According to conventional wisdom, 1992’s Batman Returns was a badly flawed film. The existence of 1997’s Batman and Robin meant that it wouldn’t be seen as the worst of the four, but most fans seem to prefer 1989’s Batman and 1995’s Batman Forever.
I offer a distinctly minority opinion that BR was without a doubt the best of the four films. To be frank, the conventional wisdom that it was terrible has always confused me. Yeah, I guess I understand that folks who thought Batman was too dark would probably feel even more negatively toward BR, largely due to Danny De Vito's rather grotesque turn as the Penguin.
Of course, one would expect that those people would have avoided BR in droves; if you hated the first one, why would you see the sequel? That left the folks who enjoyed Batman as the ones who disliked BR, and I honestly don't understand why. The sequel possessed all the positives of the original but it added much to the equation.
For one, both Michael Keaton as Batman/Bruce Wayne and director Tim Burton seemed much more self-assured this time. Keaton played the distractedness of Wayne and the intensity of Batman with far greater depth and deftness in the sequel; he appeared much less strained and he was able to make Batman seem far better integrated in the film than on the first occasion. This occurred despite the fact that he actually may have received less screen time than in Batman. No, I didn't count the minutes of each film, but he had more competition this time.
That competition came from the fact that BR offered not one, not two, but three villains played by prominent actors; in addition to Penguin, we got Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman and Christopher Walken as evil businessman Max Shreck. Man, that was a whole lot of villainy that needed screen time, but Keaton held up well against this onslaught.
Of the baddies, Pfeiffer offered easily the most captivating turn of the bunch. In large parts, her sensational performance made this movie go; all the rest of it worked, but her bits added a necessary spark that took BR to a much higher level. Pfeiffer so scintillated that rumors of a Catwoman movie circled for a while, but I guess it ain't gonna happen. Too bad, because I definitely wanted to see her make a return appearance.
In a way, Pfeiffer served two roles in BR; she was a main villain as Catwoman, but she also played Wayne's love interest. To put it mildly, she performed much better in that assignment than did Kim Basinger as Vickie Vale in Batman. While I could barely stand to watch the interactions between Vale and Wayne, the chemistry between Pfeiffer and Keaton sparkled and added much life to the film; I actually wanted to see more of them together in their "everyday" guises, rather than less.
De Vito's fairly disgusting appearance as Penguin remains most people's objection to BR, but I don't have any problem with his work. He portrayed Penguin in a logical and realistic manner, or at least as logical and realistic as a deformed birdman can be. While he didn't take his role to the level achieved by Pfeiffer, he certainly did well in the part and made Penguin a compelling and effective character.
Worst of the bunch was Walken's Shreck. That was probably more the fault of the script than of the actor. As was the case with Wuhl's reporter Knox in the first film, Shreck played largely an expository role in BR. He's the boss of Selina Kyle, who he indirectly turned into Catwoman through his violence and he forwarded the evolution of Penguin through his backstage machinations. Walken was okay but his presence seemed to provide one villain too many.
In addition to the improved acting, Burton's apparently greater sense of comfort on the set also made BR the more effective film. The movie retained the dynamic visual style of the first but it seemed like a much better integrated piece of work. Action scenes flowed smoothly and added excitement largely lost in the first, and the picture simply appeared to be more logical and less stilted than did Batman.
Many critics attacked what they perceived to be the incoherence of BR’s plot. They claimed that story pieces came and went at will and ideas seemed to disappear at random. They're wrong. Here's their argument in a nutshell: the movie started with a storyline that follows Shreck's pursuance of a new power plant for Gotham. This concept popped up frequently throughout the first half of the film but received nary a mention during the remainder. Critics felt this omission occurred due to sloppy filmmaking.
I disagreed. You see, it was made clear that Shreck would have to alter the political power in Gotham if he wanted to build his plant; both Wayne and the current mayor opposed it. As such, he attempted to turn Penguin into the new mayor through various machinations. This didn't succeed, of course, but that aspect of the film neatly accounted for the issue of the power plant; there was no need for Shreck to actually discuss it because the political maneuverings occurred to satisfy that end. By the time Penguin's political aspirations crashed, not much of the film remained so there's no reason to discuss the power plant again; I'm sure it remained on Shreck's mind, but he'd become a minor character at that point so the issue became moot.
