A Scene-By-Scene Analysis of BATMAN RETURNS (1992, dir. Tim Burton)


Ever since I first saw BATMAN RETURNS I’ve had conflicted feelings about it.  Let me put it this way: I wanted to like it for the basic strengths most people acknowledge when mentioning it: its maturity and dark, sombre atmosphere.  But, as with many critics, I also always felt the movie was confused; I didn’t get what it was trying to say and the story felt a little jarbled.  The characters were interesting, the ingredients were all there, but it just didn’t mesh.  Also, I’ve only read maybe a dozen Batman comics in my life and even a rookie like me could tell that the movie was not very faithful to the source material.  And that says something when, out of fifty years’ worth of Batman stories, the filmmakers chose to do their own thing and create a Penguin character who bore ZERO resemblance to his comic counterpart.

Roger Ebert, whom I tend to agree with a lot of the time, summed it up for me: “I give the movie a negative review, and yet I don’t think it’s a bad movie; it’s more misguided, made with great creativity, but denying us what we more or less deserve from a Batman story.”  Jonathan Rosenbaum of The Chicago Reader said that the script by Daniel Waters and Sam Hamm “plays suspiciously like a first draft.”  Tood McCarthy of Variety called the movie “one big glob storywise, without a strong dramatic arc and propelled by weak narrative muscles.”  No wait, it’s the publication Combustible Celluloid that summed the movie up best: “A bizarre mixture of poetic brilliance and clumsy ineptitude.”Too serious to be taken as a comic book adventure movie; too cartoonish to be taken as seriously as it seems to want to be.

But then again, I’m the guy that loves dark, strange movies.  After all, I love RETURN TO OZ, which failed after receiving a lot of the same “parental backlash” that BATMAN RETURNS did.  And then there’s the dark, tragic, and stylized PAN’S LABYRINTH.  But then I also think both those movies had better scripts.  So with all these things considered, surely, I realized I should give BATMAN RETURNS another chance.

The conclusion I reached is that the best way to enjoy the movie is not to think of it as a Batman story, but rather as Tim Burton‘s original story that happens to use Batman characters.  It is more in line with EDWARD SCISSORHANDS or THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS than it really is with any Batman comics.  If you want a movie more faithful to the comics, there would later be the Nolan films.  But even then, it is the most dark and tragic of all Burton’s films, which usually are a bit more uplifting.  It is more of an “anti-Batman story;” a critique of the superhero mentality, presenting probably the most unflattering portrayal of Batman ever presented.  Batman recieves less screentime than his villains, while the other core Batman characters, Alfred and Commissioner Gordon, get little more than cameos.  Think of this movie as Batman getting the Gregory Maguire treatment; it’s what WICKED is to THE WIZARD OF OZ.

I’ve read a lot about the making of the movie and heard about previous versions of the script.  In one the Max Shreck character was going to be Harvey Dent, which certainly would’ve been interesting, and thus formed a “loose trilogy” with BATMAN ’89 and BATMAN FOREVER.  In another version of the script, Shreck would be revealed to be the Penguin’s older brother.  These ideas are all interesting, but I don’t think it’s worth it to analyze scripts that never got made.  The finished film is what we’ve ended up with, and so that is what I am going to analyze for you today.

Watching it, there are number of points that were my initial criticisms, but I’ve come to accept them:

-It’s Tim Burton, which means there’s going to be style over substance.  At times you have to ignore logic and accept bizarre & surreal imagery that’s there just for the sake of being bizarre & surreal.

-Much of it is an attempt at social and political satire (not done particularly well, in my opinion) and this gives some parts a “sitcom-ish” feel.

-There is a fairly muddled mid-section.

So sit back and prepare to watch BATMAN RETURNS once more, this time looking at what lies behind, scene-by-scene.  I will split the narrative into three sections and give my personal insights via parenthesis:



We begin with an opening reminiscent of the Hammer horror films (or could it be CITIZEN KANE?), swooping in to the decadent Cobblepot mansion.  Mr. Cobblepot interestingly resembles the Burgess Meredith portrayal of The Penguin, which makes one wonder: if they had made a movie with the traditional depiction of The Penguin, perhaps Paul Reubans could have played the part.  The birth that follows feels straight out of a B-movie: the mother screams in horror, the nurse runs in terror, the doctor runs out nauseous, and the father runs into the room, only to scream himself at a terror that remains offscreen (personally, I think his scream is a little over-the-top, but Reubens has never been a subtle actor).  But the entire scene creates an atmosphere and the message is clear: something EVIL has just happened; an ABOMINATION has entered the world…on Christmas.  Is The Penguin the actual anti-Christ?  Whatever the case, there is inherent evil in this moment.

The following scene, though tragic, has an element of dark comedy.  The rich and morally bankrupt couple keep their deformed baby in a cage.  When the family cat gets too close, the animalistic infant–almost cartoonishly–pulls the cat in (whether he eats it or just murders it out of pleasure is unclear).  The parents simply watch this in silence, more like unapproving snobs than concerned parents.  Soon they are taking their child into the park, ready to abandon him.  Before they do, they pass another couple who wish them Merry Christmas, the first of many times Christmas is referenced in the film.  The use of the holiday adds a level of de-attachment to the entire depraved story, making it more sombre.  We are surrounded by Christmas imagery but out alienated from the supposed themes of the holiday.  EYES WIDE SHUT similarly used the holiday to communicate alienation.  Both movies, despite being set at Christmas, were released during the summer, causing the audience to feel deattached to the holiday.  Interestingly, both movies had trouble finding audiences.  Getting back to the Cobblepots, of course it is a disgusting act to throw your newborn child down the sewers any time of year, but to do it on Christmas somehow seems more despicable, and to wish another couple Merry Christmas just before doing so makes the Cobblepots true hypocrites.  Eventually they throw their child, in his basket, into the river, and watch him float into the sewers.  Just as the basket plummets down the drain, we hear the child cry, but it is an animal cry.  The basket floats down the sewers like a mockery of baby Moses, before eventually being found by a school of penguins.

