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BATMAN RETURNS (1992)

The movie in which Tim Burton mostly fixes what he got wrong in the first BATMAN. Unfortunately, he also screws up the stuff he got right.

There is some sweet vindication here for Bat-fans unhappy with some of the out-of-character choices in the previous movie. Bruce Wayne reprimanding Alfred for letting Vicki Vale into the Batcave…Yes! Batman finally deciding that killing is wrong (even though he has already incinerated a guy alive with the Batmobile engine, strapped dynamite to a criminal’s chest, and caused the Penguin to die from massive internal bleeding)…about time.

But someone, probably a studio exec above Burton, made the command decision that the production would be done in the U.S., thus rendering all Anton Furst’s wonderful sets useless. And since the movie had to be set during winter, but shot in the summer, all the sets had to be indoors on climate-controlled sets. And it looks like a soundstage. The most blatant gaffe is when the Penguin visits a graveyard and nearly knocks over one of the decidedly non-stone headstones.

So Gotham now looks more liek a Tim Burton drawing than ever. It’s often been stated that BATMAN RETURNS is more Tim Burton movie than comic book adaptation, almost as if Burton had taken an existing, unrelated story in his mind and managed to plug a few Batman characters into it. Certainly he manges to completely ignore any established continuity regarding the Penguin and Catwoman, completely reinventing both.

The Penguin reinvention is understandable to me. The comic book notion of a mean fat man in a tux worked better in the campy 60s than in the Dark Knight 90s, and Burton’s notion of him as a mutant raised in the sewers is genuinely frightening. It’s also the only time I’ve seen Danny DeVito completely disappear into a role. Granted, DeVito’s distinct physicality makes it hard to be a chameleon, but under the Penguin latex, he was liberated in a way I’ve never seen from him before or since.

As for Catwoman…well, no-ones really gonna complain with the way Michelle Pfeiffer played her in costume, but the origin story here is pretty bad, and only Burton could have gotten away with it (just ask Pitof, who tried to reprise it in the infamously awful CATWOMAN movie). Let’s see — a bookish woman falls to her death, is revived by cats licking her face, and reincarnated as a badass avenger with a whip? Well, parents had a hard enough time dealing with that, and her licking of Batman’s face, in an ostensible “kids movie” (a problem of perception that goes back to the TV show, as I mentioned before), so no doubt a comic-accurate hooker/dominatrix-turned-thief version of Catwoman would have been even more inflammatory.

Unfortunately, Pitof’s travesty probably hurts the chances for more Catwoman onscreen. I would love to see the current Catwoman in the aviatrix/dominatrix outfit — check this out to see how good it could look.

It has been noted that in the Burton movies, and even the Schumacher ones, the villains are the scene-stealers and the obvious focal point of interest for the film-makers. In BATMAN RETURNS, this is truer than any of the others — Penguin is the protagonist of the story, with newly invented character Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) as the antagonist. Batman and Catwoman are supporting characters, essentially playing the role of henchmen/women.

The movie begins with Penguin. Penguin drives the story, and Batman’s behavior is almost purely reactive. Penguin has a full character arc (mutant reject to respectable citizen to darker child-killer who fully rejects all of his humanity), while Batman is a mostly static character, and Catwoman simply goes from mousy to bold. This is not an especially surprising choice by Burton, but it doesn’t do wonders for Batman.

As much as the movie features a twisted reality that isn’t to be taken too literally, there are at least two occasions that defy suspension of disbelief in obnoxious ways that could have been fixed.

One: Batman spreads out his arms, and a massive mechanical glider springs out from under them. Once he’s done gliding, this contraption closes into a regular cape. Ummm, no. Funnily enough, BATMAN BEGINS offers a similar device in a totally plausible manner. Watch and learn, Tim.

