Following the huge success of Tim Burton’s Batman, a sequel was inevitable. It’s also clear that Burton was allowed a lot more creative leeway in directing Batman Returns than he had on the first film. The 1989 film had scattered touches of the director’s off-center visual sensibilities, but the 1992 sequel was set in a world that was Burton-esque from wall to wall.
To try to top Jack Nicholson’s balls-to-the-wall portrayal of the Joker, Returns gives us three, count ’em, three villains for our movie-going bucks. The Penguin (Danny DeVito), Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Max Shreck (Christopher Walken). You would think with this kind of A-List talent on hand, however, that Batman Returns would bat better than .333 in the villain department. Of the three, only Catwoman manages to emerge as a full-blooded character.
The film opens with the Stork making a stop at the Cobblepot residence. Unfortunately, little Oswald Cobblepot is a bulbous little blob with flipper-like hands and an appetite for the family cat, horrifying his high-society parents. Like Moses in The Ten Commandments, he’s placed in a bassinet and sent floating downstream. Something like that could definitely cause somebody to have issues and Oswald has issues to spare.
The story jumps forward 33 years to find Selina Kyle, a mousy secretary working for department store tycoon and industrialist Max Shreck, who has a nefarious but ill-defined plan to suck the energy from the city. When Selina discovers this scheme, her reward is to get shoved out of a top-floor window by her boss. She is somehow revived by the alley cats on the street below and transformed from frumpy to kinky, er, slinky. She sews a skintight rubber “catsuit” out of an old raincoat and becomes Catwoman, out to avenge her own murder.
Meanwhile Oswald Cobblebot, who has lived in the Gotham sewers since being rescued and raised from an infant by some penguins who apparently escaped from the now-defunct Gotham Zoo, emerges with a plan to take revenge against the city’s wealthiest citizens, who he equates with the parents who abandoned him. He blackmails Shreck into helping him. Soon, an uneasy alliance forms between these three villains as they unite to defeat the only person who can stop them, Batman (Michael Keaton).
With a set-up like this, is it any wonder that Batman seems like a guest star in his own movie? Like the first movie, Keaton is on hand mostly to fill the rubber suit while his co-stars get all the big scenes and juicy dialogue. The decision, intentional by all accounts, to make Batman a cipher while letting the villains dominate the movies was a miscalculation that hurt each of the first four Batman films.
Michelle Pfeiffer steals this film as Gotham’s favorite feline dominatrix. Ask a hundred people what they remember about Batman Returns and I’ll bet a lot of them say, “Michelle Pfeiffer in a rubber suit.” The last time Pfeiffer was this overtly sexy and this much fun was The Fabulous Baker Boys.
Danny DeVito gives his all but unfortunately his character is a major blunder as written. Making the Penguin a pathetic, deformed freak (rather than the dapper mobster of the comic books) was simply the wrong move. People wanted to see a Batman movie, not Edward Flipperhands. The Penguin is consistent with Tim Burton’s identification with freakish outsiders (as are Batman and the Catwoman) but just not the right choice for this movie.
The third villain here, Max Shreck, is almost an empty shirt, memorable only for being named after the star of the 1922 vampire film, Nosferatu. He’d be completely forgettable if Christopher Walken wasn’t playing him. Walken, it seems, is physically incapable of not being interesting.
Just like the first Batman, you have colorful bad guys whose plans don’t make much sense, a story that limps to a somewhat flaccid ending and a hero that barely registers as a character. At least the film’s haunted gothic set design is a wonder to look at and Danny Elfman delivers another great score.