This is the story of three freaks. Pale as death, they walk by night, guided by their spirit animals. The surface world, occupied by the gaudy and squeaky clean rites of Christmas, has no place for them, so they take up space in caves, sewers, and alleyways. You might spot the shadow of one of them out of the corner of your eye one frigid night. No sense in trying to get a closer look, though; you’ll see them when they want you to see them.
This is Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, the sequel to the smash hit that first got the ball rolling on the superhero subgenre in Hollywood. Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy may now be the unassailable standard-bearer for fanboys, but I’m always more excited about revisiting this film than any of those. For starters, it’s funnier than all of Nolan’s movies put together. Recently I’ve come to accept the fact that the transition from Burton to Joel Schumacher in the franchise wasn’t such a bizarre leap as I had once assumed. There’s still a great deal of darkness and subversion in Burton’s vision, but he has a much more playful approach to these impossible characters than Nolan would ever take. Michael Gough’s Alfred is a consistent source of humor, serving vichyssoise in a cave and joking about taking the Batmobile to a mechanic. The turn away from taking Batman himself quite so seriously was first made here. There are a number of sight gags playing up just how ridiculous the suit looks (and it can’t be denied that, outside of a cartoon context, the Batsuit will always look a little goofy; a filmmaker can only hide this fact by doubling down on the brooding). And then there’s Burton’s obvious preference for the villains.
Batman Returns has been criticized for its lack of interest in its own title character. But you have to keep the camera on Michelle Pfeiffer, Danny DeVito, and Christopher Walken when they’re turning in such distinctive work. Besides, it’s good storytelling to delay the appearance of a character meant to disrupt the goals of characters we’ve been led to invest in. Indeed, the roles of protagonist and antagonist are slippery in this film. Batman fights Catwoman and the Penguin, but he also sympathizes with them. He might even take their side if circumstances changed just a little. Burton doesn’t fully buy into the Batman mythos. He pokes holes in it throughout the film, a process Michael Keaton seems more than happy to abet. But if anything, this version of the Dark Knight is darker than Christian Bale’s. Here he’s allowed to be cruel, sullen, and, in a satisfying twist, genuinely romantic when Selina Kyle comes into his life. The demythologizing and the romance finally mesh at the end, when Batman takes his mask off. Again, this is an oft-criticized moment, but I appreciate the symbolism of the gesture, however futile. It says, “We don’t have to be Batman and Catwoman anymore. We can be normal.” Unfortunately, that ship has sailed.
Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman is legendary for a reason. It’s a transformative performance, angry and sly and perfectly molded to the material. Pfeiffer’s eyes are so incredible that I can never look at anything that shares the frame with them. The character is, of course, mentally unhinged. Depending on how literal you wish to take the events in the film, she’s either an animate corpse or an avenging spirit. Her enemy is a corporate system, personified by her chauvinist boss, that intends to keep women superficial and subservient. This is Daniel Waters’ (Heathers) most significant contribution to the script. Stuffed animals ripped apart in the garbage disposal; a doll’s house covered with black spray paint; a pink neon “HELLO THERE” sign succinctly altered to “HELL HERE.” Selina Kyle’s upward mobility is, in its own twisted way, inspiring. But she’s a dead woman walking, her finite lives gradually approaching zero.
The crucial line in the film belongs to the Penguin: “You’re just jealous because I’m a genuine freak, and you have to wear a mask.” To which Batman replies, “You might be right.” Tim Burton, who grew up in the land of Disney, has built his career on inserting the fantastical and gothic to suburbia and other whitewashed societies. His heart is definitely with the Penguin and his circus freak companions, but Burton probably has more in common with Batman. (Oh, that we could all say that about ourselves.) Like Bruce Wayne, Oswald Cobblepot is at once a child of privilege and an orphan, a subterranean enforcer who also harbors ambitions of steering Gotham City by the light of day. The effort to elect Cobblepot mayor of Gotham is an excellent bit of dark humor. This town is so awful that even a sewer-dwelling ogre who bites people’s noses is preferable to the status quo. As a line of dialogue makes explicit, the Penguin is an anti-Elephant Man figure, rotten from the inside out. Still, by the time he finally sets forth on his great act of biblical vengeance, followed swiftly by ignoble defeat and death, with tuxedoed pallbearers at the ready to restore just a little dignity to him — it’s all pathetic, but in the best sense of the word.
It’s true that Burton’s Batman films have more of an affinity for the silent cinema, with its expressionism and horror, than for comic books. But this just means that the films’ authorship belongs firmly to Burton rather than to Bob Kane or DC Comics. Any movie that nods toward Nosferatu and The Phantom of the Opera is all right in my book. Christopher Walken’s character, Max Shreck, along with his son Chip (Andrew Bryniarski), serve as a diabolical parody of the father-son pair in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis — again, the manicured tower-dwellers literally living on top of the people they abuse. Walken was an inspired casting choice for a Burton film, flamboyant and monstrous but at the same time believably derisive toward the true freaks.
Batman Returns comes close to being the ultimate Tim Burton movie, made at the peak of his career and, despite having a huge budget, made his way. Likewise, the film hosts longtime Burton collaborator Danny Elfman’s most characteristic score, with its pallid angel choirs and circus motifs accompanying the theatrical splendor of the main theme. When I was growing up, there was Burton’s interpretation of Batman, and there was Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski’s interpretation (in Batman: The Animated Series). Looking back, I see that the cartoon has a grasp of the character which no other filmmaker (including Nolan) has been able to match. But for a complete cinematic experience, Batman Returns is tough to beat. It’s comfort food for whenever the Christmas industry in America starts to feel phony. So, annually.