With “Batman Returns”, Tim Burton Unleashed A Dark Superhero Circus

Batman Returns (1992) Michael Keaton in Batman Returns (Warner Bros,)

(Every month, we at The Spool select one Filmmaker of the Month, honoring the life and works of influential auteurs with a singular voice, for good or ill. With Tim Burton’s Dumbo coming out in just a few weeks, we’ve chosen to dedicate March to Hot Topic’s favored son, and his intriguing, singular body of work.)


When Tim Burton was first handed several trillion dollars of John Peters and Peter Guber’s money to give Batman a makeover, it was natural that the eccentric stylist wouldn’t be able to overcome the conditions with which it was delivered. Pointless action, big names in the cast, less room for personality, more about crafting a testament to the producers’ egos. Guber and Peters wanted their art and their action miles apart from each other but equally ostentatious: together and separately they made Tom Cruise into Dustin Hoffman’s straight man, produced the unwieldy and laugh-free Wild Wild West, started Adrien Brody on his current career path, made Andrei Konchalovsky direct a Sylvester Stallone movie, and oversaw production on The Bonfire of the Vanities, a mammoth failure still used as a synecdoche for Hollywood excess and cluelessness. When Burton’s candy-colored, noir-influenced take on the caped crusader took all the money in creation, the duo released their grip on Burton and let him have a little more fun with the sequel. The astonishing Batman Returns is, along with Edward Scissorhands, what people still picture when they hear the name Tim Burton – and are in a forgiving mood.

Gotham City is being terrorized by a roving army of clowns in the lead up to an important election. Political operative Max Schreck (Christopher Walken) sees an opportunity when he meets their horrifying ringleader, the sewer-dwelling grotesque Oswald Cobblepot (Danny DeVito). What if he could use this monster as a trojan horse? Everyone loves an underdog story after all. Bruce Wayne (a returning Michael Keaton) doesn’t buy Cobblepot’s transformation, seeing only the villainous Penguin under the veneer of respectability Schreck tries to buy him. Of course Batman’s not the only thorn in Schreck’s side. After attempting to assault and kill Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer), his secretary, after she discovers his campaign management is a front to gain total control of the city’s energy supply and force everyone under his thumb. Kyle survives the attack and rebrands herself as leather clad vigilante Catwoman, who isn’t as married to a moral course of action the way Batman is. She’d happily flaunt the laws to get revenge on Schreck even it means killing Batman for whose alter ego she’s developed feelings.

Batman Returns is in many ways Burton’s magnum opus, his take on Metropolis, and a towering goth icon made for 80 million dollars. Burton was never again able to exert such control over his production design. Every inch of Gotham City is pure Burtonian expressionism, no trace of the deliberate dayglo kitsch side of his suburban stories like Edward Scissorhands or Beetlejuice. Sickly greens and oranges, rich deep blues and greys and lithe, alive black tones are the only colours at work here. The wordless opening set only to Danny Elfman‘s score is a perfect short film that airs all of the director’s fetishes. Diane Salinger and Paul Reubens (reunited after Burton’s Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure) play the Penguin’s wealthy socialite parents, who upon learning that their new baby is a carnivorous mutant, cage it before stealing into the dead of night to abandon it in the sewers below the city. It’s the closest we’ve yet come to live action Edward Gorey – gleefully grim and nasty but almost supernaturally gorgeous.


It’s so good it makes even the lackluster original seem more interesting by dint of being connected to it, even if Batman was never someone in whom Burton could quite get around to fully investing.

It’s a tidy origin story for one of the most richly unpleasant characters in Burton’s menagerie. As the Penguin, DeVito’s constantly wet; his hands are stubby, fleshy claws; his teeth are filed; his nose comes to a sharp point and his skin is pallid. He’s more monster than man, and he’s a big clue that what matters here is not telling the story of Batman. If anything, Keaton’s urbane playboy Bruce Wayne seems trapped in a silent German horror movie, out of place as everything curls into comically bleak and surreal violence. That the film concludes with an army of winged suicide bomber penguins waddling toward destiny isn’t as surprising when it finally arrives as that someone as square as Batman has to stop them.

Recognizing that this film needed characters worthy of the luxuriant art direction, he gave us the ghoulish Penguin, the suitably vampiric Schreck (named for the actor to popularize the cinematic vampire), and the kaleidoscopically sensual Catwoman. Even before she’s left for dead, Pfeiffer is magnetic as the frazzled and demure Selina Kyle. When, after Kyle dies, then sheds her skin and shyness for overpowering confidence and an explosive leather-clad kinkiness as Catwoman, the film can barely contain the sight of her. There were dozens of attempts to transpose the goth sensibility in the early 90s on the big screen (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Interview with the Vampire, The Crow, The Addams Family, Tank Girl) but taking its cues from Pfeiffer, Batman Returns was the only one seemingly uninterested in making sure you were paying attention. It got every sexy detail just right, and when Wayne and Kyle are at their closest, who else but goth princess Siouxsie Sioux scores their dance. Gotham City was finally the safe haven from the ordinary Burton’s characters, whether Edward Scissorhands, Pee-Wee Herman or Lydia Deetz, were always chasing. And if Burton had to make a sequel to his least interesting and personal movie to find such a place, then so be it.

That in and of itself is representative of the kind of alchemy at play in this minor miracle of a tentpole. It’s so good it makes even the lackluster original seem more interesting by dint of being connected to it, even if Batman was never someone in whom Burton could quite get around to fully investing. The law, even its subversion, doesn’t interest him as much as the way the world will bend its spine into curlicues simply because it can. Ichobod Crane in Sleepy Hollow remains the perfect figure of Burtonian law and order, because he learns to mistrust his every instinct after a few days in a place that bucks governance of any kind. Batman seems like a visitor, even if Keaton’s performance (very good but naturally overshadowed) suggest he’s done being phased by the sight of a particularly haggard Vincent Schiavelli leading a demonic clown parade as Penguin’s head henchmen. It’s Kyle, with her new leather skin, her aesthetic borrowed from The Bride of Frankenstein or maybe the Devil Girl From Mars, her lysergic sexuality, her ferocious appetite for revenge that becomes an antic death drive. She’s the hero Gotham needed, and the one it deserved.

Batman Returns Trailer
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