It seemed ridiculous in 1992: the idea of a misshapen, braying lunatic running for higher office while barely bothering to disguise his own painfully obvious-bordering-on-theatrical creepiness. These days, would anyone blink? In fact, the biggest difference between Batman Returns and our own impossible present-day reality is what happens when the candidate in question is caught saying evil shit on tape. In Batman Returns, Oswald Cobblepot lost the sympathy of the public so much that he didn’t even bother carrying on with his campaign! And Cobblepot was only running for mayor! Back when it came out, lots of people thought Batman Returns was too dark. Turns out it may not have been dark enough. If Donald Trump loses his bid for reelection in 2020 and our streets are suddenly full of penguins with missiles strapped to their backs, we can’t say Batman Returns didn’t warn us.
Of course, Batman Returns was dark. It was ridiculously dark. With his first Batman movie, Tim Burton found tremendous blockbuster success even as he introduced a Joker who bragged of being “the world’s first fully functioning homicide artist.” It can’t have been easy to up the ante from there. And yet Burton did it, introducing a drooling, deformed sex maniac of a villain whose final plan is to drown infants in toxic waste. When a character introduces the beautifully ridiculous Lex Luthorian plan of constructing a fake power plant that would steal and stockpile Gotham City’s electricity rather than generating it, he’s only the secondary villain, a total afterthought. And that’s not even getting into all the sex stuff.
And there’s so much sex stuff. As the Catwoman, Michelle Pfeiffer speaks almost entirely in double-entendre catchphrases. She dons a gleaming vinyl catsuit that Pfeiffer found almost impossible to wear. (I love how the character was supposed to make the costume by repurposing an old shiny raincoat while the real Pfeiffer had to be helped into it and then sprayed with silicon so that it would shine.) The costume is pure BDSM, something that is plenty obvious even before Pfeiffer cracks a whip for the first time. And both she and Danny DeVito’s penguin turn innuendo into high art. (My favorite line is DeVito, panting over an image consultant: “I’d like to fill her void! Teach her my French flipper trick!”)
And yet Burton managed to cram all this filthy nastiness into what was absolutely a children’s movie. To really enjoy Batman Returns, which is not exactly a difficult thing to do, you have to give yourself over to its triumphant silliness. Before a single word is spoken in the movie, we see an infant Penguin eat a cat as Pee-Wee Herman himself, Paul Reubens, takes a long, resigned drink. Selina Kyle, in her pre-Catwoman harried-secretary guise, has a giant pink-neon “hello there” sign in her apartment—something that could only exist so that she can, in her transformation, smash a couple of letters and turn it into “hell here.” When Christopher Walken’s Max Shreck meets his death by electrocution, he comes out looking like an Iron Maiden cover art. There is nothing about Batman Returns that even nods in the general direction of realism, and that’s why the movie is great.
Much more than the first Batman and possibly more than any other movie that Burton ever made, Batman Returns is driven by a sort of magical dreamlike logic. It takes place in a world where Oswald Cobblepot can be raised by actual zoo penguins without a single human being—not even a zookeeper—finding out. In this world, Cobblepot manages to organize, train, and costume an entire circus-themed gang of criminal marauders before his existence is anything more than a rumor to the surface-dwelling population. (The gang members are so ridiculous, in fact, that not even the evil clowns conjure memories of the previous movie’s Joker. Jack Nicholson’s Joker, a hurricane of hamminess in the first movie, is too grounded of a character to even make sense in Batman Returns.) In this same world, a herd of alley cats can resurrect a dead lady, and Catwoman’s whole thing about having nine lives goes from being mid-fight banter to an actual plot point; she helpfully keeps track of them for us.
Batman himself may be the least ridiculous character in Batman Returns, and the movie makes the wise decision to deemphasize him wherever possible. Michael Keaton reportedly told screenwriter Daniel Waters to cut most of his lines, and Keaton had the right idea. This Batman works best as a silent, glowering presence, as something for DeVito and Pfeiffer to play off of. He’s only barely in the first half-hour of the movie. I like how Burton introduces him motionless, staring off into nothing, as if he just shuts down whenever the Bat signal isn’t shining through his window. One thing that hasn’t aged especially well is how happily he kills people—lighting one evil clown on fire, strapping a bomb to another’s chest before pushing him into a hole while smiling. That’s just what was happening back when non-comics people were being encouraged to make comic-book movies. (There’s also a scene of Batman plowing through pedestrians in the Batmobile. It’s not his fault—Penguin is controlling the car via remote control—but that doesn’t make it much easier to watch post-Charlottesville.)
