Batman Returns (1992)
Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for TIFF’s Second Coming: Cinema’s Greatest Sequels. For more information on upcoming TIFF film series visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
In 1997 Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin, a bloated unappealing behemoth crammed full of irritating, indulgent characters and terrible, wince inducing puns, brought the curtain down on The Dark Knight’s 20th Century cinematic run. His resurrection eight years later as Christopher Nolan’s gruffly-voiced hero and subsequent box office domination has allowed Hollywood to brush earlier failures under a carpet large enough to be worthy of Wayne Manor itself. This has resulted, however, in a section of the modern audience being unaware of the Caped Crusader’s initial, gothic foray onto the big screen in 1989.
Michael Keaton proved a great success in the titular role, bringing a subtlety and sense of humour to a character so steeped in the darkness of his own demons
After the success of Beetlejuice Tim Burton was finally able to flex his new-found Hollywood muscles and work on getting his version of Batman off the ground, a version he had been developing for several years. Despite the huge protests from many fans, and even from within Burton’s own team at the casting decisions, Michael Keaton proved a great success in the titular role, bringing a subtlety and sense of humour to a character so steeped in the darkness of his own demons. The success of the film prompted a follow-up and with Burton on board after being given the complete control he craved, but was denied on the original, and more than twice the budget, Batman Returns went into production and was released in 1992 to an expectant audience.
Few directors would seem to be more perfectly suited to Gotham City’s brooding, malevolent skyline and to its strange, eccentric inhabitants than Tim Burton. There is a playful wickedness to both of his Batman films that flows through all his work but this is more evident in the second (not a sequel; Burton apparently doesn’t make sequels). With the freedom he was now afforded Burton set out to make a film that would top the first in every way; there would be more antagonists, more complexity and more dramatic, smoky Burton-esque design. It could be argued though that in the case of this particular auteur director less is sometimes more.
The most interesting development about Batman Returns is the relegation of the supposed lead to a supporting role. The majority of the first act of the film, and also much of the second, is more concerned with the origin stories of Danny DeVito’s malevolent Penguin and his temporary partner-in-crime Catwoman. DeVito brings a degree of pitiful charisma to a role that is occasionally sympathetic, especially in the finale, but his Gotham conquering master plan is a little unclear for the most part. Michelle Pfeiffer is in distinctly more frisky feline mode than the later incarnation, her character purring with undisguised sexuality as she revels at being in the midst of all the male posturing. When Batman finally does make an appearance he is shown to be the fallible character he is (ultimately a man in a fancy suit) and must adapt to overcome the threat to both his and Gotham’s futures. Anyone more familiar with the recent trilogy will probably consider this Batman to be weak of body and mind but Burton’s intention to bring a sense of humanity and realism to the character was a success, even if not all aspects of the film were.
Burton’s intention to bring a sense of humanity and realism to the character was a success, even if not all aspects of the film were.
When viewed now Batman Returns, perhaps more so than its predecessor, appears somewhat dated but that visual timestamp is the very heart of a film that deserves more than a perfunctory backward glance. The design of the costumes, in particular Keaton’s Batman, is timeless and both this style and the unavoidable and effortless charm that was brought to the role can be seen in lighter moments of Christian Bale’s much more intense portrayal. There is a childish indulgence to all of Burton’s films and it is one of his strongest traits, and is evident in every frame. His Batman was a cinematic benchmark, and one that should not be forgotten.
There is a childish indulgence to all of Burton’s films and it is one of his strongest traits, and is evident in every frame. His Batman was a cinematic benchmark, and one that should not be forgotten.