Earlier this year we looked at cop comedy Hot Fuzz 10 years on. Well, if you want to feel even more ancient, here’s your reminder that this month, on 19 June, Batman Returns turns 25 – a full quarter of a century old.
The thing is, despite veering dramatically away from comic book canon, and earning mixed to positive reviews from critics back in 1992, Tim Burton’s Batman Returns remains well-loved. And there is plenty of evidence to suggest it’s more than a simple case of 90’s Kid Nostalgia.
Here are eight reasons why Batman Returns will always matter.
1) Michelle Pfeiffer.
You could fill up this article just by typing “Michelle Pfeiffer” repeatedly, The Shining-style. Sure her Selina Kyle was far removed from the comic version of the character, but the end result was ballsy, electric and unprecedented. Not to mention star-making. Pfeiffer’s Catwoman starts as a timid good girl secretary pushed around by everyone in her life, before ultimately getting pushed out a skyscraper window. At this point she’s reborn as a slinky, latex-clad anarchist with a taste for revenge and gender-centric one-liners. “I am Catwoman. Hear me roar.”
The ultimate Feminutsi, the Catwoman of Batman Returns is morally complex, psychologically broken and completely in control of her sensuality. She wields it as effectively as her whip and claws – and always on her own terms. She confronts a mugger with “I love a big strong man who’s not afraid to show it with someone half his size,” before beating him unconscious. Less than a minute later, she’s berating his female victim for expecting Batman to save her. A master manipulator of gender expectation, she’s insane and irresistibly fun. Have superhero films had a performance like hers since? Is Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn really the closest we’ve come in 25 years?
P.S. Yes, for the record, Pfeiffer really did put a lovebird in her mouth.
2) Batman Returns entrenched the superhero sequel formula.
Technically Superman II set the rule: that when it comes to superhero sequels, one villain is never enough. In Superman’s case, Lex Luthor returned for II, but the billionaire madman was very much secondary to the arriving Kryptonian trio of General Zod and co. In the case of Batman Returns, to make up for the absence of Jack Nicholson’s screen-munching Joker, three bad guys were thrown in the mix: Danny De Vito’s Penguin, Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, and Christopher Walken as Max Shreck, a slimy businessman with a big mouth and bizarre hair (hmmm). Since then, it’s been rare, if impossible, for a superhero movie sequel to get by with a single foe. Certainly the X-Men and Spider-Man movies have upheld this principle.
3) Without Batman Returns, there would’ve been no Batman: The Animated Series.
Multi-award winning Batman: The Animated Series is widely regarded as one of the greatest weekly cartoons ever made. Released in late 1992, the influence of Batman Returns was evident in the series’ tonal darkness, adult themes and, most obviously, character designs for the Penguin and Catwoman. The latter has traditionally been depicted as having black hair, but became a blonde for the initial Animated Series run.
You can extend Batman Returns’s chain of influence in the Batman franchise further. Bruce Timm, Eric Radomski and Paul Dini’s Batman: The Animated Series introduced the character of Harley Quinn, who proved so popular that she entered mainstream comic lore, and is now DC’s most profitable, popular female character next to Wonder Woman. Meanwhile, Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill’s vocal work in the Animated Series as Bruce Wayne/Batman and the Joker became definitive for the characters. The men have lent their voices to multiple animated films and the Arkham video game series.
4) The unapologetic raunchiness.
To this day, has any other PG superhero film been as blatant with its sexuality as Batman Returns? At one point, Catwoman runs her hand south over Batman’s abdomen, looking for “the man behind the Bat.” Later on she straddles his prone form, and leisurely licks his exposed face. Even out of their latex and rubber costumes (hello, BDSM!), Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Selina Kyle ooze sexual tension, initiating a little proto-“Netflix and chill” on the Wayne Manor couch before they’re interrupted by battle wounds and breaking news.
It’s a mystery to this day how Batman Returns managed to slip past the ratings board, and impact the way it did on pubescent kids of the early 1990s. Christian Bale and Anne Hathaway’s take on the same characters two decades later is practically monastic by comparison.
5) Its memorable and unusual aesthetic.
It’s arguable that 1989’s Batman is much closer to the comic source material of the time than 1992’s Batman Returns. However, largely off the Warners’ leash for the sequel, director Tim Burton got to indulge his love for the artistic stylings of German Expressionism – particularly 1920s German Cinema. There is much about Batman Returns that is jagged, starkly lit and grotesque. That’s not so great when you’re trying to punt Happy Meals, as McDonalds discovered. But it does make Batman Returns incredibly distinct, visually.
The movie released long before the era of “realistic” superhero films supposedly set in our world, and the result is a comic adaptation unafraid of “fake”, and highly consistent in applying its artistic vision. The monumental architecture that references Fritz Lang’s seminal sci-fi flick Metropolis. The increased stylisation of Batman’s costume. A secondary villain named after the star of Nosferatu, and modelled after Metropolis’s mad scientist. And a Penguin whose character design is clearly influenced by anti-Semitic caricatures of Post-WWI Germany (thank goodness Batman Returns didn’t release during the Social Media Age!). The combined effect transplanted Batman Returns out of time and space, helping it to stand out stylistically forever.
6) It’s actually a Christmas movie. Well, an anti-Christmas movie.
Like Die Hard, Batman Returns is a Christmas movie for people who don’t like Christmas movies. The film is set in a snowy Gotham City in the lead-up to the holiday, with tree lighting ceremonies, parties, gift unwrapping and mistletoe all featuring prominently.
If that sounds quite jolly, well, the reality is the opposite. This is an early days Tim Burton movie after all. Every one of those festive aspects is corrupted. So we get child abduction, riots, murder and explosions set against a stark, practically monochromatic backdrop. Relish the “Bah, humbug!” of this universe, where, if you’re paying close attention, you’ll notice even Batman kills.
7) Heroes don’t always get happy endings.
Long before The Dark Knight concluded with shattered bat-signals and a scapegoated Caped Crusader on the run, Batman Returns had arguably the most poignant, mournful ending of all the Batman films. Instead of Batman looking up triumphantly at the symbol or sprinting towards the camera, we see Bruce Wayne driving in the opposite direction in the early hours of Christmas morning, wishing “Goodwill to all men… and women.”
All Batman has for company is loyal butler Alfred, and Selina Kyle’s black cat, left as a memento after she refused the Dark Knight’s attempts to save her. Although the audience receives a parting shot of Catwoman looking out over the Gotham skyline, this was no blatant sequel set-up. Batman Returns made the point that superheroes’ lives are frequently bittersweet, and was content to leave it at that.
8) Corrupt businessmen and politicians actually get their comeuppance.
Batman Returns was evidently released during a simpler time, when scandal was enough to topple power-hungry leaders. All Batman has to do to derail The Penguin’s mayoral campaign is release an audio recording where the latter calls his supporters “pinhead puppets,” and jeers that he played Gotham “like a harp from Hell.” Within seconds, the Penguin’s wealthy backers have vanished, and he’s being pelted with rotten tomatoes by his former fans. Later on, Walken’s corrupt businessman Shreck also receives his just desserts. After lying, bargaining and attempting murder to escape, he is finally electrocuted by Catwoman, the woman he bullied and assaulted.
Ah, yesteryear, when saying and doing awful things actually had consequences… Good times.
Last Updated: June 15, 2017