Having defeated the Joker, Batman now faces the Penguin - a warped and deformed individual who is intent on being accepted into Gotham society. Crooked businessman Max Schreck is coerced into helping him become Mayor of Gotham and they both attempt to expose Batman in a different light. Earlier however, Selina Kyle, Max's secretary, is thrown from the top of a building and is transformed into Catwoman - a mysterious figure who has the same personality disorder as Batman. Batman must attempt to clear his name, all the time deciding just what must be done with the Catwoman. Written by
Graeme Roy <firstname.lastname@example.org>
I really wanted to be able to give this film a 10. I've long thought it was my favorite of the four modern live-action Batman films to date (and maybe it still will be--I have yet to watch the Schumacher films again). I'm also starting to become concerned about whether I'm somehow subconsciously being contrarian. You see, I always liked the Schumacher films. As far as I can remember, they were either 9s or 10s to me. But the conventional wisdom is that the two Tim Burton directed films are far superior. I had serious problems with the first Burton Batman this time around--I ended up giving it a 7--and apologize as I might, I just couldn't help feel that Batman Returns just has too many small direction, plot and script problems scattered throughout to justify a 10.
But Burton _almost_ trumps the problems with sheer force of style, and even though there are a lot of small flaws, Batman Returns is still a great film, especially if you're a Burton fan, as Batman Returns has just as much in common with The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and Edward Scissorhands (1990) as it does with anything else in the Batman universe.
The film begins strongly, with the Cobblepots having a baby. We see their dismay--people walk out of the birthing room with horror on their faces, ready to vomit. Later, they have the baby in a small cage. Finally they take it out for an evening stroll and dump it in the Gotham City River. The baby ends up becoming Batman villain The Penguin (Danny DeVito).
Meanwhile, Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) is the film's "evil capitalist", comparable to Grissom (Jack Palance) in Batman. He is planning on duping Gotham City in various ways, and we see him emotionally abusing his secretary, the timid Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer). When Kyle discovers one of the nefarious plots, Grissom tries to get rid of her, but she is rescued by cats, becoming Catwoman.
While all of this is going on, The Penguin, who has long been only rumored to exist and who is thought to be dangerous, begins a scheme to be presented to the public as a good guy, despite having less than benevolent, ulterior motives.
Before re-watching Burton's Batman films this time, I didn't remember just how little the films are about Batman (Michael Keaton). It's almost as if Burton didn't feel the character was interesting enough to focus on. The focus here is much more on the villains, especially The Penguin. Batman doesn't appear very often, especially in the beginning of the film, and surprisingly often, we're watching him watching The Penguin.
Although some viewers necessarily count the above as a flaw, I can't say that I do, even if I'd like to know more about Batman and follow his story more. The villains' stories are interesting, too, and as an "origin story" for two major Batman villains, Batman Returns is already more than complex in terms of plot.
However, there are some character problems that I do count as a flaw. The Penguin has a cadre of circus performers who do his bidding, but even though they're frequently on screen, we never get to learn anything about them. Burton has a core of characters as intriguing as those in Tod Browning's Freaks (1932) available, with actors as interesting as Vincent Schiavelli, but he just doesn't have the space to use them.
For that matter, he hardly has space to explore Catwoman. The film plays as if Catwoman may have been as developed and featured in as many scenes as The Penguin, but that cut of the film would have been 4 hours long. So the bulk of the Catwoman scenes had to be excised. Of course, all of this barely leaves any room for Batman. Burton has Batman turn very dark in the public's eye in this film, and unusually, he never bothers to resolve this. As far as we know, at the end, Gothamites still think that Batman is a murdering lunatic. That's an interesting development, but unfortunately it ended up being dropped between this film and the next.
As for the script, although there are minor problems including some non-sequiturs and bizarre decisions (in terms of logic) made by characters, it's clear that Burton and writers Sam Hamm and Daniel Waters are not exactly trying to tell a traditional story. A lot of the dialogue is pun-oriented, but often this is fairly subtle and/or complex (of course, sometimes it is very blatant or transparent, too). It helps to look at Batman Returns as a more "poetic" film, as I believe was the intention. This also carries over into more general plot and directorial decisions--plenty of odd character actions, including from minor characters, are done in service of a general mood or style, and that style works very well.
"Dark" is the easiest way to sum up Batman Returns in a word, and whether that's a positive or negative depends on your disposition. Anyone who knows me knows that I love dark. So for me, Burton's style largely transcends the flaws in the plot and the script. In many ways, Batman Returns is like an insane, campy horror film, with beautifully eerie production design. Like Batman, Burton is still making many references to other films, but instead of Vertigo (1958) and Star Wars (1977) (well, there's still a slight Star Wars reference), he invokes films like Nosferatu (1922) (including that "Max Schreck" was the name of the actor who played the Dracula-like character there), Motel Hell (1980), the aforementioned Freaks, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) (which has a surreal, dark edge to it) and zombie films--made most explicit in The Penguin's final scene.
In terms of visuals and general atmosphere--and that includes the general "feel" of the story, the characters and so on--this couldn't be a stronger 10.
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