We move thirty-three years forward.  Yes, the Penguin is 33 years old; good old anti-Christ!  Gotham City has become aware of his existence, and a paperboy promotes junk stories about him in a tabloid.  Journalists and the media will be portrayed horribly a number of times as the film continues; indeed all the citizens of Gotham City are depicted as ignorant boobs.  The same is true in EDWARD SCISSORHANDS while MARS ATTACKS! portrayed the entire population of the Earth as a team of morons.  We are also given glimpses of The Penguin, not yet fully revealed as an adult, watching the city from a sewer grating, as if in hell.

We are introduced to evil corporate kingpin Max Shreck, named after the actor who played NOSFERATU and who slightly resembles Sweeney Todd.  Interestingly, Shreck is the only character in the film who has a clear-cut goal and a person he cares about: his son.  Chip, in his few scenes, is shown as fully aware of his father’s immoral activities, but fiercely loyal to him.  How strange that this is the only healthy family relationship of the entire film.  Shreck is meeting with Mayor Hill about building a power plant for Gotham, but this is going nowhere.  Selina Kyle, his neebish secretary, attempts to interject her thoughts, but Shreck has little respect for her, and her shy and meekish manner do not help her situation.  Shreck and the mayor attend the lighting of the Christmas tree at Gotham Plaza, a replica of Rockefeller center, right down to the statue of Prometheus.  It is, much like the actual Rockefeller Christmas tree, a decadent display of commercialism, and the style of architecture feels extremely cold.  Shreck soon realizes that Selina has forgotten to give him his speech (does this mean that she wrote it for him?  What a capitalist; he will pin on an employee), so delivers an impromptu speech.  Of course the fact that his sentiment is all phony and a big show is blatant to the film’s audience, but not to the morons of the Gotham City audience.  They eat it right up.

Suddenly, the Red Triangle Circus Gang attack, and they are vintage Burton: a group of thugs, some wearing grotesque masks, and members of a strange circus sideshow.  In the mayhem that follows, Batman is summoned, the first time our title hero appears in the film.  As others have pointed out, Bruce Wayne is simply sitting alone in his manor, as if waiting for the signal.  He is bored with the life of Bruce Wayne, and lives primarily for the identity of Batman.  He soon arrives and saves the day in a fairly routine “opening action sequece.”  Selina Kyle, having run out to give Shreck his speech, has been captured by a goon in a classic Damsel In Distress situation.  Batman rescues her easily, leaving her a bit embarrassed and tongue-tied as she tries to talk to Batman (personally, I would’ve rewritten the dialogue here to be more antagonistic, to show that Selina resents the existence of Batman, and the fact that he is a symbolic masculine hero).  Once alone, Selina picks up a taser from the fallen goon and keeps it, seeing it as a sign of empowerment.  The gang’s leader, named the Organ Grinder (played by the great character actor Vincent Schiavelli) asks for the man in charge: Shreck, silly, not the mayor; a pretty simple but still poignant joke and social statement.  Chip, loyal as ever, tries to defend his father, but Shreck is eventually abducted.

There is a wonderful swooping shot over the dilapidated Gotham zoo and circus, consisting of visually arresting miniatures.  Shreck awakens in a hellish lair (part sewers, part circus) of freaks, clowns, and penguins, before being addressed by The Penguin himself.  The scene that follows makes one thing clear: The Penguin IS evil.  Yes, his life is tragic, and we do sympathize with him, but there is no denying that he has evil intentions.  In this first scene his personality is established as sarcastic, talking in various expressions, sadistically toying with Shreck and his gag umbrellas (why would a man living in the sewers have umbrellas?  Presumably, his clown friends got him hooked on the gag aspect of these props).  In fact, despite living in the sewers, he seems to know all about Gotham as well as Shreck’s activities, and we learn he even took the time to tape together one of Schrek’s incriminating document that was shredded and thrown away.  Having lived off the trash and refuge of Gotham has made him savy to its corruption and how it can be played.  Using his information, he blackmails Shreck into orchestrating his return to the outside world.  Make no mistake about it: the Penguin is an evil mastermind.

