Home > Reviews > Special Review: “Batman Returns” – Villainy of Biblical Proportion

Special Review: “Batman Returns” – Villainy of Biblical Proportion

Directed by: Tim Burton
Produced by: Tim Burton, Denise Di Novi, Benjamin Melniker, Michael Uslan, Peter Guber, John Peters
Written by: Daniel Waters (screenplay), Sam Hamm, Daniel Waters (story)
Starring: Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Michael Gough, Pat Hingle, Michael Murphy, Cristi Conaway
Music by: Danny Elfman
Year: 1992



Continuing down my recent penchant for Batman media, I come to what is, in fact, the film that forms the basis of my earliest memories of going to the theatre, Batman Returns. In rewatching the film for this review, I can honestly say… I don’t know what my mom was thinking when she took me to see this when I was just six, but I’m so glad she did, as I’m thrilled that my earliest cinematic experience that I have vivid memories of is a Batman film! I remember that she had me wait and hold our seats as she went and got our snacks, coming back, and giving me an awesome color-changing Batman Returns cup that I had for quite some time — the kind of cup that was one color when warm and then revealed more colors and details when cold items were put inside it. It was like magic! And of course, as for the film itself, Batman Returns didn’t traumatize me one bit. At least, I think it didn’t.

But it’s easy to see why she did. I don’t know if I had already had taken a liking to 1989’s Batman at this point in my life, though rumors of my imitating the Joker quite often would seem to point out that I had, but the rest of the world sure did, judging by its monstrous box office take of $411,348,924 worldwide at the time. Obviously, with the bar raised significantly, the sequel was facing an uphill battle. The film did quite well, earning about $202,800,000 over its estimated budget, but controversy had broken out over the film’s overt sexuality and violence, prompting a promotion with McDonald’s line of Happy Meals to be cut short. Many, including Roger Ebert, consider the film’s PG-13 rating to be a joke.

The thing about Returns is that it really is a dramatically darker entry than its predecessor was, despite featuring villains that are typically considered Batman’s tamer villains. This is largely thanks to the rather interesting alterations Burton and his writers made to the film’s most notable villain, Penguin, and the psychotic twist on the film’s femme fatale, Catwoman. The two villains provide the film with its best scenes and largely drive all attention away from the supposed real star, Batman.

Though Michael Keaton’s second performance in the role is unchanged from the first film, meaning that it’s admirable and perfectly well suited to the film he features in, once again, the villain upstages the hero in his own film. Of course, now there are not one, not two, but three villains in the spotlight, it was only inevitable that comparatively boring old Batman would be pushed aside to an almost co-starring position, a third wheel to the other two thirds of the bizarre love … square. … That kind of fell apart there, sorry. Luckily, this isn’t nearly as awful as it sounds, thanks to the aforementioned characterizations of the villains.

The Penguin: Sympathy for the Devil

The Penguin of the comics is usually a criminal mastermind. At his silliest, he’s a bird-themed villain who has a penchant for bird-themed crimes. At his most serious, he’s a sophisticated man about town with a cunning mind and the guts and intelligence to run underground operations. Because of its departure from the norms, I used to hate this film’s portrayal of the character, as I considered it to be an almost complete affront to everything that the character was about. However, my continued research on Burton’s version of the character (primarily, this article here) has possibly turned me around on this stance and has revealed some rather surprising parallels to a Figure who many are about to celebrate the resurrection of at the time of this article’s writing. What I discovered, of course, is that the Penguin of this film has been influenced by his previous incarnations, but the man featuring in Returns can largely be characterized as a pathetic Anti-Christ!

Where most would-be saviors are heralded as heroes, Penguin was doomed to play the villain from the very start of his life, thanks in no part to his biological parents. The film begins on a blustery Christmas night (let the Christ parallels begin) when a deformed baby is born unto wealthy parents. As they gaze upon their newborn son, they react not with tears of joy, but rather shrieks of horror. Like a reverse-Moses, the infant is dumped into a river by his disturbed parents, sentenced to a drowning death by an uncaring father and mother while the firstborn children of a nearby Gotham are watched over vigilantly by their own guardians. Even though he is spared an icy death, the boy is arrives not into the arms of a pharaoh’s daughter and to raised as royalty, but instead descends into the sewers and into the flippers of an equally forgotten society of penguins, later to be gawked at as a circus freak and nothing more into his adulthood.

