Ah, the old Batman (1989) films! How different than the ones of today! Back in the 90’s, these films were all about topping the previous installment with more special guest villains and swapping out the actor who played Batsy – finally degenerating into the mess that was Batman & Robin (1997).
Batman Returns was early on in the game, however, being only the first sequel to Batman (1989). Would doubling the villains (Danny DeVito & Michelle Pfeiffer) be enough to keep the excitement going for this sequel, or is there a reason Michael Keaton never wore the rubber suit with the ears again?
Michael Keaton, who stunned audiences by actually doing an impressively good Batman imitation in 1989’s incarnation, doesn’t seem to have the same passion for his role this second time around. Instead, he’s resting on his reputation as being a good Batman this time around, preferring to let the villains run the show. Throughout Batman Returns, he never is the exciting part of the show, and he seems to prefer it that way. His Batman prefers to react, rather than act, and is left looking like a fool on several occasions – his dogged perseverance to bring down the baddies the only way he triumphs.
Thankfully, the villains go all out – in strange and sometimes sickening new ways. Danny DeVito’s Penguin has to top the charts and the most disgusting Batman villain to date. Gone is the clean and dapper Penguin from the cartoons – DeVito’s version is a round lump of a character, the sliminess from his sewer dwelling as much a part of him as his flipper-contorted hands. Even when his character is cleaned up and presented as a respectable citizen, the viewer will never forget the sewer is this character’s home sweet home.
Michelle Pfeiffer, on the other hand, is a highlight as Selena Kyle / Catwoman. As with Halle Berry’s later incarnation of the character, Pfeiffer’s Kyle starts off meek and incredibly timid, cracking jokes at her own depressing life. After a life-altering fall, however, Pfeiffer – unlike Berry, or Earth Kitt, in the character’s TV incarnation, for that matter – takes Selena Kyle on a trip into madness. Unpredictable and nuttier than a fruitcake, Pfeiffer’s Kyle steals many of the scenes as she descends – in bits and spurts – further into insanity. So entertaining is Kyle’s trip to loony-ville that her saner Catwoman persona is not quite as entertaining, tending more to an over-the-top comic book exaggeration of the character. Halle Berry may have done Catwoman better in later years, but no one yet has been able to beat Pfeiffer’s version of Selena Kyle.
The storyline for this sequel is somewhat contrived, and definitely has that over-the-top feel to it that further films max out to the nth level. Thankfully, director Tim Burton manages to keep that feeling somewhat in check, delivering a quirky story but managing to keep it fully within his stylized version of Gotham City. The viewer knows they are being taken on a journey into a world that differs than theirs – often encompassing some form of the fantastical – but Burton makes that other world seem just as real as the one the viewer leaves behind, thanks in part to some solid set design.
As with future endeavors, Burton obviously has a vision he wants to share in Batman Returns and that goes a long way towards making the film entertaining. While Keaton slacks a bit, and DeVito’s Penguin verges on the nauseating, Pfeiffer’s Selena Kyle is worth the price of admission all by herself. Toss in a film that gives a nod to it’s somewhat over-the-top comic book beginnings and some signature Burton flair, and Batman Returns turns out to still be an entertaining piece of filmmaking.
Not nearly as solid as it’s stellar predecessor, it’s still a fun sequel to re-visit on occasion – if you can stomach this big screen adaptation of The Penguin.