BATMAN RETURNS Sucks! (Yes, Batman Fans, You Can Hate This Film!) Author: Bill "Jett" Ramey (Follow @BATMANONFILM)
January 25, 2005
Aside from my current anticipation for BATMAN BEGINS, I don’t think I was ever as fired-up for a film as I was for the sequel to BATMAN (1989). For three years prior to its release, I did all I could do to find out details of this new Batman film. To tide me over, I must have watched my tape of BATMAN on the VCR at least one hundred times. I subscribed to every “BATMAN” comic book title and read them all. I had become a rededicated Bat-fan, you see, since June of 1989.
BATMAN wasn’t even out of the theaters when rumors began to circulate about its sequel. From the get-go, it was reputed that the Penguin and Catwoman would be the main villains in the sequel, with some talk of the Riddler – Robin Williams potentially nabbing the role. Both Cher and Madonna were mentioned as a possible Catwoman, while the only name I recall ever mentioned for the Penguin was Louie De Palma himself, Danny DeVito. In the end, De Vito scored the role he was linked to, Michelle Pfieffer was cast as Catwoman (actually replacing the pregnant Annette Benning), and Michael Keaton returned to the role of The Batman.
Now this was the very early 1990s, and obviously the internet was not nearly as commonplace as it is today. And there certainly was no BATMAN ON FILM at my disposal. So, information on BATMAN 2 was few and far between. The first time I recall seeing pictures of the actors and a short synopsis of the plot, was in “ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY” magazine - probably in late 1991. I liked the look of the redesigned Bat-suit Keaton was sporting. The Catwoman costume was OK as well. But something just didn’t sit right with me when it came to De Vito as The Penguin. Now, it’s not that I wanted to see him dressed exactly like Burgess Meredith or anything, but something was wrong and I couldn’t yet put my finger on it.
The most information I received on BATMAN RETURNS as it was to be called, came just before the premiere in June of 1992. CBS television ran a promotional show for the new film. The thing that sticks in my mind from this was director Tim Burton’s description of The Penguin. “In the comics, he’s just a funny guy in a tuxedo,” says Burton. “But we’re really going to make him ‘The Penguin.’” At the time, I had no idea what Burton meant or what he had actually concocted for his BATMAN sequel. But I was sure about to find out.
On premiere day, I had to make a three-hour trip out of town, but come hell or high water, I WAS going to see BATMAN RETURNS that night! I had been waiting three damn years for this, and I wasn’t going to wait another day! So, I hauled ass back to town and made it to the “show” (as we call it here in Texas) in time for the 9 PM run. If I had known then what I was in store for with BATMAN RETURNS, I would have stayed gone.
I didn’t have any preconceived ideas at all about this film. I thought that Michael Keaton was the ultimate Batman! I believed that Tim Burton was a Bat-movie genius! I was expecting something great from this new film - BATMAN 1989, but much better. So there was no agenda with me when it came to BATMAN RETURNS - it just was not, and is not a “Batman” film. It is a piece of cinema in which Tim Burton did his thing in Gotham City. From where I sit, Tim Burton arrogantly discarded the Batman mythos, Batman fans, and the wishes of Warner Brothers (although they brought this on themselves – but that is another story) to make BATMAN “his way.”
Yes, I know that there are many of you who love this film and my take should not be regarded as an insult. I understand all of the “artistic” things that Burton was doing in RETURNS - but that doesn’t mean one has to like it. I can even accept that Burton may have produced an edgy, cinematically clever “art film.” However, one can be a Batman fan and dislike RETURNS - just because it was “dark,” doesn’t make it Batman.
One of the first thoughts that crossed my mind as I began watching BATMAN RETURNS was “what the f*** is this?!” This looked and felt totally different than BATMAN ’89. The whole “Penguin origin” which opened the film just sort of lost me. I felt a glimmer of hope when I saw Keaton as Bruce Wayne on screen for the first time, but this diminished quickly with The Batman fighting the idiotic “Red Circus Gang.” The movie then went straight downhill from there. By the time I left the theater, I was thinking “What the F*** was that?!” BATMAN RETURNS was nothing like I expected. Being the Batman fan that I am, I pretended to like the film. I passionately defended it to my “non-Batman” friends who found it “weird” or “dumb.” But eventually, I gave in to the fact that this film plain sucked. This macabre, morose, dark abomination was a Batman film in name only. Frankly, I felt screwed by Warner Brothers and Mr. Burton.
Regarding the plot, or lack of one that is, what the hell was this film about? I never could quite figure it out. Was it about Batman? And if so, just what the heck was he doing besides standing around brooding – seemingly a secondary character to the villains?
Or was it about the villains? You had the whole Penguin story – how the hell one can go from living in the sewers, to running for mayor of a major metropolitan city within days is beyond me. I also found nothing appealing about the kidnapping and the potential murder of young children? This was the best and most exciting climax they could come up with for this film?!
The Catwoman storyline was probably the best aspect of this film – although the character does not reflect any of her comic book counterparts. Not that the Catwoman origin and storyline was worth a damn or made any sense, but at least Ms. Pfieffer’s acting caught the spirit of the character to a certain degree.
On top of an already cluttered film, you have this Max Shreck character tossed into the mix. What was the point of his preposterous power plant storyline? He wants to build a new power plant for Gotham, and Bruce opposes him. Wow, that’s interesting! What is the purpose of his character other than give a nod to the star of NOSFERATU and to muddle up the plot even more? I found this all to be a confusing hodge-podge of individual stories, forced together, producing a tangled, confusing, and ridiculous narrative.
