Batman has always been a hot property to movie studios. Going as far back as the 1940s, Batman has been on screen. Perhaps the most famous of its time was the late great Adam West’s big screen adventure as everyone’s favorite hero, coming straight from the classic 1960’s TV show. For a long time, Batman was seen as being the Dark Knight in the comic books, but the much lighter and camp Caped Crusader on screen. It wasn’t until 1989 when visionary filmmaker Tim Burton took inspiration from the comic books, that Batman became more of his Dark Knight self. That movie would eventually become ‘Batman’, starring Michael Keaton as Batman and Jack Nicholson as iconic nemesis Joker. While the movie stripped away all the lovable goofball campness of the 60s show, and brought Batman over to his legendary dark side, it still remained very much over the top in both a sense of that same classic 60s camp, and Keaton couldn’t quite nail down the performance of Bruce Wayne, although completely perfect as Batman. But that would change…
In 1992, three years after the incredible success of ‘Batman’, Tim Burton decided to try something he hadn’t before. To tap into his own brand of quirky humor, darkness and violence, but to shred away his classic camp filmmaking style, to go for a much harder, far more violent and brutally darker movie. That movie is ‘Batman Returns’. And it’s celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. As time has moved on, the previous Batman big and small screen adaptations have aged somewhat, with the 1960s show a beloved memory of a vision long gone. Even the 1989 movie has aged as a movie, due to it’s mash-up of 50s meets 80s fashion sense, the heavy use of TV in its storyline and even the awesome Prince soundtrack. ‘Batman’, while being an absolutely fantastic movie, feels like a product of the 80s. But after 25 years, ‘Batman Returns’ hasn’t aged a day, with every single aspect of it remaining relevant right up to now. And that’s very hard to do. Especially with a comic book hero movie.
‘Batman Returns’ for one last time features Michael Keaton as Batman/ Bruce Wayne, who goes face to face with two of his greatest foes… the dreaded Penguin and Catwoman. Penguin/ Oswald Cobblepot, played gloriously by Danny DeVito (Easily his most fantastic performance) is an oprhaned freak of nature who ascends from the sewers of Gotham City to exact revenge on every parent of the city, with an evil plan of murdering their first born baby sons, after his recently deceased parents attempted to drown him after discovering his birdlike features from birth. Selena Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer also taking on her most famous and best role) is a sweet-natured secretary to a vicious businessman Max Shreck (Played by one of Hollywood’s finest actors, Christopher Walken), who unwittingly stumbles across his dastardly plan to steal power from Gotham and eventually have his son sell it back to a then-darknened city. When murdered by her boss, Selena is brought back from the dead by alley cats, to only then become a feline herself. Armed with 9 lives and the same thirst for vengeance as Penguin, Selena becomes the sexy Catwoman, joining forces with the evil birdman in a bid to kill Schreck, while Penguin plans to kill Batman and carry out his horrific act against hundreds of innocent babies. Two men stand between the villains and their aim for vengeance… Batman. And Bruce Wayne.
Michael Keaton played a fantastic Batman in his first outing, but his role as Bruce Wayne sadly suffered at times, due to Keaton’s trademark wild man personality in movies. Who can forget the immortal quote “You wanna get nuts? Let’s get nuts!”? While not at all bad as Wayne, the emotion just gets lost at times. But with ‘Batman Returns’, Keaton delivers the perfect duel role, playing the crimefighting hero with even more vigor and thrill than before, but now this time playing Bruce Wayne with heart and soul, throwing aside the little touches of crazy, instead going for a very somber peaceful Wayne, with also a far better romantic performance than previously. Michael Keaton is known for many classic movies and performances, but in my opinion, he has never been a greater star and actor than he is right here. And as irony would have it, Danny DeVito as Penguin is beyond superb. The walk, the talk, the pure hatred in his eyes, DeVito plays Penguin/Cobblepot far greater than anyone else ever could have. Brutal, ugly, violent and hilariously perverted, Penguin here steals the show entirely, with his limitless quotes and offbeat evil humor. And what makes him even better is the makeup that disguises every feature of the lovable and sweet DeVito, turning him into a disgusting monster that even after 25 years still sickens anyone who watches the movie. Danny DeVito is such a terrific comedic actor, but he shines brighter than the stars as Penguin/ Cobblepot. And if two perfect performances weren’t enough, how about Michelle Pfeiffer taking on the role of her career, as the beautiful and sinister Catwoman? Oozing with sex appeal and absolute rage, Catwoman has never been portrayed better than by Pfeiffer. Brilliantly insane, beautiful and hilarious, Catwoman brings so much more to ‘Batman Returns’ that just another run at taking on the classic feminist role. Pfeiffer captures a perfectly psychotic nature, busting out one classic line after the next (“Saved by kitty litter!”), while sewn into a suit that should have restricted her movements, but instead made her seem more free than anything else she’d appeared in. Michelle Pfeiffer is one of the finest female actors in movies, but Catwoman will always be the performance that defines her. It made her a superstar. As for Christopher Walken as Shreck… It’s Christopher Walken. And that’s all that needs to be said. He’s always pure perfection. Even up against Keaton, DeVito and Pfeiffer in their best roles, Walken manages to steal every scene he’s in, with his unrivalled swagger, insantly recognizable voice and those crazy eyes. The man is acting royalty.
