My main memories of Batman Returns revolve around a lot of the hype that preceded the film's release. I remember watching behind the scenes moments with Michelle Pfeifer talking about how she had accidentally hit Tim Burton with her whip in one scene. Despite not really caring about the first film, I was pretty excited for this one. Batman The Animated Series was probably the main culprit. And while this film is probably just as ridiculous as Batman is, for some reason I remember it much more fondly.
While both Burton films are remembered for being dark, this one definitely takes a much grimmer turn than the original. Only Tim Burton can start off a Christmas film by showing parents throw their baby away. (I'm sure everyone knows by now that it's Paul Reubens playing the father, but I still grin whenever I see him here.) The film is primarily about its villains, with Batman/Bruce Wayne taking more of a backseat role, and that probably explains just how twisted it is. In a lot of ways this movie is all about the Penguin, with just a side story for Catwoman that intersects at certain points.
Perhaps that's why I don't really care for Michael Keaton as Batman. After watching both of these films, I have to admit that he barely has any real screen time as Batman where he isn't just fighting or driving one of his vehicles. As such, I see no true distinction between his two personas. We're mostly told about his issues with duality far more than we ever see it. He's also absolutely terrible at concealing his identity, though Alfred isn't helping either. The way Alfred just let Vicky Vale into the batcave last film really bugged me, and I like that we get a throw away line here to point that out. But then of course Bruce goes and rips his mask off right in front of Max Shreck at the end, so he has no room to talk.
Speaking of Alfred, there wasn't too much in the movie last time for me to really mention him, but Michael Gough is just awesome in these movies. He's witty, he's a concerned father figure, and he's quite technically adept for a man of his age. I don't know how you couldn't love this version of Alfred, really.
After having such a cookie cutter female in the last film, I really love that we swung in the opposite direction this time around with Selina Kyle. She starts off so timid and weak, but she still has this wonderful sense of humor when she's alone that you can't help but like and sympathize with her. She then goes through being killed and somehow surviving, and to this day I always get this big smile on my face when she changes the sign from "Hello There" to "Hell here." Sure, it's obvious and why would anyone have "Hello There" in neon hanging in their room to begin with, but it's such a simple action that shows her current state of mind. She's too cruel toward the female victim in the alley that she saves, but I think it's easy to see that she's mad at her old self and therefore projecting it onto that woman. I also can't give enough props to Michelle Pfeiffer here for portraying Selina's divided emotions so perfectly. That scene under the mistletoe where she gives out that crazy laugh is just great, and her sad "Does this mean we have to fight now?" really gets me.
The movie is entirely absurd and has no logic for most of its situations. Somehow, a bunch of cats walking over her and licking and biting her manages to give Selina nine lives, or at least make her really hard to kill. The penguin somehow manages to hack into the batmobile security system and rewire it, and he's got plans hanging on the wall as if he could just pick up a batmobile blueprint at the store somewhere. He also managed to secure tons of missiles and develop little mind control devices for his many penguin friends at the zoo. But I'm willing to overlook all this because the film is fun in its own dark twisted way and never feels like it drags over its running time.
The Penguin is just so weird and so disgusting. His oddly shaped body, his flipper hands and jagged teeth, and apparently his saliva and blood are green besides. The Penguin I'm familiar with from the cartoon was a very polite individual, but this one doesn't hesitate to bite off the nose of a guy who makes fun of the way he looks. He's incredibly over the top, but Danny DeVito plays him with such sincerity that you really believe it. That moment at the end, when he comes out of the water and slowly heads toward Batman, and Elfman's music swells and then he's dead with that sudden choking gasp and the penguins escort him back into the water... I really hope I'm not the only one feeling a little sorry for him at that point.
I think I prefer this film so much more than the previous because they really fixed a lot of the previous one's errors. There's no cheesy music added to the soundtrack, the romance actually makes sense given the two characters involved, and beyond the Penguin's tech, we see enough about both villains to understand their motivations and capabilities. This isn't a great film, but it's a fun film and therefore one worth watching.