This time Batman (Michael Keaton) has two adversaries. The main one is the Penguin (Danny De Vito); abandoned by his parents because of his deformed flipper-like hands, he lives in the sewers seemingly raised by penguins (why there are penguins in Gotham City’s sewers, who knows). Urged by billionaire business Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), the Penguin runs for mayor. The Penguin however has a diabolical plan for revenge against humanity and Batman must stop it…
Then we have Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer), the alter ego of dowdy secretary Selina Kyle who is killed and then brought back to life by cats. Pfeiffer’s demented stare as both Selina and Catwoman is chilling. Even under the slinky seductiveness of Catwoman’s outfit, her insanity shines through. It’s a more complex performance than a film based on comic book characters would demand- and unpredictable too, as seen in one creepy scene where she puts a live bird in her mouth.
Sure, Batman is in the shadows of his own movie but it’s perfectly fitting. Keaton is more vulnerable in this film than the first one but the characterisation seems to be more suitable this time. Rather than trying to fit Keaton into the playboy mould of Bruce Wayne, Burton turns him into even more of an outsider. Whilst Catwoman is a worthy opponent in combat, in romance there’s no question that she will come out on top. Fans of comic-book Batman might feel that this move alienates the film incarnation even more but it makes for a more interesting film. Anyway, although Batman is still kind of distant and cold, he’s a lovely normal man compared to Catwoman and the Penguin. Even non-superhero Max Shreck (great job from Christopher Walken) is very weird in his partnership with the Penguin.
Finally there is the full-on grotesquerie of The Penguin (Danny De Vito). This has Burton’s stamp all over it; the hand deformity calls to mind Edward Scissorhands in its pitiful freakishness but the Penguin is far from romantic. Instead, he’s a pervert, drooling over Catwoman and indeed any young woman he comes into contact with. The backstory could almost be Disney, with The Penguin as a poor orphaned creature but because De Vito makes the character as vile as his costume, it’s another element of the film that defies the expectation that this should be a children’s film.
Batman Returns is more comic than Batman but a lot darker and nebulous. Batman was a grittier take on the superhero film but it was still recognisable. Adults, let alone children, will try to get a grip of this but the moral complexities and pervasive perversions are a little harder to translate into plastic toys.