In the summer of 1992, I had just turned four-years-old. There were very few things that a picky child such as myself actually enjoyed: LEGOs, Fruity Pebbles, strawberry Nestle Quik and the 1989 Batman, by Tim Burton. I don't hold the first film to such high esteem now as I did then, but when I was four, I was ecstatic to see Batman Returns. To help you understand my excitement, allow me to share a story:
My younger sister was born exactly one week before Returns was released. When my father first took me to go visit her in the hospital, all I wanted to do was go to McDonald's to get a Batman Returns Happy Meal toy. So, that day, I got the Batmobile toy that – when you pressed the button – launched the front half of the vehicle as an escape pod. When we reached the hospital afterward, I met my younger sister. She was sleeping, so I got bored and just started playing with my Batmobile on the floor. Later, my mother's obstetrician came in to check on my mother and my sister. When she went over to my sister to give her a shot, my sister started crying and I knew exactly what I had to do as a newly big brother: stand up on my mother's hospital bed and fire my Batmobile straight at the doctor's glasses. At the time, I thought I was being the best Batman my four-year-old self could be. My parents felt a bit…differently. Later that week, my father had to take me to go see Batman Returns for fear that he would have two children in the household not letting him get any sleep.
Let's just say that – twenty years later – I still love Batman Returns as much as my four-year-old self did. In my mind, Batman Returns is still the Bat-film to beat! While I enjoy Nolan's Bat-flicks, there is just something missing from those films. Something that doesn't seem – in some way – like you're watching Batman up on screen.
If there's one thing that Batman Returns has for it, it is its environment. Gotham City is depicted in such a gorgeous manner. That does not mean that the city itself is beautiful. Frankly, it is downright hideous. The buildings are all dark and dirty, smog covers the entire city and, while still being a film that takes place in modern society, Burton makes Gotham City look as if it is picked right out of the 1930s. Gotham is almost steampunky in Bo Welch's production design; as if it belongs in the background of a post-WWII era propaganda poster. It's is quite a spectacle to be seen, unlike Nolan's films, where Gotham looks like Chicago, NY.
And the villains. Oh, how perfectly cast are the villains in Batman Returns! Michelle Pfeiffer's Selina Kyle may not be directly out of the comics, but there has not been a better Catwoman on any screen to date. Both sexy and strangely neurotic, Pfeiffer plays Catwoman the only way one could imagine a human being who dresses up as a cat to steal and cause a general ruckus in Gotham City could. At the time, she was not yet well known to general audiences. But everyone saw something in Michelle Pfeiffer's depiction of the ultimate single white working female. When she knocks out two letters from her neon "HELLO THERE" sign to read "HELL HERE," you couldn't help but fall in love with the now-changed Selina Kyle. And all it took to change mousy Selina into the Cat was a mere drop out of a very high window.
Likewise, Danny Devito excels as the best and only choice to play The Penguin in Returns. Burton has always had a way of making an audience empathize with his villains, but none are better than DeVito's Penguin. This guy grew up in Gotham's sewers and abandoned zoo, raised by penguins, after being tossed into a river by his rich parents because of his flippered hands and beak-like nose. Even as he begins kidnapping all of Gotham's first-born sons do you still feel as if he was just dealt a bad hand in life. He could have easily been Gotham's Maxwell Shreck, the true villain of the film. Walken's Shreck dropped Selina Kyle out of a window, tried to use the Penguin to steal power from Gotham City and did it all under the guise of Gotham's "very own Santa Claus." If not for him, Christmas in Gotham may not have been so terribly destructive.
But, what really holds the film together is Michael Keaton's Bruce Wayne. In my mind, Keaton is still the best version of Batman outside of Kevin Conroy's voice in Batman: The Animated Series. Michael Keaton truly makes you believe that a man like that could dress up as a bat and frighten those hiding in the dark corners of Gotham City. His first appearance in this film is still very clear in my mind. Bruce Wayne is just sitting down, staring into darkness, when the Bat-Signal shines into his room and onto his face, his expression changing into the Bat's as he realizes that his city needs him. Keaton had that character down pat.
The playful interactions between Batman and Catwoman – as well as Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle – were perfectly realized between the two actors. Pfeiffer and Keaton play off one another so well and capture that Batman/Catwoman relationship perfectly in their few scenes with one another, making their chemistry far more realized than the previous film's Bruce Wayne/Vicki Vale relationship. The scene at the party when they realize who one another are in their off-hours is one of the best scenes throughout the series.
There is so much that can be said about this film and I feel as if I have left far too much of it out. Batman Returns is one of the best comic book films out there and deserves far more credit than it gets. All I know is that when Christmas rolls around, I am always reaching for this movie off my shelf.