Meanwhile, Selina gets home to her apartment, and we catch a further glimpse of her sarcastic nature.  She walks in with a smug “Honey, I’m home.  Oh, I forgot.  I’m not married.”  (I always thought that line was so corny, even if meant in sarcasm).  She talks to her cat, Miss Kitty, but we see she is actually talking to herself; the cat serves the role of her identity at this time.  The Selina in this scene is different from the neebish secretary: she is cynical, criticizing her own shortcomings and existence.  Perhaps we are all like this; on our own we are assertive and critical, but when interacting with others we close up and become less than we are capable of.  Selina also has a sexual nature, or at least sexual sense of humor, as she asks about Miss Kitty’s sex life, and keeps an ironic neon sign in her apartment that says Hello There.  Sh also keeps stuffed toys and a dollhouse, suggesting a state of arrested development.  In taunting herself for not being able to find a man, she shows that she feels betrayed by having believed in the Little Girl Fantasy of storybook love.  Listening to her voicemails, she is disgusted by an automated ad for perfume that sells the idea of attracting a man.  Again, Selena is repelled by this fairy-tale ideal, that has been so untrue in her own life.  Finally, in a moment of ironic humor, she gets a message from herself telling her to return to the office for missing paperwork.  Apparently, she had forseen that she would forget the paperwork, and she was right.  While at the office, she encounters Shreck, and reveals that she knows his power plant is a dishonest operation to steal Gotham’s energy surplus (why she reveals that she knows this is not clear.  Presumably, she wanted to impress her boss).  Shreck, who never thought much of his secretary, is alarmed that she is smarter than he thought.  He reveals that he is doing all this to leave a legacy for his son; again, Chip is the driving force in his life.  There is a wonderful suspenseful moment of buildup, and then he pushes her out the window.  What follows is a scene of pure surrealism as every single alley-cat of Gotham crowds around her and apparently revive her.  This is the most overtly fantasy moment of any Batman film.  The dazed (and probably brain-damaged) Selena returns to her apartment, insanely drinking milk.  She plays her voicemails, and is set off by another automated ad for perfume.  The ad is absolutely disgusting and chauvinistic, telling women that the perfume will attract the sexual attention of their male bosses, thus inviting behavior that normally would be considered harassment.  In Selina’s case this is even worse because it suggests the idea of Shreck being a sexual interest for her (an idea that comes up again later).  The ad then concludes by mentioning Schreck’s department stores by name, sending Selina into a rampage.  She waves her arms in the air like a monster in a B-movie.  She destroys her apartment, particularly the symbols of her child-like nature (the dolls and dollhouse, etc, though I don’t really get the significance of spray-painting everything black).  In destroying her childhood-existence, she enters a rushed sexual maturity, becoming a fantasized version of a Vixen.  She destroys some of the neon sign, so that it now says Hell Here, and finally, constructs the Catwoman costume.

The next day, the Penguin makes his elaborately-staged entrance.  As Mayor Hill is giving a speech, a henchman of the Red Triangle Circus gang kidnaps his baby, making sure to be seen by everyone, before jumping in the sewers.  The Penguin reveals himself to the citizens of Gotham with the baby.  Anyone with a brain would easily be able to see that this whole event was staged, but of course, brains are not a commodity than any citizen of Gotham could ever hope to have.  Interestingly, the Penguin was cast into the sewers as a baby, and now returns carrying a different one; his performance implies he has saved another baby from serving his own fate.  With this noble deed, along with the instant display of support from Max Shreck, the Penguin quickly becomes a popular figure.  It must be said that, despite his grotesque appearance, the character is able to radiate a sort of charm, due both to Danny DeVito‘s performance and Stan Winston’s makeup.  The satirical element of the film is in full swing now, as the idiotic media jumps on this new celebrity.  The Penguin appears on TV, garnering sympathy, but in a very tongue-in-cheek speech, calling himself “a child that was born” (looks at hands) “a little different.”  Note the way he words his speech: “All I want in return is to find my mom and dad…find out who they are, and thus-ly, who I am.”  Bruce Wayne sees this broadcast and these words in particular are the ones he connects to.  A person builds his or her identity based on who his or her parents are.  However, Bruce found his identity as Batman specifically by losing his parents, and Oswald Cobblepot found his identity as The Penguin from the abandonment of his own.  The Penguin attends the Hall of Records while aggressive paparazzi are kept outside.  When one reporter angrily points out that the press has a First Amendment right to learn the Penguin’s story, Shreck responds with the ironic reply: “It’s Christmas, give the Constitution a rest,” implying that sentimentality is above the law.  Inside, the Penguin begins to make a long list.  Meanwhile, Bruce has been obsessively researching the Penguin, much to Alfred’s disapproval.  “Why are you now determined to prove that this Penguin is not what he seems? Must you be the only lonely man-beast in town?”  Perhaps the Batman persona is indeed damaging to Bruce, forcing him to obsessively look for evil, and keeping him from being normal.  Yet, we also know that it is a good thing Bruce is suspicious; his instincts are keeping him from being fooled like the rest of Gotham.  It would seem that the Batman side of his personality is necessary in order to keep him from being as stupid as the townspeople.  Soon he finds a circus ad mentioning “Bird Boy” and a later article mentioning the close of the circus due to missing children, as well as a freak escaping.

We never get a full backstory of how the baby dumped in the sewers grew into the man known as The Penguin, but this would be a suitable theory: the deformed baby was adopted by the group of penguins that apparently escaped the nearby circus.  This was responsible for his walk and bird-like mannerisms.  Eventually the circus found him and adopted him as part of the freak show, during which time he presumably learned to talk, read, and write, but also kidnapped and murdered children visitors of the circus out of jealousy for their happy childhoods.  When the circus was shut down he escaped, but managed to attract a crew of renegade clowns and freaks, probably again due to his charm and wit.  Thus the Red Triangle Circus Gang was formed, and he became their crime boss.  Being written about in tabloids as the penguin-man, he adopted Penguin as his name.

