Batman Returns

I saw this movie in theaters and thought it was flat and dissatisfying then, and now watching it decades later it comes across even worse. What’s most surprising is how little Batman there is in it. The name in the title is less of a character than a plot device, and we spend virtually no time learning anything about how he sees the world. Really it comes down to the math of it though; Burton has stuffed not just Danny DeVito as an unnecessarily grotesque Penguin and Michelle Pfeifer as a tiresome Catwoman into this film, but also Christopher Walken as a not particularly memorable Max Schreck, for no apparent reason. Each of these antagonists seems under orders to out-ham the others and it’s stifling, so there’s really hardly any room for Batman in his own movie. The lack of oxygen is exacerbated by a noxious, relentless score that monotonously hammers home Burton’s lazy, exhausting Gothic/Expressionist fixations.

I used to be a defender of Michael Keaton in the role. He is a genuinely interesting actor but I’ve come to realize that as Batman and Bruce Wayne he was most effective when he was just staring quietly and contemplatively. When he speaks up, he delivers his lines with a stammering, hesitant rhythm that breaks any pretenses to drama and just gives us “Mr. Mom” again. 

Looking back it’s clear to me that, at the risk of defending Joel Schumacher’s contemptuously conceived sequels, the template Burton created with this sequel clearly lays the groundwork for its two follow-ups. It’s a small-minded conception of the Batman character that substitutes exaggerated set designs and Burton’s juvenile Goth preoccupations for actual imagination and real character work.