When you really look closely at it, Batman Returns is a very flawed film. The plot is overly convoluted, the ending comes out of nowhere and the story itself is fairly simplistic and uninspired. Yet somehow, it ends up being more entertaining than it has any right to be, thanks in large part to charismatic performances by Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito and Michelle Pfeiffer.
Jack Nicholson’s Joker is a tough act to follow. So instead of following up his first Batman film with just one villain, Tim Burton gives us two – Catwoman (Pfeiffer) and The Penguin (DeVito). Both villains are well-cast and they both add an interesting dynamic to the film.
While normally I’m a huge advocate for sticking to the source material, I think Burton’s version of The Penguin is far better than the comic book one. The Penguin in the comics is a pudgy aristocrat with a point nose and a monocle. Even with his wide array of weaponized umbrellas, he was never a match for Batman physically or intellectually. He’s usually just a crime boss bankrolling mischief. Burton transforms him into a deformed, sewer-dwelling penguin-man, while still keeping his upper crust roots intact. (His rich parents abandoned him when he was a baby because of his deformities.)
What’s fun is that even though this Penguin is a grotesque, waddling freak with webbed hands who eats raw fish, he still manages to pull off a plan that seems like a classic Penguin plot – he runs for mayor. Thanks to the evil businessman Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), who needs a puppet mayor to greenlight his power plant that will actually suck energy out of the city instead of supplying it, Penguin is able to win over the public at large and run for mayor in a recall election. DeVito plays the part wonderfully, generating empathy at times while coming across as a total sociopath at others.