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.