The fact that Batman Returns, a film set at Christmas, filled with snow, giant Christmas trees, and an emphasis on the cold winter months, came out in June is still something that I find incredibly odd thirty years later (we even looked at whether this is indeed a Christmas movie). Having grown up watching this film repeatedly as a child, it never really entered my mind that I could have come out at any other time other than around Christmas. But, as this is in fact a summer release, I guess we get to look back at this Batman movie a few months earlier than expected.
After the smash hit success of the 1989 Tim Burton helmed Batman, Warner Bros wanted a sequel. This was the time before superhero movies were big business, long before a mutli-platform shared universe like the MCU could even be considered possible; as such, even a sequel to a film that took the world by storm was considered a gamble. This is part of the reason why it took three years for the next film to hit cinemas, as not only did Warner Bros have to convince Tim Burton to return to the project, but the film went through several different versions and revisions, seeing many iconic Batman characters come and go before the final story was settled on.
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Batman Returns follows on some years after the event of the first movie, with Batman (Michael Keaton) continuing on as the guardian protector of Gotham City. When a gang of strange circus performers attack the city in the build up to Christmas, billionaire philanthropist Max Shreck (Christoper Walken) is kidnapped and brought before the gang’s leader, the Penguin (Danny DeVito). Shreck makes a deal with the Penguin to help him come to the surface, find his long lost family, and find a place for himself in return for his life.
Shreck and the Penguin stage a kidnapping of the mayor’s baby, where the Penguin then saves it. Seen as a hero by the people of the city, they look beyond his physical deformities, and see a decent man. When the Penguin discovers that he came from one of the elite families of Gotham, but was abandoned because of his birth defects, he agrees to help Shreck with his corrupt plans to take over the city, running for mayor as his gang terrorises Gotham. When Shreck’s secretary, Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfieffer) learns of Shreck’s corruption she’s thrown out of a window. Luckily for her, she survives, and swears vengeance against Shreck, taking on the costumed persona of Catwoman to do so. With multiple villains terrorising Gotham, it’s down to Batman to save the city, and Christmas.
Batman Returns was a film with a lot riding on it. Batmania swept the world with the release of the first film, making it one of the most successful films of all time when it was released. Warner Bros wanted more of that action, and were trying their best to replicate that formula. And for the most part, they managed that. The film recaptured a lot of what made that first film a success, but thanks to additional creative control from Tim Burton, it felt different enough in a few ways that it still had an identity that felt its own.
Tim Burton has a very distinct style, and whether you like that style or not, we can all agree that he is fairly consistent in the type of films he makes. Looking at his work, Batman is something of an anomaly in his catalogue. It’s dark and Gothic, yes, but a lot of that flair, that spooky and fairy-tale-like visual quality that you expect from him isn’t there. It’s a much more grounded world. In comparison, Batman Returns is very much a Tim Burton movie, from the opening sequence of the baby basket passing beneath gnarled and twisted trees, to the creepy clowns that make up Penguin’s gang, to the shift from pop songs to a more orchestral theme. Batman Returns is very similar to the first film at first glance, but upon closer inspection it’s actually quite different.
And I think that those differences helped the film in a lot of ways. It feels less oppressive, and has a weirdly jovial quality to it that made it more open to children. Instead of gangsters, you had a spooky circus troop. Instead of poison gas that had people laugh themselves to death there was an army of penguins with rockets on their backs. Burton was much better able to marry together the dark elements of Batman with the childish elements of comics with this film, and it makes it the more enjoyable of the two.
Some of the casting does wonders for making this a more enjoyable film too, with both Christopher Walken and Danny DeVito being absolute delights to watch. They’re both clearly having a good time in their villain roles, and some of the best moments in the movie come from these two. DeVito in particular seems to spend so much time chewing the scenery that its a wonder there weren’t holes in half the sets. Whilst Jack Nicholson received acclaim for his portrayal of the Joker, the villains in Batman Returns are much more enjoyable to watch.
Whether you keep Batman Returns for Christmas time, or watch it all year round, it’s a film that fans of the character have a lot of time for. One of the best entries in the original Warner Bros series, and one of the better Batman films in general, it’s a film that’s going to be beloved for many more decades to come.
Batman Returns was released in the UK on 10th July 1992.