30 for 30: Batman Returns

Richard Petro

twitter @ThePetroProject

October 30th, 2019

"It's gonna be a hot time on the cold town tonight."

     Well, here we are, the end of the road. I did a little debate as to what would inherit the final spot on the list, and decided that, with as many times as I have written about Batman and Mask of the Phantasm, I'd explore the other direction. As you can obviously tell from our subject, Batman Returns is my favourite live action Batman film.

     The film doesn't need a true introduction, as I'm sure most (all) of those reading have seen it. Over time, Batman Returns has become my go-to Christmas movie, being saved for the day before the holidays themselves. I love the aesthetic of it, with Gotham City (and Batman) amongst the falling snow, layering Tim Burton's gothic landscape with more character and atmosphere than it already had. You can feel the chill in the air, insert yourself into what it must feel like walking those streets and window shopping in the busy streets. It's one of my absolute favourite set-ups for a city in possibly any movie, let alone superhero films. Burton's Gotham always felt like a true expression of the city on screen, but with the added seasonal touch, it becomes a whole new thing entirely. I've since been a big fan of whenever The Dark Knight is portrayed during the winter season, and wish it happened more.

     Batman Returns has a reputation for being "dark" and "adult", but it is in a way the Warner Bros. seems to struggle desperately to replicate without knowing what those words truly mean. Returns feels, more than anything, adult; the endgame for Penguin is a dark revenge tale, with even the opening flashback being a depressing, gothic tale, while the movie is also filled with some very, very adult jokes and off-handed remarks. But Returns never gets bogged down in its grimness, considering the script is genuinely endlessly hilarious. There are many oft-quoted lines from the movie that pop up for me, and many of them are just as funny the who-knows-how-many-eth time I've heard it as it was the first. Sometimes I feel like the humour of the film, or the level of it, is forgotten by many when they think back on it.

     Keaton returned for the film and he is still fantastic, moreso here than in his 1989 debut. Here he gets to stretch his legs as Bruce Wayne, portraying him as someone that has comfortably fallen into what his life has become, his acceptance to his word of being Batman, yet it's the exploration of the character's loneliness that works very well, both in terms of acting and writing. It isn't all just brooding and self-reflection though, as Keaton is also given a chance to be as funny and charming as he is, not to mention badass in verbal battle in terms of his job as a business owner, perfectly exemplified in his back and forth with Christopher Walken's Max Shreck. His true interplay comes from his interactions with Selina Kyle/Catwoman both in and out of costume. As Bruce Wayne he brings about his need for companionship beautifully and naturally, whilst as Batman he is able to perfectly capture his quiet fascination for the feline vigilante. Keaton was great in the role in the first film, but I feel like it's this one that cements him as arguably still the best actor to have tackled the role in live-action.

     Danny DeVito's Penguin is usually talked about in regards to his design, and in regards to Burton's Gothic world, it's a great one. A grotesque, sideshow-like outcast, shunned by society and those that deem themselves normal (even approaching him carefully when they're working for him and he's seen as a hero), DeVito's work is very underrated here. His Oswald Cobblepot is rightfully angry, a pent up ball of rage by how he had been dismissed, yet DeVito's work once Cobblepot is above ground is what really layers the character. His awful attempts at trying to fit in and become something he isn't is great in how truly not-great it comes off. Cobblepot can't fit into what Shreck proposes for him (as a mayor candidate), it's not who he is, and his final stripping of what people tried to build upon him as he voices who and what he is is wonderful. Special mention should also be given to DeVito's work in the cemetery, as he tries to portray himself to the press.

     A lot of the humour of the film comes from the gift that keeps on giving, the divine presence of one Christopher Walken. Walken is his usual, peak Walken here as a character created specifically for this film (once original plans for using Harvey Dent fell apart), of course that means he's fantastic. Walken brings a unique level of energy to any role he plays, and his eccentric performance perfectly suits the world that he occupies. He's conniving, scheming, and disgustingly corrupt, yet he exudes an undeniable charm that lends itself to making his standing completely believable. You can tell why the public would enjoy themselves some Max Schreck. He also gets the bulk of the best lines in the film, his reads making a lot of them more memorable than they may be on their own, not to mention he's responsible for one of my favourite moments in the film, and the one that makes me laugh the most no matter how many times I've seen it ('Was!").

     All of the leads bring their A-game, but at the end of the day, Batman Returns truly belongs to Michelle Pfeiffer.

     I've long held the belief that Pfieffer's work as Selina Kyle is the best supporting performance in a superhero film, possibly even best performance period. She masterfully fills the characters shoes in how she presents her at every aspect of her arc, from a naive, lost, and kind hearted innocent bystander to how her deep-rooted vengeful nature rears its head, before it slowly doubles back onto itself to strand Kyle in her own loneliness once more, seemingly knowing she will be just as lost and wandering once her revenge is fulfilled. Her performance is powerful, be it while being filled with confident fire when she becomes Catwoman or when she has her heartbreaking breakdown at home after her attempted murder. The one moment that has always stuck out to me is her interaction with Keaton when they meet on the street and make dinner plans. You can see in her eyes that she's pained, yet there's something here that she welcomes and genuinely embraces, aiming to fill that same loneliness that Bruce does alongside her. It's a wonderful sequence, with the two playing off of each other incredibly naturally in any scene they share.
     Together, you hope things work out for them, even though you know they won't. Maybe under different circumstances it would have been okay. But while Bruce goes through a lot of the same inner conflict as Kyle, in the need for companionship, the heart of the movie belongs to Pfieffer. Her performance is one that, no matter how much time passes since it the film has come out or how many more great performances we get from mroe adn more superhero films, should never be forgotten. There were some great performances in superhero films prior, but Pfieffer, to me, cemented just how much you can actually do with a character like this. It's the kind of work that makes me really wish that films like these were looked at for how great the acting truly is way earlier.

     Man, I've already written way more than I thought I would here, mostly on the acting, but I couldn't help it, everyone is just so great. There's a lot to love about the film, and I hope people have revisited it recently. It's a hilarious, (proper) dark entry that truly feels like how I picture Batman, Gothic vibes and all, mixed with the absolutely enchanting holiday setting that does truly make it a great film to curl up to in a warm ball with some hot chocolate during Christmas. It's a wonderful treat that still holds up almost 30 years later.