"Things change"- Batman (Michael Keaton) in BATMAN RETURNS (1992).
Common wisdom holds that the first iteration of the BATMAN film franchise in the late 20th century can be cleanly divided into two distinct bodies of work. The good films, the ones directed by Tim Burton, BATMAN (1989) and BATMAN RETURNS (1992) and the bad films, the ones directed by Joel Schumacher, BATMAN FOREVER (1995) and BATMAN AND ROBIN (1997). After watching BATMAN RETURNS last night for the first time in twenty-four years, I'm here to tell you that this hot mess of a movie was the beginning of the end of the Batman film franchise.
It's not that the film doesn't have some merits. To begin with, it looks fantastic. The cinematography by Stefan Czapsky is stunning while the full size sets, miniatures, models, matte paintings, and early digital sfx are all imaginatively conceived and brilliantly executed. The film succeeds in making Gotham City appear to exist in a never-never land of comic book visuals and great, heaping servings of German Expressionism. The cityscapes more accurately resemble Metropolis (Fritz Lang's, not Clark Kents') while the massive, oppressive architecture looms over everyone, blocking out the dim, winter sunlight in the few daytime scenes in the film. It's a dark setting for the Dark Knight and kudos to everyone involved in the production design and art direction of the film.
Director Tim Burton uses the film to showcase his love of and knowledge of classic films (especially horror) with visual homages liberally sprinkled throughout the film, The opening shot of the Cobblepot mansion's massive, initialed gates echoes the same shot in Orson Welles' CITIZEN KANE (1941). The cavernous interiors of Wayne Manor, which dwarf both Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) and Alfred (Michael Gough), resemble the baroque sets of KANE also, as well as those of BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) and SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939). Oswald Cobblepot, aka The Penguin (Danny DeVito), shuffles through a Gotham graveyard in a cloak and beaver top hat that recalls the look of Lon Chaney in LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT (1927). At a masquerade ball, a skull-faced, gown wearing figure is seen on a staircase in the background, a direct reference to a similar figure in THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925). Two women fall from great heights in scenes that acknowledge Hitchcock's VERTIGO (1958), while Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer), lies in the snow after her fall in a position similar to that of Tippi Hedren's following the attic bird attack in THE BIRDS (1963). And one of the main characters, Max Schreck (Christopher Walken), is named for the German actor who starred in the legendary silent vampire film, NOSFERATU (1922). These are all of the references I caught. Your mileage may vary.
Oh, and one final nice thing to say about the film before we begin the dissection of the corpse: Michelle Pfeiffer is hot.
BATMAN RETURNS goes off of the rails before the film even starts. It's that title. Batman returns? From where? Where's he been? Did he stop fighting crime after the events portrayed in BATMAN? Is this his first foray against super villains since then? The film could have used a more evocative title.
Burton starts things off by focusing on the Penguin, a hideously deformed infant who is placed in a basket by his parents and sent into the Gotham sewers, never to be seen again. This exile recalls both Moses and Superman. The basket is eventually found by, wait for it, a mess of penguins and it's inferred that the birds raised the baby. Shades of Tarzan!
After spending entirely too much time with the Penguin, Burton next focuses on insane businessman Shreck and his secretary, Selina Kyle who eventually becomes Catwoman in a dodgy origin sequence. The first act of the film is given over entirely to the bad guys, the freaks and outcasts that Burton so dearly loves. Batman barely makes an appearance in his own film. And when the Caped Crusader does finally make the scene, he often appears confused and befuddled, puzzled by all of the mysterious goings on around him. The Batman is supposed to be the worlds' greatest detective (a skill that has yet to be fully utilized in any of the Batman films) but here he's a bit slow on the uptake. He's also reactive instead of proactive. In short, he seems tentative and unsure of himself.
About that Catwoman origin. How is it that one woman, Selina, can fall from a great height and come back to life while another woman, The Ice Princess (Cristi Conaway) can take a similar fall and wind up dead? Did the cats around her body have something to do with Selina's resurrection? It's not made clear in the script by Daniel Waters.
Oh, and just how well built is the Batmobile? The protective armor gets hacked by a gang of murderous clowns in order to place a bomb on the vehicle's undercarriage. Later, when the Batmobile is being driven by the Penguin by remote control, Batman punches a hole in the floorboard of the car in order to retrieve the ticking bomb. Can any human being punch a hole in the floorboard of a car? And wouldn't the Batmobile be heavily armored all over?
Why is Christopher Walken in this movie? What is his purpose? His performance is the usual annoying Walken shtick but he brings nothing to the proceedings that are already cramped with the presence of two major Bat-foes. And just what is the plot of this furshlugginer mess? Is it the Penguin's quest to find his parents and his true identity? Did that. Is it a plot to have the Penguin run for mayor of Gotham, a scheme that involves framing Batman for the murder of the Ice Princess? No, wait, it's the Penguin's plan to kidnap all of the first born sons of Gotham's rich and powerful (another Biblical allusion). No, that's not it. It's unleashing a bunch of remote controlled penguins with missiles strapped to their backs to attack the city. Yeah, that's it.
As in BATMAN, Batman once again reveals his secret identity to a woman he loves. Here, he rips off a clearly soft rubber cowl to show Selina his face, a face that is miraculously devoid of the "raccoon eyes" black make-up he had on when the cowl was in place. And just how many cool vehicles can Batman build and destroy? First it was the Bat-Wing in BATMAN. Here, it's the Bat-boat that gets trashed.
Danny Elfman's annoying score never stops. Aside from the Batman motif from the first film (a theme I like), the music sounds like a broken hurdy-gurdy that just won't stop. It gives the film the feel of a twisted carnival, which, I suppose, was the intent, but a little sure goes a long way.
In short, BATMAN RETURNS is an over-stuffed, confusing mess of a film. It's great fun to look at and play spot the film references but the eye-candy can't overcome a near incoherent screenplay. It's a bad movie. But the sad thing is, it looks great compared to what came next in the two Joel Schumacher Batman films.