After 33 years (Christ parallels again!), he rises from the depths of Gotham’s sewers and comes into the world of Gotham City’s socialites, seeking to be welcomed into their arms. At first, this works, and everyone loves him despite his hideous visage, but when Max Shreck, a corrupt business mogul, then convinces the Penguin to believe that he can become the city’s next mayor, everything goes downhill for poor Penguin. When Gotham and the cowardly Shreck (Penguin’s Judas) turn on him, thanks in large part to Batman’s intolerance for petty crime (and what troubled child won’t act out, really?), Penguin embraces his path as the anti-Batman and seeks vengeance upon the city that turned on him, demanding at first the death of its firstborn. Failing that, he then demands the entire city’s complete and total annihilation. His plans, of course, are thwarted with ease, and the rest of his disciples abandon him.

As he stands before Batman, dying, Penguin, a dark mirror image of Christ, grumbles his final words to Batman, requesting a drink of water: “I’ll murder you momentarily. But first, I need a cool drink… of ice… water.” He keels over under a gurgle of releasing air. His body is tended to by the only “parents” who loved him, the man-child is lowered into the water by the penguins, never to be resurrected.

The Penguin story arch never makes Penguin out to be a true hero. In classic Tim Burton fashion, however, it does demand the viewer’s sympathy for the misunderstood character, despite his misdeeds. Danny DeVito and Burton portray Penguin as an exaggeration of the classic bully whose painful history informs his present decisions, everything from his filthy mouth (literally and metaphorically), his gravelly voice, and his childlike spoiled brat personality. His fixation on childhood and toys, his unkempt hair, and his utter lack of hygiene are all just physical manifestations of this pain.

By starting the film with the beginning of his life, we’re asked to at least have a little sympathy for this devil. “You’re just jealous because I’m a genuine freak and you have to wear a mask!” he growls at one point towards Batman.  Look past the ugly outside, and you’ll see someone whose path in life was never going to see a happy ending, but at least, in the end, he was honest about his anger about it. And if we can’t forgive him for that, then what kind of monsters does that make us?

Catwoman: Death and Resurrection

Though it’s not nearly as shockingly weird as the Penguin’s story thread, the Catwoman side of theBatman Returnsplot contains a lot of meaty, intriguing character drama and is largely responsible for keeping the Bruce Wayne/Batman character involved in the story. And though her reinvention wasn’t nearly as dramatic as her avian associate in crime, the psychotic mental breakdown experienced by Tim Burton’s take on Catwoman continues the theme of asking audiences to relate to an often persecuted individual, though arguably on a more generic level.

Selina Kyle in this film is a lowly secretar… er… executive assistant to the demeaning Max Shreck (named after the Nosferatu actor, by the way). Max and his associates basically treat her as one would expect jerk business moguls to treat their secretaries, and when she even dares pop in with any suggestions, they laugh at her right to her face. Selina’s life is spent being pushed around by other people, whether they be her boss, her mother, a selfish boyfriend, and even telemarketers leaving messages on her answering machine

The final straw comes, however, when she uncovers Max’s secret plans to stockpile energy in a new energy “plant” in order to increase Gotham’s demand. Max, ever the bastard, makes sure she knows just how worthless she is just before shoving her through the multi-story window of his highrise tower.

Thanks to a few fortunately placed awnings and, presumably, a bunch of supernatural cats, Selina experiences the first of her several rebirths, awakening empowered and with a new outlook on life. The resentment towards her boss and others takes its toll and something in her mind snaps. She cleanses herself and her apartment of all her past symbols of weakness, destroying her apartment and her old self in the process. She channels this anger and need for revenge into the creation of a new identity for herself: Catwoman.

As Catwoman, Selina simultaneously seeks to revolutionize the perception of the supposedly weaker sex while simultaneously demeaning those women who continue to allow the world, men in particular, to step on their toes. Throughout the film, Selina’s new worldview begins to take its toll on her, as she struggles to survive in a man’s world. With every setback comes a rebirth for her, but even her costume begins to show signs of increasing wear and tear until, by the end of the film, she can’t even keep her identity secret. Though she seeks to get rid of Batman in order to get to Shreck, using her sexuality against the Penguin in an unlikely partnership to rid Gotham of its Dark Knight, this is further complicated by the fact that, as Selina, she’s beginning to find herself genuinely attracted to Bruce, a man who has more in common with her than she initially knows.

When it comes down to their final confrontation, Selina finds herself torn between her crusade against male tyranny and her attraction to a man she has genuinely fallen in love with, but one who also does not share her ideals. After all her pain and hard work, Selina finds herself in what is basically a no-win situation, but whichever path she chooses, vengeance or happiness, both will ultimately leave her unfulfilled in the end.

Selina’s final decision seemingly shows that she’s willing to put her principles above her own personal needs, as she laments to Bruce that she would love to choose him, but she cannot. “I would love to live with you in your castle, forever just like in a fairytale,” she mourns, letting the old Selina show through briefly. Quickly, however, she turns quickly and lashes out at him with an open claw. “I just couldn’t live with myself! So don’t pretend this is a happy ending!” Placing a taser between her lips and Max’s, she electrocutes the both of them with a deadly kiss, echoing her words to Bruce earlier in the film: “…a kiss can be even deadlier if you mean it.”

