Batman Returns is the Best Batman Film

Hear me out for a moment: Batman Returns is the finest Batman film to ever hit theaters. The reasons for this are many. Tim Burton’s 1992 sequel (which turns 30! years old this summer) reigns supreme over all other Bat-films because of its inventive storyline that skates between morbid fun and moody darkness. The deeply nuanced villains range from sympathetic to genuinely evil. This is also a Batman film that never gets weighed down by a cheerless, brooding Bruce Wayne. It’s deliciously violent. And now that Warner Brothers has officially and inexplicably canceled Batgirl (which was to feature a Michael Keaton donning the cowl once more) Returns will likely remain Keaton’s final outing as the caped crusader.

But this is not a forum for criticizing the other Bat-men. Every single actor who has portrayed Bruce Wayne—be it Bale’s brooding trust fund kid or Affleck’s hulking bruiser or even Hot Topic Pattinson—has brought something unique to the role. Instead, let’s highlight a scene that is the prime example of what makes Returns the best Batman film. And it doesn’t even have Batman in it.

Somewhere in the second act Danny Devito’s Penguin (nee, Oswald Cobblepot) is being coaxed by business tycoon Max Schrek (a gleefully unhinged Christopher Walken) to run for mayor Gotham City. Schrek has brought in two condescending image consultants who begin making suggestions about how to make the Penguin look less horrifying. “Not a lot of reflective surfaces down in the sewer, huh?” one of them quips. “Could be worse, my nose could be gushing blood,” the Penguin replies before sinking his teeth into the hapless consultant’s face. Blood does indeed gush and it’s simultaneously terrifying, hilarious, and grotesque. Most importantly it kind of comes out of nowhere, which is what makes Returns great: during its 126 minute runtime it is continuously surprising.

christopher walken as max shreck

Christopher Walken as Max Shreck.

Courtesy

Despite some genuinely inventive character building — being born of wealthy parents and then discarded due to a freakish appearance — the Penguin isn’t the big baddie in the film. That title goes to Walken’s Schreck, a villain not found in the comic books. Contemporary studio execs fed by a steady diet of algorithmic data would likely freak out at the prospect of an original baddie in a high budget superhero movie but it works in Returns. Walken is menacing, imposing, and maybe, most importantly, weird looking. He’s an industrialist who is not motivated by psychopathic id like the Joker in 1989’s Batman. He’s not a brutal henchman masquerading as the leader of an idealist movement like Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. He’s not an ersatz Zodiac killer like Riddler in The Batman. His only goal is to accumulate money and power for himself by manipulating others – like the Penguin and Catwoman — into doing dirty work for him.

And no disrespect to Anne Hathaway, Zoe Kravitz, or even Eartha Kitt but, meow, Michelle Pfieffer is the ideal Selina Kyle. Nonchalantly pushed through an office window by Schreck, she survives her fall (albeit with brain damage) and manically reinvents herself as a leather clad, high heeled, whip cracking Catwoman. Just like in the comic books she’s a morally ambiguous foil to Batman but in Returns she’s also a lot of fun, blowing up sporting goods stores, leveraging sex appeal to control the Penguin, and beating the hell out of the shitty men around her, including Batman.

american actors michelle pfeiffer and danny devito on the set of batman returns, directed by tim bruton photo by warner bros picturessunset boulevardcorbis via getty images

Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman and Danny Devito as Penguin.

Sunset Boulevard

Speaking of which, it’s been pointed out multiple times that Returns marks one of the only times on screen that Batman willfully kills his enemies. (In one scene he attaches a bomb to a criminal and then tosses him down a sewer, the resulting explosion clearly fatal.) Keaton here seems more comfortable in the skin of Bruce Wayne than in the previous film, No more dancing with the devil in the pale moonlight. Part of that is due to an unleashed Burton who, after the mega success of 1989’s Batman, was reluctant to revisit the dark knight until Warner Brothers executives supposedly granted a high degree of creative freedom to “make a Tim Burton movie, not a Batman film.

Today Burton gets a lot of rightful criticism for pumping out CGI bloated drivel but in the early 90s he was still the offbeat visionary who repeatedly clashed with studio heads. Unlike Nolan or Reeves’ visions, Returns offers a Gotham that maybe feels like it shouldn’t be saved: its one percenter citizens are clearly morally bankrupt, while the city itself feels malevolent. (The set design was partially inspired by fascist architecture of the 1930s.) Burton along with writer Daniel Waters also rewrote the original script to make it not resemble the comics. They dropped the character of Robin, made Batman far less effective, and changed Selina Kyle from a cat burglar to a scorned secretary.

The film does not tie up easily either. The Penguin’s death — a pretty gnarly scene where he belches black blood— is almost anticlimactic. Schrek, the actual bad dude, is defeated not by Batman but by Selina Kyle who delivers righteous justice in the form of an electrocution as Bruce Wayne impotently looks on. Seilna and Bruce never end up together. Wayne is last seen as a withdrawn billionaire, prowling the snowy streets of Gotham in his limo. When the bat signal is illuminated at the end it is Catwoman we see looking at it, not Batman.

Batman Returns was not quite as financially successful as 1989’s Batman, grossing $266 million from a reported $50-$80 million budget. Warner Brothers wanted Burton to helm a third Batman film albeit with far less creative control. Tentatively titled Batman Continues (uh ok) it would have explored the Riddler ( Robin Williams) teaming up with Two-Face (Billy Dee Williams). Pfeiffer was slated to reprise Catwoman and joining Keaton’s Batman would be Marlon Wayans as Robin. Burton eventually left in favor of directing the ill-fated Superman project starring Nicolas Cage. After Burton bailed, so did Keaton and Pfeiffer. Warner Brothers hired Joel Schumacher to direct the third installment which is where we get Chris O’Donnell’s boy wonder, Jim Carrey’s ADHD Riddler, and nipples on the batsuit. Eventually a direct sequel to Returns was written as the comic Batman ‘89, which was released in August 2021. The plot introduces a version of Robin as well as Batgirl and showcases a Billy Dee Williams-like Harvey Dent becoming Two-Face.

I remember seeing the trailer for Returns when I was 10 years old and being deliriously psyched. In one part the Penguin growls at Batman, “You don’t really think you’ll win do you?” Burton probably knew he could never win against the juggernaut of a major studio either but he still made Returns according to his own vision. And maybe that’s the true legacy of Batman Returns. Whenever you see something daring or unexpected in a Batman film — a freshly escaped Joker hanging from a squad car, or a very pissed off Pattinson beating gunmen to a pulp between muzzle flashes — it all owes something to Burton’s early ’90s attempt to take a real risk with the Batman mythos.

Daniel Dumas is an Editor-at-Large at Esquire.

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