As everyone and their mother heads into their family Batmobile to see Matt Reeves’ “The Batman,” Tim Burton’s sequel, the first time we saw “The Bat, The Cat and The Penguin” together, has a 30th anniversary and is always worth a revisit, even for non-Batfans.
Burton’s “Batman Returns” (1992) was one of those movie phenomena where, despite being the top grossing summer movie and one of the biggest hits of its year, it didn’t have a lot of fans.
Upon release, it became an infamous case of backlash and post-screening distress, with audience reaction muted (it received a B grade from Cinemascore, whereas the 1989 original received an A) and outcry over the intensity of the violence.
Undoubtedly, while Burton’s trademark of a whimsical yet macabre tone could be expected, many complained that it was gross and ugly (so much so that the McDonald’s tie-in was deemed inappropriate).
The film, like the original, was accused of being a case where a year of mounting hype, ubiquitous merchandise and a recognizable logo gave it gotta-see-it status and box office receipts that contrasts greatly with what patrons truly thought about it.
I remember the summer of ’92 vividly and, while the controversy the film garnered was real, writing it off as mostly dismissed isn’t entirely accurate or fair. It was obvious from the day it opened that “Batman Returns,” with its overwhelming sadness, nihilistic violence and compassion for its heartbreaking characters, was something special.
Many critics and audience members with a taste for Burton’s wild, dark carnival rides into ghoulish landscapes and a depressed psyche found the film, as bonkers as it is, to be an engrossing, even essential Burton experience.
It starts with an unsettling flashback, presented with a coal-dark sense of humor, as the wealthy Mr. and Mrs. Cobblepot (Paul Reubens and Diane Salinger, both of Burton’s “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure”) abandon their newborn son. It seems the newly born Oswald Cobblepot has deformities, and his parents decide to simply dump them in the river.
Although we briefly see that little Oswald does eat the family cat, the Cobblepots are clearly a-holes for dropping their child into the drink. Because they never speak, we don’t know if Oswald’s parents are trying to kill him or hoping, like Moses, he will float to another, better life.
That this film, which inspired an action figure line and T-shirts sold at Toys R’ Us, begins this way is an astonishment.
The story picks up 33-years later, as Gotham City isn’t just plagued with crime but frequently attacked by an insane clown posse who goes by “The Circus Gang.” Explosions and chaos break out with such frequency, it seems that Batman’s dispatching The Joker previously has done little to scare away the criminal element.
We meet Selina Kyle, played by Michelle Pfeiffer as entirely likable and sweet, albeit verbally and physically clumsy. Selina’s employment for Max Shreck (an eerie and very funny Christopher Walken) takes an unexpected turn – the discovery of incriminating documents leads to a failed attempt on her life, which is revived by an army of street cats.
Selina becomes Catwoman and embraces her newfound “yumminess” and uninhibited outlook on life. Meanwhile, Oswald Cobblepot, now fully grown and played by Danny DeVito, reappears as The Penguin.
Burton’s first “Batman” is among the summer movie experiences I cherish the most. Made when the likes of comic book movies were “Superman IV – The Quest for Peace” (1987), the serious tone and look of the film, irresistible casting, intense wave of never-ending merchandise, Prince soundtrack and even the Topps bubble gum card set had me all summer long.
The film is wonderful, if less than “The Movie of the Decade,” as a critic once gushed with a little too much enthusiasm.
FAST FACT: “Batman Returns” scored $162 million in 1992, which seems like a modest sum today but was good enough to top that year’s box office chart.
Despite how well “Batman” holds up, it’s easy to see the compromises Burton made, as the film, as good as it is, was clearly made to be commercially viable; Burton and others have noted that the intrusion of producers Jon Peters and Peter Guber, in which they added scenes and touches both crassly commercial and, in some cases, quite practical, resulted in an overly plotted film.
Apparently, the bell tower finale was a result of a producer and superstar Jack Nicholson seeing “The Phantom of the Opera” on Broadway and deciding the film needed to end in similar fashion. It was a touch Burton didn’t want though, looking at it as is, it’s an admittedly great ending.
Nevertheless, from start to finish, “Batman Returns” never feels like it was made by a committee. The screenplay by Sam Hamm (who co-wrote the original film) and Daniel Waters is sad and mean, punctuated by very dark bursts of humor.
This isn’t a criticism but an observation, as “Batman Returns,” as very-far out as it gets, always feels personal and disinterested in simply being a summer movie ride.
A cousin in tone to Burton’s prior work, “Batman Returns” is a fairytale akin to his “Edward Scissorhards” (1990). It’s also everything its naysayers said it was but for good reason. Yes, it’s too violent and scary for kids, though the original, which was really pushing the PG-13 in ’89, was a clear indication that this is a safe bet for older kids, not children.
There’s a horrific moment of an attempted rape that is disrupted by Catwoman, children are kidnapped and put in cages, The Penguin graphically bites someone on the nose and is constantly oozing either saliva, blood or both.
