The second and (I persist in saying) best of the Batman movies is much more a Tim Burton film than the first. As always, the story is a clothesline for grand, lavish images. The surprise here is that they’re darker, more painfully felt. Burton continues his obsession with loneliness and persecution by giving us not one but three outcasts: Batman (Michael Keaton), of course, but also the egg-shaped, bile-spewing Penguin (Danny DeVito) and the vengeful, borderline sadomasochistic Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer). Abandoned in infancy, the Penguin craves the approval of the city that rejected him; when he doesn’t get it, he tries to enslave Gotham with the help of millionaire Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) — whose abuse of his shy secretary Selina Kyle brings Catwoman to life. It’s a neat triangle of indignity (reportedly weakened somewhat by pre-release trims), and Batman finds himself at its center.
This was by far Burton’s most visually arresting work up to that time, owing more to silent classics (the Penguin looks like Lon Chaney in London After Midnight; Max Shreck is named after the star of Nosferatu) than to comic books. DeVito actually tops Nicholson’s Joker, and the teasingly, nastily erotic Pfeiffer comes through with her first all-out star performance. Keaton, too, is much less hesitant and more vivid than he was in the first movie. The studio made the mistake of going to bed with McDonald’s for toy tie-ins, leading parents to believe that this dark and traumatic horror-fantasy for aesthetes was a kiddie movie. The only personal quibble I have with Batman Returns is that its wealth of new characters set the precedent for Joel Schumacher’s top-heavy entries. Score by Danny Elfman; cinematography by Stefan Czapsky; production design by Bo Welch; Penguin make-up by Stan Winston. With Michael Murphy as the scummy new mayor, Michael Gough as Alfred, an underused Pat Hingle as Gordon, Cristi Conaway as the Ice Princess, Paul Reubens, Jan Hooks, and Vincent Schiavelli. Followed by Batman Forever; Burton’s next was Ed Wood.