Batman Returns (1992) Retrospective

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By: Kimberly Kuxhause

The 1989 Batman film left the franchise in a good place. It had success and a great cast, now it just needed a great sequel to boot. The talks for Batman‘s sequel began almost immediately after its box office boom, but director Tim Burton didn’t join the team until later. Why? He had said if he wanted to create a new Batman, it needed to be something spectacular and new. He received more creative control, and with a few revised scripts, and Batman Returns was born. To say Batman Returns surpassed its predecessor would be an understatement.

In terms of casting, the film achieved an incredible amount of success. Michael Keaton returned as Gotham’s tortured hero and he provided wonderfully genuine performances in both his Bruce Wayne and Batman personas. A lot of that came from Keaton’s own great acting. Batman kills by necessity or accident, and thus his presence in the city means something and he’s always painfully aware of that. Keaton portrayed a sense of urgency, to save Gotham from Max Shreck and itself that I just didn’t see in the previous film. However, a good deal of his success came from the all-star supporting cast. Michelle Pfeiffer absolutely crushed it as Selina Kyle/Catwoman. Her dissociative personalities were both distinct and believable, invoking both pity and judgment. In one scene, she’s a stressed damsel, yet in the next she’s a powerful agent of vengeance – although in some scenes she even managed to play both. The chemistry Pfeiffer shared with her costars was absolutely electric (quite literally in Shreck’s case). Even the Penguin, played by the brilliant Danny Devito, managed to hold his own despite her provocations. He gave the world such a monstrous version of the Penguin that it affected the character’s prominence in future adaptations, namely the TV show Gotham. And back when I first saw Batman Returns, the Penguin struck me as the most terrifying villain I’d ever seen. To this day, he still ranks among the top five scariest villains. There’s something absolutely horrifying about a man who laughs with you in one moment and bites off your nose in the next.

Artistically, Batman Returns remained similar to its predecessor. One of my favorite parts of any movie is the score, so I’m always listening for that extra oomph it packs into each scene. Danny Elfman brought his signature flair with his over-the-top orchestrations and dark whimsical tone. It perfectly complemented the gothic sets, dysfunction, and chaos brought by Burton’s directing. Devito’s Penguin receives a soaring opera score, and a whiny, creeping string suite accompanies Catwoman’s unhinged persona. With regards to design, Burton brought back the dark tone of the previous film. The soaring, and almost psychotic, sets mimicked the twisted psychological states of Gotham’s denizens. Yet the part I loved most was the underlying darkness of it all. Burton did a great job cultivating that dark twisted tone and through it, showing the equally twisted nature of society. Shreck might have been the most terrifying villain of all, for as he operated his evil schemes his actions were fully condoned by Gotham’s citizens.

This new iteration of Batman also prompted me to think of the ways we are all connected. Shreck, Wayne, and Cobblepot all shared similar traits – they were only children from wealthy families – yet they were all so different. What makes one man turn into a deranged murderer and the other into a depressed vigilante? Why does one aspire to do good while the other takes advantage of those who are good? Selina Kyle’s story inspires a second glance as well. Although she’s hailed as a feminist heroine, some of her actions are neither feminist nor heroic, like when she saves a damsel in distress. Sure, she defeats the attacker, but also punishes the woman being attacked. Her hatred towards victimized women shows the depth of hatred she feels towards herself, for being weak when Shreck attacked her before. We also see her hatred in the abduction of the Ice Princess. She only intends to frighten the poor girl, but the Penguin has other plans. It doesn’t phase her much though, apart from a passing, “We were only going to scare her,” Kyle raises no other concerns. In the end, I’m convinced her vendetta isn’t one for the greater good of women, but for her own selfish revenge fantasy against those who victimized her personally. Ultimately, her complex self-esteem issues and the brutal treatment she receives from society make her story a tragic one. Even after many viewings, I find the connections between the characters, the heroes and the villains, to be baffling and thought-provoking. Those connections, those threads of cause and effect, make the film far more than just a superhero film but a commentary on society. It brings me back, wanting more.

At this point in my viewing adventures, I dedicated myself to watching the entire Batman saga. I knew what lay ahead, the Nolan trilogy, so my hopes were absurdly high. And so, the next stop on our tour is Batman Forever (1995) – and guys, you better buckle up. I didn’t know it back then, but it’s going to be a bumpy ride.


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