Batman Returns – #1 in the US (June 19-21)
All-Time Domestic $162,924,631 | All-Time International $103,990,656
All-Time Worldwide $266,915,287
Batman Returns is the best Batman movie.
“The Bat. The Cat. The Penguin.”
Six words and nothing more were needed to hype up 1992’s Batman Returns. The film is the highest-grossing film of 1992 in the United States but third internationally (we’ll get to top international grosses in November). It was still coming off the heels of the white-hot success of director Tim Burton and the popularity of the Dark Knight. As a result, a fever abounded that caused controversy and created critical praise. The film holds a special place in my heart because it was the film released the weekend I was born. It was released on June 19, 1992, two days before I was born into the world that Father’s Day.
It’s now 30 years old, much like myself. But, unlike myself, this film broke the mold of what could be done with superhero films with a creative vision uniquely of one director. Maybe it was hyperbolic to say that Spider-Man 2 is the best live-action comic book film because Batman Returns is a phenomenal film. It goes beyond the boundaries of what a comic book film is and hones in on making something unique and new with familiar. Returns is a comic book film in scope, a superhero film in essence, but it is 100% a Tim Burton film and his style all the way through. The titular character is not even the main attraction or shown often. Yet, that’s not even a detriment. So, the following statement may be my second-most hyperbolic statement: Batman Returns is the best Batman movie.
Oswald Copplepot (Danny DeVito) was abandoned at birth by his wealthy parents. Looking to get back into society, Cobblepot takes up the moniker of The Penguin and teams with Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) to get into the mayoral race. Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) still delivers vengeance and justice as Batman but comes face to face with a lovely foe named Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer), aka Selina Kyle. She takes up a life of thievery after being beaten by Shreck. Seeking revenge herself, she wants to get back at Cobblepot and Schreck, even if it means Batman gets in the way. The tangled plot weaves a web between all three in a showdown that is worth the Dark Knight’s return.
Returns is a culmination of Burton’s mind and vision by being a love letter to film and a homage to Batman’s rogue gallery. Burton does not care much for Batman but gives all the empathy and sympathy to the villains. Returns feels like the beginning of superhero cinema, showing the villain’s depth and character rather than a one-dimensional obstacle. In this film, Catwoman and The Penguin are fully fleshed out. This helped set the standard for superhero and comic films to have the villains be as great (if not greater) as the heroes.
The Penguin is a grotesque figure hellbent on fame and getting “unlimited poontang” (Max Shreck’s words, not mine). But his story is a tragic Moses story if Moses lived with penguins around him. He is the foil to Bruce in every way. He was abandoned by his parents rather than them dying. He embraced the darkness like Wayne, but rather than for justice, he used it for revenge. Rather than be the stereotypical handsome type, he has deformities akin to an actual penguin. He also wishes to be as admired as Wayne’s playboy nature. DeVito nails it becoming a bastard of a villain with some sympathy. Yet, his greed and desire for power outweigh his better qualities.
Selina Kyle also continues the sympathy, which is intriguing. Leaning into the antihero nature (who wouldn’t want to rob from their asshole former boss?), her transformation into Catwoman is a monster of its own making but is rich in how it has shown. She’s also sensual in her grace which is empowering in a way that Pffefier hones in on. Pffiefer sells her descent to controlled madness even if it is a bit haywire. It’s manic, but she can control chaos much better than Penguin. She’s akin to Bruce in that way. Both of them rely on having that sense of self and knowing who their true identity is.
Bruce is Batman as much as Selina is Catwoman. Their facade is themselves out of costume, which is made clear as the only ones without masks at a masquerade ball. Nevertheless, there is a chemistry between him and Selina that is present. It’s on par with the chemistry between Robert Pattinson and Zoe Kravitz’s version of the duo in 2022’s The Batman. That film and the animated series heavily borrow that heat between the two from this one. They are all the better for it, something that can’t be said for the chemistry between the two characters in The Dark Knight Rises.
Batman is not in much of the movie despite being the title character. However, Keaton is still significant in his more scaled-down role, meaning into the investigative side of Batman that is rarely shown on screen (yet another reason why The Batman is a spectacular film). Keaton was the unconventional choice in the first film but nailed the role. This is a continuation of that having sympathy for Penguin’s plight but also being aware of how dangerous his rise can be.
