I always feel as if I should like Batman Returns much more than I do. It gets several things very right, and it’s fairly undiluted Tim Burton. But perhaps that’s part of the problem. Enough of it shows off the slightly indulgent, sentimental Burton of Edward Scisssorhands, as opposed to the uncompromisingly anarchic one of Beetlejuice, such that the possibility this might be his equivalent of Gremlins 2: The New Batch – a director let loose on a sequel, given carte blanche to do his own thing by a wilfully unsuspecting studio, especially so since it’s Warner Bros again – is left unfulfilled. But, if it has massive problems, one of them is definitely not Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, possibly the best thing in all the post ’89 incarnations of the franchise, period.
If Gremlins 2 is one touchstone, another is the attitude of co-writer Daniel Waters, coming off the imbroglio of Hudson Hawk (a classic, but not for want of trying to be anything but, and in the eyes of most, of being anything but) and picked by Burton no doubt partly for his contribution to Heathers (since Winona Ryder would have been whispering in his ear at the time). The anarchy here is much more Waters than Sam Hamm, certainly (who gets a story credit; Wesley Strick also did an uncredited rewrite, introducing the moribund third act firstborn device), and I find it difficult to believe he didn’t suggest Andrew Bryniarski, who gave a stunning performance as Butterfinger in Hawk (and has more recently played Leatherface in Texas Chainsaw: The Beginning), as Max Shrek’s beloved son Chip. There’s something fundamentally hilarious about the devotion of Max (a typically off-the-wall Christopher Walken), the casually ruthless empire builder, to his entirely gormless son that defines what the picture could have been more than anything else.
But what it is, is fundamentally imbalanced. And not imbalanced in the way Batman is, where Jack Nicholson steals a picture shot through with elements Burton clearly doesn’t give a rat’s arse about (Vicki Vale). No, it’s imbalanced by an almost total inertia when anything not involving Selina Kyle is playing out. And that includes Keaton/Batman/Wayne, who’s hardly in the thing (I’m sure someone has timed his screen time, but it can’t be much).
The Penguin: I am not a human being. I am an animal.
There’s more of Danny DeVito’s Oswald Cobblepot/the Penguin than anyone else, and the fantasy/fairy-tale trappings related to his subplot are the most definably Burton element (maligned, shunned, scorned – more than the other leads, who are beautiful people, relatively – he’s a pasty-faced grotesque living in the darkness, one who can only make friends with animals or circus freaks since no one else loves him). DeVito’s performance is technically very good, and immersive enough that you never really think about it being him under all that latex, which probably makes it his least “DeVito” performance in some respects. But somehow it completely fails to grab. Oswald isn’t appealing or magnetic, not in a villainous way, not in a pathetic way, not really in a funny way (although he gets some good lines), and not when Danny Elfman’s frequently infuriating score goes all Scissorhands with fluttery angelic choirs to prod our emotions (the zoo is the equivalent of Edward’s castle).
The Penguin: Why is there always someone who brings eggs and tomatoes to a speech?
Sure, Burton pulls some coups; there’s a certain level of demented genius to the Penguin sailing the sewers of Gotham in a giant rubber duck, and the finale with penguins armed with rocket launchers is suitably off-beat, but none of it has any energy. Burton at this time simply stank as an action director (he’d find a bit of mojo, or begin working more fluidly with his second unit, around the time of Sleepy Hollow), which doesn’t help – the set pieces are dreadfully flat, and Elfman only underlines it with listless, ear-gouging carnival music that makes you wonder if the director actively wants you to hate his movie – but the real problem is he’s unable to find the villain’s spark. Oswald just isn’t fun. He’s lecherous, and he’s piteous, and twisted, but he isn’t fun, which means his scenes sink.
Catwoman: I don’t know about you, Miss Kitty, but I feel so much yummier.
Contrast that with anything between Keaton and Pfeiffer, or Pfeiffer and Walken (there are a couple of perfunctory scenes between Catwoman and the Penguin, and she can’t rescue them), and while they’re invariably talky scenes, they’re very, very watchable. Pfeiffer plays Selina with just the right air of exaggerated ditziness during the first few scenes, but Burton really brings his A-game with her transformation, thrown from a window and mystically resuscitated by cats, she ventures home and trashes her apartment (leaving her neon sign saying “Hell Here”). Some of the dialogue is on the nose (“Life’s a bitch, and so am I”, “I am Catwoman, here me roar”) but Pfeiffer modulates the delivery perfectly.
Selina Kyle: I guess I’m tired of wearing masks.
Bruce Wayne: Me too.
And the (un)masked ball sequence, as Bruce and Selina dance and confess to the accompaniment of Siouxsie and the Banshees, is just electric. The, “Oh my God, does this mean we have to start fighting?” realisation is marvellous, and ironically, this is a rare picture that actually comes together during the closing stages. The Penguin almost works in his final scenes, because the dramatic weight is carried by the tug of love between Batman and Catwoman as they wrestle over the fate of Max.
Max Shreck: And Bruce Wayne? Why are you dressed up as Batman?
Walken’s having a lot of fun with his fright wig, but Max Shreck is no kind of classic role. He’s given the funniest line (above), and his “Yawn” response to Bruce’s moralism has become its own animated gif, while his improv speech (“I wish I could hand out world peace, and unconditional love, wrapped in a big bow”) is a joy when delivered in that staccato Walken rhythm (“Frankly, I think it’s a bum rap”).
But the picture, even more than most Bat movies of that time, suffers from the Bond problem of not having a really tangible, coherent plot, so must rely on set pieces or performances. The former are a bust, and the latter only ignite depending on Pfeiffer. There are aspects that are moaned about that I never even notice (Batman kills people here, but I’m insufficiently invested in the character’s moral code to care), while the Christmas setting never really feels Christmassy, possibly because Burton is more Jack Skellington than Wonderful Life (but that didn’t stop Gremlins from feeling really Christmassy).
Batman Returns certainly doesn’t stumble because of the lack of the bat; there’s something to what Burton says about there being merit in keeping him in the shadows. Although, here its more symptomatic of the director having little idea of what to do with him (the scenes with Alfred are stiff, and even the letting Vicki Vale into the Bat Cave line sounds like lame fan service). Really, the subsequent Batman Forever would make many of the same mistakes this one did, it’s just Shumacher went for frenetic to Burton’s limpid. The end results are similarly lacking in cohesion. At least Batman Returns has Pfeiffer. It’s more than evident why WB were sure they had a spin-off. Unfortunately, it took them twelve years to make it, and Pfeiffer was no longer in the frame when they did.