Rated PG-13 for brooding, dark violence
Running time: 126 min.
Release date: June 19, 1992
Following the success of Batman in 1989, Tim Burton was hesitant to follow up with a sequel, even though Warner Bros. were excited to proceed with one. It took a screenplay written by Daniel Waters to convince Burton to start the project. Burton returned to the gothic-noir of the comic book-style Gotham City, which is one of the film's high points. However, Batman Returns has other issues, not the least of which is an overall sense of campiness.
The film opens with the origin of The Penguin (Danny DeVito). He was born to a wealthy couple, but came out disfigured, as we get a scene of the doctor running out of the room looking like he is about to vomit. His parents keep him locked up in a cage and eventually determine to toss him off a bridge into the river below, where he floats aimlessly down into the Gotham sewer system, where he is found by a family of penguins below the Gotham Zoo. This is all a rather dark origin story, but the fact that it appears to be given a comedic twinge sends a mixed message.
Flash forward to present day Gotham, where businessman Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) is meeting with the mayor (Michael Murphy) about his proposed power plant. They take part in a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony that is abruptly raided by a vicious gang of criminal circus performers. The Bat Signal is sent up, and Bruce Wayne responds, interrupting his silent brooding musings in the dark confines of Wayne Manor. Batman appears on the scene to save the day (or night, in this case). One such potential victim was beleaguered secretary of Max Shreck, Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer). We follow Selina home and learn that she is a lonely, pathetic sort with no one to talk to but her cats. This scene is good at establishing how pathetic Selina really is, but perhaps it lays that characterization on a little too thick. Later, Selina discovers that her boss's plans for the power plant a little more criminal than they appear, leading to her demise at the hands of Shreck himself.
Meanwhile, The Penguin has taken Shreck to his underground lair to blackmail him into helping him become a respected citizen of Gotham City. Shreck has the idea to have Penguin supplant the current mayor, which would help him move his evil power plant towards fruition. Selina lies dead or unconscious (we are never really told, but can assume the "nine lives" theory here) in an alley but is brought back around by several stray cats and begins to exhibit odd behavior. She immediately begins to act the opposite of her normal personality and is compelled to fancy herself a leather cat suit. When we read comic books, we accept most origin stories without questioning "why?" In the movies, these types of origins don't come off that well. There are no internal dialogue scenes here to establish exactly WHY Selina acts differently and creates her own costume by hand. It's one of the faults of the screenplay.
After an explosion in one of Shreck's department stores in downtown Gotham, Batman meets the newest villain on the scene, Catwoman. Suddenly, she knows martial arts, which is not something we knew previously about the Selina character. Catwoman also wants revenge on Max Shreck due to his attempted murder of her. Penguin has other motives in store other than a campaign as a corrupt politician, involving the kidnapping and murdering of all first-born sons of Gotham. Catwoman and Penguin decide to team up to take down Batman, while Bruce and Selina begin a sort-of relationship out-of-costume, unbeknownst to the other their alter egos. The scene between Catwoman and Penguin collaborating is one of the campier, stranger scenes in the movie, as Penguin tries to put the make on Catwoman, while Catwoman acts more like a cat than a woman. This is probably what would happen if Tim Burton directed an episode of the 1960's Batman TV series.
The set designs presented in Batman Returns are quite good. Bo Welch worked with Burton on Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands, and that style was brought to this film, combined with the film noir style of the 1940's Batman comics. Stan Winston's make-up in creating The Penguin was also very good. The Penguin here was not some overweight man in a tuxedo carrying an umbrella. This Penguin was a hideously grotesque figure that one might pity, if he were not so hell-bent on revenge against society. The productions values and costumes are the high points of the film.
Michael Keaton has always been horribly miscast as Batman/Bruce Wayne, but in this film he is just overshadowed by the rest of the cast. Danny DeVito as Penguin was an interesting and memorable role played with zeal on the part of DeVito. Michelle Pfeiffer as Selina Kyle/Catwoman was almost a dual role, going from the mousy, sad, pathetic secretary to the leather-clad, fierce, seductive Catwoman. Christopher Walken as Shreck was played with greasy sleaziness, as Walken usually does not disappoint when given roles such as these.
So with the production values and the cast up to the task, Batman Returns fails on the levels of plot and tone. The plot is sparse with some gaps in logic, while the whole tone of the film feels off. It is dark and brooding one minute and then switches to complete comedy camp the next. It felt, at times, like an episode of the TV series, with over-the-top character traits taking over. There never seemed to be a sense of danger from these villains. Batman himself seemed to be a bit player in a movie that was supposed to be about him. Of course, that might happen when Bruce Wayne just sits in his Batcave in the dark. Just....sitting and thinking.