Tim Burton‘s return to Gotham City was surely going to be bigger than before, as his notorious gothic style might get more focus this time around. His work on the first brought the Caped Crusader and the Clown Prince of Crime to life, especially with Jack Nicholson’s performance as the Joker quickly becoming a cultural icon. Even in its sequel, Batman Returns, the villains are its crowning achievement that often overshadows its titular protagonist.
Throughout the first hour of the film, the main character is barely in it, as we spend most of its runtime setting up its main foes, Catwoman and Penguin. While the setup is well done, it’s just a noticeable absence and feels more like we’re walking into a Catwoman film than we are one focused on the titular Caped Crusader.
While what we do get of Keaton throughout the film is an interesting duel of identities, the antagonists just outshine him. The standout performance and possibly one of the best in a comic book film belongs to Danny DeVito’s Penguin. He could waddle around without saying a peep, and still speak a thousand words. His work as the character is deliciously repulsive in all the right ways. It is a much more feral take on the character but DeVito shines with his barbarous line delivery even rising from the sewers beneath Gotham City. All of this is hiding a man desperate of reclaiming what he feels owed. It is also implied that Penguin is only 33 years old so take that into consideration if you ever debate living under a zoo.
Along with Penguin, we see a bit more of a wild and untamed take on Catwoman. Probably the weakest part of this character is her origin. She simply gets pushed from a window high up and resulting in a few screws knocked loose. Next thing we know, she’s running around in a noticeably DIY leather suit whipping it like a Devo song. Once we get to spend time with Catwoman, Michelle Pfeiffer does indeed shine in the role and her chemistry with Keaton‘s Bruce Wayne is undeniable. They are perfect parallels of each other throughout the film.
Probably the weakest villain in the film is Christopher Walken‘s Max Shreck. His main function is to create the film’s actual antagonists and is then quickly overshadowed. It makes sense, as they are infinitely more interesting than the dude who looks like he stuck a fork in an outlet. His whole shtick at the beginning of the film is getting his capacitor built to store Gotham’s energy, but it’s quickly abandoned once the film realizes who is way more interesting. There definitely could’ve been better ways to push Selina and Oswald in the right direction without Shreck taking up as much screentime.
As mentioned previously, one of the film’s most underutilized elements is its titular character. The problem is that Batman feels more like a supporting character in his own film. It’s a waste of Keaton‘s talents who is not only a great actor but someone who nailed both personalities of his character. It would’ve been more beneficial for the character and his relationship with Selina Kyle if they played more into his inner conflict with Bruce Wayne being the real mask.
What is worth praising is this version of Gotham. It still remains one of the best adaptions of the fictional city. You can see Burton‘s influence in the set designs with his Gothic background clashing with the comic roots of the city in the best way possible. Even if the city is dark, it is very much alive and full of interesting characters. It was always meant to feel at odds with its aesthetic and the people that inhabit it.
Batman Returns is a solid film that’s provided some iconic performances from DeVito and Pfeiffer. That mixed with some beautiful set design and costumes just offer a unique experience. The film has its problems and but you’ll spend too much time focusing on the parts that are good because they’re just so attention-grabbing. Sadly this was the last we saw of Burtons‘ run in Gotham, but it won’t be the last time we see Keaton in the role, as he’ll put on the cowl once again in the DC Extended Universe’s The Flash.