How do those Happy Meals taste, kids?
Look, it’s PG-13 and was never a good bet for anyone who loved “The Little Mermaid.” It may have jolted millions and drew pushback at the time but looking at it now, this is among the least commercial Burton films. Only Burton’s “Ed Wood” and “Mars Attacks!” are equally marching-to-their-own tune and defiantly out of step, and for the better.
The Penguin, like Catwoman and the title character, is among the “monsters” who have been abused and tossed aside by society. The Penguin assures Shreck, regarding evidence that he assumed had long been eliminated, “You flush it, I flaunt it.”
The Penguin, with his lair in Gotham City’s shutdown “Arctic World” exhibit and a cluster of lost children/carnies/soldiers, represents Gotham’s guilt and dirty secrets.
The Penguin may be vile and, once his plans become known, truly psychotic, but he was once Oswald Cobblepot. The same goes for Selina and for Bruce Wayne. Cobblepot becomes a sleazy monster-turned-sleazy-politician, which is ripe satire the film has a ball running with (Jan Hooks’ single-scene cameo as Oswald’s image rep is a riot).
Why haven’t I mentioned Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne and The Batman until now? Well, the film has him on the backburner for the most part, as the villains do overshadow him (perhaps the only real criticism lobbied at the film in ’92 with merit).
Nevertheless, Keaton is excellent, and Wayne’s intro is perfect, as the reclusive billionaire is sitting alone in the dark, only springing to life once the Bat Signal stirs him. Wayne is initially moved by Oswald, a nice touch (“His parents…I hope he finds them”).
Hamm and Waters’ screenplay is full of cracked touches – note that Shreck has a stuffed chihuahua he keeps on a shelf named “Geraldo” (!). There’s also a toy poodle that delivers a bomb (for a movie where bats, cats and penguins get most of the screen time, the dogs are hilarious).
The Bat-a-Rang has a great POV moment, though there are so many absurdist touches here, like the giant rubber ducky, the supernatural cats of Gotham and any scene in the third act involving an army of penguins. Hamm even gets in a tongue in cheek reference to the controversial Vicki-Vale-in-the-Batcave moment from the last installment.
Finally, Shreck pitches this political campaign at Oswald: “Max and Cobblepot – The Visionary Alliance,” an apparent reference to the widely disliked Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, who once referred to their producer team as “the visionary alliance.”
The wondrous, distressing and icky scene where Selina becomes Catwoman was downright scary at first but is now easy to pinpoint as one of the film’s greatest visual moments. Selina is a trauma survivor and, as cool and ferocious as Catwoman is, her journey is rich with pathos.
All of Pfeiffer’s scenes with Keaton are golden. Note how Wayne tells her, “You got kind of a dark side, don’t you?” Her response: “No darker than yours Bruce.”
Batman Returns (1992) pic.twitter.com/G2gcqEhUBK
— Batman ’89 & Batman Returns (@Batman89Returns) February 25, 2022
They recognize the aching heart and damage within one another, and, to the film’s credit, you really want these two to run away together, far from Gotham City. Selina considers a relationship with Bruce and notes, “He makes me feel the way I hope I am.” However, as Catwoman to Batman, she tells him “You’re catnip to a girl like me.”
The duality of this relationship is richly considered and performed. A perfect touch – as Wayne enters the masquerade party looking for Selina, “Superfreak” is playing. Also, a moment later, we get perhaps my all-time favorite Christopher Walken movie moment: Wayne encounters him, lectures him about his nefarious plans and Schreck responds, “Yawn” and walks away.
Not sure if this was a Walken improv or in the screenplay.
Pfeiffer is perfection in this. Note how Selina sees The Dark Knight for the first time and, correctly, calls him “The Batman,” respecting his standing as a street legend (which her Catwoman would also soon embrace). Selina, pre-transformation, talks to herself disparagingly, calling herself a “corn dog.” She’s a sweetheart, lonely and awkward.
Shreck refers to her as “what’s-her-name” and doesn’t acknowledge her until she accidentally threatens his social standing. Selina is surrounded by male brutes in suits and her Catwoman is a welcome presence, a nightmare for men who think they can hurt women and get away with it.
I enjoy DeVito’s operatic performance, though the character is so nauseating, he wore me down.
Once we get to The Penguin’s plan to kill Gotham’s first-born sons, the audience is either going with Burton’s unhinged vision or fumbling for their kids and staring at the EXIT light. No matter how you ingest the all-stops-out finale to this feminist comic book movie, that wonderful last scene is perfection. Wayne’s final pondering is “Goodwill toward men…and women.”
Indeed, Bruce. A key to why “Batman Returns” matters is that it loves its characters and reveals the deep longing within The Bat, The Cat and The Penguin. By allowing Burton to indulge himself, Warner Bros. may have funded a highly divisive film but “Batman Returns,” in its walk on the wild side, is about learning to either live with or destroy the identity we’re attached to.
It also has penguins with missiles strapped to their backs.