“Batman Returns” is a delight of a film, a snowy, cinematic present wrapped tight in a spandex bow. Tim Burton combines the same delicious, gothic campiness of his preceding film with a more complex, rewarding story. Every character is memorable and every motivation clearly crafted, feeling somehow more serious than Nolan’s trilogy but inexplicably more fun. Like a clown in therapy, we can’t tell if we should laugh or cry at these tortured souls. We only know that what we’re watching is a feat of film.
Michael Keaton dons the black suit for his second bout as Batman, this time a bit more human and accessible, but with even more regret and damage after the events of the first film. On the opposite side of town is Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), a corrupt business magnate who needs an elected official to get his power plant approved. Enter the Penguin (Danny Devito), a grotesque, bird-like man with a deep grudge for Gotham and wouldn’t mind at all pushing Shreck’s power plant through if he was elected mayor. But slinking around every corner is Selina Kyle/Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer), a mischievous figure with no clear allegiances to anyone but herself.
Having four primary characters with distinct personalities, motives, senses of style and codes of morality is an immensely difficult task to accomplish. Yet Tim Burton and screenwriter Daniel Waters fill these characters with ample amounts of for ethos and pathos, and for Batman, a sturdy amount of bat logos. They’re as over-the-top as they are down-to-earth, as cartoonish and dastardly as reminiscent and humanistic. Micheal Keaton may not be the Batman, nor Catwoman, Shreck and Penguin his greatest cinematic foes. But “Batman Returns” is the best exemplar of how heroes and villains intertwine, how their strong moral codes and shifty propositions criss and cross with one another, always in friction, proceeding at full force.
It’s a delightful film, one that hasn’t necessarily been forgotten but has been underappreciated in recent years just due to the massive influx of other superhero movies. Like “The Dark Knight,” it asks tough moral questions but still carries the action and fun-loving attitude of Tim Burton’s first “Batman.” Keaton and Walken are a delight in their roles, but Pfeiffer and DeVito are exemplary, channeling every inch of their spirit and every fiber of their furry being into their tortured comic souls. With no hyperbole whatsoever, “Batman Returns” is the greatest Batman movie ever made.