From George Clooney's nipples to Heath Ledger's lipstick, the Batman franchise has had its highs and lows. The second in a series of appreciations this week, leading to Friday's opening of The Dark Knight Rises. Read the article about the original Batman here.
Batman Returns (1992)
Directed by Tim Burton
Batfan rating: 5 out of 10
Of all the Batman movies, Tim Burton's Batman Returns is the only one that deserves a spot on the Meh List. The rest are either good enough or awful enough to avoid that shoulder shrugging, ho-hum designation.
After turning in the highest-grossing movie of the year, Burton was obviously given a lot of leeway to make a sequel to Batman. He might have been given too much, applying his distinctive aesthetic to the Batman myth to create what one critic at the time called "the first blockbuster art film." It's way more Burton-ized than the first film.
I have no problem with any of that – Christopher Walken's puff of white hair, Danny DeVito's soliloquizing down in his icy lair, Michelle Pfeiffer's cat suit (no one could have any problems whatsoever with that cat suit).
The problem with the film is that there's nothing essential about it, nothing vital. It comes off as completely unnecessary. Batfans can't be offended by it, nor could any of us get pumped up about it, either. There's not much suspense or anything captivating about it. It does what it does passably enough, and then rolls credits. Also, it's a drag the whole way through.
The screenwriter offered a somewhat interesting take on the notion of both heroes and villains struggling to live as divided selves, which is saying something for the guy who wrote The Adventures of Ford Fairlane. But can anyone say they were actually moved by the story?
It's my theory that Burton never expected to do a sequel to Batman. If he had, why would he have used up the greatest villain of all time right out of the gate? (Christopher Nolan was smart enough to know you have to work up to the Joker). And if he knew he was going to do a sequel, why wouldn't he end the first film in a way that established the need for another chapter, rather than turning in a film that is in every way a standalone piece?
Then again, it's possible that the conventions we've come to expect of franchises – that each movie be a chapter in a greater saga – just weren't around in 1992. Either way, the movie seems to arrive out of nowhere, for no obviously discernible reason other than to make another pile of money.
Looking back, it's hard to believe that so many critics took the film to task for being darker than its predecessor. Burton was certainly out to make it noir, but it's cartoonish darkness: the Penguin motoring around in a giant yellow rubber duck, his circus freak thugs terrorizing Gotham (superhero movie rule No. 38: no juggling during scenes of mayhem. In fact, no juggling, ever). Then, in the end, an army of actual penguins with rockets strapped to their backs waddling around Gotham City. Were we supposed to take this seriously? Seriously?
Still, it was nothing compared to the shameful ridiculousness that would soon poison the franchise. Burton knew it was the end for him, which is why he left the director's chair and the mega-hype of superhero movies to make his next film, Ed Wood. He left with his head held high, even if only one of his Batman movies was truly brilliant.
I'll still watch Batman Returns when it airs on TV (it was on the other night, in fact, with stations obviously trying to piggyback on the hype for The Dark Knight Rises). But other than the wonders of that cat suit, it leaves me with the same feeling every time. Meh.