Tim Burton can be a hit and miss filmmaker. ‘Batman’, ‘Beetlejuice’ and ‘Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure’ are beloved classics. And his several partnership projects with Johnny Depp have given us superb classics such as ‘Edward Scissorhands’ and ‘Sleepy Hollow’. And even a movie I once detested, ‘Mars Attacks’. has since become a movie I have nothing but adoration for. Burton is a strange man. And he doesn’t always get it right. ‘Corpse Bride’ is useless, as is ‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street’. At least again in my opinion. But there’s no doubting that this man can deliver greater than most filmmakers when presented with the right script and cast. And he seriously has never been better than with ‘Batman Returns’. Many will argue, but this is clearly his masterpiece. Every shot, ever line, every performance is pure perfection. From the startling opening of two people drowning their child, to that magnificent and moving end with Catwoman revealed to have survived with her original one life left to live, this is a movie that shines like the Bat signal. And much of that praise must go to Burton, for his elegant and beautiful handling of one of cinema’s darkest movies. He directs the drama, the horror, the romance and the action with a precision that most directors could never dream of. Every filmmaker has at least that one movie that showcases them at their finest, and I truly believe that despite how many classics he has delivered, ‘Batman Returns’ is the most magnificent movie he has ever made. And no other movie brings together his many styles like this.
A Batman movie could never be a Batman movie without action. Yes, comedy and romance, with a dash of horror (Or a rainfall in this case) can be handed up to us. But that’s not what solely what we want from Batman. We want action. And lots of it. That’s where ‘Batman Returns’ continues to shine. Filled with breathtaking stunts, fights, chases and explosions, this is Batman at his very best. From that infamous store explosion at the hands of Catwoman (Placing aerosol cans into a microwave. The scene remained cut for many years in Ireland and the UK) to the hysterically awesome Batmobile hijacking at the hands of Penguin, ‘Batman Returns’ sets out to thrill its audience with the heartpounding excitement we expect from a big budget comic book movie. While the 1989 movie also has stunning action sequences, there’s a nastiness and darkness to the action here that makes us enjoy it all the more. As an example: During the Batmobile hijacking, Penguin attempts to run down an old lady, with Batman at the wheel of the car. You’d never get that in another Batman movie. ‘Batman Returns’ relishes in sickening us with dark and sinister violence, and the repulsive nature of the villains. And that’s what makes it so darn fantastic. It’s so desperate to shake off the classic campness of the 1960s show and the cartoon silliness of the 1989 classic, that it turns into a serious thriller with bite and edge, unmatched by anything else in its genre. And you’d imagine the awesomeness would stop there, but it doesn’t!
The story itself is absolutely fantastic. Aside from the already mentioned quest for vengeance from both villains, there’s the beautiful love story between Bruce Wayne and Selena Kyle. Two haunted souls who prowl the streets at night, in search of something to quench their need to break even with the hand they’ve been dealt. But outside of their masks, they are greatly attracted to one another, all the while trying to hide who they are inside. It’s those scenes that bring yet more class and brilliance to an already spectacular movie. “Mistletoe can be deadly if you eat it, but a kiss can be deadlier it you mean it!”. Moments like that add so much more to a movie. Vicki Vale was fun in the 89 movie, but for all the attempts to add some personality to her by making her a war photographer, she never had an ounce of the charm and excitement that Selena has. And that’s the stuff of magic, that even Tim Burton had never had before, or since, in a movie he’s directed. On top of all that, there’s the wonderful political storyline too. A wicked businessman by way of Shreck, who murders anyone who stands in his way of domination over Gotham. Penguin, an evil monster from the sewers of that same city who has filth on Shreck, and blackmails the businessman into helping him become Mayor of Gotham! Such a fantastic storyline by Daniels Waters and Sam Hamm that by itself has held many great shows and movies together. And yet with ‘Batman Returns’, that is just one string to its bow! It’s even set at Christmas time, which makes it even greater! The more I’ve watched this movie over the years, the more I’ve noticed just how ahead of its time it really was. And not just that, but how absolutely brave it was. It’s so brutally dark that kids could never watch it, it’s so nasty that even many adults can stand to watch it, and it’s finger is so on the pulse of society that maybe even politicians would hate it. Even McDonald’s pulled a promotional offer of toys involved with the movies, out of fear it would offend customers. That’s the power and magic this movie holds.
As with any movie, especially a comic book hero movie, the soundtrack is what holds so much of the movie together. And once again, Danny Elfman is on hand to assist Tim Burton in bringing his twisted and wonderful visions to the screen. There’s very little that can match the thrill of that theme kicking in over the opening credits. It’s very much like the feeling we get when we hear John Williams’s iconic Superman theme play over the credits of those movies. It’s no wonder that the producers of the glorious animated Batman show opted to use Elfman’s magnificent theme for their entire run. And to top off the soundtrack, as with all 1980s/1990s Batman movies, there is a theme song. This time, it’s the haunting ‘Face To Face’ from Siouxsie And The Banshees, that sadly only features briefly in the movie and a little on the end credits. The whole song should have featured on the end of the movie, but alas, they chose the score we’ve already heard in the movie. What is the point of having such talent as Souxsie And The Banshees record a song, when you only use part of it? If ‘Batman Returns’ has any failing at all, it is the underusing of that song. And if that’s the worst a movie can do, then thank the movie Gods.
25 years later, ‘Batman Returns’ remains Tim Burton’s finest entry into his filmmaking legacy. It also remains the movie that features the best performances of it’s leading stars. It is the movie we have to thank for the recent Dark Knight movies and DC universe titles. A quarter of a century old and ‘Batman Returns’ is still the perfect movie it has always been. I’ve no doubt it will last easily another 25 years before it starts to age.
And lest we forget, we would never have the Batman big screen movies we have if not for Adam West. He was the first Batman I knew as a child and he was the first star to have a feature length Batman movie on cinema screens. He made me a fan of the Caped Crusader, long before even Tim Burton and Michael Keaton came to town. Thank you Adam West for making Batman the icon he is today. May you rest in peace and may your Bat signal shine forever more.