“Things change.” It’s a pithy line delivered by the Penguin (Danny DeVito) to Batman (Michael Keaton), and then, pithier still, from Batman back to the Penguin moments later, in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns. It’s also a simple truism that the movie nonetheless experienced firsthand, as the landscape of summer blockbusters was in the midst of multiple shifts back in 1992. Its general financial success was simultaneously preordained (as the sequel to one of the biggest hits of all time), unusual (as the only big superhero movie of the whole year—imagine!) and a disappointing underperformance (it did not sell as many tickets or, one assumes, as much merchandise as its predecessor). The timing of Batman Returns must have felt perfect. It was released on the same late-June weekend as 1989’s Batman, three years later, after Burton further cemented his general-population fanbase (rare for a director, then and now) with Edward Scissorhands. Yet it was flagrantly out of sync.
Batman Returns is a movie set entirely during the Christmas season, released in the heat of summer, and one whose built-in kid-friendly trappings (Batman; an army of penguins; circus folk) are undermined by bolder sexuality and more explicit violence than its predecessor. The storyline is unapologetically perverse: Batman is confronted with another, more potent mirror image in the (dis)figure of the Penguin, a former rich kid attempting to work his way back into polite society after being cast into the Gotham sewers as a baby (in the movie’s opening sequence, no less!), and is flummoxed by the wilder-card presence of Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer), whose undead presence either uses her nine lives or deep psychosis to power through life-threatening injuries.
Though Bo Welch’s stunning art-deco-gothic production design is as distinct as that of any comic book penciller, Batman Returns isn’t especially faithful to the comics, and takes some influence from the ’60s TV show that only becomes more explicit inspiration for the Joel Schumacher sequels that followed. The Penguin’s attempts to become mayor of Gotham City are nicked from an old episode, and some of Catwoman’s quips (“life’s a bitch, now so am I”) could almost pass for TV dialogue, sharpened into claws. The Catwoman/Penguin team-up, too, probably felt familiar to viewers of the old series. This alliance also became ground zero for the once-common complaint that superhero movies have so many villains that the hero gets lost in the shuffle.
Yet Batman Returns does do right by its title character and his alter ego, with some of the best Bruce Wayne moments in the entire Bat-enterprise. When our hero catches sight of the movie’s first Bat-signal, he’s not patrolling the streets, or making a Bruce Wayne appearance on the town. He is sitting in Wayne Manor, in the dark, alone. To understand the value Keaton brings to this thankless role, engage in this thought exercise: Imagine the Batmen played by Ben Affleck and Robert Pattinson sitting alone in the dark, brooding. This should not be difficult to picture; it may even be an actual image from one or both of their turns in the cowl. It may be difficult to picture Pattinson’s emo sensitivity without a nearby stereo playing a Nirvana record (a band contemporary, incidentally, with Batman Returns, if not the vaguely retro Gotham City it depicts). Affleck’s version, meanwhile, would likely project a seething rage, perhaps plotting the senseless Frank Millerified murder of the Green Lantern. Keaton’s Bruce Wayne, though, actually gives the credible impression of thinking.
What he’s thinking about is left somewhat opaque, though Burton makes his challenges clear—and as personal, in his way, as Edward Scissorhands. Like Edward, or Willy Wonka, or Pee-Wee Herman, Burton’s Batman knows his skill set, which consists largely of dispatching goons clad in clown make-up. He’s less certain how to approach Catwoman, with her fully understandable grievances against a corrupt city of men (by day, as Selina Kyle, her nefarious boss is Max Shreck, played by Christopher Walken as, essentially, Donald Trump in a fright wig). Is their mutual interest in dress-up proof that they’re Burtonian misfits, made for each other? Or are they made for no one, doomed to loneliness? The confusing dance between public selves and self-images comes to a head during an actual dance, where Bruce and Selina, who have been dating in their non-prowling hours, simultaneously become aware of each other’s nightlives. It’s woozy, romantic, bittersweet and dangerous; can you think of a recent superhero movie that manages even two of those at once? Fate intervenes, and they’re forced to revisit their conversation later, their emblems in tatters.
This is all the stuff that makes Batman Returns one of the great movies of its kind. It’s also arguably Burton’s greatest film. It might seem counterintuitive to claim that he was at his best toiling in the superhero genre, something that his 1989 blockbuster Batman helped invent, despite confused executives assuming that its success indicated a hunger for movies based on ’30s and ’40s radio serials or comic strips. Indeed, Burton’s Batman is not one of his strongest pictures, and in the past he’s identified it as a project that ultimately didn’t satisfy him fully. But as reluctant as some of us may be to designate movies as “IP” and designate that IP as a career pinnacle, this has always been a major part of Burton’s career. His true originals—those not based on a book, or a comic book, or a trading card series, or real people—tend to be outliers (or, in the case of Nightmare Before Christmas, not technically directed by him).
No, Burton’s whole deal is the refashioning of cultural iconography and detritus alike. He filters popular culture through his suburban-goth tastes, applying sinister cartoon cat faces, black-and-white stripes, and/or rain-wilted pastels to familiar images and texts. For some, this has long become a shtick, ever since, well, take your pick: Was Mars Attacks!, reviled in its day, the last great one, inheriting the title from Ed Wood? Was his Planet of the Apes the point of no return, or did Sweeney Todd represent a last gasp of personality? That’s for others to debate, endlessly. (Though I will add: Please, give Big Eyes or Dark Shadows another look; hell, check out his two-thirds Batman Returns reunion in the guise of a Dumbo remake.) Wherever (or if) you draw the line, it’s inextricable from Burton’s style and preoccupations.
The misfits of Batman Returns all perform these creative salvage jobs. Batman creates his superhero identity out of childhood traumas. The Penguin builds a lair out of an abandoned zoo, and brags about his resourcefulness to Max Shreck as he blackmails the businessman with shredded documents and discarded body parts: “You flush it, I flaunt it.” The rawest version comes courtesy of Catwoman, in the scene where a disoriented, post-resurrection Selina Kyle returns to her bleakly cutesy apartment and flies into a rage. She destroys stuffed animals, spraypaints a dollhouse, smashes up a neon HELLO THERE sign to say HELL HERE and sews herself a skintight new costume out of an old jacket, creating a sleek, daring new life for herself. The whole movie twists and tweaks the Joker’s quip in the first movie: “Where does he get those wonderful toys?”
It’s easy to see how these heightened touches, by turns childlike and psychologically harrowing, might be interpreted as camp. In terms of what actually happens in the movie, Batman Returns isn’t wildly different from something like Batman Forever (though it does have some unavoidably, wonderfully ghoulish Burton touches: The bile forever dripping from DeVito’s mouth, a second electrified corpse to match the original’s). Burton has certainly made quieter, more outwardly sensitive films. One thing that sets Batman Returns apart is the vastness of its oversized toy box: Batplanes, duck cars, penguins with missiles, matte-painted cityscapes adorned with the silhouettes of its heroes and antiheroes. Nothing else he’s made can match its grandeur, and I’m not sure if anything he’s made can equal its poetic melancholy, either. “I would love to live with you in your castle, forever, just like in a fairy tale,” Catwoman tells Bruce Wayne/Batman, tears in her eyes, before scratching his face and spitting out an addendum: “I just couldn’t live with myself.”
Batman spends Batman Returns quietly figuring out if he can, and how that might work. Burton clearly identifies with some of his lonely, outcast characters, but he also seems attracted to the process of adapting—of finding himself in these bigger stories, of finding out whether we can actually make a life out of our toys and obsessions.
Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.