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.
Shreck’s secretary Selina Kyle ends up being a bit too thorough at her job, looking through his secret files and realizing his plans to steal power from the city, which gets her shoved out the window. The fall transforms her from the mousey yes-woman she’s been all her life to Catwoman, a ferocious leather-clad warrior woman who is somewhere between hero and villain. Pfieffer is great in the role, which requires her to essentially play three different characters – pre-fall Selina, post-fall Selina and Catwoman. All of them have distinct mannerisms and speech patterns and all of them are incredibly entertaining. Her homemade leather Catwoman suit is still nothing short of jaw dropping. I was 11 when I first saw this film and I’m pretty sure seeing her on-screen cracking her whip in skintight leather is what launched me into puberty.
Burton does make one rather cheesy decision with her character. Taking the whole cat thing a bit too seriously, he gives Selina nine lives. The fall from the building is her first “death.” It’s an odd and unnecessary addition to the character to begin with, but making matters worse is the fact that nine is a big number to get to in an already crowded movie, so most of her deaths after the first three are rushed and pointless.
Inevitably, Selina and Bruce Wayne become romantically entwined while their alteregos do battle with each other on Gotham’s rooftops. Their courtship and relationship is rather bizarre, bringing out dark sides of both of their personalities. I have always enjoyed the winking charm Keaton brought to the role of Bruce Wayne and he and Pfieffer have such a strange and wonderful chemistry that it’s really enjoyable to watch the two of them attempt to act normal together.
As I mentioned in the intro, the overarcing story is a bit convoluted. Shreck’s plan to get Penguin elected in order to get his power plant is the main plot, but they also have to find a reason for Penguin and Catwoman to team up. The reason seems arbitrary at best and, if not for a great scene between Pfeiffer and DeVito setting up the alliance, the partnership would completely fall flat. The climax of the film is also rather bizarre as it features two different plans the Penguin attempts to pull off once his mayoral bid is squashed. Both of them seem like plans devised to give the film a strong finale instead of plans that make logical sense based on what has proceeded them, but the first one he implements is at least foreshadowed earlier in the film. The last plan, involving weaponized penguins, comes completely out of left field.
Still, if you can look past the flawed storyline and focus instead on the wonderful performances, beautifully designed sets and the incredibly tight leather Catsuit, you’ll still walk away from this film thoroughly entertained.
- Retro Review – Batman (1989)
- Retro Review – Batman: The Movie (1966)
- Retro Review – Batman Forever (1995)
- Retro Review – Batman Begins (2005)
- Retro Review – Batman and Robin (1997)