After the box-office smash of Tim Burton's visualization of the Caped Crusader, Batman, a sequel was in order. In 1992 (my birth year I might add), the second installment of the initial Warner Bros. franchise, Batman Returns hit theaters. Despite not wanting to make another Batman film due to the mixed reaction of the first, Tim Burton, again, directed and produced Batman Returns with the returning Michael Keaton as the titular character/Bruce Wayne. Quite frankly, this film is polarizing, to say the least. Of all the initial Batman films of the 1990s, I watched this one the most. I don't know if this is because I enjoyed the film, or just because I was a kid who loved seeing Batman on-screen. Nonetheless, here is my retrospective review of the follow-up to one of the most influential superhero films of all-time.
The film's plot begins with Oswald Cobblepot (Danny DeVito), who emerges as the leader of the Red Triangle Circus Gang and identifies himself as The Penguin. After causing a riot at a Gotham Christmas celebration in the middle of the city, Penguin kidnaps businessman Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), in order to become a legal citizen of Gotham. Meanwhile, Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer), discovers her Shreck's plan to drain Gotham of its electricity. Once Shreck realizes his plans have been compromised, he pushes Kyle out of a window, intending to kill her. Kyle survives, yet suffers a mental breakdown. She then designs a black vinyl costume and becomes the vigilante, Catwoman. With two new adversaries at large in Gotham, Bruce Wayne must, once again, become the Batman to stop the plan of The Penguin to corrupt and overtake Gotham City, and figure out the mystery behind Catwoman.
Despite the negative reaction to the violent and dark world that Tim Burton created in 1989's Batman, it's sequel has much darker, aggressive and abrasive tones. Burton doesn't rely on tricks of old in order to tell the troubled stories of Bruce Wayne, Oswald Cobblepot and Selina Kyle. He also doesn't settle for the heightened version of Gotham City that he created. Instead, Burton goes deeper with his character development for some of comic book's most notable characters. Additionally, the director achieves an even more stunning portrayal of Gotham City, by going deeper into this psychological and disturbing environment of the mega city.
Credit has to be attributed to the improved nature of Batman Returns. I admit that the script is much better than that of Batman. The cinematography, production design and art direction also take a very cold and gothic approach. The color palette of the film remains mostly at an intersection of black, grey and white, which is opposite of the colorful nature that the Joker brought to Batman. Returns provides us with a much more visceral and grotesque exploration of Gotham's criminal underbelly. And the film's iconic villains are at the forefront of it all. DeVito transforms himself into the manipulative and animalistic Penguin, while Pfeiffer is satisfyingly fierce and seductive as Catwoman. Michael Keaton even improves his performance as the billionaire-vigilante as the complementing performances from DeVito and Pfeiffer help him up his game.
Unfortunately for Batman Returns, it didn't gross nearly as much as its predecessor. McDonalds even removed its Happy Meal promotion for the film due to the film's violence and sexual references. The decrease in the film's ROI ultimately led to the removal of Burton as the franchise's director in the next installment. While Batman Returns is an improvement artistically and visually over its predecessor, it didn't have as much cultural impact as that of Batman. This isn't the film's fault. It's much like Age of Ultron in comparison to the first Avengers film. The bottom line is that something extremely special happened in the first. It was a significant cultural achievement that catapulted superheroes back into pop culture consciousness. While both they're sequels improved upon their first installments, Returns and Age of Ultron suffer from the weight of its own shoulders.