Two: the black paint around the eyes. I wish they wouldn’t do this in the movies, but if you’re going to have Batman do it, don’t then pretend that he doesn’t. Midway during the climax of BATMAN RETURNS, Batman suddenly doesn’t have the paint. Why? Because the next scene calls for him to rip the mask off, and we’re pretending that his eyes aren’t actually painted. Insulting to the audience, really. Especially since Catwoman doesn’t need paint around her eyes. The scene that follows, however, with Walken’s Shreck, does feature one of the best dialogue exchanges in any BATMAN film. Right after Catwoman and Batman have both unmasked…

MAX SHRECK: Selina Kyle! You’re fired! And Bruce…Wayne…What are you doing dressed as Batman?
CATWOMAN: He IS Batman, you moron!
MAX SHRECK: WAS Batman (pulls out a gun and fires)

Props also to Andrew Bryniarski as Chip Shreck, doing a mean Walken impersonation in his few scenes. Michael Gough is probably at his least irritating, and Pat Hingle is still a fat dope as Gordon.

And yes, Batman reveals his identity to his girlfriend again. It’s handled almost accidentally, as a revealing line slips out (BATMAN BEGINS uses a similar tack), but revealing it AGAIN in front of Max Shreck is not in character, though as I mentioned, it does lead to that great dialogue exchange.

BTAMAN RETURNS also bears the honor, I think, of being the only comic-book movie to feature the phrase “poon tang” (whispered by Walken to DeVito while the former is trying to persuade the latter to run for mayor).

Uptight parents groups were very unhappy with the movie, which ultimately led to Burton being ditched in favor of a more “family friendly” director — a flamingly gay former costume designer best known for making an R-rated vampire movie starring Kiefer Sutherland and the two Coreys.

Anyway, I enjoy BATMAN RETURNS, but it really isn’t Batman to me.

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Rating: 7.0/10 (2 votes cast)
BATMAN RETURNS (1992), 7.0 out of 10 based on 2 ratings
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12 comments to BATMAN RETURNS (1992)

  • Good review…

    But, what about the penguin army? I never could decide on that one. When I saw it in the movie, it didn’t bug me. Later, it really bothered me.

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  • I really love this movie, but you’re right, it’s a gothic fairy tale and not a Batman film. It’s pure Burton. And I love the soundstage look, just as much as I love Furst’s designs for the first film. They create a really beautiful look that, I think, really works for the film.

    Best masterstroke: setting the film at Christmas.

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  • Also, the makeup around the eyes isn’t meant to be taken literally – it’s just supposed to make the costume more seamless. It would look silly without it, because you can’t get the rubber cowl to form-fit to the eyes without obscuring them.

    Bale wears it with the new Batsuit, too.

    Catwoman didn’t need it because her costume was supposed to look ragged and handmade.

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  • Hey, Ghostboy, your URL needs another ‘W’.

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  • Oops, thanks!

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  • LYT

    “Also, the makeup around the eyes isn’t meant to be taken literally – it’s just supposed to make the costume more seamless.”

    Whether it is or not, it looks like paint.

    “It would look silly without it”

    I disagree. In the scene in BATMAN RETURNS where it magically disappears prior to unmasking, it looks fine.

    I say either have it or don’t, but don’t insult my intelligence by pretending it doesn’t exist if it does. Especially if you’re going for a realistic take — I was hoping Bale’s Batman would acknowledge the paint — apparently an early draft of the script did.

    As for the penguin commandos, I liked ‘em. Them and the umbrellas were at least a nod to the comic Penguin.

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  • I actually enjoyed the film. I have no problems with it.

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  • Kwaylon

    Man You have too much time on your hand, it seems that you try your hardest to find the smallest things wrong with this movie. I.E. the example about the eye paint, who cares, it’s a movie and a fictional story so get over it. How can people expect these Batman movies to be 100% believable when the story is fictional. With the exception of the 2 films with Robin, The other 3 Batman films have just the right balance of campiness, and truthfullness. So quit trying to downrate these good movies. Your thoughts or problems with these movies are like asking why no one knows Supermans real Identity since all he does is take his glasses off. I’m pretty sure that you’ve never said because you know it’s fiction. Just let your mind believe what’s going on and take you away for a couple of hours, instead of looking for small things to complain about.