Of course, they say that cats have nine lives, and while Max and Penguin ultimately met their grisly ends, Selina’s sacrifice based on principle rather than personal desire is ultimately rewarded. Though Max’s charred remains are left behind, hers are nowhere to be found. Fate or whatever supernatural power that resurrected her in the first place, has apparently given her a second chance. As Bruce drives around one snowy night with his trusty butler Alfred, they stop the car when he thinks he’s seen her in an alley. What he finds instead is her cat, the symbol of freedom and femininity that formed the basis for her resurrected form. Though they can never be together, he takes this part of her home wit him, and as the camera pans up to a suddenly lit Bat-Signal, we see Catwoman emerge from off screen, alive and well, and still fixated on a bat…


Though the plot of Batman Returns may not be nearly as concise as the first film, and it continues to commit the same niggling sins that the previous film did, as well, including Batman’s rather unforgiving and even more hypocritical willingness to kill, Returns also continues to carry with it that wonderfully twisted spark that Tim Burton brings to the Batman universe, including Danny Elfman’s brilliant scoring of the film and an admittedly gorgeous restructuring of the Gotham City sets, which are more Burton-esque and Gothic than before, improving greatly upon the already interesting set designs of the previous films.

Ultimately, however, Returns succeeds based on the merits of the characters, and out of them all, the villains are truly the ones who stand out as the strongest ones in this film. Michelle Pfeiffer has yet to be succeeded in her iconic portrayal of the character in pretty much any medium, in my opinion, and I even have doubts that Anne Hathaway will be able to best her in this summer’s The Dark Knight Rises. (Of course, I’ll just spare you the tired Halle Berry jokes and instead redirect you to my review for that film here.) And while he ultimately had the difficult job of playing a well known character with an all new interpretation, Danny DeVito did a great job in blending the familiar characteristics of the under-appreciated villain with his new characteristics and made it his own.

Though many fans of the comics and traditional portrayals may cry foul at the alterations, l find myself applauding Tim Burton and the rest for doing something so bold and carefully thought out. Strange as it may have been, Batman Returns was an enthralling action-drama that also happened to mark the last time for quite some time that Batman was portrayed in a respectful and dignified manner in live action, too. Due to the complaints lobbied against it by all those angry parents and critics who weren’t nearly as cool as my mom, Warner Bros. looked at this awesome film and, in that awesome corporate mindset, saw fit to throw out everything that worked in the last two films and replace it all with neon lights, one-liners, “toyetic” gadgets, and, lest we forget, Bat-nippes…

The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 4 / 5

Though completely coincidental, this portion of the review officially absolves me of going through with my original plans to review The Passion of the Christ for this Easter week. I didn’t really want to go through that at this time, however, and I really wanted to watch Batman movies lately, so this is what you’ll have to deal with ’til next year. Happy Easter, everyone!

  1. April 6, 2012 at 10:17 am

    Well done!

    “Like a reverse-Moses” – I love it!
    This is a masterful review. I’ve even been thinking about this movie lately – I can’t believe I never picked up on the symbolism in the Penguin’s story.

    I agree that the villains in Burton’s two Bat-movies upstage Batman himself. Though I would argue that Keaton’s part in this film is somewhat different than it was in the first one. Bruce Wayne has separated himself even further from his Bat persona here and, as if swinging around a tether pole, they collide again at the end of Returns. The dual identities theme, though overstated, also gives Keaton some dramatic meat to chew on as he broods through the movie.

    Some fans have complained that Batman isn’t given much to do in this film. It’s true, but I think that’s because Bruce is finally coming into his own. We can surmise that since inaugurating his Batman persona, Bruce has receded further and further behind the mask. And now, perhaps because of the empathetic presence of Selina, he’s able to start growing up.

    I would have loved to have seen a third Burton movie, fully exploring the deconstruction of Batman and the reconstruction of Bruce Wayne. Sort of a Fall and Rise of Bruce Wayne.

    Anyway. Cheers and great job! I look forward to reading more!

  2. April 6, 2012 at 6:38 pm

    Always Has Been…
    …Always Will Be.
    It Felt Like I Was WATCHING A Much Darker Comic-Book, and I LOVED IT!

  3. January 31, 2013 at 2:46 am

    Even I watched many times Burton’s Batman. I love to read this review ^_^ About Returns, This movie( and Batman 1989) with all features included, the stars and arts direction, in my opinion Burton’s Batman still the best we can see in motion, especially for those Batman comic fans. – Cheers

  1. April 13, 2012 at 10:52 pm
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