A few years ago, I was browsing through channels to find something to watch while doing laundry when I put on a marathon of Batman movies on some cable channel, just so I could educate myself about the hero. It included Batman Returns, Batman Forever, Batman Begins, and possibly one or two more, but this was before I cared about watching movies properly, so I didn’t make sure I’d seen each one of them all the way through. I caught a significant portion of Batman Begins and most if not all of Batman Forever, but since I was occupied with some chores at the time, I wasn’t really paying much attention. Batman Returns stuck out to me though. I think I came in somewhere in the middle and checked out somewhere near the end, but I really liked the idea of a superhero and a villain falling in love out of costume and not knowing what to do once they figured out each other’s secret identity (all in a public place where they can’t fight, no less). While this dramatic device may be the film’s greatest contribution to cinema, and it’s probably the most brilliant aspect of the film (if not of the franchise), I think there’s a lot more where that came from throughout the film.
This movie is probably one of the greatest sequels of all time because it doesn’t feel the need to repeat everything from the first film, nor does it just try to take everything to a much bigger scale like many sequels do – it just plays to the strengths and dynamics of a different set of characters. True, the idea of the villain tricking “the people” into thinking the hero has turned on them is now a somewhat common sequel trope, but like most of the tropes in the movie, it’s all handled very well. It helps that Danny DeVito is a practically perfect Penguin, and the rest of the cast is spot-on as well, making for a Gotham City that’s very much . . . itself. I think that’s what I like about this movie – it loves being what it is, so it goes to the extreme. Tim Burton also takes his style to an extreme here, showing his ability to capture the eerie quality of simple things, bring the maximum amount of “creepy” out of any scary things, find the beauty in fakeness, carefully integrate models with full-size sets, and light Batman perfectly. What’s particularly impressive is how a movie filled with so much gray manages to retain warmth, theatricality, and a striking amount of vivid color, making for one of the best aesthetics any film has ever had and possibly surpassing its predecessor in its visual style.
While its ending is a little underwhelming for me and Burton’s pacing is typically slow, most of my problems with the film are mere nitpicks – in the end, this is what a Batman movie is supposed to feel like. One thing that I think the film could use a little bit more of, however, is camp. The movie certainly engages in over-the-top theatricality and a little silliness, but I think the Batman I best understand is Adam West’s. Part of why the news of his passing has been harder for me to take than that of most other recent celebrity deaths is that I know we’ll never have another actor who can play a superhero in a way that makes you take him seriously when he needs to be taken seriously while also keeping him incredibly light, fun, silly, and jaunty. Maybe we’ll never get another movie that captures the theatricality of Gotham the way the West, Burton, and Schumacher productions did either, but they’ve all been really inspirational to me. I’ve always considered Spider-Man/Peter Parker to be the hero with whom I best relate, but it’s Batman productions like this one that fill me with excitement and enthusiasm for becoming a filmmaker, and for that I’m very thankful.