And just where is this Gotham City - inside a damn matchbox? It sure seemed that way as claustrophobic as it looked on screen. I guess Burton meant it when he said had no interest in doing a sequel to BATMAN as the environment of RETURNS looks nothing like that of its predecessor. It must take place in some gothed-out, bizarre world or alternate, fantastical universe. There is absolutely no attempt at continuity – or realism for that matter – in any part of RETURNS. I half expected Beettlejuice to show up at any moment.
Regarding Tim Burton’s take on Batman himself in RETURNS, the director took several missteps with the character. One of the major problems with this Batman is that he is portrayed as a murderer. He kills a member of the Red Circus Gang by setting him afire with the Batmobile’s exhaust flame. This was not done by accident – it was done on purpose. He later stuffs some sort of bomb down another’s pants and pushes him into a sewer hole - obviously blowing him to bits. And he smiles about it! This totally violates the long time Batman creed of not taking a life.
Another troubling aspect with this Batman is the fact that yet again, he is a secondary character in a so-called BATMAN film. Clearly, Mr. Burton was more interested in the villains – Catwoman, The Penguin, Max Shreck – than he was in the character the film is named after. I’ve never taken a stopwatch to RETURNS and timed, but I’m willing to bet that Batman’s time on camera is not significantly more than any of the villains – perhaps even less. To be fair, this was a problem in all four of Burton/Schumacher films.
Finally, just when did The Batman do anything “heroic” in BATMAN RETURNS? I wanted to see Batman do some classic “Batman stuff” like chase down and dispense justice to street thugs, crime kingpins, and the like. How about some iconic, Batman-like poses once in a while? When, at anytime in this film, did you feel like Batman was saving the day? When he’s taking on the Red Circus Gang? When he’s foiling the Penguin’s kidnapping plans? When he’s saving Gotham from a mass of missile-equipped Penguins? Puh-leez!
The major fault of BATMAN RETURNS is that all the characters are so far removed from their comic book incarnations, that one can hardly even recognize them. Other than the original, 1939 Batman (“ELSEWORLD” tales excluded), when has The Dark Knight been portrayed as a cold-blooded killer? In fact, for 99.9% of the character’s history, one of the centerpieces to his mythos was NOT to kill? When in the comic books has Bruce Wayne – not Batman – been depicted as elusive, brooding, indecisive, and bumbling in public? When in the comic books has there been a Penguin character that was raised by actual penguins, lives in the sewer, eats raw fish, and spews black mucus out of his mouth? When did Selina Kyle become Catwoman by being murdered, then magically resurrected by cats? Just how pray tell, does that allow you to become an expert at gymnastics and martial arts?! Yes, this is a film adaptation of Batman and filmmakers must take certain liberties, but WHY stray so far from the established Batman characters of the comics?
I’ll tell you why. In my opinion, Mr. Burton had no intention of delivering the BATMAN sequel that Warner Brothers, and many fans, wanted. He, just like Joel Schumacher after him, was allowed too much control during his second go-around with BATMAN. Mr. Burton was so intent on doing his “own thing” in BATMAN RETURNS, it was as if he forced his artistic tastes onto Batman and his world. No matter who helms a BATMAN film – Mr. Burton, Mr. Schumacher, or Mr. Nolan – there are certain things that need no “creative license” applied. A homicidal Batman, a black-mucus spewing Oswald Cobblepot, and a Catwoman who returns from the grave via cat-licks are prime examples. As I’ve said many times since 1992, this was a “Burton” film, which just happened to have “Batman” characters. Mr. Burton had his own agenda, his own story to tell, the fact this was supposed to be Batman was secondary - perhaps even beside the point.
The question begs, “Is BATMAN RETURNS a good Batman film?” Maybe the question should two-fold to include “Is it a good film?” To the latter I say, meh, perhaps. To the former, I say absolutely not. While it wasn’t my cup of tea, I’m not one to argue that Tim Burton may have concocted a clever “art” film that gives a nod to German Expressionism and provides satire on urban society. If you find brilliance in BATMAN RETURNS due to Burton’s filmmaking, more power to you, as it boils down to a matter of taste.
But I will argue that BATMAN RETURNS is not a good Batman film. It is just as bad in that regard as BATMAN AND ROBIN. Blasphemy, you say? Because RETURNS is a “dark” film, makes it a superior Bat-flick?
In both cases, you have directors who strayed too far from the current comic book mythos of Batman to do it “their way” – Burton with the morose and macabre; Schumacher with the camp and neon. The bomb-in-pants-stuffing Batman in RETURNS is just as appalling as the Bat-card wielding Batman in B&R. I rolled my eyes to “Eat floor, more fiber,” just the same as to “Hi Freeze. I’m Batman!” I was put-off equally by the raw-fish eating, sexually repressed Penguin and the campy Mr. Freeze with his terrible puns and one-liners.
Yet, the most compelling argument that this is a bad Batman film is provided by Mr. Burton himself. Ironically, a film he directed titled BATMAN RETURNS isn’t even about Batman. It is a social commentary based on Burton’s own personal ideals about the despair and hopelessness in life.
Batman is a superhero, yet there is nothing heroic about BATMAN RETURNS. There isn’t one moment in this depressing film where we are given the iconic, heroic Batman. Never does this film offer anything a Batman fan can feel good or proud about. There is nothing about this Batman that makes you want to cheer. Not once does this director offer something onscreen that says, “This is for you, Bat-fans.” Then again, perhaps he does – the proverbial middle finger.
A NOTE FROM JETT: Whether you agree or not, this goes out to all my friends on the BOF FORUMS (you know who you are). I've enjoyed the debate that we've had for years. We can at least take solace in the fact that we are ALL dedicated, passionate fans of The Dark Knight. Thank you for respecting everyone's opinions. - Bill "Jett" Ramey
"Jett" is the founder and editor-in-chief of BATMAN-ON-FILM.COM