Batman Returns, which is, honestly, kind of a lousy Batman film, and also kind of a great Burton film. We need only compare it to the first Batman, released three years earlier, to see how this is the case. The sequel, comparatively, has far more aggressively weird characters and visuals, Batman himself spends a huge portion of the film's running time sitting on the sidelines, and when he bothers to show up, he feels considerably less like the comic book figure and more like a characteristic Burton hero. I would not find it in me to dispute with any True Believer in the literary Batman to disagree that Returns is by and large a frustrating exercise in not getting the point; but I would feel sorry that they are thus costing themselves the pleasure of one of the most bizarrely personal films in all the annals of big-budget tentpole franchises. For I am, to return to my artificial binary, ultimately a fan of Tim Burton.
Since that leaves us with a whole lot of enthusiasm that I'm going to want to express for the rest of this review, it's only fair to start out by acknowledging how many flaws, some of them quite sever, Returns does in fact suffer from. The greatest of these, or at least the most pervasive, is that it really doesn't work as a superhero film: the titular superhero (Michael Keaton, making his second and final go at the character) makes all of one appearance in the first 35 minutes of a 126-minute feature (it is within seconds of the length of Batman, though its ending credits run longer), and it's in a context that, while relatively well-integrated into the rising action of the plot at that point, still feels unmistakably like the filmmakers understood that it wouldn't do to make a Batman film without Batman in the first quarter, and just sort of jammed him in there. In the meantime, the plot is taken up with the emergence from the sewers of the gruesomely deformed Oswald Cobblepot, whose mutations have left him nicknamed "Penguin" (Danny DeVito); this horrible newcomer to Gotham City is seduced by local craven businessman Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) to help him with a shady industrial deal that is never entirely clarified (it involves sapping energy from the Gotham power grid, because...). Shreck, in turn, has also taken steps to create a second new supervillain, when throwing his meek secretary Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer) out a window: revived through the mystic energy of alley cats, she's now become a vigilante with feline reflexes and the proverbial nine lives. These two bizarre figures end up causing no end of mischief together and alone, and Batman has to stop it, though it's all a bit mixed up exactly how this works.
Not even including how the film does or doesn't work as a superhero movie, with all the attendant expectations the genre brings, Batman Returns tries awfully hard not to work as a narrative whatsoever: the script, by Daniel Waters (working from a story credited to him and Sam Hamm, whose script for the first film so infamously misunderstood the character of Batman), is completely out-of-whack, finding almost no way to balance the three different co-leads, two of whom have to be introduced in fairly extensive origin stories before the plot can even start (this is directly the reason that Batman doesn't Return for a healthy chunk of his own starring vehicle), in what might be the first example of the "too many villains" problem that would plague so many comic book movies in the years to follow. If Returns survives this film-killing flaw, as I would argue that it does, I think it's solely because one of those villains is Catwoman, whose function in the Batman universe is a uniquely complex one, more of anti-hero than direct villain, meaning that it's still effectively a one-villain movie with a destablising third wheel.
This isn't the only major structural problem with the script: it frequently and destructively gets hung up on a relentless confusion about chronology (one particularly gruesome example involves much mention of a meeting "tomorrow" late one evening, and at the meeting in question, "last night" is heavily mentioned, except that there has apparently been at least a full day between these two scenes), and when, by the end, we find that the whole thing has taken place in, apparently, just four or five days, that answers some apparent questions while making character arcs seem ridiculously shortened up. And the entire villainous plot is frankly rather circuitous and seems like something cobbled together around scenes and moments that the scenarists wanted to include.
Whether or not one can overlook the fairly pervasive narrative failures of Batman Returns is a function of at least two things: how appealing you find Tim Burton's characteristic aesthetic, in and of itself, divorced from storytelling concerns; and if you are able to join in his fascination with the film's designated villain. For myself, the first of these is easily done; and by the time of this film, the director's aesthetic was very characteristic indeed: this was his next film after Edward Scissorhands, and it was made at the same time as the Burton-produced The Nightmare Before Christmas, and it shares a great deal with both films both visually and tonally (one of the songs from the latter film even puts in an early cameo in the Returns underscore), making 1990-1993 something of the primary corridor of the Burtonesque - his most obviously personal film on the one end, the purest cinematic expression of his sensibility as a graphic artist (directed by another man entirely, mind you), and sandwiched right in the middle, a big-budget tentpole movie in which Warner Bros, perhaps unwittingly, gave the filmmaker virtually free rein to spend all the money he could ever want in pursuit of his highly idiosyncratic vision.
And honestly, that's what I love about the film, right there: it feels like Burton got away with something. Batman Returns was the highest-budgeted film of his career before 1999's Sleepy Hollow, which itself marks the dividing line between early Burton, creative and weird and obsessive, and late Burton, mindless and rote and gaudy. With his second Batman film, then, the "good" Burton was given the most money to play with that he'd ever have, right in the heart of his most fertile period, and damned if he didn't spend it. Edward Scissorhands might be the most personally resonant expression of Burton's art, but Returns is certainly the most indulgent, and while that's not usually a word you use to describe things you admire, Burton is already such an indulgent filmmaker that the chance to see him go all the way over-the-top just once is exhilarating.
