Tim Burton seems to have a strange relationship with Christmas. In 1993 he released “A Nightmare Before Christmas” his stop-motion animated opus in which Jack Skellington of Halloween Town takes over Christmas, scaring children everywhere. The year before he released “Batman Returns” his second foray in bringing the Dark Knight to the big screen. This time Batman (Michael Keaton) is fighting the maniacal Penguin (Danny DeVito), the whip-snapping Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer), and the greedy Max Schreck (Christopher Walken). During their battles, children are kidnapped from their homes in the middle of the night, henchmen are burned alive, a character is pushed out of a window, and another one is electrocuted, leaving his face with a grotesque expression of pain. This funfest takes place, of course, during the Holiday season.
Despite the dark and gothic tone, the movie has achieved somewhat of a cult status, even taking advantage of the Christmas setting. The first time I saw it was in the late 90s when I was living in Chile. The Spanish announcer on TV for the teaser was describing how The Joker from the first movie was dead: “Now it’s Christmastime and there are new villains in town.” They show footage of city officials throwing presents at a crowd and then suddenly evil clowns armed with automatic weapons burst out of a giant box creating panic in the streets. That certainly looked fun. Although, just like Burton’s first Batman movie, some of the film’s content are a little much for a ten-year-old kid. That didn’t stop Warner Bros. from spitting out the merchandising in the form of action figures, a Super Nintendo game, costumes, accessories, and even a colouring book. If I recall well, I was pretty good at the Super Nintendo game.
The plot: on a cold and snowy Christmas night, a couple throw their baby into a river. To be fair, the baby had just killed the cat so imagine what he would have done to the other kids at the playground. The baby’s basket floats in Gotham City’s sewers until it reaches an embankment and is picked up by four penguins. Years later, the baby is The Penguin, the leader of criminal gang who are also circus performers. They attack the city’s lighting of the Christmas tree to kidnap Max Schreck, one of the most powerful men in the city. The Penguin blackmails Schreck in helping him become a recognized citizen and find out who his parents were. Noble goals, but Batman rightfully believes he has ulterior motives.
Max Schreck also has plans of his own. He sees The Penguin as his way to cement his foothold in Gotham. The mayor won’t approve his plan to build a power generator, so he convinces The Penguin to become the alternative candidate in a recall. Of course there needs to be a reason for a recall, so The Penguin’s goons attack the city, weakening the mayor’s credibility.
Meanwhile another villain emerges. Selina Kyle, Shreck’s shy secretary, discovers damaging information about the generator. When Shreck catches her, he pushes her out of the window of his high-rise. She lands dead on the streets, but alley cats swarm her, lick her wounds, and she awakens as something else. Gone is the secretary who could barely utter a word in a meeting. Now comes a woman wearing a rubber cat suit, hell-bent on destroying Schreck’s operation. Batman tries to stop her, resulting in an uneasy alliance between her and The Penguin.
This makes for a somewhat muddled plot. I find the best Batman movies are the ones where there is one central villain with a grand plan. Here we have three villains, each with their own separate agendas, who end up overshadowing Batman. Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne/Batman gets top billing this time around, unlike when Jack Nicholson played The Joker, but he almost ends up being a supporting character. DeVito is very impressive as the deformed Penguin, especially when claiming all he wants is to be recognized as a human being. Then there is Michelle Pfeiffer, who gives a career best performance as Catwoman. She was so committed to the role she actually put a live bird in her mouth.
This being a Tim Burton movie, the production values also end up being more prominent than the story. The Penguin’s lair is an abandoned Zoo, covered in snow and filled with giant animal statues. Gotham City itself looks like a dark and foreboding place to live. Then in the third act, The Penguin unleashes an army of remote-controlled penguins equipped with rocket launchers to destroy the city. Those birds were a combination of CGI, men in suits, and robotic penguins commissioned by the late great Stan Winston.
In terms of story, “Batman Returns” has been eclipsed by the masterful work of Christopher Nolan with both “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight.” Yet if it ever plays on TV in late December, as it often does, it’s still a pleasure to watch it. I could say it’s nostalgia for the 1990s, but mostly it’s for that scene when Catwoman cartwheels out of a department store, comes face to face with Batman and The Penguin, says “Meow,” and blows up the store.