director Tim Burton
Batman indeed returned in 1992, back in the hands of director Tim Burton and in the flesh of Michael Keaton. Batman (1989) had been a phenomenon, a phenomenon from whose influence American filmmaking may never shrug off. It was the first modern superhero movie, and though others since have shifted its direct influence, it is still the site of which the torrent was originally unleashed. And Batman Returns, by nature of being the first sequel of the original, has symbolic influence as well.
Batman had only one villain, Jack Nicholson’s The Joker, and though other key characters like Harvey Dent were introduced, it was a case of one hero/one villain. Batman Returns offered both Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) and The Penguin (Danny DeVito) but also less directly Max Shreck (Christopher Walken). It’s the issue with which all superhero sequels hence have had to contend: upping the ante on the villains probably at the behest of the merchandising rather than actual need.
But Tim Burton did what was unusual at the time. He made the sequel almost better than the original. I say almost because for years I felt that it was actually better. I liked it better. But now, I’m not as sure. I think it’s more aesthetically complete, the designs are nicer, the villains Catwoman and Penguin are interestingly designed and realized, but in many ways it lacks the full perverse humor of the first film and while maybe more aesthetically pleasing, isn’t actually really a better movie.
It’s an interesting question to raise for a Burton film. He’s often known for lush and vibrant visual design but otherwise rather incomplete movie-making.
It was more than six months ago we watched Batman, but a new condition has arisen: opening streaming avenues for movies has suddenly changed our movie-watching landscape and here, Batman, Batman Returns, and even Batman Forever (1995) are suddenly available on Netflix for the clicking. With the new television program Gotham teasing on the tube, Felix’s interest in Batman in general has risen.
Batman Returns was not the commercial success of its predecessor, though success it was. The results wound up with Burton leaving the series as director and Keaton leaving as actor. Actually, only some of the more general background characters carry on through into the two Joel Schumacher films.
I would go on but I think I’ve hit the nail on the head for this movie for me. I really do think it’s a more beautifully-rendered Batman movie. Gotham is more massive and fascist in its design, but the Christmastime setting and muted blues and blacks and whites creates a palette more pleasing to the eye, though it does follow in the footsteps of its predecessor aesthetically. This whole design aesthetic would reign supreme through the genre for ages to come. The clowns and the penguins, the cartoonish elements Burton places on the scenes like oversized brightly-wrapped Xmas presents are just all very, very slick and cool art.
But the movie itself lacks in the comedy that actually made Batman pretty good. Pfeiffer, DeVito, and Walken all add to the pleasures…and it’s still pleasurable. I mean, I still liked it. But I don’t know if it’s better or not than Batman.
Felix liked it and is keen to see Batman & Robin (1997), apparently having inherited some component of my appreciation for the bad and ugly in cinema to set off the good.