Batman Returns: a dark Gothic Christmas fantasy turns out tired, kitschy and bombastic

Tim Burton, “Batman Returns” (1992)

A Christmas movie that probably rarely enters most viewers’ lists of Christmas movies to watch is this wintry sequel to Burton’s “Batman” film. In that first film, Batman (underplayed by Michael Keaton) did battle with Jack Nicholson’s Joker, and quite a good, suspenseful and above all atmospheric film that was. In this sequel, Keaton again plays Batman / Bruce Wayne in a very minimal way, with most of the attention on Danny de Vito’s Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman aka Selina Kyle. Despite the dark and snowy Christmas setting, where it seems night reigns nearly 24/7, the sequel has little atmosphere from the first film, and in its stead is forgettable explosions courtesy of a fairly involved plot.

The Penguin arrives on the scene fairly quickly with an origin story and childhood history that emphasise his outsider status and inner yearning for acceptance that mutates into contempt and hatred for humanity in general. Over 30 years later, businessman millionaire Max Schreck (Christopher Walken) proposes a plan to build a power plant to supply Gotham City with electricity, a plan opposed by its mayor. Schreck is kidnapped during a speech that is interrupted by a terrorist attack staged by the Red Triangle Gang, and is taken to meet the RTG secret leader Penguin in the latter’s underground sewer lair while Batman fends off the gang members. The Penguin blackmails Schreck into agreeing to help him make his way back to the surface. In the meantime Schreck’s put-upon secretary Selina Kyle discovers the true nature of her boss’s electricity proposal but before she can do anything, Schreck throws her out of a skyscraper window and she plummets to the ground. Miraculously she survives and she swears vengeance on Schreck by adopting the persona of the Catwoman.

Through various ruses and with the help of Schreck, who has his own reasons, the Penguin campaigns for the office of Gotham City mayor but is undone by Batman / Bruce Wayne who is suspicious of the candidate’s motives and discovers his connection to the Red Triangle Gang. The Penguin and Catwoman briefly ally to try to bring down Batman but their alliance comes undone when Catwoman rejects his advances. Bruce Wayne meets Selina Kyle during a meeting with Schreck and the two misfits are attracted to each other. After Batman reveals the Penguin’s attitude towards the people of Gotham City by publicly broadcasting the villain’s remarks about the city, the Penguin’s mayoral campaign falls apart, he retreats to the sewers and plots to kidnap and kill all the first-born sons of Gotham City to avenge himself on his parents. The Penguin starts by gatecrashing a ball thrown by Schreck, threatening to take Schreck’s son, but Schreck offers himself up instead.

The state is set for an almighty pyrotechnical climax which, to be frank, is the least interesting part of a long film with characters who either over-act (in de Vito’s case) or under-act (in the case of Batman and Schreck). Pfeiffer’s Catwoman just manages to strike a balance between her mousy and inhibited Selina Kyle persona and Catwoman’s lustful mirror-image opposite. Though just over two hours long, the film makes little attempt at character development and at the end of it all, all major characters still seem as paper-thin as they were at the beginning of the film. While Keaton passes muster as Bruce Wayne, fairly confident in public but often ill at ease in romantic relationships, his Batman does not come across as being very authoritative (though the character has zero interactions with police – not even Commissioner Gordon has words with him) and seems cardboard-like. With less atmosphere and more emphasis on explosions, bomb attacks and violence, the features associated with films directed by Tim Burton tend to stick out as overdone, kitsch and tired. The music soundtrack is loud and overly dramatic, and has little energy and zest.

While Burton has championed marginalised outlier characters in other films, and in his own way satirises American social conformity and the repression that accompanies this, the Penguin’s portrayal and that character’s interactions with Gotham City folk seem to betray a shallow understanding – nay, ignorance – of how capitalist society works to keep people in thrall by dividing them and using those divisions as threats to enforce and maintain conformity and compliance. The Penguin is never able or given the opportunity to understand where the hatred originates, in the rich family that rejects him because of how his deformities might threaten its wealth and social status; in a way, he is a puppet of Schreck who hopes to use him in his own scheme to claim power and influence over Gotham City. Perhaps the Penguin is more to be pitied than treated as a true villain despite his vicious character; at any rate, one doesn’t take him seriously as a villain but as a pathetic clown instead. What might have made the film work better would be shifting the emphasis from the Penguin as a villain, and Batman’s concentration on him, to Schreck as the true villain – but it seems that Wayne and Schreck have too much in common, as millionaire businessmen and philanthropical types, able to exert influence on Gotham City politics, for Batman and Schreck to have a showdown after somehow sidelining the Penguin and Catwoman. Perhaps this is the problem behind the Batman narrative: that a supposed superhero everyone roots for actually turns out to be representative of the very class that is stealing resources from its rightful owners, the general public. In the real world, Batman would be an enforcer for corporate billionaire Lex Luthor.