Disclaimer: This review gets pretty quote-heavy. I will note for the record that Batman Returns is scripted by Daniel Waters, who also wrote the most quotable film ever made, Heathers.
Batman Returns is perhaps the most controversial Bat film. While Schumacher’s entries are widely reviled, and Nolan’s are widely praised, Returns is divisive. I’m firmly in the pro camp.
McDonald’s infamously withdrew sponsorship because of the violence and dark tone of the film. Yet Batman Returns takes a very different tack to the increasingly adult-oriented comics of the time.
With its large Rogues’ Gallery of villains and endlessly puntastic dialogue, Batman Returns actually harks back to kitschy 40-60s Batman, at a time when Frank Miller-esque grim’n’gritty was taking over comics. Miller would instead influence the relatively mundane Nolan films.
Visually, Burton recreates a gorgeous Depression-era Gothic Deco (‘New York at night’, in the 40s). It’s a similar visual style to Batman: The Animated Series, also launched in 1992, famously painted on black cells.
So, visually this Gotham is undeniably beautiful, coming from Burton’s heyday. But the script is a hot mess.
Detractors have noted that the film stretches credibility, or makes little sense. I don’t care. It’s a live-action cartoon.
Another criticism holds that the adaptation is not sufficiently faithful, particularly the portrayal of the Penguin. This is fair enough if you’re a fan of the character, but I personally have no particular loyalty to the Penguin, and Burton’s depiction is interesting in itself.
A more interesting complaint concerns Michael Keaton’s Batman, who fades into the background, as Burton shows more interest in the villains. This deserves discussion. Batman Returns is certainly a crowded film, with extensive screen-time dedicated to villainous scheming (Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman is the most memorable character).
Bruce Wayne’s personality develops most clearly in his relationship with Selina Kyle, Catwoman’s human self. Both are deeply dissatisfied people, hiding parts of themselves, each attracted to the glimmers of dissatisfaction they see in the other.
As Kyle puts it during their first date, laden with overt 90s pop-psychology, Bruce Wayne has a “difficulty with duality.” In fact, we have three key characters who generated a dual animal self in response to a traumatic event:
- Danny DeVito’s Oswald Cobblepot (The Penguin), a freak cast out into the sewers by his high-society parents, returning for revenge on Gotham.
- Michelle Pfeiffer’s Selina Kyle (Catwoman), formerly a mousy secretary accepting all manner of degradations, until her boss threw her out of a window. The ensuing psychosis is delightful, as she paints her pink apartment black to a Danny Elfman soundtrack, and returns to work with her hair down, openly voicing a bizarre stream of consciousness. Catwoman is everything Selina Kyle repressed to survive in a patriarchal, capitalist world.
- Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne (Batman), who created the bat to strike fear into the hearts of criminals after his parents were gunned down in alleyway. Okay, so this well-known backstory is not explored in Batman Returns, but it lurks behind the discussion of trauma and duality.
Batman Returns concerns the ‘return of the repressed’. At the heart of the film are three desperately sad people, each “split down the centre”, each driven by some animating trauma, each generating a fursona to participate in a staged battle between good and evil.
And good is on the ropes. Batman is such an unconvincing hero, so unconvinced by even his own heroism, that when the Penguin asserts “you’re just jealous because I’m a genuine freak and you have to wear a mask”, he replies “you might be right.” Really? No denial? No noble motive?
Even when Bruce Wayne does assert a noble motive, it is hard to be convinced:
Max Shreck: I am the light of Gotham City and I am its mean, twisted soul. Does it really matter who’s the mayor?
Bruce Wayne: It does to me.
Max Shreck: Yawn.
Speaking of dualities, consider the duality between Max Shreck and Bruce Wayne. One is a bat, the other a vampire: Shreck is named after the first actor to portray Dracula (well, ‘Count Orlok’, in Nosferatu). Two magnates, each seeking to influence Gotham’s political regime, one motivated by noblesse oblige, the other shamelessly evil.
Considering the yawning inequalities in Gotham, Bruce Wayne like any ‘ethical capitalist’ seeks to clean up with the left hand a mess he helps create with the right hand. And the left hand is a fist encased in rubber. I can’t help but be more convinced by Max Shreck’s outlook.
Batman fades into the background because nobody believes in him anymore.
When an unmasked Bruce Wayne attempts to offer hope to Catwoman, she replies immortally, “I would love to live with you in your castle… forever, just like in a fairy-tale. I just couldn’t live with myself. So don’t pretend this is a happy ending.”