The follow-up to Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman takes a turn for the macabre, as lead villain The Penguin (Danny DeVito), a deformed creature raised in the sewer, runs for mayor in Gotham, just in time for Christmas.
Burton’s bizzaro take on the caped crusader dials up the elements of his iconic first film. The result is more comedic, complete with exploding penguins, flying umbrellas and giant rubber ducks, and also darker, with a violent streak that earns Batman‘s only ever 15 certificate.
It’s fairly slow moving, with a lot of story to get through, and only occasional bursts of action. But the characters are so excellent, it’s the dynamics between them which give the film interest.
The story of The Penguin running for office is the kind of thing you would never get in a superhero film now, and it’s refreshing to see a plot which doesn’t result on a superweapon or giant magical supervillain that’s going to destroy the city. It’s helped by an excellent script, peppered with throwaway lines which are funny and satirical.
It shows how a more traditionally comedic comic book movie can work, while still taking itself seriously. The problem with Batman and Robin wasn’t that it was set in a comic world with wacky supervillains and Coolio. The problem was the lack of attention to detail and clever humour that might have made the world entertaining.
Danny DeVito is superbly cast as the twisted villain, playing him both as a useful fool for arch-villain Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), and as cruel and selfish. His egg-like shape, beak nose and pallid complexion are a triumph of make up, which accentuate DeVito’s disconcerting performance.
Michelle Pfeiffer is also superb as Selina Kyle, Shreck’s downtrodden assistant, transforming from Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada to Anne Hathaway in The Dark Knight Rises, after she’s nibbled by cats and dons S&M gear to become Catwoman.
In the middle of all this Batman gets rather lost. It’s not uncommon for the Dark Knight to get upstaged by his villains, whether it’s Arnold Schwarzenegger taking top billing in Batman and Robin, or Heath Ledger’s Joker stealing the limelight in The Dark Knight.
But here Batman is absent for vast swathes of the film, and when he does appear Michael Keaton’s flat performance ensures he’s completely eclipsed by the outlandish villains. In fact you could probably do away with Batman altogether, since it’s Catwoman who finally dispenses with the evil Shreck.
Batman Returns is Burton at his best. It’s the perfect use for his Gothic aesthetic, zany inclinations and world-building skills, helped by Stan Winston special effects. And long-time Burton collaborator Danny Elfman delivers one of his strongest scores ever. While it may be the lowest grossing Batman feature of the last 30 years, leading to a more family-friendly tone in Batman Forever, Batman Returns is as enduringly entertaining as it is weird.