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  • Emmet Style

    After enjoying Christopher Nolan’s ‘Batman Begins’ which was a surprisingly realistic adaptation of the Batman legend, I rented ‘Batman’ & ‘Batman Returns’ from the local video store as I thought I’d check them out again as the last time I had seen them was on my parents grainy & dusty supermarket video tapes which they recorded from TV a decade ago. I watched the original & thought of how much I missed it & I began to understand the story & dialogue more than when I was 6. Then I eagerly watched, ‘Batman Returns’. It blew my mind & I fell in love with it all over again. I haven’t read the original comic books & whatever so I still have no previous perception of the character’s origins except for Bruce Wayne & I thought Tim Burton’s dark & deliciously gothic vision was excellent, always keeping me on the edge of my bed. And what a project Burton had to stretch his wings(pun not intended), not only did he add a fresh villain but also a wilder & malevolent plot, not one but two much loved villains creating havoc simultaneously, grimmer production design, more action with character development, plus a more wonderfully violent & disturbing musical score from masterful & frequent collaborator, Danny Elfman & all working in synthesis to make the greatest sequel to a comic-book film ever! I am once again impressed & why the studio execs opted for a more ‘family friendly’ approach I will never know as I’m sure the film went a storm at the box-office anyway. And indeed this is the last great Batman movie no thanks to Joel “Batman Killer” Schumacher, for if ‘Batman Forever’ was the death of the once interesting franchise then ‘Batman & Robin’ is surely the funeral. Best of luck to Christopher Nolan(Insomnia) who looks like he is off to a great start but by the look of ‘Batman Begins’ he will never replace Burton’s mastery.

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  • Llyerly

    I’m another person who does nitpick about details in movies I love. I sit there and go through scenes and find those things, so I’m in no position to tell you off, but maybe it’s time to lighten up a bit.

    I myself DO read Batman comics, the old and the new, and while I liked the first Batman, disliked Batman and Robin and HATED Batman Forever (poor old Harvey’s character was changed from menancing and dangerous to comic relief. I mean, tigerstripes?!)but I adored Batman Returns (though not as much as the darkly brilliant Batman Begins). Gotham was never bright and wonderful as portrayed in the later movies, and I loved Tim Burton’s darker take. While Selina Kyle’s transition to Catwoman was a best an eyebrow-raiser, Burton’s take on her was excellent. Though the way she licked Batman’s face was overdone >

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  • Anonymous

    Ookay, half of my post got deleted between the Preview and Post buttons o_0

    *sigh*

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  • Tormentor

    BATMAN RETURNS was arguably the greatest Batman movie ever made, and i say that even after watching Begins which has to come in second. Why? Because the way Burton handled Batman’s character in the film simply outdoes Nolan’s portrayal. Here, we dont have any corny lines, any slip-ups and the only part with the revealing infront of Selina and Shreck… well that was Burton’s attempt at gothicism’s romantic side. Here we have a Batman more akin to his shrouded persona, and Catwoman realigns that. But i do agree that Returns is more Burton than Batman, but hey, its supposed to be a Gothic City. Though comparing this with Begins is mere idiotic owing to the fact that both directors had different takes on the same character. Returns had Gothicism cut down the middle perfectly, with Selina’s transformation, Penguin’s psychological descent, and even Bruce Wayne’s stability. Great review, but I’d say you are being too negative with it. The Bat-suit looked better than the original movie and even better than Schumacher’s (i really dont have to point it out anymore), the designs were more sleek and in essence to the comic’s dark origins than the one Nolan’s doing with the new exoskeleton suit. Plus, the batmobile rocked! Taken that the does not stick to continuity with Selina’s character, Burton could not use the dominatrix Catwoman from Year One because of the movie’s ratings. And the parents were offended because of the deadly mistletoe scene? please… All in all, kudos to Burton for giving us a memorable Dark Knight and quite possibly the best one in the entire franchise. Now lets see if Nolan can fry a better fish.

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