1992. Directed by Tim Burton.
A landmark achievement and Burton’s masterpiece. Batman Returns marked the beginning of serious, adult themed superhero films with absolutely zero apologies. There’s so many pieces at work in this tragic fairy tale that it’s difficult to stay focused. It delves into human despair; highlighting rejection, loss, and the life of a victim after traumatic abuse.
Danny Devito and Michelle Pfeiffer deliver the performances of their careers and were both criminally robbed of Oscar nominations. Devito’s Penguin, a menacing troglodyte from the sewers symbolizes the refuse of the American Dream, discarded by his socialite parents for his physical and emotional deformities. He chews up every scene with malicious heartbreak, a son scorned by denial.
Opposite him, is the Catwoman. Pfeiffer’s absolutely brilliant incarnation of Batman’s constant foil is unforgettable. She forces the viewer to confront the inequalities in the boardroom and in the bedroom. On first glance, it’s easy to dismiss her as a leather clad dominatrix and I believe that is Burton’s intent. It is through this satire that she becomes the epitome of a victim’s rage and it’s simply delicious to watch her spar, both verbally and with claws.
Keaton brings the usual anchor as Batman, whose own demons take a backseat to the troubles of the rogue gallery that are an organic response to the costumed vigilante’s presence in Gotham. Walken fills out the cast as a white-haired mogul, a modern day symbol of the wealth that rejected the Penguin in his youth, thus showing that ultimately, greed is a spirit as real as Gotham itself.
Stefan Czapsky’s cinematography shows a Christmas time Gotham in its death throws, with blacks, white, and grays flooding the visuals. The concept of death is in the very foundation of the city, brought to life with Cheryl Carasik’s breathtaking set pieces. The costumes are a marvel and transcend the superhero mores with a sense of desperation, due to Bob Ringwood and Mary Voight’s creative efforts.
Some could argue this is not really a Batman film, but more a Burton film and thus that is why it is such a masterwork. I contend the opposite. Batman is a story, at its core, about loss, searching for acceptance, and the inevitability of ones actions coming to fore. I think it is for these reasons that Burton chose Batman as the setting for his turbulent Shakespearean tragedy.
You can’t help but marvel at the spectacle, and the stench of Gotham’s sewers will follow you home, long after you’ve left the film behind.