The Penguin visits his parents’ grave.  Burton’s camera makes special notice of the cross on the tomb.  This cross is a complete mockery of a religious symbol and here represents irony: the Cobblepots were both morally degenerate people, and the Penguin’s bow to the cross is done merely for the benefit of the reporters watching.  [One has to wonder: what would’ve happened if the Cobblepots had still been alive whe their son returned?  Would they have publicly rejected him?  Would they have welcomed him, merely for the sake of publicity?  Would they have interfered with the Penguin’s evil plans?  We’ll never know; however the fact that he is denied the chance to ever reconcile with them does make his story all the more tragic].  The Penguin turns to the reporters and announces his identity as Oswald Cobblepot.  Oswald then puts on a show of corny lines, such as “I was their number one son, but they treated me more like number two.”  He also refers poetically to a penguin as “a bird that cannot fly.”  This is an interesting contrast to Bruce’s association with bats, which do fly but are not birds.  This says something about their situations: Oswald is accepted by society but will try to destroy it, while Batman serves justice but will always be society’s outsider.  Upon Oswald announcing forgiveness of his parents, the imbeciles of Gotham City stupidly gossip over headlines, including a couple who deliver the following sitcom-ish exchange:

“He’s like a frog that became a prince.”

“No, he’s more like a penguin.”

You can almost hear a trombone fanfare accompanying the punchline of this joke.  However, as the couple walk off-screen, we see a woman being mugged by an alley, only to be rescued by Catwoman, finally revealed in her fetishist costume.  However, Catwoman then chastises the woman for being a classic Damsel In Distress and “making it so easy for a Batman” to rescue her.  She announces her presence as Catwoman with a sexual “Hear me roar!”  (Personally, I think Pfeiffer is way too over-the-top in this scene, but I guess she has the excuse that the character is brain-damaged.  The first time my mom saw this scene she responded: “They must be paying her a lot of money to embarass herself like that.”)  This scene sets up the ongoing question of Catwoman’s allegiance: is she a vigilante, a villain, or an anti-heroine?  It would seem that she herself is not sure, and will spend the remainder of the film in a brain-damaged state with a not-so-clear motive.

The next day Bruce meets with Shreck, but the two show disdain for each other.  Bruce has zero intention of funding Shreck’s power plant, and openly refers to Oswald as a crime boss.  The meeting is surprisingly interrupted by Selina, looking sexier and more confident than ever before.  Bruce becomes so smitten with her that he makes the most basic mistake imaginable: he forgets his secret identity, letting it slip that he saw her once before.  When she catches this, he clumsily says: “Sorry, I mistook me for someone else.”  For Batman to make such a rookie mistake, even over a woman, is extremely alarming.  Shreck is also amazed that Selina has survived (apparently he didn’t even think to look for her body after pushing her out the window.  Did he not think that his secretary’s corpse being found right outside his building would draw suspicion?  Unless of course he is so powerful that he owns the Gotham police).  However, Selina is confused and a bit unstable.  She claims to have amnesia and reveals a few comical anecdotes about Catholic school.  It would seem that the brain-damaged Selina has little idea what exactly is going on; now that she has unleashed Catwoman, she is unable to return to a normal life.  She walks Bruce to the elevator, and the two show mutual attraction for one another.  Shreck confers with Chip who, as usual, seems fully aware of his father having tried to murder Selina, but is loyal as always.  However, as Shreck is more concerned with his new find in Oswald, he decides to forget about Selina for the moment.



[I realize that in a more traditional structure, Act II really begins earlier, perhaps around the time the Penguin makes his entrance.  However, I am labeling the beginning of Act II to be this spot, as it is specifically here that I believe the film begins to fail.  Were it up to me, I would’ve re-written this entire portion that I dub Act II].

Shreck visits Oswald and mentions that he has a surprise downstairs.  Oswald seems more interested in his mysterious list, but is motivated when Shreck offers him a dead herring.  This is the only time we ever see him eat anything, and it makes one wonder just what Oswald’s diet consists of, given his large girth.  Once downstairs, Shreck reveals his intention of running Oswald for mayor, and thus finally gaining political support for his power plant.

[Personally, I find that Oswald/the Penguin behaves out of character during this scene.  Up until now he has come across as intelligent, a mastermind, fairly in charge of what he’s doing.  In this scene he comes across as a dumb lug, more animalistic than previously seen, and easily manipulated by Shreck.  He growls like the Frankenstein monster.  Furthermore, he starts to show signs of being a lustful pervert, with lines like “I’d like to fill her void” and “I want you, Mayor Cobblepot.  That’s the biggest parasol I’ve ever seen.”  I realize that given his deformity, he has probably never been with a woman, but such dialogue undermines the character’s dignity].

Oswald is introduced to Jen and Josh, two caricatures of image consultants who feel like they belong in a SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE skit.  The two butter up Oswald with superficial comments and fake laughter, even giving him his father’s cigarette-holder (a trademark of the traditional Penguin character), until Oswald bites Josh’s nose.  He then continues talking to Shreck, despite blood dripping from his mouth and chin, considering whether or not he should indeed run for mayor.  Alas, if only it were possible to go into the film and stop Oswald from going any further.  He has already won!  After a lifetime in the sewers, he has been accepted in the outside world, become a popular celebrity, and given the chance to live a normal life with this new identity of Oswald Cobblepot.  But Oswald.is persuaded by Shreck’s promise of “unlimited poontang,” and so sets his henchmen to go on a crime spree in order to create panic and undermine public confidence in Mayor Hill.  Batman quickly interferes.  In an extremely slapstick-ish scene, Batman knocks out various thugs, using his little gadgets and toys.  He confronts Oswald in a scene with comic book-ish dialogue (“You don’t really thinkg you’ll win, do you?).  Meanwhile, Catwoman is desecrating one of Shreck’s department stores, a clumsy and indirect attempt at getting revenge on Shreck.  She eventually blows up the store, and attracts the attention of Batman.  As he goes after her, she fights back, leaving Batman as confused as we are:

[Catwoman is hit]

Catwoman: How could you? I’m a woman.

