At the time that I first watched Batman Returns, I still wasn’t completely a Batman fan. That came later, when I became a fan of Batman: The Animated Series and then when I discovered the Batman comics in more depth. I hadn’t seen this film since it aired, though at the time I remember liking it well enough, even though I knew it didn’t have the same magic that Batman ’89 did. With that in mind, it seemed worthwhile to revisit this film and see how well this movie holds up over time.
If I were to watch it for the first time today, knowing what I do about Batman now, I probably would have been much less kind to this film. Not because this film is terrible, because it isn’t, but because the script is extremely flawed. This movie went through scripting and production woes in the early process and it shows. The original script by Sam Hamm didn’t work nearly as well as the one he did for Batman ’89, involving a treasure hunt for a Maltese Falcon inspired MacGuffin. Later on, Daniel Waters (best known for Heathers) came in, and his draft is largely responsible for many of the changes to the characters in this film, as well as the removal of Kim Basinger’s Vicki Vale (who appeared in the first film). In addition, Burton was given much more creative control of the film that he did in Batman ’89, and because of this, it feels more like a Burton film than a Batman film.
One noticeable issue is the complete lack of a character arc for Batman, so much so that he’s lost in his own movie. Batman’s character in Batman Returns is reacting to the needs of the plot and little more. To the extent where he’s the focus at all, it is (as my good friend and Batman fan David Taylor has noted) mainly as a study in dual identity. Batman does not face any sort of internal conflict in his battle with these villains, he does not learn anything from them, and so the movie becomes an exercise in meaningless action scenes. Catwoman seems far more like the heroine of the movie in many respects, complete with her own origin and a quest for revenge that leads to self-discovery of who she is. Even the Penguin learns and changes more than Bruce Wayne does in this movie. The movie is so crowded with other characters and their stories that it loses sight of its main hero.
The villains are also not at all reflective of who these characters are in the comics, not even to the extent that they were in the first film. Batman ’89 made changes to the Joker, but he was still recognizably the Joker, even if his origin was intertwined with Batman’s. Catwoman maintains a few elements in common with the comics version, at least once she’s established, mainly the thieving and the romantic tension with Batman. However, the revenge story is unique to this film, and worse, it began the “Hollywood Nerd” trope, where an attractive Hollywood actor plays the nerd in an unconvincing way as a villainous origin story. This origin paved the way for similar bad supervillain origins in comic book films, including Electro in Amazing Spider-Man 2, Guy Pearce’s character in Iron Man 3, and most recently, Cheetah in Wonder Woman 1984. Penguin is even worse, essentially being reinvented as a psychotic version of the Fantastic Four’s Mole Man, in contrast to the sane but ruthless gangster he is in the comics. This film also vastly overplays the animal-themed origins of these villains, whether it’s giving Catwoman nine lives for no in-story reason or having Penguin being literally raised by penguins in Tarzan-style fashion. As their own distinct versions, these characters are coherent and interesting, but they bear no relation to their comics counterparts at all. Perhaps the most interesting villain of the lot is Max Shreck (named for the German filmmaker), a corrupt businessman that is meant to mirror Bruce Wayne, but is ruthless, manipulative, and concerned for his personal legacy.
In addition, there are inconsistencies in the scripting and plot issues that don’t make very much sense. Batman attempting to prevent Catwoman from becoming a murderer would be in character for him, but this is undermined by the fact that Batman openly kills several people in brutal ways in this film. Because of this, the final scene between Batman and Catwoman that should be poignant and heartbreaking instead comes across as Batman being hypocritical and self-righteous. Additionally, Bruce’s unmasking is not earned and doesn’t make sense with Shreck right there. Penguin’s character arc and villainous scheme is initially quite fascinating, trying to take over the city of Gotham by running for mayor, but when this fails, his backup plans are cartoonish and silly. The scene of Penguin taking over the Batmobile is an interesting idea, but the setup isn’t sufficiently explained—how, for instance, are Penguin’s goons able to crack the security on the Batmobile? To be fair, there are many great ideas in this movie and some truly excellent scenes, but the script wasn’t sufficiently thought out.
That having been said, there are many good points that work in this film’s favor and help to overcome the numerous writing problems. Taken as its own story with no prior connections to other media, the Catwoman story is generally quite enjoyable, and the Penguin works as a charismatic and villainous figure in the piece. Max Shreck is easily my favorite character in this film, perhaps because he’s confined to this film, and Christopher Walken gives him an edge of menace at just the right moments. Many individual scenes are quite good, including the costume party scene between Keaton and Pfeiffer. Bruce and Selina do offer excellent romantic and sexual tension within the film, and their love story would have been quite well done if not for the execution problems elsewhere. Burton’s visual flair is even better here than in Batman ’89, with a good Art Deco vision of Gotham and some truly macabre sets, such as the Penguin’s lair and Catwoman’s apartment. The action set-pieces are also extremely good, and even if much of the story doesn’t work, the visuals and the action help carry the film.
Additionally, the film is saved in large part by an amazing cast that makes these characters work despite the numerous writing problems. Michael Keaton is still a solid presence as Batman, although the script unfortunately doesn’t give him much real meat to work with. He makes the most of the role he’s given, and his scenes as Bruce Wayne, especially opposite Michelle Pfeiffer, are quite good. Danny DeVito is outstanding in his performance as Penguin, and he’s highly entertaining to watch as he steadily becomes more unhinged. Although not reflective of the true Penguin character, DeVito brings charisma and sinister presence as the film’s main villain. Michelle Pfeiffer is an actress I’ve enjoyed in many films over the years, and she’s excellent as Catwoman once she’s fully settled into the role of anti-heroine. The “Hollywood nerd” angle does not work—Pfeiffer is far too glamorous and attractive for that to ever make sense—but once she’s Catwoman, she truly shines. At that point, she brings out a seductive power to her Catwoman while at the same time not being sleazy or demeaning. At the same time, she has authority in the role and the viewer takes Pfeiffer seriously as an antagonist. Pfeiffer’s performance honors Selina Kyle extremely well, even if the writing misses the mark. Christopher Walken is an actor I’ve loved in numerous films, and he excels in villainous roles, as he does with Shreck. Walken oozes manipulative sleaze, but he has moments where he is truly sinister as well as some where we see a brief glimpse of his humanity. Shreck is a ruthless and corrupt businessman, but he shows genuine concern for his son, and thus he comes across as a layered and interesting character between the writing and Walken’s acting. The stellar cast truly elevates what is otherwise mediocre material, making it far better than the script is on paper.
Although I’m critical of this film on many levels, I can’t hate this movie either. Batman Returns a movie that is more representative of Burton’s true vision, and those kinds of films are always fascinating even if they don’t always work. This a film that manages to be just entertaining enough, mainly through the quality of the performances, some excellent visual direction, the excellent Danny Elfman theme, and the consistent action. It also helps that this film compares well to the later Schumacher films, easily the low point of Batman on screen. At the same time, the writing on Batman Returns simply does not hold up as a Batman film, especially compared to Batman ’89, Batman: The Animated Series, and the later Nolan Dark Knight films. It’s a film worth seeing once or twice if you’re curious, but it’s one that’s best to watch streaming on HBO Max if you’re a subscriber. While I’m sympathetic to what this film tries to be, and I enjoy it where it works, there are far better Batman films out there that are worthy of your time.
Director: Tim Burton
Writers: Daniel Waters and Sam Hamm
Cast: Michael Keaton, Michelle Pfeiffer, Danny DeVito, Christopher Walken, Michael Gough, Pat Hingle