Batman Returns (1992): Tim Burton’s Sequel (Reworking?), Dominated by Villains

“Batman Returns,” the sequel to the 1989 mega-hit “Batman,” and the most eagerly-awaited summer release, is a big, visually inventive production.  The movie is less of a sequel than a reworking of some of the ideas and themes of the first film. In some respects, the new movie is even an improvement over the original, which opened a new chapter in Hollywood’ history.









“Batman Returns” provides visual stimulation and pyrotechnics for its entire duration–you will not get bored. It is also funnier than the first film, with many good one-liners. The new film also contains a great performance by Michelle Pfeiffer in the dual role of the secretary/Catwoman.

Yet, something is missing–a narrative pull, an engaging story that would glue the set pieces together. Like most big-budget, large-scale productions today, “Batman Returns” is a pastiche. You feel that the movie was constructed rather than made, or written.

There’s a nominal plot (credited to Daniel Waters), but it is no more than a loose structure of interrelated episodes. Watching the film is like visiting Disneyland, going from one exciting ride to another. Disjointed, this Batman joyously jumps from one brilliant set-piece to another.

In both theme and style, the first movie was more coherent. At its center was the conflict between Bruce Wayne (played by Michael Keaton) and vicious mobster Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson), who turns into the Joker. It was fascinating to watch Batman and the Joker as representatives of good and evil counterparts; they were like twin outcasts, locked together in a battle.

In the new movie, there are no less than three villains, who are far more interesting than the hero. Max Shreck, played by Christopher Walken, is the antagonist, a greedy businessman scheming to build a dangerous power plant.  Though eccentric, Walken renders a less flamboyant performance than Jack Nicholson’s villain in the first film; he is much more recognizably human.

Then there is Danny De Vito as the pathetic Penguin, a grotesque creature that never got over the fact that his parents had abandoned him. De Vito’s sequences are the most disturbing; one scene in which he bites a man’s nose is particularly scary.

Michelle Pfeiffer plays Selina Kyle, the sad and frumpy secretary, as well as her alter-ego, the Catwoman. Pfeiffer replaced Annette Bening, whose departure from the role due to pregnancy was much publicized. But judging by Pfeiffer’s looks and performance, it’s hard to tell how Bening, an excellent actress herself, could have been better.








Pfeiffer claims without a doubt the movie’s most interesting part and also its funniest lines. This stunning-looking star continues to stretch herself with every assignment. As the frumpy secretary, a role written with a slight feminist touch, Pfeiffer conveys well the plight of a single, confused modern woman. And as the Catwoman, dressed in black leather and carrying a whip, she displays dazzling energy, in addition to sexiness.

In both Batman pictures, Burton is more interested in the villains than in the hero.  However, “Batman Returns” may have too many villains for its own good, though there is almost no connection among them. Most of the scenes are staged as encounters between Batman and one antagonist.

As in the first film, Michael Keaton is cast in the most thankless role, a result of the writing, but also of the physical restriction. Disguised in body armor, cowl, and wide-winged cape, Keaton seems even less comfortable here than he was in the first movie.

The look of this film is similar to the first, thought its crew is not the same; Anton Furst, the great art designer who won an Oscar for his 1989 work, passed way.

Both movies were shot on sound stages, and both use Expressionist design and lighting.

Burton seems to have had more control over the sequel, though both works bear his unmistakable directorial signature. In this movie (his fifth feature), Burton demonstrates again his macabre sensibility and affinity for the offbeat that had marked his former films (“Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure,” “Beetlejuice,” “Edward Scissorhands”).

Burton’s quirky concerns, amazing imagination and visual pizzazz are inimitable. It is hard to imagine him work on location–in each of his films, he has created a hermetically concealed artificial world. Burton’s view of Gotham City as a dreary, decadent place is dark and gloom, but his melancholy world is somehow not depressing. Reflecting the zeitgeist better than other American movies at the moment, we can relate to Burton’s vision on both emotional and artistic levels.

The three visual geniuses among American directors today are Spielberg (the “Indiana Jones” series), James Cameron (“Aliens,” “Terminator 2”), and Tim Burton. Burton can’t compete with Spielberg or Cameron in staging action sequences (one of the weakest aspects of “Batman Returns”), but when it comes to singular vision and visual flair, Burton is one of a kind.