The true villain of the piece and harbinger of hell in Gotham is in the form of Christopher Walken’s Max Sheck. I feel Walken does not get enough credit for his performance in this film. It’s not a cartoon-like villainous turn as Max Zorin in A View to a Kill, which it easily could have been. Now, Walken plays it quiet and straight throughout as a menace pulling the strings. His most terrifying moment is when he tosses Selina out of the window to begin her origins. He teases her at first about doing it, hesitates, and then out of nowhere, shoves her. It’s terrifying in how abrupt it is. It still makes me jump despite knowing what is happening next.
Speaking of Gotham, Gotham City has never looked as unique as it does in this film. Most takes on Gotham City today rely on real-world areas that Gotham is inspired by, such as New York, Chicago, or Pittsburgh. Gotham is a gothic beauty, a mixture of black and white German Expressionism and art deco that makes the city stand out among the other interpretations. It’s a pulp comic world of the 30s with the sentiment and technology of the early 90s. It’s rich in shadows, dark textures, and a hint of blue to capture the snowy Christmas by way of Siouxsie and the Banshees atmosphere (Hey, they also have a song on the soundtrack that rips). It’s taking silent-era film techniques and style into high-budget cinematic glory.
The only other Gotham City that comes close in the uniqueness is the one in the Batman: Arkham series which is a rich mixture of the comic’s version, Burton’s vision, and Shumacher’s neon hellscape. The production design and the costuming are closer to Burton’s eye than the comic standard. That is wonderful to show that directors after Burton can put their unique spin on the comic characters without conforming to the standard much like the current MCU slate. That’s great as well, i.e., Iron Man’s suit or Spider-Man’s suit, but having the eye to go beyond the comic panel is always much more appreciated. There’s still the character one recognizes, but with a dark twist that gives them their definition.
The actual soul of the movie is strictly Burton too. Burton follows through on telling this tragic story of a man dealing with his loss and grief to be someone important, even if he is an absolute bastard. Burton turns a carefully crafted script by Daniel Waters into a marvel of its own. It continues a trend shown in his (arguably) magnum opus in Edward Scissorhands. That too has the Christmas motif and sympathetic character seen as a freak. Yet, Edward has a heart to him and likeability. He also gets love and admiration until the public dismisses him. The Penguin is searching for that heart and love from the crowd but never finds it and falters into the villainous interpretation of the monster to the point of wanting to rid the firstborn children of Gotham in a manufactured plague of his own complete with rocket-launching penguins. Yes, he is vile and unpleasant, but there is enough empathy for him. There is a way he can turn around, but he never fully gets there. That in itself is tragic.
Burton is phenomenal when capturing characters and how they manage through tragedy and triumph if it comes their way. That makes Ed Wood, Edward Scissorhands, and this film so compelling by showing the figures that deal with their lives and goals, only for something out of their hands to falter, be it the studio system, suburbanites, or the World’s Greatest Detective and corruption. Outside of The Penguin, Burton delivers a masterclass by dealing with a trio of figures in different states of tragedy. Batman has slightly recovered by succeeding in his vengeance for his parents but is still dedicated to justice. Catwoman is embracing the afterlife in front of her with her new person. Finally, The Penguin attempts to avert it but must accept it head-on and, in a sad turn, bring on the chaos that completes his arc. It’s a balancing act that is pulled off beautifully.
Composer Danny Elfman also gives his all on this score, diving into the highs one would expect from him in this period. It’s far from his magnum opus (that goes to The Nightmare Before Christmas), but damn, is it iconic. The music of Batman was already incredible, but it continues here by giving depth and feel to the city’s spookhouse vibes. It also helps bring a fun edge to the action scenes, like when Batman goes toe-to-toe with many Red Triangle Circus Gang members. It’s circus music with a macabre and charming factor akin to a Jack-in-the-Box going off the damn rails. There’s a reason this score gets reused in most LEGO Batman games. It’s instantly recognizable and sets the tone for Shirley Walker’s phenomenal music on Batman: The Animated Series.
Batman Returns cements Burton as the visionary by diving into triumph and tragedy. The film takes what’s known of these iconic characters and spins them for a broader audience that both stuns and polarizes. It is perfectly wedged between two other Burton classics in the conversation of his masterpiece, Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood. It’s also in the discussion of best Batman films with The Dark Knight and Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. For myself, Returns is the best of the bunch for the reasons above and going another route that would set what one thinks of the Dark Knight for decades to come.
Revue Rating: 5 out of 5
Next time, prepare for a doubleheader. Due to myself taking a trip, we finish off June with Unlawful Entry and A League of Their Own. Two reviews in one week. Get ready for thrills and to play ball.