Keaton turned the movie over to Pfeiffer and DeVito, who were always going to dominate it anyway. It’s baffling to think that we almost had a world where Pfeiffer didn’t get the role. Annette Bening was initially cast, dropping out only after she got pregnant, and Sean Young famously tried to confront Burton on the Warner Bros. lot while wearing her own homemade Catwoman costume. But Pfeiffer owns the role completely, stalking through the movie as thought she’s sex personified. She steers into the role’s campiness, purring and growling and licking her lips and, at one point, putting an actual live bird into her mouth, something that was not a special effect. It’s one of the all-time great comic-book performances, still astonishing in its commitment, and I wish she would’ve at least been nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. (Marisa Tomei won that year for My Cousin Vinny, and was Pfeiffer’s performance really that much sillier?)
As great as Pfeiffer is, DeVito might be even better. He transforms himself into something so revolting that he’s only barely human while still wringing a little bit of pathos out of the Penguin’s tragic backstory. His body lumpen and misshapen, black drool coating his teeth, DeVito probably could’ve brought out his character’s freakiness even without the daily four-hour makeup job. Whenever he’s not talking, he’s still grunting and snarling and breathing heavily. And he savors his most over-the-top lines: “I played this stinking city like a harp from hell!” He’s less comic-book supervillain than fairy-tale witch, and he’s a joy to behold.
Burton even dialed up the crazy set design that was probably the best thing about the first Baman. By setting the movie during Christmas, he got to use holiday decorations that made his looming German-expressionist gothic architecture look even darker and more imposing. He put a giant rotating nightmare Felix The Cat head on top of Shreck’s department store and gave Penguin a giant, inexplicable rubber-duck boat that also turns into a hydraulic lift. Even Christopher Walken’s hair has its own absurdist gothic architecture.
Batman Returns would pull in $267 million worldwide. That was good enough to make it the third-highest grossing movie of 1992 (behind Aladdin and Home Alone 2: Lost In New York) but still well short of the first Batman. In response, Warner Bros. practically chased Burton away from the franchise, instead giving it to Joel Schumacher, who turned it into extreme Day-Glo silliness. So even though it’s a sequel, Batman Returns still feels like a glorious one-off. Today, it plays as a very personal and particular take on the superhero movie, one that barely cares about its hero. Goth superhero movies like The Crow and Blade would follow, but I can’t really claim that Batman Returns was influential. Instead, it’s a vivid and freaky oddity, a vision of a road not taken for the genre.
Other notable 1992 superhero movies: Pity the people at Marvel, who just could not figure out how to turn their heroes into movie characters. Consider Albert Pyun’s near-unwatchable take on Captain America, shot in 1990 but only released as a straight-to-video turkey two years later. There’s some fun stuff in the movie; I like the makeup job on the latter-day post-plastic-surgery Red Skull. But the movie’s cheaper-than-shit costumes and effects, its deeply wooden performances, and its apparently genuine disinterest in the mechanics of exciting filmmaking mean that it’s not even fun as a so-bad-it’s-good watch. (Some trivia: Ned Beatty, who had played a bumbling bad-guy henchman in 1978’s Superman: The Movie, also played a bumbling good-guy reporter in Captain America. I’m pretty sure that makes him the first actor with roles in both DC and Marvel movies.)
1992’s Doctor Mordrid is another great example of Marvel’s early filmic haplessness. The low-budget fantasy movie was originally intended as a Doctor Strange adaptation, but the producers lost the rights to the character just as the movie was about to go into production. So instead, it’s a bald and obvious Doctor Strange rip-off, right down to the astral plane projection and the ornate Manhattan apartment and the flappy sleeves. It’s pretty fun! There’s a climactic stop-motion-animated fight between a T. rex skeleton and a mastodon skeleton that’s a whole lot better than anything in that original Captain America, anyway.
Next time: Robert Townsend gives us the first black superhero movie with The Meteor Man.