For no discernible reason, I decided to revisit Batman Returns, the 1992 sequel to the beloved Batman of 1989. For once I rewatched something that wasn’t from 1994, and therefore not in the mission statement for RetroPerspective on The Nerd Party.
This is a movie that I’ve had a conflicted relationship with since its release. I loved it when I first saw it, and considered it a subversive work of genius. Its portrait of Penguin was disturbing. Its portrayal of Catwoman was complex. Its portrayal of Max Schreck was…weird. It seemed to subvert expectations to change the legend of Batman as a hero into something more broken and
Even as I say it now, I want to believe it. But it’s all flowery language to account for a messy script, uneven direction, dissatisfying editing, and surprisingly underwhelming photography. There are other films about which we can say these things, but it’s OK to say them about Batman Returns. So I did.
Make no mistake that this is one of those disappointments that I can’t help but revisit from time to time. That’s because in the moments when it does work, it works very well. And though it delivers those moments irregularly, it does deliver them.
If you think I’m way off on this one, let me know.
My Recent Review of Batman Returns, as Written on Letterboxd
This is a scattered and unfocused movie, but it is a compellingly watchable one. There is something hypnotically bizarre about Catwoman and Penguin. There’s something fascinating and awful about Christopher Walken’s Max Schreck.
The best way to think about the emotional thrust of the movie – because the logical structure is lacking – is that Michael Keaton’s Batman comes across this time as the misfit who made it through high school because he can find controlled expression of his antisocial tendencies. He’s the odd kid who can get along with the administration. As a result, he’s sympathetic to those who can’t.
Burton exceeds the limits of the script by leaning into the visual composition and absurdity that is his trademark. He feels less responsibility to make this Batman film as “rooted” as the first one and just indulge the side of him that produced works like Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and Big Fish.
It’s not enough to make the movie as a whole satisfying, but it does give great expression to the emotional core from which the movie is speaking. There are moments of high drama that resonate with those that remember what it felt like to be a misfit and what constant work it was to fit in, and the pain of seeing those that couldn’t.
It’s quite hip now to drag Batman Returns for what it doesn’t do, but I’d rather cheer it for what it accomplishes. Again, it’s not enough to give it high marks, but it does get a passing grade.