Thirty years ago, audiences came out in droves to see an over-the-top political satire about the mayoral campaign of a disgusting sewer mutant – a movie that also doubled as an oddball romantic comedy about two weirdos with mask fetishes, trading blows and spit in a snowglobe metropolis. Hindsight has a way of turning every box-office sensation into a curious time capsule, letting us gawk at the strange attractions that used to put butts in seats. But through the lens of the modern blockbuster machine, and the reigning superhero-industrial complex that powers it, Batman Returns looks like a true anomaly, as weird and horny and maybe personal as mega-budget Hollywood spectacles get.
It’s certainly a more idiosyncratic movie than its predecessor, Tim Burton’s record-breaking popcorn sensation Batman, released to teeming, cheering crowds in the summer of 1989. To lure Burton back to the world of the caped crusader, Warner Bros had to offer him greater creative control over the sequel. The director exercised it from top to bottom. In place of the original’s art deco noir aesthetic, Batman Returns goes full baroque fairytale. When the camera swoops like a creature of the night through the twisted architecture of the Gotham Zoo, it’s clear we’re fully in Burtonville, previous home to wisecracking prankster apparitions and lonely hairdressing androids.
With Batman Returns, Burton turned Gotham into the biggest of big tops, terrorized by a gang of criminal carnies and populated by freaks on both sides of the hero/villain divide. That includes billionaire vigilante Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton, slipping back into the cumbersome cape and cowl), ostensible hero of the movie, who at one point likens himself to Norman Bates or Ted Bundy, serial killers with split personalities or secret pastimes.
Bruce’s problems are doubled, his screen-time halved. Just about everyone agrees that Jack Nicholson’s Joker stole the first Batman. The second surrenders the spotlight to the rogues’ gallery immediately, depriving Keaton of any dialogue for the opening half-hour. The movie belongs more to Danny DeVito’s deformed, anguished Oswald Cobblepot, AKA the Penguin, and to Michelle Pfeiffer’s Selina Kyle, reborn into the vengeful, vamping Catwoman.
The other thing that drew Burton back was the involvement of the Heathers screenwriter Daniel Waters, who gave the material an arch, black-comic zinginess. The absurdist political angle of the plot was his idea. It’s an inspired gag, imagining that a creature as vulgar as the Penguin could steal the electorate’s heart. In the film’s funniest reveal, DeVito’s supervillain is interrupted mid-meal, chowing down messily on a raw fish, by the new staff of beaming operatives and volunteers applauding his candidacy. What seemed cynical in 1992 now looks rather touchingly naive. Imagine a politician dropping out of a race just because he got caught on tape disparaging his base.
Waters’ plot is lumpy, forcing an illogical allegiance between the villains. No matter – for Burton, it’s just an excuse to collide these outsized cartoon personalities, to build a vaudeville stage for three tortured, animal-themed outlaws. The director twists that classic Batman theme of the bad guys being warped reflections of the good guy to suit his own enduring love affair with misfits. DeVito, deliciously overacting under mounds and hours of daily prosthetic labor, makes the Penguin a sympathetic monster: horrifying in appearance, crass and corrupt in nature, but still a tragic figure. Burton loves him as only a father could. And he recognizes him as a kindred spirit to his archnemesis. Who is Cobblepot but Wayne without privilege, abandoned instead of orphaned? “You’re just jealous because I’m a genuine freak and you have to wear a mask,” he tells Batman. It’s a point the dark knight concedes.
Pfeiffer, meanwhile, who nabbed the role after Annette Bening got pregnant and vacated it, delivers one of the great movie star turns in all of comic-book cinema: a slinking embodiment of hell-hath-no-fury attitude, hissing venomous one-liners with aplomb and waging war on the powerful, sexist exploiters of Gotham. In both stylized performance and instantly iconic skin-tight, patchwork attire, she could have strutted straight out of the panels of the source material. Yet Pfeiffer also summons the raw desperation of a true identity crisis, which comes roaring to the surface during a great alter-ego, ballroom tango with the enemy in the film’s quiet before the climax.
If the political contest suggests a classic Preston Sturges comedy in superhero drag, there’s a touch of Ernst Lubitsch to the screwball romance between Keaton and Pfeiffer, circling each other in different forms of evening wear, concealing their double lives, secret identities and battle scars during a fireside canoodle. Batman Returns is easily the kinkiest big-screen treatment of these characters: the one that dares to see some S&M fantasy in people burying their svelte physiques under rubber and leather. It’s one reason parents were so incensed by the stranger sequel, and why McDonald’s nixed the Happy Meals line. The dialogue drips with innuendo. The Penguin, a cackling pervert, ravenously sniffs Catwoman’s boot and lusts after his interns.
Remarkably, the film has a class conscience, too. Its real villain is neither the Penguin nor Catwoman but Christopher Walken’s shock-wigged robber baron Max Shreck, named for the actor who played Nosferatu but plainly modeled on a younger Donald Trump. He is, of course, another distorted mirror image of Batman – a Bruce Wayne looking to prey on the people instead of protecting them. “The law doesn’t apply to men like him,” Pfeiffer’s Catwoman astutely says of her boss, the man who pushed her out of a window to complete her supervillain origin story. Years before Christopher Nolan sent Bane to occupy Wall Street, Burton more casually sent a jolt of class warfare through Gotham.
As an adaptation, Batman Returns plays as fast and loose as, well, the first Batman. Burton was quick to admit, in the memoir Burton on Burton, that he wasn’t much of a comic-book reader – a confession that underscored his disregard for canonical backstory and elements such as the character’s traditional aversion to killing. For some diehards, his Batman movies are heresy. Certainly, they hail from a less faithful or fan-pleasing era of comic-book blockbusters. Yet their exaggerated visual pleasures and splash-panel-sized performances have their own fidelity to the original medium, a kinship of pulp spirit. They reject realism, which might be the more suitable approach to the story of a guy who dresses up as a bat to clobber those with a similar flair for the dramatic.
What really marks Batman Returns as a product of a very different age of superhero spectaculars is the decisive victory of authorship Burton claims over his borrowed intellectual property. Joel Schumacher, Nolan, Zack Snyder, Todd Phillips – all these film-makers have found ways to put their own brand on the Batman mythos. But none of them so fully, successfully molded it into the shape of their own preoccupations and obsessions. Batman Returns is a Tim Burton movie first, a Batman movie second. And to watch it today, at a time when finding the directorial soul of a superhero movie often requires some true detective work, is to bask in the eccentricity of its achievement. The bat signal just can’t compete with the freak flag Burton flies over the Gotham skyline.