A sequel to Batman it might be, then, but it feels more like a companion piece to Edward Scissorhands, revisiting the same ideas as that film in a different register: a grotesque outsider who has spent his whole life in isolation comes out into the world and charms everybody at first, but there comes a point when his physical otherness is too repulsive, and the same people he'd charmed turn on him. The difference being that in Returns, that character is actually worthy of all the scorn and hatred, in the end, and where Edward Scissorhands is a tender Gothic fairy tale, Returns is a nasty-minded black comedy.
Still and all, it's a movie that exists in its present form because Burton had a great deal of sympathy for his bad guy, the Penguin - a character who has been rendered essentially unrecognisable from his comic book form, where Catwoman at least vaguely looks like herself, odd mysticism in her origin story notwithstanding - and cannot bring himself to vilify the stubby, gross creature. In fact, were the title something else, and the characters given different names, I don't doubt that it would be even easier to tell than it already is that the Penguin is the actual protagonist of Batman Returns, even though Batman does end up getting the most screentime once he finally decides to take part in his own movie.
Visually, meanwhile, the film is a dead ringer for Nightmare Before Christmas: the exterior Arctic World pavilion at an abandoned zoo where the Penguin makes his lair especially feels precisely like one of that film's models, though there are plenty of other sets and props that feel like they bleed over. Perhaps it is better, indeed, to say that Nightmare looks like Returns, giving the earlier film precedence for chronology, and for actually being directed by Burton. The two also share an extremely important characteristic that is generally overlooked in considerations of Returns: both are grotesque distortions of Christmastime. The Batman film takes place in the span of one December week, and the bulk of the drama focuses on whether or not the Penguin and Catwoman are going to turn Gotham's tree-lighting ceremony into a terrorist act. The first action scene finds a small army of terrifyingly Burton-esque clowns (the skull-faced motorcycle rider is especially eerie) spilling out of a large novelty Christmas present. One of the most vivid shots in the entire film is of the town tree lights being turned on, as an enormous cluster of bats erupts from the center of the tree - an image that was exactly repeated in Nightmare.
Mostly, though, the most disorienting thing is that these Burtonian images simply co-exist with the bright red and green trappings of the season, and the snow everywhere: it is distressing simply because things that are alienating and wrong (and if Nightmare is the Burton look made heartwarming and family friendly, this certainly does not happen in Returns) infiltrate something familiar and nice. For all the horror film iconography in his canon, Burton has only really made one horror film, Sleepy Hollow, but he comes awfully close to the effect of horror in this film, in which the conflation of the normal and the oddball is far more destructive than elsewhere in his work.
And into this new, more Gothic, more horrifying Batman universe come two of the very best filmed Batman villains ever. Burton's sympathies lying mostly with the Penguin, it's unsurprising that he invests so much energy in making him relatable, though never by depriving him of his essential horror: and Stan Winston's makeup designs make DeVito look quite horrifying indeed, squat and slimy and pasty as the grave. He's a singularly memorable creation, acted and directed with great finesse to be a perfect combination of understandably wounded and gleefully wicked, and in most contexts, he'd be all the villain we could ever hope for-
-but he has to share space with Pfeiffer's Catwoman, one of the great villain performances ever. Wearing a stitched-together patent leather suit, she looks something like an S&M zombie - she is something like an S&M zombie, when you get right down to it - but the fact that her character, too, plays into the film's overt horror iconography is hardly noticeable in the face of everything else Pfeiffer does here: first off, it's a technically flawless work modulating three distinct characters - simpering Selina before she "dies"; confident, charismatic Selina afterwards; and her Catwoman, a sexually devouring creature of total self-amusement. Neither Burton's own CV nor the comic book world at large have much use for active sexuality like this, but that doesn't stop Pfeiffer, whose performance is just straight-up dirty in all the best ways (because, frankly, if you're doing Catwoman without naughty sexy, you're doing it entirely wrong), while also being a credible physical threat and romantic foil. The scene where Selina Kyle and Bruce Wayne, having already fought in costume and flirted as civilians, realise that they're each other's sworn enemies when they're not lovers, is a startlingly rich, conflicted, and adult scene - also a rarity in Burton films and comic book movies alike - played immaculately by Pfeiffer, and it's one of the best Catwoman moments in any medium.
These two pillars of villainy leave Keaton's Batman a bit adrift, honestly: though he gets some very fine moments here and there, the film is just not that interested in him, preferring to use him as the baseline against which other things happen. Certainly, his acting in the first movie is better, simply on account giving him more to do; I get the impression that Burton trusted him to work without supervision in this movie, and then ran off to play with his top-notch Bo Welch set design and his Penguin and his smoldering sexy Catwoman, leaving the superheroics and the superhero committing them left to twist in the wind.
And so we're back to the beginning: Batman Returns is thus not a very satisfying genre movie, nor really a very satisfying story at all. But it is more than a satisfying wallow in atmosphere and mood: it sparkles like a black crystal and crackles with the sardonic energy of its director and two stars, and has the chilly snap of the implacable winter setting that fills every one of its frames. If it has flaws, they have less to do with what it does wrong than with what it's not trying to do in the first place: Burton didn't really want to make another Batman movie, and he didn't. He made a costly jeweled egg of a Tim Burton movie that incidentally and almost besides the point has Batman in it, and for my money, it's a damn good one of those.