Batman Returns is messed up. And by messed up, I really mean whacked out like crazy. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, but when you’re dealing with a franchise character like Batman, a little fidelity to the source would have been nice.
Returns, though it was still directed by Tim Burton and starring Michael Keaton as Batman, does not take place on the same planet as the first one. While Batman ’89 portrayed a Gotham City with decaying overcrowded streets run by mobsters lurking in shadows who are aided by a corrupt police force, Returns takes place in a slick art-deco Gotham with monsters in the sewers and supernatural cats in the alleys. Instead of pinstriped crime lords there are crazy circus people terrorizing the city in large Christmas packages. Instead of an impoverished urban street scene, everyone in Gotham is now an upper-middle class moron that no one feels sorry for.
Burtons reformed vision is definitely stylistically interesting, much like the first one, but for different reasons. While the grim madness of the first served as a backdrop for Batman’s quest to release his neurotic angst by fighting crime, the zany new Gotham City serves as more of a home for Batman. He seems less like the city’s savior and more like just another crazy in a strange suit walking around (Batman walks even more in this movie. Why would he ever walk anywhere? Run or drive Batman. Nothing else). In fact, Batman is hardly even in the movie. Returns should have been called Edward Penguin Face. It’s not only that the villains are more interesting than Batman in this movie, it’s that they are actually the central focus of the whole thing. The only thing Batman does is fall in love with Salina Kyle and slurp cold soup. Burton even goes out of his way to show that Batman/Bruce Wayne is so crazy and uninteresting that apparently when he is not fighting crime he sits in an empty room waiting for the Bat Signal (wouldn’t someone notice that Bruce Wayne has huge searchlights with batlogos in them outside his window?).
Not everything about the movie is bad though. Because Batman is a character that has been reinvented so many times, it’s always fascinating to see how different people interpret him. For example Grant Morrison’s graphic Novel Arkham Asylum is a fan favorite, but I think it’s crazy for many of the same reasons I don’t understand Batman Returns. In Morrison’s story Batman does really macabre things like shove broken glass into his hand while he thinks about his parent’s murder. Not my cup of tea, but there are plenty of Batman fans who find it interesting. To me that is where Batman Returns fits in; it will never be considered any sort of “definitive” version of the character, but it is an interesting interpretation. Burton has always shown a great love for classic horror movies and German expressionistic influences in his films, so it is possible to assume that Returns is Burton’s Nosferatu Batman.
I think it’s also important not to overlook Michele Pfifer’s portrayal as Catwoman. While not perfect, it’s still a riveting performance, and Catwoman’s back story in Returns is a lot more interesting to me than Frank Miller’s noble prostitute (every interesting Woman has to be a prostitute in Frank Miller’s world). And even though I still think The Penguin is one of the most outrageous characters ever put on film (he spews black grossness for no reason. All the time. For no reason.) Devitto’s performance is definitely worth praising.
When you realize that what you are watching isn’t really a Batman movie so much as a Burton movie it becomes a much more fascinating watch. The fact that everyone in Gotham is a bunch of ignorant judgmental tools makes sense since many of Burton’s other films (Edward Scissorhands, Beatlejuice, Ed Wood) portray crowds and “normal people” as simply outsiders to the reality that Burton has created. He isn’t terribly sympathetic to these people, so neither is Batman. In fact, it seems as if he kind of loathes them. Even Danny Elfman’s music sounds like self parody of his work from the first Batman film mixed with outtakes from Edward Scissorhands. This was also a period where Burton thought that snow and Christmas were for some reason fascinating, and both elements played an important role in many of his films during this period (in fact Scissorhands was a fairy tale about snow), so it’s no surprise that Returns takes place at Christmas for no reason.
Taking all of the above into consideration, the best way to watch Batman Returns is by mentally divorcing it from the source material. It should be watched in the context of Burton as a visually stimulating and often brilliant filmmaker, not as a Batman movie. Though there are plenty of silly moments (The Penguin’s constant innuendos, that stupid computer programmed batarang, Bruce Wayne “scratching” a CD, and the militant penguins to name a few) the dynamic of Bruce finding a tormented equal in Salina Kyle allows you to maintain at least a little interest in what’s going on, and as I mentioned earlier, the visuals are never boring. If it’s not a perfect Batman movie, then at least it’s interesting and original, which is more than a lot of blockbusters can say for themselves.
Movie Grade – c+
Bat Grade – C-
Grading Key: F– There is nothing reedemable about this movie : D – Don’t waste your time, maybe if it’s free: C – Nothing special, way too much wrong with it to call it good, not enough wrong with it to hate it. General indifference: B – Good movie. Some things don’t quite get there, but it’s still special. Certainly worth a watch at least once: A – Great movie. There is no good excuse not to see it.