Batman Returns is undeniably defined by the influence of its director, Tim Burton. This is both a positive and a negative for the film’s overall success as a big-screen depiction of the Batman legend. On one hand Batman has never been given a more arresting aesthetic treatment. The production design by Bo Welch and the thundering score by Danny Elfman make the film more stirring than the original movie.
However despite these searing visuals the film is strongly marked by narrative incoherence. Nothing and I mean nothing in this film makes very much sense. The film contains many moments and plot points that amount to little more than nonsense. This includes the opaque scheme by the seemingly sedated Christopher Walken (who plays Max Shreck), which focuses on draining Gotham of its energy (What possible purpose could this serve?). Also, Selina Kyle’s inexplicable transformation from an office pipsqueak to a leathery dominatrix with Olympic-level athletic ability is mind-boggling. Burton’s film appears intent on stretching the reality of its fantastical world to the very limit.
The film is also riddled with pacing problems, which support the notion that it is fixated on the “villains” of the story. Consider the stupefying, four-minute long scene which depicts Michelle Pfeiffer constructing her Catwoman costume. This is all the proof one needs to assert that Burton was far more interested in focusing on the ugly insanity of the film’s villains than Batman’s shadowy heroism.
Many of these complaints would derail most films; yet amazingly Batman Returns remains a wildly enjoyable experience. Although marginalized by the script, Michael Keaton fully invests himself once more into the mantle of the Caped Crusader. Also, as Wayne Keaton projects a disarming neurosis. He has never been equaled by others who have worn the cape and cowl.
His antagonists, embodied stylishly by Pfeiffer and DeVito, are complimentary to the deranged world that Burton creates on-screen. Supported by both Burton’s aesthetic and Daniel Waters‘ outrageous script (which melds camp with chaos and dead-pan humor with urban dystopia), the performances are congruent with the tone of the film. They blunt the edges of the story’s occasionally shocking depictions of violence, and finally are responsible for the film’s shedding of its action movie trappings and its transformation into a black comedy.
The film is not perfect, and in a storytelling sense it could perhaps even be classified as a train wreck. However, with its powerful design, evocative use of matte paintings, thrilling music and memorable performances, Batman Returns still holds up to this day. While hardly reverential towards the character, Burton deserves credit for capturing Batman’s moral ambiguity. He delivers a dream-like world where the norms are inverted; the cops are impotent; the villain is a mayoral candidate; and a winged vigilante with a damaged psyche may be the city’s best hope for salvation.