The summer of 1992 saw Michael Keaton’s Dark Knight faced with two iconic foes in Tim Burton’s second (and final) Batman film…
Starring: Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Michael Gough, Pat Hingle
Directed by: Tim Burton / written by: Daniel Waters (story by Daniel Waters and Sam Hamm)
What’s it about?
Batman faces a new challenge when a corrupt businessman plots with the villainous Penguin to seize control of Gotham City, with matters further complicated by the appearance of the mysterious ‘Catwoman’…
Given the blockbuster success of Batman in the summer of 1989, Warner Bros. Pictures were naturally keen on producing a sequel. Released in June of 1992, Batman Returns, whilst not as good as its landmark predecessor (although for some the reverse applies) easily qualifies as a strong second outing for Michael Keaton’s Dark Knight. Although there’s slightly less focus on Bruce Wayne/Batman, Batman Returns is still very much a Batman film lovingly produced through the dark gothic imaginings of Tim Burton. It’s clear that Burton was given more creative freedom as Batman Returns has even more of an idiosyncratic and fantastical touch that makes it unmistakably a Tim Burton film, but still feels appropriate for a major Batman feature born in the era of seminal comics works The Killing Joke and The Dark Knight Returns and would also serve to inspire the exemplary Batman: The Animated Series.
Having formerly taken on Jack Nicholson’s Joker, Batman Returns doubles the jeopardy with two main antagonists – the Penguin and Catwoman, who are reinvented for this iteration. Danny DeVito lives and breathes the role of Oswald Cobblepot – otherwise known as ‘the Penguin’ – his podgy, diminutive build, pointed nose and flipper-like hands giving him somewhat of a grotesque and literally penguin-like appearance, effectively evoked via the brilliant make-up design. Much like the ‘monsters’ of the classic Universal horrors, his villainy is driven by tragedy – specifically, abandonment by his parents as an infant – and a desire for acceptance. Michelle Pfeiffer is a similar revelation as Selina Kyle, starting out as the meek underdog before the fateful incident that leads to her ‘rebirth’ as the sultry and formidable Catwoman who, like Bruce Wayne, finds herself grappling with dual personas.
Colluding with DeVito’s Penguin is the excellent Christopher Walken (who previously proved his worth as a villain in James Bond outing A View to a Kill) as devious Gotham businessman Max Schreck – named after the actor who portrayed Count Orlock in the classic German horror Nosferatu – who brings further weight to the threat Batman must face. As for Michael Keaton he continues to impress, deftly straddling the line between his two identities bringing emotional complexity to Bruce Wayne, aided greatly by the chemistry he shares with Pfeiffer’s Selina Kyle, whilst applying a confident measure of brooding and intensity once he dons the iconic cape and cowl of the Batman.
Batman Returns is a very atmospheric film (benefitting from another great Danny Elfman music score), the Christmas holiday setting and frequent snowfall adding a feeling of wintry crispness to the gothic chill evoked by Bo Welch’s wonderful sets which build upon Anton Furst’s Academy Award winning work on the previous film. A gentle increase in humour provides an element of quirkiness and levity (especially in the exchanges between Bruce and Michael Gough’s Alfred) without undermining the darker and more dramatic themes of the story. As with Batman, the stunts and choreography in the fight sequences are top-notch and coupled with superbly staged action set-pieces (bolstered by some deftly executed pyrotechnics) provide plenty of visual excitement. It all makes for a fun and artfully crafted comic book blockbuster at a time when such a thing wasn’t so common.
Read the classics review of Batman (1989) right here.
Batman Returns features an early screen appearance from Hellboy and Star Trek: Discovery star Doug Jones as one of Penguin’s circus clown goons.
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