The Set of 400: #205 – My Favorite Microwaved Spray Paint

Today! Because mistletoe can be deadly if you eat it –

Batman Returns (1992)

Directed by Tim Burton (x3)

Starring Michael Keaton (x3), Michelle Pfeiffer, Danny DeVito (x4), Christopher Walken, Michael Gough (x2), Michael Murphy (x4), Pat Hingle (x2), Vincent Schiavelli (x4), Andrew Bryniarski, Jan Hooks (x2), Steve Witting, Paul Reubens (x3), Cristi Conaway

A superhero outing aggressively not holding up, Batman Returns was basically my favorite movie when I was 12 years old. I’d been waiting three years for the next Bat-adventure, and where this manner of suspense might raise expectations far higher than a film could reach nowadays, back then it just functioned as a way to excuse a lot of their choices. We finally had another Keaton/Burton Bat-flick! And it had the Penguin! And Catwoman! And…Christopher Walken in a ridiculous wig!

And style-wise, it’s still a pretty cool movie. Between the Christmas setting, the weirder, twistier sets than the first movie, Michelle Pfeiffer’s super dramatic eye makeup, and a marked increase in the Tim Burton-ness of the design, it’s a sequel that takes off in bizarre other directions, while still maintaining the overall gloom and moodiness set in place by the original.

Maybe it’s not so much the make up as all the time spent on that hair!

But there is no surprise why Keaton bailed after this one. Bruce/Batman gets totally lost by the overwhelming focus on DeVito’s Penguin – finding out his parentage, plotting revenge, running for mayor – and Pfeiffer’s movie stealing work as Catwoman, even with all the puns. Oh my God, this movie has so many puns. It’s hard to even call any of the exchanges dialogue – it’s like a long form superhero improv routine. People criticize Batman & Robin for letting Mr. Freeze spout endless cold jokes, and yet we’re okay with the goofy string of cat/fish/bat gags here? Come on!

This is still the second best of the original Bat quadrilogy – get out of here, Batman Forever fans! – and does deliver some fun sequences. But I’ll admit – watching this now is one of the more disappointing reevaluations from my childhood. Besides the groany jokes, and all the weaponized penguins – like, Tim Burton does not stage fight scenes. At all. Watch this movie, and hell, the first movie, too. Besides that one punch-’em-up in the belltower with the third rando goon in the dark, there is no sort of fight lasting longer than two swings, one gimmicky weapon, or one or two bullets. When the Nolan Bat movies arrived, they felt like Mortal Kombat compared to these.

Some of the character work holds up – again, Pfeiffer’s unhinged Selina Kyle is terrific throughout, and DeVito is obviously perfect as one of the more ridiculous Bat villains. But all the Max Shreck stuff? And the super elaborate mass kidnapping plan? And again – good gravy – the Penguin’s mayoral run? It is a loopy, jam-packed film that only delivers some of the time.

A plotline adopted later by FOX’s Gotham, too

So why is it still so high on this list, you may ask. That’s fair, I don’t have a great answer. Part of it has to be my unwavering allegiance to the ’89 film, part of it is that there wasn’t another good Batman movie for well over a decade  (and I’m also not a huge Batman Begins fan, either), and part of it is that I definitely remember this film differently than it is. Rewatching it now, I’m pretty surprised at what actually comprises this movie, considering how much I loved it as a kid. So the emotional memory is holding a lot stronger than the qualitative acknowledgment that Batman Returns really isn’t all that good.

Except for Michelle Pfeiffer. And the little bit Michael Keaton gets to do. And that poodle that steals the Bat boomerang thing.

MVP!

It did manage Oscar nominations for Visual Effects and Makeup, and the gold standard of modern awards – a Best Kiss nomination at the MTV Awards, but few wins. Not even a Best Vichyssoise trophy? It’s supposed to be cold! How about Best Nosferatu Throwback, for the Max Schreck honorary naming?

Burton is the eighth director in the Three-Timers wing, following #310 Mars Attacks! and #371 Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, while Jan Hooks (Pee-wee), Alfred himself Michael Gough (#355 Top Secret!), and Commissioner Gordon Pat Hingle (#279 Muppets From Space) all get into the Two-Timers. Pee-wee makes the Three-Timers, following Reubens’ appearance in three Burton projects (including #379 Nightmare Before Christmas), as does Keaton, after his comic turns in #282 Johnny Dangerously and #393 The Dream Team. We’ve also got a pair of Four-Timer Keaton co-stars from Johnny Dangerously – DeVito (also #375 Romancing the Stone and Mars Attacks!) and Schiavelli (also #398 Ghost and #281 Buckaroo Banzai), and finally Four-Timer from a wide variety of projects, Michael Murphy (#396 MASH, #270 The Front, #217 Magnolia). Whew!

You think Keaton gets shortchanged? I don’t think Murphy’s mayor even has a name!

Coming tomorrow! Let’s get tropical!

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