For some it’s Tim Burton’s pop-culture smash Batman (1989). For most it’s Christopher Nolan’s reality-rubbing epic The Dark Knight (2008). For me, though, it’s Burton’s $80m sequel Batman Returns (1992) that is the Bat movie with wings. I mean, how not to love a summer blockbuster so dark, twisted and sexually depraved it caused McDonald’s to shut down their Happy Meal promotion?
Declaring the notion of a Batman sequel as “the most dumbfounded idea”, Burton was made a producer and granted creative control by Warner Bros in order to secure his services.
He immediately brought in Heathers scribe Daniel Waters to rework the script, which balances three oh-so-memorable villains – Danny DeVito’s grotesque Penguin, Michelle Pfeiffer’s sharp-clawed and sharper-tongued Catwoman, and Christopher Walken’s megalomaniac mogul Max Shreck, named after the Nosferatu actor – while still finding time to satisfyingly probe into the tortured psychology of Bruce Wayne (a returning Michael Keaton).
The closest any Batman film has got to Bob Kane’s original comic strips, Batman Returns is blacker-than-black and bullishly bonkers, somehow managing to be fun, camp and deeply disturbing all at once. Bo Welch’s grandiose production design collides Fascist architecture with the structures of the World’s Fair (a statement in itself), while Burton’s helter-skelter angles and smothering shadows reference German Expressionism.
A few CG bats aside, this is, for all its crazed designs and imagination, the real deal, with a half-million-gallon water tank dominating Penguin’s subterranean lair, and hundreds of flightless, tuxedoed birds – some robotic and crafted by Stan Winston, some men-in-suits, many real – waddling around with rockets strapped to their backs. Sure, Justice League took a sly pop at exactly this, but that movie boasts not one ounce of Returns’ wit and creativity.
So while I, like most, greatly admire The Dark Knight’s post-9/11 terror tactics and Heath Ledger’s incendiary Joker, I favour Burton’s dementedly swooping camera, DeVito’s Richard III with an umbrella, Pfeiffer’s feminist icon and Walken’s bullshitting, power-hungry, proto-Trump businessman. This is a stunningly realised world that’s both Batman’s and Burton’s, full of misfits, horror and pathos. Or is it just me?
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