Whenever a new Batman movie swings into theaters — whether it’s a movie like the mostly good The Dark Knight to the poorly reviewed Batman V Superman — I return to the truth that beats in my heart of hearts: There is only one true Batman movie, one Batman movie to rule them all, and it is Tim Burton’s 1992 Batman Returns. If I want to experience the real thing, its time to pull out the old BluRay player, and let Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Christopher Walken, and the god Michelle Pfeiffer do their thing.
Batman Returns is a comic book movie that — gasp — looks and sounds like a comic book! The supercitizens of Gotham hold props and interact on actual sets that actual humans built; but, as Tim Burton imagines it, the architecture of fantasy has its own rules. From the Penguin’s watery lair to Catwoman’s “Hell Here” apartment lights, Burton’s comically gothic Gotham features the kind of flamboyant designs and proportions that only make sense in drawings, but now real people have been let loose to wander in and around the dreamscape. And it’s not just the buildings that outsize the fun. When the characters talk, there are — another gasp — JOKES! You mean a superpowered world doesn’t have to look and behave exactly like the real world? Superheroes can be… fun? Who would have guessed!
Batman Returns is self-aware and self-referential, but pointing at itself and screaming, “DO YOU GET IT???” isn’t the entire point of the movie’s existence. At just over two hours, Batman Returns is maybe a little long, but bless it, when it comes to right and wrong and fun and boring, it has its priorities straight.
Unlike the Batmans that followed, there just isn’t a lot of Batman in Batman Returns. You know why? Because orphaned billionaires who mope for decades are boring, no matter how cool their toys are. You know what’s fun? A freaky underground penguin person played by Danny DeVito who’s raising a penguin army to take over the city just in case his mayoral bid doesn’t go through. (Looking back now, DeVito’s performance as the politically minded Penguin bears more than a passing resemblance to this field of Republican presidential candidates. Who do you think is more likely to bite a reporter’s nose in the coming weeks: Donald Trump or Ted Cruz?)
But beyond the Penguin’s cartoon villainy, the script nods to the real causes of suffering and instability in the world, by focusing on Max Schreck, who’s played by the silver-foxiest version of Christopher Walken I’ve ever seen. The corporate greed Schreck represents is always centered as the reason for Gotham’s fall from grace — a value judgment in a studio movie that seems unthinkable in today’s film-as-franchise-studio-environment. But Burton and screenwriter Daniel Waters don't bog down the story with overt allegorical critique — they’re content with letting the problems of a fantasy city like Gotham stay in their fantasy world, so long as you leave the theater with a sense of who the real bad guys are.
But maybe the best and most unusual thing about Batman Returns is how it shifts its spotlight, both literally and figuratively, from Batman to Catwoman. After all, why make the emotional center of your story a billionaire in a rubber suit when you could root for a put-upon secretary who got murdered, then licked back to life by alley cats, only to viciously pursue latex-suited vengeance from the men who exploited her formerly mousy ways?
Michelle Pfeiffer chugged milk straight for Catwoman. Selena Kyle didn’t choose to get revived as Catwoman, but Michelle Pfeiffer did choose to let cats lick all over her face and mouth to dramatize that revival. Pfeiffer’s skintight, head to toe, by now iconic costume had to be unzipped after every take or else she’d pass out. Pfeiffer put a live bird in her mouth and then spit it out for this character. But, whether as Catwoman or as Selena Kyle, Pfeiffer committed to creating a character whose emotional life is as outsized as her stunts, and that’s what makes the character memorable. Michelle Pfeiffer sacrificed for her art, and she didn’t even win an Oscar for it, like Heath Ledger.
But Batman Returns isn’t making a case for the Oscars. It's not trying to solve the problems of humanity. It's not even trying to give a glimpse into the lives of real people. Instead, it's just two hours of fun in a world that we’d never be able to experience outside the movie theater. Loving Batman Returns isn't nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake; it’s nostalgia for a time when superhero movies could just be movies, made by artists who wanted to show us a something we’d never seen before.
The least we could do to recognize the achievement of everyone who worked on this wild-ass movie is to stop pretending all these new Batman movies are the real thing and just acknowledge that Batman started when Michelle Pfeiffer did that cat lick thing on Michael Keaton’s dumb, grateful Batman face, and ended when she electrocuted Christopher Walken, mouth first. Meow.