Batman Returns disappointed me when I saw it in the cinemas. Rewatching it on DVD, I discovered that I prefer it to its predecessor.
As an action movie it sucks. Batman gets almost nothing to do, although you can't quite say the same for his alter ego. There's a good Batman sequence in the middle of the movie, starting with Catwoman and ending with the death ride in a booby-trapped Batmobile, but otherwise he's out of the action. So he gets a few circus freaks to beat up. We want to see him fighting the main villains, but unfortunately it's no great thrill to see him beating up either Catwoman or Penguin. He shows up briefly at the beginning, mostly staying in his Batmobile like a big wuss. After that, nothing. Even worse, the most heroic thing Batman does in the movie's grand climax is to jam a radio signal. Gee. Be still my beating heart.
So we have an action movie without a hero. What about the villains? Alas, they don't come off well either. There's just too damn many of them. Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman, Danny de Vito's Penguin, Christopher Walken's Max Shreck... individually they're great, but when forced to compete with each other for screen and plot time they become second-stringers.
Christopher Walken is one scary dude. He's always in control and you get the impression that if push came to shove, the others wouldn't last five seconds against him. He's a wonderful Batman villain, BTW - a super-rich capitalist bastard, an evil Bruce Wayne who walks in his world and can play in the same league he can. Unfortunately we only get one scene between Shreck and Wayne and that's mostly about introducing Keaton to Pfeiffer. The character starts well, pushing Michelle Pfeiffer out of a window, but recedes into the background as soon as the freaks turn up. At the end, he even sacrifices himself to save the life of his son.
Then we have Danny de Vito's Penguin, a sewer-dwelling freak. He's an animal, out of control. Admittedly he's lots of fun to watch, but it takes a second viewing to realise how much of the plot is driven by him. For too long our attention is still on Christopher Walken. If this were a Disney movie, the Penguin would be the comedy sidekick. No matter how many people he kills and plots he hatches, we can't take him seriously while he's snarling, twitching and eating raw fish.
Finally we have Catwoman. Oooooooooh, man. She's great to look at, but she's not really a villain.
We have an action movie without an action hero, a main villain or a set-piece all-action ending. And it's incredibly depressing if you stop to think about it. Admittedly Tim Burton's stock was through the roof after the first movie, but even so I can hardly believe Warner Brothers let him get away with it.
So it's not an action movie. What is it?
Two loving parents throw their new-born child off a bridge, for the trivial reason that he's a freak and a cat-murdering monster. On Christmas. It's a cool opening sequence, but the tone is set. This movie is incredibly dark. The Penguin plans to kidnap children and drown them in toxic waste. The bad guys don't just try to kill Batman, they frame him for the murder of almost the only true innocent in the movie and try to make him responsible for auto killings. This ain't no comedy biff-pow. There's nothing triumphant about the Penguin's final end, which is horrible, icky and almost tragic. Max Shreck is murdered (there's no other word for it), then our two emotionally damaged lovers lose each other when Catwoman turns to the dark side and abandons Batman. Kim Newman calls this "the most depressing summer movie of all time". I wouldn't say he's wrong.
Selina Kyle starts out as a sympathy figure, a downtrodden wage slave who's being bullied and patronised by her boss. She lives in a girlie apartment of fluffy soft toys and absolutely no men. She has severe self-esteem problems and a sadistic streak. Then Shreck pushes her out of a window.
What follows is disturbing. The way it's filmed (shockingly white skin, blood, cats eating her) it's like she died and was resurrected as a zombie. She then returns home and trashes the place. She shreds her soft toys in the kitchen disposal, spray-paints a doll's house... you get the idea. Selina becomes Catwoman and finds empowerment through whips, black leather and blowing things up, but she remains a seriously damaged woman. When still Selina, we get the sense of a woman who's losing her grip on herself. She doesn't know what she wants. I think she's scared. There's far more complexity than I got on first viewing; I think you could make a good argument for Catwoman being the hero of this film, not Batman. It's her journey. It's tragic as fuck. She's the one with the choice at the end - whether to go off with Bruce or turn to darkness and murder Shreck. Viewed in those terms, it's a really harrowing story.
I didn't realise this when I first watched it, but Batman Returns is a homage to German Expressionism (as is also Edward Scissorhands). The Christopher Walken character is called Max Shreck, in apparent homage to the Max Schrek who played the title role in Murnau's Nosferatu (1922). The plot is very Expressionist, being obsessed with betrayal and insanity instead of the action fare you'd expect in a Hollywood blockbuster, while the set designs are reminiscent of Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927). There's something one might not expect from a Batman film.
There's also a running theme of parenthood, albeit hardly a cheery one. Bruce's parents were murdered before his eyes. The Penguin's parents threw him into a river, presumably to drown, then died before he could return to them. Max Shreck is a monster whose sole saving grace is his love for his son, but this love is what drives him to seek ever more power and in the end gets him killed. There's a resonance between them all, acknowledged even by the characters themselves. When the Penguin is rejected by Gotham's citizens, he renounces his human name and plans to take revenge by murdering all first-born children in the city. It's a bloody tragedy from first to last.
That's why I love it. I could watch Batman Returns again and again, while I think the first might wear out its welcome quite quickly. You feel their pain and laugh simultaneously. It's a masterpiece. But damn, I wish we could have seen where Tim Burton would have taken the Batman franchise third time around.