Batman: I’m sorry, I-I…

[she hits him]

Catwoman: As I was saying, I’m a woman and can’t be taken for granted. Life’s a bitch, now so am I.

As with before, Batman alarmingly lets his guard down, due to his attraction.  How is he to respond to Catwoman: as an ally, a villain, or a love interest?  Eventually she escapes by falling into a truck of kitty litter and Batman is left astounded and alone.

Oswald continues his campaign against Mayor Hill, and is instantly adored.  He also continues to lust after bimbo supporters and talk about groping people.  He has fully embraced his identity of Oswald Cobblepot, no longer wishing to be called “Penguin” by his goons.  Perhaps if he were to become mayor, he would give up his vendetta against Gotham, and even retire from crime altogether.  But before anything can happen, he is visited by Catwoman who wishes to form an alliance to take down Batman.

[Again, I feel this is a sort of tacked-on, unnecessary episode in the middle of the film.  The Penguin and Catwoman plotlines have functioned perfectly fine independently of each other up until now, and to form an alliance only to break apart later on makes the whole story feel less cohesive.  Furthermore, up till now Catwoman has played the part of a morally ambiguous rogue, or “stray cat.”  Having her suddenly become a more traditional villain with a plot against Batman is less interesting.  Also, why does she choose to befriend Oswald?  Presumably, she witnessed from his encounter wit Batman the night before that there was animosity between them, but still, isn’t it odd that she would befriend someone who is visibly working along-side Shreck, the man she despises more than anyone?].

Catwoman and Oswald exchange various sarcastic quips and sexual double entendres: they are a classic Vixen and lusty old man.  She pops a canary in her mouth, which apparently bothers Oswald since he considers himself part-bird, so he threatens a cat until she lets him go (there’s a sequence of events I never thought I’d be describing).  He then makes a bat-shadow with his hands, and she then teases him by saying she will give herself a bath…and then licks herself in feline form, which he seems to enjoy watching anyway.  If the description of this whacky scene does not strike you as cohesive, trust me, neither is the scene itself.  Oswald “challenges” the mayor during a press conference to reschedule the lighting of the Gotham City Christmas tree the following evening, with the faith that Batman will show up to keep the peace.  While Bruce is easily able to see this is a trap, the event is indeed rescheduled for the next night, a sad sign of how easily Mayor Hill can be manipulated.  However, Bruce runs into Selina during the day.  It is worth noting that she is standing in front of a toy store, looking at a dollhouse, similar to the one she destroyed.  If only she could return to childhood, or her original child-like existence.  “Why are you doing this?” she asks herself.  As in the earlier scene when she first met Bruce, she appears to be in an eternally confused state when her Catwoman costume is off.  What exactly does she want?  Selina doesn’t seem to know any more than the audience does.  When Bruce greets her and says “It’s nice to see you in the real world, away from Shreck,” she responds with a strange discomfort.  “Well, it’s nice to be here.”  The real world has become foreign to her.  He asks her over for dinner that night, and despite her kidnapping plan with Oswald, she accepts, due to her attraction.  Meanwhile, we are introduced to the Ice Princess, a cardboard-cutout bimbo participating in the tree-lighting ceremony (outside of Selina/Catwoman, every single female character in the film is either a bimbo, a caricature, or heartless.  It is no wonder that Selina has so little to aspire to in this world).  The Ice Princess is is rereading her script (she stupidly has trouble remembering to push a button, the only action required of her performance that evening), when Oswald walks in.  She apparently doesn’t follow the news as she has no clue who he is, and instantly falls for his charade of being a talent scout, saying: “You know, I don’t just light trees.  I’m an actress as well.”  She is easily abducted.

Over at Wayne Manor, Bruce and Selina, two lonely people with shattered lives, easily start to connect.  He reveals that things did not work out with his previous girlfriend, Vicky Vale, because both she and him had trouble reconciling his two identities (which he refers to as “two truths”).  When Selina asks further about Bruce’s duality, he grows hesitant, and says he worries that Selina will think of him as “a Norman Bates, Ted Bundy” type (how ironic that Bates is fictional while Bundy is real).  While much of this film has been an unflattering portrayal of Batman, the worst is to hear Bruce describe himself this way, and stranger still, Selina does not even care, as she herself relates to it.  Is Batman as disturbed as such psychopaths?  Is he any better than the villains he persues?  The two kiss in a moment of passion, almost discovering each others scars, before learning on the news that Batman has been framed for kidnapping the Ice Princess.  A screwball comedy of sorts follows as Bruce and Selina must each run to the crime scene as their alter egos, each trying to keep this secret from the other, and each trying to get Alfred to give the other a contrived excuse.  Although both are attracted to each other, neither one is capable of living a normal life as long as they each live in their current state of duality.  Batman arrives at a building over Gotham Plaza where the Ice Princess is being kept.  That Batman would be lured out by a classic Damsel In Distress scenario was no doubt Catwoman’s idea.  He attempts to rescue the Ice Princess, but Catwoman quickly tries to tackle him (how ironic that only an hour earlier these two were kissing passionately, though neither one knows this).  The Ice Princess manages to escape, but Oswald causes her to fall off the building, comically landing on the button she was supposed to press and successfully lighting the Christmas tree after all.  Batman is seen on the building and is instantly incriminated in the eyes of Gotham City; he has fallen right into the plans of his adversaries.  As the cops come after him, Batman has one more encounter with Catwoman, and they have an exchange about Mistletoe.  Despite the attraction once more between them, he escapes.  Meanwhile, Catwoman is upset with Oswald since the Ice Princess was not supposed to die (though exactly how they had planned to defame Batman if the girl was to remain alive is not really clear.  Would they erase her memory somehow?).  When she rejects Oswald’s sexual advances, he gets rid of her; in typical Burton fashion, his form of doing so is one of limitless invention and eye-candy.  He wraps her up in one of his gag-umbrellas which reveals propellers, and carries her off into the sky.  Meanwhile, Batman arrives at his vehicle.  It is perhaps one of the few times we have ever seen Batman truly fail, and retreat from a confrontation in shame.  But upon entering the Batmobile, he learns that Oswald’s goons have hijacked it and now Oswald is able to control the car (exactly how the goons knew where Batman would park when arriving is a bit of a mystery).  Oswald sends Batman on a reckless drive through Gotham, all the while taunting him, and saying the line that will be his downfall: “I played this stinking city like a harp from hell.”  Eventually Batman is able to regain control of the Batmobile and escape the cops.

