Plot Details: This opinion reveals everything about the movie's plot.
I've reviewed every of the released Batman movies on here except this one and the first one from the '60s which I have no interest in viewing. It is funny that I have not watched these films recently, some in over a decade, and returning I have a new outlook on them and can sense them for all their flaws and successes in a different way. I always say I am not a huge comic fan and my adoration of Batman comes from my adoration of film. I loved Batman the most because the original two Batman films weren't just great blockbuster movies but captured Tim Burton at his height as well. Batman Returns is slightly darker than the original Batman but brings back Michael Keaton as Batman, who again is probably tied with Christian Bale as the best person to play Batman (Adam West excluded)
There's also Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman, and Danny Devito as The Penguin. Another underrated element of this movie is Christopher Walken who appears to be playing some rendition of the headless horseman from Sleepy Hollow a decade before that film is released. While the movie is darker, it has a much more loose thematic and the lines of good and evil are a bit more blurred compared to the original. The sets to this movie are amazing. I love these clown henchmen with skull helmets but even the streets seem to be full of trees that shouldn't exist in reality and the gothic architecture of the first film melds well with the permanent winter that seems to be falling over Gotham city. I prefer the feel of this film to the original and I vastly prefer the combat and fighting. It's so much more light and comedic in tone. The batmobile has plenty of useless additions such as a stick that pops out to trip henchmen and a...I can't explain it. I spinning column comes out of the bottom and lifts and spins the batmobile. Who is building this useless stuff, and why?
Danny Devito did a great job as the penguin in this movie. The problem with the penguin being played by Danny Devito is that it's still Danny Devito. A more serious actor could have had a more serious performance. Yet the villains from both films seem to favor being zany and weird over detestable. There is still something empathetic and touching about this character. He bitterly resides beneath the zoo in the sewers with his penguins. Devito's stout body and crooked nose (Okay he has makeup on) certainly resembles a penguin. The penguin hypnotizes with umbrellas. Walken, or Max, teams up with The Penguin, who is a great character because he has motives that Tim Burton can empathize with. The Penguin is an outcast and wants more than anything to be recognized as an equal or a human being with feelings. Again you can't really hate him but you can't really empathize with him. The film just sort of leaves him as your typical tortured villain. Catwoman's backstory is a bit more simple. Working for Walken, she is killed by him and comes back as a cat because I guess there are cats around when she hits the ground. No, it makes no sense. I guess because it's a power plant the radiation did it. Who cares. Why she comes back as a cat is irrelevant. There are references to cats all over the set, on shop windows and balloons. No reason, none. I guess it's supernatural. Cats have nine lives, of course, so whatever. Catwoman's not great, but at least she's not Halle Berry. Penguin now tries to win the people's favor, as I recall about the comics he's a wealthy aristocrat so it fits in line. Putting him as the underdog who forgives his parents for abandoning him works for the press, and he wins the people's favor, though he's still a detestable psychotic underneath.
Meanwhile, Catwoman's stunt double is flipping around in stitched S&M latex for no real reason. By night, by day she appears to be alive but has a bandage on her head. Catwoman was always intended, I guess, to be sexually involved with Bruce Wayne. That naturally happens. What's a Batman movie without a love interest? At least it's not a damsel in distress like 90% of the time.
So the penguin is now a puppet of Max. The best scene in the movie is when the penguin casually bites the nose off of one of his staff members. They seem to like him regardless of what he does which is more troubling and removed from reality. Catwoman and Batman face off in a fight that's pretty memorable. The combination of fighting and sexual attraction is kind of interesting. Knocking her into an open truck full of kitty litter is idiotic all the same. Catwoman and the penguin team up. They both decide they want to kill the bat. Yes, that's always what happens with villains. However Catwoman is sexually aroused with the idea of killing him which plays into her psychosis. The penguin threatens Batman, the penguin tries to have sex with Catwoman, tries to kill her by attaching a helicopter umbrella to her...somehow, and I guess she dies again. I am guessing she is theoretically killed nine times but I didn't count.
The penguin remotely jacks Batman's car and crashes it into pedestrians. He tries to set Batman up as the villain in part through this. Bruce Wayne himself exhibits little emotion out of the suit as usual. So Penguin goes berserk, kidnaps walken, walken escapes, Batman finds penguin's lair (finally, penguins in gotham = zoo, you idiot) Catwoman is gradually losing costume throughout the film, by the end she faces against Walken for revenge, and Batman reveals he is Bruce Wayne by ripping his mask off like it's taffy. Walken uses a magnum to try to take her remaining six lives (Ok I guess she died three times) but first she kisses him with a taser while holding a gigantic electrical conduit because I guess they have those in Gotham sewers. I love the shot of the dead Christopher Walken, it's hilarious. The penguin dies, leaving a fat, bloated corpse which his penguin children carry into the frozen lake.
The writing in this movie is much better than the original. There also seems to be a bigger budget, with a ton of set pieces that feel very fake and real all the same, like much of Burton's best work. This movie is much more trademark Burton than the original movie and it actually captures some of the psychosis that makes the Batman superhero so fascinating. It's a shame Batman's own pathos isn't explored as much as the villains. Max is just generically conglomerate and evil, but the penguin and catwoman are both sympathetic in their own ways. It makes for much more fragile and conflicted ends for both characters, which die within five minutes of each other anyway. As a kid I thought catwoman was the worst thing about the movie but now I think the opposite. She's almost a tortured antihero since her only motivation is against the far more evil Max. If Max had some deeper level of motivation other than that he is evil, the movie would be nearly perfect.
All the same, the only things that detract from this film are the really bad jokes related to cats and penguins that seem to pop up every five minutes. The penguin being an evil psychotic would have been enough comedic relief just like the joker was in Christopher Nolan's 'The Dark Knight'. The score and pacing of this film is less triumphant than the original, but the penguin and catwoman are so intriguing that they're actually better than Nicholson's Joker, who admittedly got too much screentime as the only villain in that film.
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