Why 'Batman Returns' Is the Ultimate Tribute to DC's Dark Knight

Tim Burton's second 'Batman' movie, released this week in 1992, remains "the most Batman of the Batman movies."
Warner Bros./Courtesy of Everett Collection

There are Batman movies for everyone.

You like the bright, shiny hyper-competent Batman? The 1966 Adam West movie is your jam. Want the none-more-tortured and emotionally crippled Batman and a Bruce Wayne who is merely a shell of a man? Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy is there for you. What about George Clooney-Batman, chronically bemused by the craziness that finds him? Batman and Robin. But no one film truly captures the greatness of Batman's long-running career more than 1992's Batman Returns.

Mostly remembered for Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman (and with good reason; she's easily one of the highlights), Batman Returns is a movie that even its most ardent fans would admit has problems; the pacing is uneven, the plot doesn't really come together (or, to be honest, make that much sense) and there's at least one villain too many packed in. But whether by accident or design, in its scatteredness and schizophrenia, whether by accident or by design, Batman Returns really manages to feel like a summation of the Dark Knight's comic book history up to that point.

Tonally, the film repeatedly switches between melodramatic tragedy and comedy, mirroring the way that the straightforward adventure strip of the 1930s became something more ridiculous and comedic in the 1950s to escape censure, before then turning to increasingly self-important drama in the 1980s and early '90s. The characters churn through changing personalities and motives with each new plot twist, echoing their evolution as they passed through the hands and control of different writers and artists. The film even winkingly parodies the fact that you can't reliably kill the heroes and villains of the strip; both Catwoman and the Penguin return from their apparent demise at different points in the movie.

Whether all — or, indeed, any — of that was intentional is open to question; even at my most charitable, I think the answer would remain "probably not," but the parallels are there nonetheless. There are some more intentional cues taken from throughout Batman's comic book mythology that suggest someone had their eye on what in 1992 constituted a half-century of Batman's existence. On the other hand, Catwoman's appearance is relatively in line with her comic book look of the era (albeit pushed in a more fetishistic direction); the silhouette matched the comic book costume of the time, as opposed to the long purple dress of the majority of her career to that point). Meanwhile, the Penguin's oversized duck ride brings to mind the oversized props that marked the 1950s run of creators Bill Finger and Dick Sprang

And the film goes even deeper into the rabbit hole into the eclectic history of the strip; Christopher Walken's character is named Max Shreck, a reference to actor Max Schreck, famous for playing the lead role in the 1922 movie Nosferatu, who was occasionally referenced as an inspiration in the creation of the Joker, years later. The subplot of the Penguin's run for office was inspired by a storyline from the 1960s Batman TV show. Batman Returns is a movie informed by the range of Batman's experiences over 50 years.

There are better Batman movies, and certainly more coherent Batman movies; even the otherwise doomed 1995 Batman Forever makes more sense on a plot level that Batman Returns. But the latter movie should nonetheless be celebrated as the most Batman of the Batman movies, the one that somehow manages to reflect more about the hero and his world than any other on-screen representation he'd enjoyed before or since. It's a celebration of the Dark Knight that succeeds, in large part, by refusing to go too dark, but remaining off-kilter and uncomfortable all the way through. 

Well. Would a guy who dresses up like a bat every night to punch people really want anything less?

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