Celebrating Batman Returns: an absurd, wonderful character study

Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman/Selina Kyle in Batman Returns (1992)
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With the release of Matt Reeves’ The Batman, it’s more timely than ever to revisit one of the best Batman films – Tim Burton’s Batman Returns.

Despite the great performances and grown-up grittiness in recent Batman films, Tim Burton’s Batman Returns remains my favourite depiction of The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne, and the various other colourful characters wreaking havoc across Gotham City. Colourful being the operational word. Since Returns, the films have either had a glossy, toy-like sheen that took the Bat too far into comedy (we’re looking at you, Batman & Robin), or attempted to strip him of joy completely, as Christopher Nolan and now Matt Reeves have done.

No director has nailed the balance between darkness and light, visually and tonally, since Burton.


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No one could say that Michael Keaton’s Dark Knight isn’t dark either – he’s always brooding,  and always dressed in dark clothing even when he’s Bruce Wayne. The Gotham he inhabits is a sprawling, labyrinthine metropolis. It even holds reminders of Fritz Lang’s work in the angular architecture and deep shadows that’re reminiscent of German Expressionism – thanks to production designer Bo Welch. But all this Gothic inspiration is offset by the sheer absurdity of what goes on in the city, and what Keaton’s Batman has to deal with. There are no ordinary gangsters, only a gang of crime-prone circus folk. Danny DeVito’s Penguin, one of the main antagonists, waddles around in an oversized baby grow and rides into scenes on a huge duck. The film is itself a visual circus, and the insanity of it is just inspired.

Penguin, or Oswald Cobblepot, isn’t just there for comic relief. He is himself one of the darkest elements of the film. He’s an R-rated lecher in a PG family movie, and no matter how many times you watch it it’s unlikely you’ll ever get over how gross he is. But at the same time the over-the-top sensibilities of comics are fully embraced, and you can’t help but be bemused by DeVito’s character. For one, it’s established that there’s an army of penguins living in the sewers. Second, Oswald seems to have quite literally been raised by said penguins. The film doesn’t do things by halves, whether you love it or hate it.

On a more serious note, one of the things that makes Batman Returns so memorable is that it realises what its biggest asset is and uses it well. And that’s the characters. I’m not sure anyone watches this particular film for the plot, hence why the real bad guy is simply Christopher Walken playing capitalism, wearing a crazy wig and named after the actor behind the OG Nosferatu. It’s really about Batman, Penguin, and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman (plus their alter egos), and the way they interact with each other. I would go so far as to say that the whole film is a character study.

Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman and Danny DeVito as Penguin in Batman Returns

More specifically, Batman Returns is one of the best films for examining the ‘split personality’ element of its heroes and villains. Where usually heroes simply find it difficult to have a relationship, or an ordinary job, and be a vigilante, here it’s dialled up to 11. The two personalities within each of these characters are so strong that they’re basically at war with each other. That’s never clearer than with Selina Kyle and Catwoman.

For starters, Selina remains romantically-inclined after her transformation – part of her clearly wants to be with Bruce. Catwoman, on the other hand, is fiercely independent to the point of misandry. The two sides cause such confusion that when Bruce and Selina eventually realise who they are to each other, she asks if they have to start fighting.

Returns doesn’t just show the struggles of living a double life, it depicts it as actively being two different people that you have to choose between. And in the end both of them do.

But the film isn’t just great for the way it portrays superhero (or villain) identities – it also makes them uncharacteristically sympathetic. Many on-screen Batman villains provide little reason to feel sorry for them – no one’s ever shed a tear for Tom Hardy’s Bane or The Joker. In the more lighthearted movies, Jim Carrey’s Riddler remains in the public conscious purely because of his colour palette, and Mr Freeze because of his puns. But here, both Catwoman and Penguin are victims of circumstance. Bad things have happened to them that they aren’t to blame for, and that can be sympathised with despite them being villains.

They’re both also used as cautionary tales. Penguin begins as an outcast from society, and Selina Kyle is downtrodden and belittled by men who take her for granted. Through their transformations they gain the power to fight and advocate for themselves for the first time. In theory you could see them as underdogs who learn to fight back. It’s just a shame that power is so corrupting. Their quests for revenge are taken too far, and that’s what proves their undoing in the end. The only other vengeful character that springs to mind from live-action Batman is Marion Cotillard’s Talia al Ghul in The Dark Knight Rises. But she’s not nearly as sympathetic (or developed, for that matter) as Catwoman or Penguin are.

Batman Returns is, I’d argue, a rare treat. A suitably dark Dark Knight film, it still acknowledges the occasional silliness of the source material, and has fun with it. More importantly, it gives time to its characters and makes sure that they’re fully formed people, even if it’s to the detriment of the plot. It’s just a wonderful, absurd character study with one of the best on-screen depictions of Batman and Bruce Wayne. Keaton is set to return to the role for the upcoming The Flash. I, for one, can’t wait to see him don the cape once again.

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