By far, still the sexiest Batman movie! With the reviews from fans and critics alike regarding this weekend’s release of the highly anticipated Suicide Squad ranging anywhere from horrible to moderately enjoyable, I decided to rewatch and review the Batman movie that is still considered by many, and yours truly, to be the most Batman out of all of them. Released in 1992, Tim Burton’s Batman Returns boasts a star-studded cast complete with the German expressionistic filmmaking style and gothic production design often associated with this iconic superhero franchise. The brilliance of Batman Returns can be witnessed in recognizing that Tim Burton provided audiences with an art house film masquerading around as a superhero Hollywood blockbuster. From the architecture to the costumes and cinematography, this Batman movie has more in common with art than a movie. Not that movies lack artistic appeal, quite the contrary–after all cinema is the art of visual storytelling; but there is a certain artistic charm that surrounds Batman Returns uncommon in other superhero movies. In other words, the focus was more on the art of a Batman story than the plot. Many comic book enthusiasts also regard this installment (as well as its predecessor) as very close to the comics in plot and visual design. Furthermore, hands down, the most memorable element of the movie is Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, and with good reason. Incredibly sexy, seductive, slightly psycho, playful, and conniving. Juxtaposed against Danny DeVito’s monstrous Penguin, Michael Keaton’s timeless Bruce Wayne/Batman, throw in the self-centered and ruthless Christopher Walken’s Max Shreck, and you have a brilliant cast bringing to life iconic characters under the direction of a then-visionary director before he became a parody of himself.
Beneath the streets of Gotham City lies a world of water, waste, and The Penguin. Abandoned by his wealthy parents, Oswald Cobblepot is raised by the Penguins of the former Gotham City Zoo. He grows to resent the world above and the blue bloods of society that cast aside those who they deem as undesirable. High above the sewers, Selina Kyle is nervously tending to her boss’ every need. Not the most meticulous secretary–oh sorry, assistant–she has failed her ruthless boss Max Shreck for the last time, and gets shoved out a window to be nursed back to life by cats. Both abandoned and left to die, but return to life with revenge and warped justice on the mind. During the annual tree lighting ceremony, The Penguin and his henchmen thwart the celebratory atmosphere with gunfire, looting, chaos, and violence. Valiantly defending the good citizens of Gotham, Batman fights off the havoc that The Penguin with which The Penguin is enveloping the city. However, all the public knows is the good, kindhearted Penguin with a love of public service? Although initially setting out to kill Batman, in an ironic twist of fate, sparks begin to fly between Batman and Catwoman AND Bruce and Selina. Revenge, love, violence, and trademark gadgets. This Batman movie has it all.
Even the most dedicated Batman fans will admit that this film certainly has cinematic problems. But why are the flaws in this movie somehow forgiven but the flaws in Batman v Superman or this weekend’s Suicide Squad held against them respectively? Rewatching this Batman movie reveals that it is likely held is such high regard by superhero movie buffs and fans of the comics alike due to of the A-list talent and the artistic or stylistic approach to this story. Because the focus of the film is definitely on the art versus the plot, narrative flaws can easily be overlooked as the experience of this film rests upon the feel and look of everything more so than the plot in and of itself. It is rare for a superhero film to also be so incredibly artistic. And that is why this particular Batman movie stands unique amongst all the others that have been produced over the decades. The passion for visual design is seen in every shot, every costume, and in the sexiness of the interpersonal relationships between the characters. Just like with interpretive art, various interpretations of tone, feel, message, and impression can be found throughout Batman Returns. Regarding the tone of the film, it repeatedly switches from a campy melodrama to tragic love story to action/adventure. In many ways, this film is representative or even self-reflexive of cinema from the 1930s to the 1950s. Paralleling the film’s repeated switches of tone and pace, the characters also change personalities, demeanors, and motives. Moreover, control over situations constantly changes hands throughout the movie. Whether as the audience or a bystander in the movie, it is difficult, at times, to discern the villain from the hero. The magic of this Batman movie is that it bridges the boundaries of so many different interpretations of the Batman universe over the years into a film that embodies the art of filmmaking.
Not a direct follow up to the successful 1989 Batman, this installment is often celebrated as the most Batman of the Batman movies; it’s the one that somehow manages to reflect more about the hero and his world than any other on-screen representation he’d enjoyed before or since. It’s a celebration of the Dark Knight that succeeds, in large part, by its refusal to go too dark, but remains off-kilter and uncomfortable, just enough, all the way through. Likewise, the villains are psychotic, larger than life, and legendary. From the tragic character of The Penguin thrown into the river in a warped Moses fashion on Christmas to the beaten down mousy secretary turned bondage clad 1990s feminist Catwoman, Batman Returns is a quintessential Tim Burton film before he just went way too bizarre in recent years. Both The Penguin and Catwoman can be seen as two different mirrors for our caped crusader. Penguin represents a child of wealth who was abandoned by his parents (not unlike our Bruce Wayne) and Catwoman represents the sensual side of Batman that we seldom get to see but we know it’s there because he is human. The combination of characters, settings, and behaviors makes this film a fun, erotic, and entertaining Batman movie. The stratified emotions, experiences, and interpretations provides audiences with a dynamic story that plays out beautifully on screen. In fact, the film is so entertaining to watch that you will likely forget that the pacing, plot, and structure of the film lacks critical value.
If you are leery about spending money to watch Suicide Squad this weekend, I suggest rewatching–or for some of you watching for the first time–Tim Burton’s artistic masterpiece Batman Returns. If for no other reason, you will enjoy the brilliantly sexy Catwoman, tragic monstrous Penguin, and the definitive Batman/Bruce Wayne as played by Michael Keaton. Such fantastic actors and characters!
Ryan teaches Film Studies and Screenwriting at the University of Tampa and is a member of the Critics Association of Central Florida and Indie Film Critics of America. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter. If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.
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