It was great to see the development of the series, as in the first film, the leading lady was only there to scream and be saved, whereas here Catwoman is fierce and truly a force to be reckoned with. I would say Pfeiffer’s performance is better than Anne Hathaway’s in The Dark Knight Rises, making her the best cinematic Catwoman yet.
Danny Elfman once again knocks it out of the park, not only bringing back the classic score from Batman, but adding in segments and new tracks entirely to signify the change in tone. We hear a lot more organs than in the first film, suitable considering its tone, and it proves that Elfman is truly one of the greatest film composers of all time.
Tim Burton’s direction is also better here than in Batman. Although I didn’t write it in my review, I felt that the action scenes in the 1989 film felt clunky and didn’t flow, something I can wholeheartedly say is not the case in Batman Returns. Action scenes are fluid, believable and very tense at times, proving to be some of the film’s best moments. The fights are choreographed superbly and the pyrotechnics are brilliant, especially the series of large explosions in the film’s final act.
However, that is where my praise for Batman Returns ends. Unfortunately, I really couldn’t stand Danny DeVito’s Penguin. Admittedly, at times I enjoyed his performance, thinking he helped make Penguin a tragic character that may deserve the viewer’s sympathy, but there were other times where I just cringed. His performance is pretty hammy – typically DeVito – and his character’s plan is awful, not fitting in at all with the tone of the film or having any correlation with the previous events. I feel like some of the scenes that would’ve helped me like the character more were rushed, especially the falling-out of Catwoman and Penguin, which felt forced and hard to believe. If that scene had been done better, and perhaps if his character was taken out of the film altogether and saved for another film with less villains, I may be saying the opposite.
Tonally, Batman Returns is all over the place, quite like its plot. As mentioned, at times the film is so dark and depressing, with truly sadistic and depraved characters on-screen that invoked true terror into me, but at other times it felt like a corny 90s comedy, with cringe-worthy innuendos and ridiculous plot devices leaving this film feel like a tug of war between Burton, who clearly pushed for a darker and more depressing tone, and the studio, who wanted to sell tickets and merchandise. If Burton had won, we may have seen him helm the third installment, and maybe even see this film with a better reputation.
Batman Returns manages to retain some of Batman‘s best elements, such as the brilliant design, performances and score, but is dragged down by a muddled plot and tone that never really knows where it is going.
I give Batman Returns 7 out of 10.