The second entry in the franchise based on the caped crusador is probably the strongest in the series (though the first and Batman Begins come very close). Tim Burton again paints his characters in bruised strokes, painting both the heroes and the villains as injured victims. Making the villains in the film somewhat sympathetic adds gravitas to the type of film that would normally be simply a two-hour vacation for your brain.
1989’s Batman had Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne fight Jack Nicholson’s the Joker. Tim Burton introduces a trio of villains: the Penguin (Danny DeVito), Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Max Shreck (Christopher Walken). The plot is a bit of an aside and really excuse to watch the characters fight each other. The disjointed story opens with a wealthy couple (Paul “Pee Wee Herman” Reubens and Diane Salinger) who welcome their baby into the world, on snowy wintery night. Unfortunately, the baby is born “different” and the proud parents keep the baby in a pet carrier. After a particularly nasty run-in with the family cat, the parents dump the baby in the sewers, only to be inexplicably rescued by a flock of penguins. Years later at a photo-op to light Gotham’s Christmas tree, a band of crazed circus performers kidnap the Donald Trump-like mogul, Max Shreck and take him into the sewers to meet their boss, the abandoned baby now an adult, known as the Penguin. Short, with a barrel-shaped body and a maw continuously spewing inky bile, Tim Burton’s version of the Penguin is light years away from the campy Burgess Meredith version of the 1960’s television show. Max and the Penguin partner together so that the birdman can join the civilized world.
While Max is collaborating with the Penguin, he is also oppressing and terrorizing his secretary, Selina Kyle, a beautiful if mousy woman, who’s smarter than she lets on. She happens onto some sensitive information and Max throws her out of a window, after which she revived by a band of cats. She trashes her apartment and fashions together a catsuit, and becomes an avenging feminist soldier, striking fear in every chauvinist’s heart.
If the summary sounded convoluted, that’s because it is. There are Grand Canyon-sized holes in the plot that Burton and company don’t seem too interested in figuring out. Instead what the film makers try to do is dazzle us with special effects and impressive fith scenes and shots of Michelle Pfeiffer in a vinyl jumpsuit.
The use of the circus folk as villains is interesting because Tim Burton combines the innocence of childhood with the stark reality of child abuse. The juxtaposition is effective, though a bit of a cliche (how many times will we see scary killer clowns). More interesting is his treatment of the Penguin and Catwoman. Both characters are villains, and their behavior and actions are without defense, yet their background at least explains how they ended up evil. The movie works by presenting two options for someone who has suffered: one could go the route of Bruce Wayne and save the world; or follow the road taken by the Penguin and Catwoman and do bad.
Keaton returns with a solid, if rather unremarkable turn as the title character. This isn’t really his film, and he kind of knows it. His character fades into the background as the villains take centerstage. Walken as the maniacal mogul Shreck is appropriately creepy — though he’s done this bit before, and can do it in his sleep. DeVito is excellent as the Penguin — buried under layers of makeup, he still manages to convey the sadistic, twisted sense of humor as well as the sincere injury he feels. As good as Walken, Keaton and DeVito are, it’s Pfeiffer’s film. Rivaling Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of the Joker, Pfeiffer wisely sees Selina Kyle/Catwoman as a mentally damaged psychotic. She is simultaneously sexy, frightening and sad as a woman pissed off as hell at patriarchy. Though some of her one-liners sound as if they were written by Arnold Schwarzenegger (who would also star in a Batman film), she manages to inject the appropriate amount of gallow humor to make them work.
Batman Returns was followed by Batman Forever, where Val Kilmer took over from Michael Keaton as Batman, and while the film was commercially successful, the series took a dive, that crashed with Batman & Robin. Halle Berry starred in the disastrous Catwoman, which gave a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to Pfeiffer.