Directed by: Tim Burton
Written by: Daniel Waters
Starring: Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Michael Gough
The success of a superhero tends to rely on the quality of the villain that opposes them, especially when you get to the sequel. The hero, at this point, has been established and already vanquished one enemy, so the stakes need to be raised and the antagonists need to pose a bigger conflict or challenge the hero in a completely different way. In the case of Batman Returns, they pushed that idea far into the creation of the villains and it paid off.
After vanquishing the Joker, Batman (Michael Keaton) must contend with the political rise of a peculiar man named Oswald Cobblepot (Danny DeVito), while also fighting off an interesting new foe in Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer). With new challenges presented, Bruce must balance his identity and the duality it represents in his life.
The superhero genre is typically not known for having great acting performances, especially as the budgets get higher. There’s too much action that needs to take place, to truly let an actor marinate with a scene and display their acumen. There are certainly some gems, but the greatest of them all has to be Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman. A performance that garners a huge sex appeal, while also blending comedy and pain all into one character. Selina Kyle has the puns that one would expect with these Burton Batman movies, but she delivers them in such a fantastic way. She even sells the scene where she mentions that she will bathe herself and licks her leather outfit much like a cat would take care of themselves. She demands the spotlight each time she appears on screen and becomes the biggest highlight of the film.
Pfeiffer is given the opportunity because Batman Returns fixates on the villains more than the actual protagonist. It opens with the birth of Cobblepot and how he’s dumped by his parents for his physical deformities. The story then shows Selina Kyle and her work as a secretary. The first quarter of the film sets up these characters in a way that Bruce Wayne doesn’t have any real substance until we reach the 35-minute mark of the movie. A bold decision, but one that ultimately pays off. It allows the audience to sympathize and really understand where these characters come from. This intentional allocation of time allowed Pfeiffer to chew it up, along with Danny DeVito.
Cobblepot, or as he hates to be called, Penguin, proves to be quite the vile thing. He excretes dark saliva and eats raw fish as if he were actually a penguin. His physical deformity is something else, but he’s also a very horny bird. The film does not have a female character that he doesn’t try to bring back to his nest. The arc of this character does go through many stages, and his attempt to run for mayor totally did not remind me of our current political situation with someone rising to power on nonsense. The makeup team behind this look ensured that any semblance of the lovable DeVito was covered up into creating a disgusting villain that may be cartoonish, but also challenges Batman. Penguin and Catwoman are such incredible antagonists because they relate to Batman in different ways. It could be from Penguin not being an orphan when abandoned by his rich parents and Selina Kyle battling her own duality issues. They hold up a mirror to Batman proving that different circumstances could have led him down a different path.
This leaves Michael Keaton with not much to do but just be the hero, fall in love, and stop the bad guys, which is fine. He’s aided by the incredible and iconic Danny Elfman score of Batman that has stood the test of time. It feels like the default option for me whenever I think of a musical connection to the caped crusader. As the sequel, Batman Returns continues to build on the aesthetic that began in the 1989 Batman. Gotham feels like a real city with tangible residents, who definitely say and do stupid things. It would not be a real city if the residents didn’t fall for the words of a politician with no real platform or experience.
The success of Batman Returns ultimately comes from the performances of the villains. DeVito portrays Penguin in a way that borders a cartoon, especially when he arms some penguins with rockets, but he still feels menacing. Pfeiffer’s performance has remained the gold standard of what a villain could be and no one else really comes close. Even the very basic Max Shreck portrayed by Christopher Walken serves to round out the other two antagonists. I had quite the turnaround with this film between my first and second viewing, and my eyes have been opened to reveal that Batman Returns serves as a worthy sequel despite its various moments of silliness.