While the 1989 film was a lot of fun, it wasn’t much of a Batman movie.
Director Tim Burton wanted more Dark Knight and less Holy Cornball in his Batman so he kept the titular character in the shadows giving Jack Nicholson free rein to steal/dominate/overwhelm the show with his maniac portrayal of The Joker.
Despite the addition of two villains — The Penguin (Danny DeVito) and Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) — there’s no doubt that Batman Returns is a first and foremost a Batman movie.
Gotham City is preparing for the Christmas holidays and while Batman (Michael Keaton) is keeping the streets clean battling the evil Red Triangle Circus Gang, rumors are continuing to build about a mysterious Penguin residing in the sewers.
Mousy secretary Selina Kyle (Pfeiffer, The Family) learns just how corrupt her boss, Max Shreck (a brilliantly sinister Christopher Walken) is, resulting in a near fatal encounter that leaves her psychologically-scarred and determined to never again be a victim. Creating a sleek leather outfit, Selina adopts the alter ego of Catwoman and plots Max’s downfall.
Max is preoccupied, however, backing the newly surfaced Penguin as his candidate for mayor seeing a pawn he can manipulate to back his own city takeover efforts. Leery of the alliance, Batman seeks to learn the truth of Penguin’s motives and determine if Catwoman is friend, foe or potential relationship.
Working off Sam Hamm’s (Batman) plot, screenwriter Daniel Waters (Demolition Man) has a bit darker story to work with, but the script is packed with some great lines and smart double entendres. Waters creates the best balance of the more fantastical comic book world elements — there’s a giant rubber ducky and penguins with missiles! —with a slightly more realistic take on the characters.
Keaton comes across so much more comfortable in the role and he remains the best actor to don Batman’s cowl.
Pfeiffer set the standard for Catwoman that hasn’t come close to being matched by her successors Halle Berry or Anne Hathaway. She gives Kyle a slightly unhinged persona reveling in her newfound attitude.
Pfeiffer also makes for a significant upgrade over Kim Basinger’s Vicki Vale, who wasn’t bad, but lacked the depth necessary to be an interesting romantic interest for Batman.
DeVito’s performance is seriously underrated since he’s not making Penguin flashy or obnoxious. He just makes Penguin a bitter, spiteful villain complex enough that you understand his motives without making him a sympathetic character.
Burton brings everything together so smoothly for his first sequel and his familiarity with the material allows him to simply expand on his original ideas making for a bolder, more confident second act.
Set designer Cheryl Carasik (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) gives Gotham City a unique visual so it doesn’t look like another easily recognizable metropolis filling in for Batman’s hometown.
Cinematographer Stefan Czapsky alternates between a black and blue color scheme reminiscent of Batman and brighter red and green lighting to reinforce the Christmas time frame and the makeup work, particularly on Penguin, is jarring without being clownish.
As the end credits began, I couldn’t help but wonder how a third Burton/Keaton Batman film would have turned out as the duo was really just starting to find their groove with Batman Returns.
Rating: 9 out of 10