#3 in my ranking of theatrically released Batman films.
Much like the film that preceded it, Batman Returns is obviously built from several different scripts smooshed together. The difference is that it feels like either Daniel Waters, the final screenwriter, did his best to integrate the scripts into something surprisingly cohesive, or he got really lucky. I lean towards the former. The three main characters are all dealing with issues of duality, and that can’t be by accident.
Much like Burton’s first outing, Batman Returns nails the aesthetics once again. From beginning to end, Batman Returns looks fantastic, and I love the addition of the Yuletide setting. The snow, the cold, and the Christmas ornaments give the film a distinctive look that when added on top of the noir underpinnings provide a wonderful canvas to paint the movie on. Burton’s strong eye also returns, providing strong visual compositions that allow characters to exist in the large, ornate, and incredibly detailed sets created for the film instead of just being a series of closeups occasionally cut with some establishing shots.
The story does take some time to get going, though, and I don’t really have a problem with it. The first hour or so of the film is really setup for our two new characters, Danny DeVito’s The Penguin/Oswald Cobblepot and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman/Selena Kyle. The film opens with a pre-title sequence of The Penguin’s parents casting him into a river to be taken away into the sewers, and it’s gothic and tragic in all the right measures. He would grow up to take a rabble of circus performers and make them into a violent street gang based in the sewers where he hides in the shadows. Selena Kyle is a mousy secretary to Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), a flamboyant industrialist with plans for building a power plant that will work as a capacitor rather than a generator (this plotline ends up going nowhere, showing that Waters’ work couldn’t make up for everything). Kyle lives alone with her cat, gets dumped by her boyfriend over the phone, and has to deal with her mother calling all the time as well as voicemails from herself reminding her to return to the office and finish up work she knew she would forget. A quick push out of a high rise window, broken by a series of canopies, drops Kyle to the ground where she has some kind of break and becomes Catwoman.
Batman and Bruce Wayne is largely out of the film for the first half. He appears at an attack of the circus gang early, fighting them off, and he has some brief interactions with Selena establishing an attraction between the two alongside a small scene with Shreck where Wayne promises to fight Shreck’s power plant (again, it goes nowhere). He’s mostly sidelined to the point where we wonder if this is actually a Batman movie or not, until the lengthy introductions are done, that is. The actual plot of the film is Shreck fronting the Penguin as a mayoral candidate in an effort to unseat the sitting mayor through a recall. The Penguin, left in the sewers his whole life and treated like an animal, is brought to the surface and feted as the savior of Gotham City, creating a sort of mask hiding who he really is. Alternatively, both Batman and Catwoman operate under masks when they go out into the world and show what could be their true selves.
There’s a key scene where Bruce invites Selena over for dinner at the house, and Bruce has to explain why Vicky Vale isn’t in this movie. For explanations that try to paper over these kinds of behind the scenes contract issues, this is a good one because it gives us a look into the life of the character himself. He has two truths, he explained both to Vicky, and she couldn’t reconcile the two truths, leaving him alone. He’s explaining this unknowingly to someone going through the exact same thing, and they end up perfect for each other. This is really strongly compelling stuff. It just takes a little while to get to it, but when we’re there, as well as a later scene where the two mutually discover each other’s secret identities at a costumed ball (where they are the only two without masks), it’s shockingly precise. This is the sort of stuff that both makes this film so compelling beyond the visual and is what the first one was completely missing. There was nothing under the pretty surface of the first one. There is actual examination of the characters in the second, and it’s quality stuff.
And yet, the movie didn’t really know what kind of evil plot should materialize. Reading (very briefly) about the scriptwriting process, this seems to have been a sticking point late in the game. What we end up with is twofold. The first plan is The Penguin deciding to take out his anger on his parents on the rich of Gotham by stealing their first-born children in the middle of the night and killing them (grim stuff). When Batman very quickly ends this peril, The Penguin then…er…he sends an army of penguins with missiles strapped to their back to the center of the city to kill 100,000 people. This stuff missile stuff comes out of nowhere, probably put in to provide for a flashier kind of action ending rather than an ending that more naturally fit.
The real standout of the ending is, of course, the stuff between Catwoman and Batman, Bruce Wayne having some level of acceptance of his two lives but Selena being unable to do the same with her own, eventually just falling to her own anger at Shreck.
If these movies had had more time to figure things out at the script stages, a lot of my issues would have been addressed. As it is, the second of Burton’s two Batman films had the better script and came out far better for it. Performances are generally strong, though DeVito can’t quite pull off the tragic the role calls for. Pfeiffer is great, though.
This is a combination of a smart script that understands its characters with some wrinkles left over combined with a director with a strong visual sensibility that meshes well with the material. The aesthetics are on point, the performances are good, and the script actually takes its characters seriously enough to examine them clearly. It’s very good stuff.