Whilst Batman ’89 could almost be considered a dark comedy, its 1992 follow up Batman Returns proves to be more of a tragedy. The first focused on the clown-like escapades of The Joker, who clearly has a love for his craft, but when The Penguin commits similar crimes it seems more sinister. This sinister tone was dulled down by Warner Brothers for 1989 audiences, but they took a step back in 1992, allowing director Tim Burton to have complete control over his project. Ultimately, this decision proved to be for the worse, as audiences decried that Batman Returns was far too ‘dark and twisted’. It never quite received the notoriety of its predecessor, or of the Joel Schumacher Bat-films that followed, but it has gained a respectable following over the years. It would seem that the film was dead on arrival, with only a mild resuscitation being possible, and I’d like to figure out why.
The film focuses on Oswald Cobblepot, better known as The Penguin, as he returns to the streets of Gotham city from the sewers below in an attempt to find his parents and, eventually, become the mayor. Along the way he is assisted by shrewd businessman Max Shreck and makes the acquaintance of Selina Kyle, better known as Catwoman. The prime similarity between Batman ’89 and Batman Returns is the distinct lack of Batman, which is not a bad thing. Bruce Wayne is a complex character, and some of that shines through here, but I think he might be at his best when we only see him through the villains’ eyes. It turns him into this mysterious and intimidating force while allowing us to spend more time with his villains, who are just as complex as he is, if not more so. There are 3 villains in this piece and many see claim that this is a flaw of the movie and others like it. Spider-Man 3, Iron Man 2, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Green Lantern all supposedly failed, in part, due to the surplus of villains. I would argue that this is a case of correlation not equalling causation. With Batman Returns specifically, the villains all work well off each other as well as furthering each others character arcs. Max Shreck is directly responsible for the birth of Catwoman, and attempts to use The Penguin to gain as much power in Gotham as he can. Catwoman is baying for Shreck’s head after the way he treated her and ends up conspiring with The Penguin because she cannot take down The Bat alone. The Penguin believes Shreck to be his ally while Catwoman may be his prize for reigning victorious over Gotham. The 3 of them exist in a perfect balance which is proved by Batman spending the majority of this film on the defence instead of the offence. This leads to tragic climax where these 3 ultimately prove to be each others downfalls.
Unlike some of the Bat-films that would follow, there is nothing triumphant about Batman Returns in theme or plot, choosing to be more about survival. Batman doesn’t win the climactic battle, he simply survives it, and you feel like those who do end up dying didn’t totally deserve it. The Penguin is constantly leering at women and even attempts to kill Catwoman for not giving in to his desires. Catwoman is determined to bring down the patriarchy, but also chastises other women for allowing it to be this way in the first place. Shreck is just a straight-up power-hungry sleaze-bag… but all 3 of them have a certain amount of charm and humanity to them. The performances from all involved are flawless, and the film around them is just as impressive. I find that Tim Burton’s early work when he was still figuring out his style is his most interesting, and Batman Returns is only his fifth film, with Batman ’89 being his third. The backgrounds paint a picture of a crime-ridden, smog-covered city without distracting from the main set pieces. Those set pieces are gorgeous in their own right, always keeping us in the realm that Burton has created without seeming too ridiculous. It all comes to a head with that beautiful Danny Elfman score, which builds upon compositions from Batman ’89. There is no denying that Burton and Elfman work excellently together, and their relationship is best shown through these early collaborations. I feel that they both found their zone as artists fairly early and that as the years went by, they failed to progress any further, but I absolutely relish that early work. There is genuinely a chord progression in Batman Returns that Elfman lifts for The Nightmare Before Christmas. They may no longer be the edgy, daring visionaries that they once were, but Batman Returns remains a masterpiece in my eyes. I can see why some viewers might be put off by the vulgarity that it features, and I can see how it may be a disappointment if you were expecting another Batman ’89 but Batman Returns remains depressingly, tonally, unapologetically Batman.
Until Next Time…