Movie Classics – Batman Returns (1992)

Tim Burton dialed up the Gothic whimsy for his second Batman film, pitting the Caped Crusader against the slinky Catwoman and the gruesome Penguin

"You're just jealous, because I'm a genuine freak and you have to wear a mask!"

Following the success of Tim Burton's Batman in 1989, Warner Bros was eager to get to work on a sequel. Burton, though, was burned out on the bat, and instead chose to direct the smaller, more personal Edward Scissorhands.

When he was finally tempted back to the Caped Crusader, Burton was determined to add that personal touch to Batman – and in doing so, he created a movie that was very different to 1989's Batman. Batman Returns would be a dark fairytale that pitted Michael Keaton's Batman against the deformed, vengeful Penguin (Danny DeVito) and the slinky, feline Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer).

Abandoned by his horrified parents, the Penguin's a very Burton-esque creation, left to float off into the sewers in a baby carriage. His return to Gotham City at the head of a gang of circus freaks catches the attention of Christopher Walken's Max Shreck. Shreck, an character created by Burton especially for the film, decides to make the Penguin Gotham City's next Mayor – with himself as the power behind the throne.

Meanwhile, Shreck's mousy secretary Selina Kyle stumbles on evidence of his wrongdoing – and is promptly flung off the top of a skyscraper by the villainous CEO. She's restored to life by the attentions of some alley cats, and starts taking on more and more feline characteristics.

Burton dialed up the Gothic tone in Batman Returns, ditching the Anton Furst-designed sets from 1989's Batman – which had been maintained at great expense by a doubtless rather annoyed Warner Bros. In their place is a more artificial, fairytale setting that's reminiscent of German Expressionism (explicitly, in the case of Shreck, named after the star of 1922's Nosferatu) and the operatic Gothery of Edward Scissorhands.

Batman Returns wanders into dreamlike, whimsical territory, from the Moses imagery of the Penguin's baby carriage floating down the sewers, to Catwoman's rebirth at the hands of a clowder of cats. It reaches its peak with the bizarre image of the Penguin commanding an army of penguins – sporting wires, skullcaps and candy-striped missiles – from atop a giant mechanical duck. By this point, the fact that their mission is to slaughter the firstborn sons of Gotham is the least weird thing about the film.

But for family audiences, the film's violence (which also saw Batman, unusually, killing the Penguin's henchmen), the grotesque Penguin and Pfeiffer's sexually-charged Catwoman proved too much. Outraged letters from parents who'd ignored the film's PG-13 rating eventually led to McDonald's withdrawing a Happy Meal tie-in with Batman Returns.

However, Burton's more adult take on Batman gave him the opportunity to add psychological depth to the characters. The film's villains are all cracked reflections of Batman; the orphaned Penguin, the slick businessman Shreck and the masked Catwoman. The film's undoubted highlight is Selina Kyle's encounter with Bruce Wayne at a masked ball, and her realisation that their "normal" personas are the masks they're using to hide their true selves.

"The thing I really liked about Batman as a comic book property," Burton says in the book Burton on Burton, "was that they're all f**ked-up characters – that's what's so beautiful about them. Unlike other comics, they're just all f**ked, the villains and Batman. But that's also part of the problem – I never see these people as villains." To Burton, Batman and his adversaries are one and the same – the ultimate outsiders.

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