From the Archive: Batman Returns


I suppose I should hold this in reserve until the Saturday that Ben Affleck’s directorial effort with the character arrives, but we’ll use this to draw a contrast between a time that I was actively excited at the prospect of a Tim Burton film rather than the current sad state that finds my preemptive exhausted at the thought of sitting through his latest exercise in whimsical gloom. And, hey, there’s a Donald Trump reference in here, too. So, you know, timely. This was written during the summer that my on-air colleague and I decided we would take a break from the weekly hour-long show and file our reviews as two minute reports that played as bumpers during the college radio station’s regular broadcast day. I think this review demonstrates my challenge in trying to fit a discussion of a deliberately unwieldy summer spectacle into that space. In retrospect, I should have spent two minutes writing about Michelle Pfeiffer’s performance. That’s what makes the film memorable and, to this day, one of the stronger cinematic outings of the caped crusader. 

With its savage wit, thrilling action, and fiery sensuality brimming over the edges, Batman Returns represents the first excellent film in an otherwise tepid summer. For this big-budget sequel, returning director Tim Burton has pulled out all of the stops, delivering bigger and better action sequences and bat-gadgets, and he’s also injected the film with his darker sensibilities.

The Penguin, played by Danny DeVito, becomes a lurching, hideously deformed man who was abandoned by his frightened parents as an infant, left to spend much of his life dwelling in the sewers of Gotham City. He’s filled with angry lust and prone to making lewd comments with a low, menacing squawk.

Catwoman, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, becomes a leather-clad temptress, using her sexuality with the same lethal prowess as her martial arts skills. Pfeiffer’s character begins as a lonely, skittish secretary who is always restraining herself from following her more forthright impulses. Watching her transformation to the fierce, angry Catwoman, who saves a woman from a back alley attack only to forcibly criticize her for not fighting back in the first place, is a marvelous, occasionally unsettling experience.

Rounding out the villains list is Christopher Walken as wealthy industrialist Max Schreck, whose boasts about never having too much power are turned on him with a wicked twist. Walken plays the character with the lazy drawl of Donald Trump and loads of sinister charm.

Michael Keaton ably fills the Batman costume once again, but really grabs our attention as Bruce Wayne, humanizing the film with the awkward fumbling of a man uncomfortable without his protective mask.

Tim Burton’s camerawork brings us the stunning visuals of Gotham City, and the screenplay, by Daniel Waters and Sam Hamm, is sharp as a batarang. There are flaws in the film, mostly in the form of slightly inconsistent storytelling and playful tricks that don’t quite work, but the energy level and, at times, the sheer audacity of the work makes those mistakes easily forgotten.

As long as Tim Burton can keep assembling the films with as much skill as he has here, here’s one film critics who’s hoping the Batman keeps returning again and again.

On the four star scale, Batman Returns receives three-and-a-half stars.

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