The next day, Oswald gives another campaign speech, blaming Mayor Hill for placing all his trust in Batman, who apparently has turned out to be a killer.  Selina watches bitterly from afar.  This cuts to a strange scene between Bruce and Alfred.  Alfred mentions that they must repair the Batmobile, but it will be tough to do so and keep security, and Bruce replies with a sarcastic criticism about Alfred letting Vicky Vale into the Bat-Cave.  What?  My guess is that fans must have had criticism about Alfred doing this in the previous film, so Burton decided to respond to them here, but it does seem like a bit of an incoherent conversation.  Bruce then descends into the Bat-Cave through a trap door in a relic Iron Maiden.  Certainly a unique symbol to use for descending into an underworld, i.e. becoming Batman.  An Iron Maiden pierces the body with spikes/nails that are strategically placed so as NOT to damage any vital organs, thus dragging out the torturous death from blood loss.  The victim is also forced to remain standing; much as Bruce must endure as Batman, even if it a tortured existence.  Opening the Iron Maiden will instantly kill the victim, and we will see what this would do to Bruce Wayne’s psyche as the film continues.  Once in the Bat-Cave, Bruce uses his computer system to somehow hijack the loudspeakers at the speech and play the taunting comments from the previous evening, fully exposing Oswald as a phony and manipulator.  Oswald stands on stage humiliated as his supporters walk off, including Shreck.  In a somewhat cliched scene, the audience begins pelting him with vegetables, leading to a moment of self-parody with Oswald commenting (almost directly to the film’s audience) “Why is their always someone who brings eggs and tomatoes to a speech?”  Eventually he shoots at them with his trick umbrella, now making himself a full-fledged criminal.  Chased by cops, he runs into the park and jumps off a bridge into the river, the same bridge his parents dropped him from.  His attempt at fitting in with the outside world has failed, so he is exiled once again, from the very same spot in fact, into the sewers.

It is worth noting that Oswald ultimately brought about his own downfall.  Shreck did manipulate him into running for mayor, but was then completely uninvolved in any plans to make an enemy of Batman.  It was Oswald’s own choice to go after Batman, even before Catwoman approached him.  And he did say the “I played this stinking city” line freely, even if he was unaware that he was being recorded; this was his true opinion and Bruce is not distorting it in any way.  So with all due respect, Oswald has no one he can truly blame but himself.