Actually, the weakest plot point of BR probably resulted from the motivation of the villains to slay Batman. Basically, the baddies seemed to view him as a thorn in their collective side, but that didn't appear sufficient to infuse them with the great extent of venom they felt toward him. The same was true of Joker in "Batman"; he seemed mainly jealous of Batman's higher profile, which I found to be a pretty weak reason to make a guy your archenemy. This is quibbling, I know, but the speciousness of the logic slightly irritates me.
Still, I find the numerous positives of Batman Returns to more than make up for any problems. This was a comic book film that got most of it right. It took the best aspects of the first movie and improved upon them. As a whole, Batman Returns is a treat, and I count it among my all-time favorite flicks.
Batman Returns appears in both an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 and in a fullscreen version on this double-sided, single-layered DVD; the widescreen image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Only the widescreen picture was reviewed for this article. Though the image largely looked good, a variety of concerns meant that it wouldn’t appear excellent.
Sharpness generally seemed to be solid, as the majority of the film came across as fairly crisp and accurate. Some minor softness appeared at times, mainly during interiors. For example, the scenes in Shreck’s office looked slightly hazy. However, these were rare, as most of the movie seemed to be detailed and clear. Moiré effects and jagged edges presented no concerns, but I did see some examples of print flaws. Some light speckling occurred at times, and mild digital artifacts often gave the movie a grainy appearance. Again, these issues were minor, but they did negatively affect the viewing experience.
Colors seemed to be nicely accurate and clear for the most part. Because it took place at Christmas, BR boasted a more varied palette than did the first movie, and these tones looked fairly rich and distinct. I thought they could have been a bit bolder, but as a whole, they worked well. Black levels appeared deep and dense, and shadow detail usually seemed to be very strong. Again, some interior shots lacked the definition I expected, and they could appear slightly muddy, but all in all, low-light situations presented good delineation. Ultimately, Batman Returns provided a fairly positive visual experience.
Better was the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Batman Returns. Officially, BR was the first movie to hit screens with a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix; unofficially, 1991’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country was the initial DD offering, for it was used as a “test case”. Anyway, the mix for BR showed its age to a minor degree, but as a whole I thought it worked pretty well.
The soundfield appeared nicely broad and engrossing. The forward spectrum dominated the affair, as I heard a lot of well-defined and accurately placed audio throughout the film. Elements panned cleanly across speakers and the entire package blended together neatly. Surround usage seemed to be fairly active and involving. Music emanated from all five channels, and the rear speakers also added a nice layer of reinforcement to action scenes. Some solid split-surround usage occurred, such as when motorcycles would pan from front to rear. All in all, the soundfield aptly served the film.
Audio quality generally seemed good, though it displayed some weaknesses. Dialogue was consistently distinct and accurate, but I thought the lines occasionally appeared somewhat thick and artificial. Much of the speech clearly was looped, and many of these pieces didn’t blend especially well with the action; this gave them an odd impression. Effects presented pretty positive dynamic range and sounded clear and realistic on the whole, but they could also become slightly harsh and tinny. Music was nicely dynamic and bold, as Danny Elfman’s score showed the strongest elements of the mix. Overall, dynamics seemed good, though I thought the track could have offered bolder and tighter bass response. Still, the audio for Batman Returns provided a largely satisfying experience.
Batman Returns includes few supplements. In the Cast area, we find perfunctory biographies for Michael Keaton, Danny De Vito, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Michael Gough, Pat Hingle, Michael Murphy and noted thespian Tim Burton. In addition, we discover some fairly solid Production Notes. Split into different subsections, these interesting text articles discuss “Special Effects”, “Hero and Villains”, “The Screenwriter” and “The Composer”.
As I write this in July 2001, I still want to recommend Batman Returns. However, a few factors mitigate this endorsement. On one hand, I continue to love the movie. I think it’s definitely the best of the series, and it’s probably the finest superhero flick ever made. BR provided an exciting and rich experience that hasn’t been topped.
As for the DVD, it wasn’t stellar, but it seemed generally good. Picture and sound quality appeared to be quite positive, but the disc included almost no extras.
That last area is why I’m not sure I can push you to buy Batman Returns. On one hand, it’s a solid presentation of the film, and it lists for only $19.98, which is quite inexpensive.
However, rumors persist that WB will release a special edition of Batman Returns at some point. I’d hate to urge you to buy this disc and then tell you to get a new one soon thereafter. If you don’t worry about repurchases, go ahead and grab Batman. Otherwise, you may want to wait and see what the future brings.