The current draft of film history states that the DayGlo abomination that is Batman & Robin is directly responsible for not just putting Batman on film into an eight-year coma, but poisoning the idea of comic-book film adaptations altogether, to the point where the X-Men movie that followed three years later felt like a cowed, fearful gamble. Time, distance, and no small amount of insider stories have since provided some measure of vindication. Batman & Robin was simply a life-threatening complication stemming from a malignant fear struck into the hearts of Warner Bros. execs by letting a completely unshackled Tim Burton make Batman Returns.
Comparatively quaint as the film is now, it’s worth remembering that Burton’s 1989 take on the Batman was, at the time of its release, considered a grim, broody, goth art-deco nightmare of a superhero film, shocking and awing a mainstream audience where Frank Miller wasn’t a household name but Adam West still was. At a time in Burton’s career where he never let audiences get complacent with his work, the 1992 sequel is the film we thought we were seeing in 1989. Batman Returns is a deconstructive superhero film, and not in the Zack Snyder sense of too-cool-for-this posturing, positing superheroes as gods in thorough need of a Richard Dawkins to take them down. Batman Returns is fascinated and captivated by the kind of man who’d want to put on a bat costume and save people, digging deep into that man’s psyche and finding gnarled and depraved horrors just beneath.
Burton’s film is a sinister trap that, on paper, is exactly what a sequel to the 1989 film should be: Batman versus two new Gotham supervillains, Catwoman and the Penguin, who’ve teamed up to stop him. Indeed, the film was sold on little else, because what else does a multiplex audience need besides two new scene-stealing villains willing to go toe to toe with Michael Keaton’s understated Bat? Burton then proceeds to make us acutely aware of what we’ve stepped into within minutes. The film starts with a prologue sequence in which a rich aristocrat (a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him cameo by Paul Reubens) discovers his wife has given birth to a vicious little monstrosity with flippers for hands. After we see their new bundle of hate yanking the family cat into his cage/crib by its tail, the unhappy couple proceed to dump their baby, stroller and all, into a Gotham sewer in the dead of winter.
Fast forward 33 years and that baby has grown up to become the Penguin, envisioned here as a snarling, lascivious, homicidal goblin played full-tilt maniacal by Danny DeVito. The Penguin runs the Red Triangle Gang, a killer circus troupe causing no end of trouble for Gotham and its citizens, but mostly he’s a wacky excuse for Burton to exercise those art-school-macabre sensibilities he brought to Beetlejuice for short bursts. The plan changes, however, when the Penguin manages to get ahold of Gotham’s second richest citizen, Max Schreck (Christopher Walken, hilariously parodying the likes of Donald Trump), and blackmails him into an elaborate scheme to take his rightful place among the 1% by running for mayor.
Meanwhile, on the other side of Gotham, we’re introduced to Michelle Pfeiffer’s Selina Kyle, a hot mousy mess working as Schreck’s secretary. She accidentally runs across her boss’s corrupt plans for a money-laundering power plant and earns the privilege of being thrown out of a 10th-story window by Schreck himself for her trouble. Selina survives the fall, thanks to some otherworldly help by a legion of cats in a resurrection sequence that wouldn’t be out of place in a Mario Bava film. After a brief psychotic break, Selina makes the insane decision to sew herself a black leather catsuit, complete with razor-sharp claws, and go looking for violent satisfaction, sexual superiority, or both, possibly at the same time.
In the middle of this sick mélange of egos is Bruce Wayne, the Batman, who should be our rock in what’s becoming an even crazier Gotham City. That comfort is temporary until the audience realizes, consciously or not, the terrifying irony of Batman Returns: that there’s nothing in the film as disturbing as Batman because, ultimately, everything psychologically gross and wrong in the film is Batman, and Bruce Wayne knows it. In Selina, he sees the pure vicious id that comes with great power and no real responsibility. She cripples those who threaten her, uses sex as both weapon and security blanket, and is staying alive predominantly out of spite and vengeance. All are especially pointed indictments of Bruce Wayne in this film given the throwaway nature of how he speaks about erstwhile love interest Vicki Vale, and how the very first time we see him he’s doing nothing but sitting silently in a dark room, only seeming alive once the Bat-Signal lights up.
In Max Schreck, Bruce sees a mirror image of a billionaire, a man who enjoys his money to the fullest and believes himself invincible for it. He’s the man Bruce could easily become if he even did decide to go off and have a life. In the Penguin, Bruce sees the grotesque side of being abandoned and choosing an unrighteous path, and despite the varying disgusting pathologies that the Penguin is capable of, the question floating behind every scene of the Penguin glad-handing constituents, reclaiming his birth name, talking about change for Gotham, is whether the man behind that cape and cowl has any moral high ground telling the Penguin he doesn’t deserve to go get what’s his.
All of this is the barely concealed text of the second and third acts of Batman Returns, scene after scene of comic-book heroes and villains exploring perverse animal sexuality, realizing the damage done by their various traumas, and trying to define exactly what kind of monster they have and could become. Pfeiffer gets the most material to work from here; her Selina is an unparalleled portrayal of the character, a wellspring of brazen S&M sex appeal that at any given moment in the film gives way to either post-traumatic vulnerability or bloodthirsty psychopathy. While DeVito is the most blatantly, boisterously supervillainous of the bunch, he’s capable of subtlety, and being equally horrifying at that. A scene of the Penguin simply acting out the creature comforts of being mayor takes on a disgusting Cronenbergesque quality as the character, blood and raw fish dripping from his mouth, imagining a woman seducing him in the after hours of City Hall.
Unfortunately, Keaton is left mildly stranded as Batman, a long-standing complaint with virtually every live-action Batman film except Batman Begins. Batman here is largely a reactionary figure to the particulars of each scene, more an elaborately dressed witness to the weirdness around him than an agent of change. However, Keaton gets to truly shine in one scene: a dance at a masquerade ball with Selina in which everything bleak and brilliant about Batman Returns comes to a head to the tune of a great, underrated, and dramatically relevant Siouxsie and the Banshees track. Keaton’s Bruce Wayne is far more intriguing here, giving voice to the grave concerns about who he is and what he does for a living in and out of the cowl, while not sacrificing the inherent dorkiness Keaton brought to the role in 1989.
The strange, ambitious character work that comprises Batman Returns is wrapped in the perfunctory framework of a Tim Burton superhero film, where circus clowns kidnap babies, organ grinders with machine guns terrorize crowds, and the villain travels around in a giant rubber duck and tries to destroy Gotham with an army of penguins with surface-to-air missiles strapped to their backs. It’s a mix that might have had audiences scratching their heads in 2017, but in 1992 was considered as dark and traumatizing as playing a Slayer album backward, leading Warner Bros. to retreat to the safety of camp for the next two films. It’s hard not to see parallels between how Batman Returns went down with mainstream audiences and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but ironically, despite all the latter film’s nihilism, the gruff, post-traumatic, bone-crusher Batman of that film is a widely accepted shrug in pop culture. The hero of Batman Returns is just as broken, but he’s allowed to recognize his own abnormality and stand aghast at it. That means calling it out, literally and symbolically in this film, for what it is. And if there’s perhaps a lesson audiences and studio executives may have learned from Batman Returns, it’s that if you try to get to close to the core of what Batman is, you may not like what you find under the mask.