The Batman movies have always held a similar appeal as that of another beloved series: Friday the 13th. Both franchises essentially tell the same story over and over, and the pleasures of each installment come from seeing the new wrinkles added to the formula by each incoming filmmaker. Yes, Batman will foil the supervillains’ plan to destroy Gotham City, and sure, Jason will hack and slash his way through Camp Crystal Lake (or, uh, a spaceship) until the Final Girl defeats him. But tonally and stylistically, they can be a director’s playground to shape that mythos to reflect their own obsessions.
No more so has that been the case than in Tim Burton’s 1992 masterpiece Batman Returns, which remains not only one of the finest onscreen Batman outings but easily the strangest. It’s the flagship example of a studio giving a filmmaker a blank check to to paint whatever they want on a superhero canvas, with a final product alienating to fans and critics alike; in his review, Roger Ebert wrote, “I can admire the movie on many levels, but I cannot accept it as Batman.” Indeed, it is hardly a Batman movie. Having delivered a profitable cash cow in 1989, Burton allowed his eccentricities to take over the enterprise, and his disinterest in his title character could not be more apparent.
Like Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Edward Scissorhands or Ed Wood, this is a romantic ode to outcasts and capital-F freaks, a term of endearment Burton himself would employ. Those Freaks are Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer, absolutely electric) and the Penguin (Danny DeVito, making his Always Sunny Frank Reynolds look downright mannered by comparison). Of course, Batman himself is among them, too, even as Michael Keaton is more muted here than in his initial outing as the Dark Knight. But given the sheer amount of screen time devoted to the villains’ plights and plots, it’s clear Burton is enamored far more with them, even more than he was by Jack Nicholson’s Joker. Truth be told, the film is all the better for it.
Rarely have comic-book villains been as repulsive as DeVito’s Penguin, a sewer-dwelling psychopath with razor-sharp teeth and a constant stream of black bile dripping from the corners of his mouth. As Catwoman, Pfeiffer gives what is to date the best female performance in a comic-book film. Completely chaotic but totally singular, her take on Selina Kyle is wholly different from the source material — funny, unhinged, sexy and genuinely frightening without ever taking herself too seriously. She can make a cornball line like “I am woman, hear me roar” sing with camp in one instance and then make her delivery of “Life’s a bitch, now so am I” quiver with violent menace in the next.
The movie’s bonkers, Christmas-in-hell aesthetic is established early on when Penguin’s army of thugs, the Red Triangle Gang, attacks Gotham City during a Christmas Eve speech from corrupt businessman Max Schreck (Christopher Walken) in which he proposes a very new, very evil Gotham City power plant. Every aesthetic aspect of the Penguin’s goons is both delightfully silly and visually striking. Dressed like demented circus performers in mime makeup and jester caps, the Red Triangle Gang spits flames, rides motorcycles and generally terrorizes Gotham citizens until Batman makes his first appearance in the film and makes short work of them. It’s the kind of sequence you see in every Batman movie, but the snowy backdrop, Gothic set design and unsettling costume design feel unlike anything in superhero movies before or since.
And while much has been made of this year’s The Batman as the character’s thematically darkest iteration, Returns remains unsurpassed in that regard, too — veering way into the absurd and theatrical to mine imagery more at home in a horror flick than any Batman movie. In one infamous moment, the Penguin proves just how much he knows about Max Schreck’s dark deeds by pulling out the severed hand of an associate Max claimed was “on vacation.”
“Hi, Max! It’s me … Fred’s hand!” Penguin cackles. It’s one of many macabre moments that make Returns feel dangerous for what is ostensibly a children’s movie; in fact, McDonald’s pulled out of its Happy Meal toy tie-in after parents complained of the movie’s dark tone.
Returns is also the first notable instance of a superhero sequel feeling a bit overstuffed with villains and subplots, a tradition not-so-proudly carried on by films such as Spider-Man 3 and Wonder Woman 1984. In 126 minutes, we learn about Penguin’s backstory as an orphan-turned-circus-geek, witness Selina Kyle’s undead transformation into Catwoman, watch Max Schreck try to fix an election to make the Penguin Gotham’s new mayor, and once again wonder if Bruce Wayne will find love, this time in the form of Catwoman herself. There is a lot happening in Batman Returns, but the chaotic storytelling is part of the charm. This is full-on gonzo Burton, and the idiosyncrasies of each scene come so fast and furious there’s simply no way to catch them in a single viewing.
These days, fans seem to be obsessed with the notion that comic-book movies need to be as strictly faithful to their source material as possible. It’s a formula that found great success for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the movies that fail to adhere to that standard often get a thorough shellacking from an overly demanding fanbase. Any Batman aficionado watching Returns will realize pretty quickly that Burton knows very little about the Batman of the comics (something he’s freely admitted). Burton’s Batman is mostly unconcerned with saving people, barely bothers to keep his identity a secret and has no problem casually setting goons on fire or killing them with bombs (both of which happen in this movie). The Catwoman’s backstory here has no precedence in the comics, either, as both she and Penguin are less born criminals than monsters banished from everyday society and lashing out in response. And it all works wonderfully. If nothing else, Batman Returns is a stirring reminder that these characters and worlds can flourish in the hands of outsiders rather than sycophants.