Batman Returns (1992) (PG-13)

Tim Burton's second voyage into superhero territory is probably best known for its villains. Though "Batman" and its sequel were crafted with the goal of being blockbuster movies—the film's carnival approach to death and destruction a far cry from the quasi-'realism' of the Nolan movies—it feels like all the right pieces of an art house movie inside something Terry Gilliam only dreams about. The large sets, the overt acting—it all rings true of a less poignant "Brazil". Yet what escapes the almost incoherent revelry is a solid movie and a few iconic performances.
After the Joker was defeated in "Batman", a new super villain emerges, The Penguin. The movie opens with the birth scene of this deformed animal/man and his parents decision to throw him into the sewer on Christmas so they can be rid of the responsibility of raising him and also to save their own socialite public figure. This sets up the wrestling issues and themes of the rest of the movie: the privileged versus the tenacious; the stable versus the sane; and the politics of manipulating power.
A few important figures are introduced in the beginning moments of "Batman Returns", we see Shreck (Christopher Walken) a business man whose villainy is not so subtly hidden under his dealings. He wishes to control all the power of Gotham, both figuratively and literally. Then there's the sitting mayor (Michael Murphy) who seems to just be a pawn in the hands of those who wish to take his place. Shreck's shady dealings don't go unnoticed by his anxious secretary, Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer) but she is either too innocent or too naive to realize that she might have gotten in over her head until its too late.
"Batman Returns" doesn't follow any typical trajectory of a superhero movie. We're never really quite sure who the "big bad guy" is, because the power dynamics keep shifting throughout the film. Pretty much every characters besides Batman goes through ups and downs in their ability to adhere to the audience's sense of morality, which is to say, they switch from Batman's side to the other side and back again. The Penguin (Danny DeVito) is sometimes the mastermind of a plan and sometimes he falls into the hands of a more conniving Shreck and vice versa.
Although this view of shifting powers is true in the context of the movie, it's also possibly giving the film too much credit. After all, this is a movie that was designed to please crowds and it's very enjoyable to watch. The story arc of Selina Kyle turned Cat Woman is so deliciously fun that the movie is worth watching for that alone. Michelle Pfeiffer pulls out all the claws and scratches her way into a mentally disturbed, power savvy antihero who wants to exact revenge on her shady boss. There are some inconsistencies here with Cat Woman, mainly with the writing and how she seems to be able to get easy access to each other and is commonly united against either Shreck, the Penguin, or Batman at different times depending on where you are in the plot. Yet what the movie lacks in organization, it makes up for with sheer color.
The film's greatest success is that it never entirely loses its sense of tragedy and sorrow even underneath all the cooky costumes and robotic penguins. This, actually, is something Roger Ebert criticized about the movie; but I appreciate that, amidst all the crazy explosions and frankly bizarre plot turns, we see the back of Selina Kyle, looking into a glass store and saying "why are you doing this?" It's a small moment that gets lost in a larger performance but it reminds us that some of these characters are actually struggling and hurting inside their masks (a not so subtle theme the movie threads into the dialogue).
There is a lot to roll your eyes at, particularly some of the more comical dialogue provided by the Penguin. But maybe Nolan ruined the Adam West style of Batman, or maybe Tim Burton is just deftly standing in between madness and humor and nonchalantly shrugging, letting us love or hate the gray areas.

Score: ★★★

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