[In the final act, the film finally loses its satirical style and takes on elements of a more conventional superhero movie, but with a surreal dream-like atmosphere.  In other words: things get pretty crazy from here on in].
The Penguin returns to his hellish lair (still half sewers and half circus) which is in some ways a parody of the Bat-Cave.  But whereas Bruce Wayne enters through an Iron Maiden, the Penguin makes his entrance on a giant rubber duckie.  No real explanation is ever given for this; it’s just part of Burton’s token strangeness.  In contrast to the earlier scene, he now rejects being called “Oswald” by his goons, embracing his original identity as “the Penguin.”  He explains his master-plan: they will murder all the first-born children of Gotham in retaliation for how the Cobblepots treated him (whether or not he would’ve gone through with this plan had he actually been elected mayor will remain unknown).  This is of course a mockery of the Tenth Plague of Egypt, recounted in Ex. 11:1 – 12:36, in which God flat-out murders every single first-born male in Egypt, in retribution for years of enslaving Hebrews.  This episode of scripture is often cited as a portrayal of Yahweh at his most bloodthirsty, and many modern Christians to this day have difficulty reconciling their faith with Yahweh’s cruel actions throughout the Old Testament, and particularly the Tenth Plague.  We have already established the Penguin as both a mockery of Baby Moses and as an anti-Christ figure, so perhaps it makes sense that he would position himself as a cruel God, mimicking such actions.  He hands out his mysterious list to his goons.  When one of them shows reservations about going after innocent children, the Penguin shoots him dead on the spot, cleverly setting up a plot point that will come up later.
Meanwhile, Bruce had decided to attend Shreck’s masquerade ball simply out of hope to see Selina again [exactly what Shreck plans to do now that he has lost Oswald as a mayoral candidate is not really clear.  Presumably, he has attempted to reconcile with Mayor Hill as a last-ditch attempt to somehow still get his power plant funded.  Otherwise, it seems odd that Hill would be attending this party when Shreck has spent the last few days openly backing a candidate running against him].  Bruce finds Selina and the two dance, but her mental state is more confused than ever.  She slowly reveals her plan to murder Shreck.  It seems a bit odd that she suddenly wants to do this now when she could easily have murdered him much earlier in the story.  Perhaps after the failure of her plan to take down Batman, along with being betrayed by Oswald, she has simply given up and fallen back into rage.  Or then again, Selina/Catwoman’s motives have remained confused throughout this entire story, and it’s asking too much to try and make sense out of them.  Bruce whispers into her ear, trying to dissuade her, and as they talk, their earlier exchange about Mistletoe is repeated.  Both are horrified as they suddenly realize one anothers’ identities.  A very vulnerable Selena looks up at Bruce and says: “Does this mean we have to start fighting?”  They begin to head outside to make sense of this.  One can only wonder what would have happened had they actually made it outside.  Would they indeed have started fighting?  Would they each have retired their alter egos and lived a life together?  We’ll never know.  At that moment the Penguin bursts into the room from underground aboard his giant rubber duckie and announces his kidnapping scheme.  He attempts to kidnap Chip, but Shreck offers to be taken in his son’s stead, again proving that his love for his child is in fact genuine and the source of all the scheming he has done.  Even Shreck is able to be a better parent than the Cobblepots were.  The Penguin relents, escorts his prisoner into his duckie, and descends into the underground [interestingly, we never see Chip again in the film.  Given how loyal he was, surely he must’ve tried to rescue his father somehow].
Back in the Penguin’s lair, Shreck is imprisoned in a steel-cage (presumably from the circus act) while the goons, led by the Organ Grinder, are out kidnapping babies.  Interestingly, we see the goons about to encounter Batman, but then the film cuts back to the Penguin as he receives a note from Batman via a monkey.  Rescuing the children is probably the MOST heroic moment that Batman gets in this film, and it happens off-screen.  It also is unclear what happened to the goons, but we can assume that Batman simply turned them in, as he shows later on he is still against killing, despite all this madness.  And so we cross the final threshold of sanity and the movie goes into all-out surrealism as the Penguin sets his army of mind-controlled penguins out into Gotham with rocket-launchers attached to their backs.  He even delivers a darkly-humorous PATTON-esque speech before sending them off.  Groups of penguins engulf the streets of Gotham.  All the while, Batman travels under the city in his Batwing and, with Alfred’s help, alters the mind-control, sending the penguins back.  As the Penguin realizes that the Batwing is headed straight for his lair, he tries to escape in his giant duckie.  Eventually the two collide outside the dilapidated circus.
The Penguin: You’re just jealous because I’m a real freak, while you have to wear a mask.
Batman: You may be right.
It is interesting to note that these words resemble Alfred’s earlier comment that Bruce’s distrust of the Penguin was due to a desire to be “the only lonely man beast in town.”  As the two fight, the penguins arrive and their rocket launchers go off.  A flock of bats emerge at the Penguin, sending him tumbling backwards down into his own lair where he is knocked unconscious.  He has been defeated by not even Batman himself, but by a chance encounter with bats.
Down in the lair, Shreck has just managed to escape his cage when he is ambushed by Catwoman, though he is able to grab the gun from the fallen goon we watched get shot earlier.  Selina’s blonde hair protrudes from her costume; it is falling apart.  It would seem that this is the first time that the Selina and Catwoman personalities are merging.  As more rockets go off outside, Batman glides into the lair and pushes Shreck aside, threatening him with jail.  Selina comments that the law does not apply to a person with so much power, nor to two outcasts such as themselves.  All three exist outside of society.  Batman tries to convince Selina not to commit murder, and pleads that the two of them can live together as lovers.  “We’re the same.  Split, right down the center.”  When Selina, still confused, does not respond, Batman does something I don’t believe he has ever done in any single story or incarnation of the character — he removes his mask in the presence of others (incidentally, it seems to rip off quite easily.  Someone on IMDb once commented “Was his mask made out of fruit roll up or something?”).  It would seem that for at least this moment, it is the end of Batman.  Or rather, this is something that not even Batman could overcome, so Bruce Wayne exposes himself, and becomes as vulnerable as Selina.  Just as the Penguin was offered the chance to overcome his dark side and live a normal life as Oswald Cobblepot, here is a chance for our two vigilantes to do the same; a happy existence as Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle.  But Selina realizes that to give in and live with a masculine hero in his “castle” would be giving in to the Little Girl Fantasy that she’s been trying to fight .  She slashes him, then removes what’s left of her mask.  Shreck shoots at her, but she appears to survive all bullets (I personally would’ve removed Selina counting away her lives each time she is shot, as if needing to explain it to the movie’s dumb audience).  Finally, she becomes a martyr for her cause, kissing Shreck up against an energy reactor, and using the taser she obtained at the beginning of the film.  They are both electrocuted.
[Incidentally, Danny Elfman‘s score is top-notch in this scene]
Bruce runs to their remains but is unable to find her body (THE ABSOLUTE WORST SCENE OF THE MOVIE: Shreck’s corpse is the fakest looking dummy I’ve ever seen.  I realize that in Burton movies, things are going to look “cartoony”, but I am disappointed).  Bruce does not notice the Penguin regaining consciousness behind him and climbing out of the water, preparing to shoot him with one of his trick umbrellas.  However, he accidentally picks a wrong, harmless one, and, still dazed and weakened by his fall, stumbles around, unable to do anything, before finally collapsing to his death on the floor in front of him.  And in one final surreal touch, a school of sombre penguins come out from nowhere and provide a funeral march, leading his body back to a watery grace – a deformed creature that seemed to belong in the wrong world is laid to rest in its sewers.  Batman just watches, completely powerless.  With the exception of rescuing the children, which we did not even get to see, he has been denied his traditional heroism.  Exposed without his mask, and nearly shot in the back by the Penguin — indeed, it is ONLY due to the sheer chance that the Penguin grabbed the wrong umbrella that he is alive now.As I said earlier, the Penguin and Catwoman’s plotlines are really separate and function independently, aside from the thematic similarities.  Yes, certain plot elements are intertwined in both, such as Batman and Shreck, but ultimately they are separate, which is why having them form an alliance didn’t really work.  This is the best cemented by the fact that the plotlines have two very separate climaxes.  The climax of the Catwoman plotline is the central climax of the film, but it is sandwiched in between two climatic encounters with the Penguin, and I have to say, despite the incohesiveness of other parts of the film, the script manages to create a solid climax out of these encounters.
If only the movie ended here.  Maybe it would be too sad an ending; an ending that would imply the end of Batman.  No, understandably, Burton and the studio have added one more scene that intentionally emulates the ending of the first film, though for me personally, the story ends there, in that tragic scene in a watery lair, where circus meets sewers meets hell.  In the last scene, a quiet and pensive Bruce is driven home by Alfred.  As ever, Bruce truly needs Alfred to do everything for him.  He thinks he sees Catwoman, but it is just a stray cat, which he takes with him.  Alfred wishes him a Merry Christmas, leading Bruce to give the somewhat idiotic response: “Good will towards men…and women.”  What, his adventure with Selina/Catwoman has turned him into a feminist?  This feels like it’s trying to be deep, but it doesn’t really have any point.  The final shot pans up to reveal the bat-signal lit in the sky, and then Catwoman (with an apparently repaired costume) appears, as if to set up a sequel.  I dislike both of these images.  The bat-signal suggests Bruce will definitely continue being Batman, while I prefer the ambiguity about this in the previous scene.  And I also would rather not know if Selina survived or not.  But alas, this is the ending of the film.


Now I feel I’ve said pretty much everything about The Penguin and Catwoman, and Shreck is a pretty one-note character.  But what about the title character himself?

As the Variety review said: “Oh, yes–Batman has to fit in here somewhere. Unfortunately for the twisted imaginations of Burton and Waters, the winged one must remain a relatively straight, upstanding character and therefore of limited interest to them. Batman comes to the perfunctory rescue of numerous anonymous individuals through the course of things but actually spends much of his time being humbled and humiliated by his highly imaginative opponents.  One of the pic’s main drawbacks, as with the first, is that Bruce Wayne/Batman remains a relative cipher, a symbol of the force of good rather than a psychologically dimensional character on a par with the evildoers.”

As we all know, Batman receives less screen time than his villains in this film.  In fact, I misremembered Batman as being little more than a passive narrator in a story really starring the Penguin and Catwoman.  But upon rewatching it, I find that Batman carried a lot of weight in the film.  He is more like these two villains than he is like anyone in Gotham.  He also has similarities with Shreck, though these are less emphasized.  As he wages his never-ending crusade against evil, he is overwhelmed by these incarnations of who he could have possibly been.  He tries to stop the militant evil represented in The Penguin and the confused chaos represented in Catwoman, but he is not able to fully stop either one.  He is even denied being able to take out Shreck — Catwoman does that instead.  While he is obviously not evil like the Penguin is, he does live in an exiled state, denied a real identity, and distrusted by Gotham City.  In fact, after they mistake Batman for a killer, it is never known if the townspeople ever exonerate him.  His nightly adventures continue to blur the line between hero and anti-hero; he himself is not sure where he falls.  In this particular tale, he fails as the hero; driven home by Alfred and unable to make sense of Catwoman.

Alfred in turn is a long-suffering parent; cooking for Bruce, driving him everywhere, even helping him alter the mind-control on the penguins.  The “Batman” campaign would fall apart without Alfred behind him.

The Batman of this movie is one that cannot live up to the superhero image that has been set for him — the very same one that Catwoman rebels against.


Once I share this opinion, many have asked me: “Okay, so what would you have changed about the movie?  How would you have rewritten the middle act that you criticize so much?  Would this have changed the third act at all?  Would you have just thrown out the whole thing and started from scratch?  Give us your version of BATMAN RETURNS.”

And the answer is: I don’t know.  I’m not interested in Fan Fiction or what could have been; I’ll once more quote Ebert, as he frequently said to Gene Siskel: “Review the movie that they actually made.”

So others are welcome to write their own versions of BATMAN RETURNS and make any changes they so wish.  Given that there are, as I said, a plethora of Batman stories out there, I don’t feel the need to add my own stamp on the character.


BATMAN RETURNS is neither the best nor worst Batman adventure.  But even in its imperfections, at least we are able to see what Burton was trying to do.  It is a fascinating tale of three freaks, searching for an identity and some sense of purpose in a lonely and cold Gotham City.

Join us next time as we take a look at Batman’s adventures in what is now referred to as The Nolan Trilogy!

8 thoughts on “A Scene-By-Scene Analysis of BATMAN RETURNS (1992, dir. Tim Burton)

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