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Batman Returns Spotlights More Important Villains

Batman Returns photo copyright Chad Alexander.

In honor of Dark Knight’s anniversary, contributing writer Chad Alexander presents a retrospective series about the Batman films. This is the second in the series.

With the financial and critical success of Batman, Warner Bros fast-tracked a sequel entitled Batman Returns. Batman Returns became 1992’s must-see film. Unfortunately, the film did not enjoy the success of its predecessor, only gaining about half of Batman’s box office. The film also caught the ire of many outspoken parents and even McDonald’s, due to its dark settings and scary content.

Despite its shortcomings, let’s look at Batman Returns from a critical perspective. I look at movies using four aspects: Acting, Sound Design, Cinematography and Set Design/Location Scouting — in no particular order.

Acting
The acting in Batman Returns is a mixed bag. The dark humor in the film mixed with gross-out gags and sexual innuendo make the film seem like an adult version of the campy Batman TV series. I wouldn’t say this is necessarily the fault of any actor, but many lines are delivered with the smirks of high school bathroom humor. That being said, Michelle Pfeiffer and Danny DeVito both deliver in their performances as Catwoman and Penguin. The film is one of the first superhero films to convey the villains in more of a sensitive light, giving them both an emotional core and a great story arc. However, Batman doesn’t really change in this version. Michael Keaton does well enough, but he isn’t faced with a trial to overcome, unlike the first film where he confronts the murder of his parents. Batman returns for sure, but only to give the spotlight to the more important villains.

Sound
Danny Elfman once again does a great job composing themes for all of the central characters. The poignant themes of Catwoman and Penguin contrast to Batman’s bombastic score. Although a lot of Danny’s work from this time sounds much like his other work — for exmaple, The Nightmare Before Christmas. Listen closely in the beginning of the film for a small snippet of “Making Christmas.” The sound effects and additional dialogue recording (ADR) are very well done. The “penguin sonar,” Batman’s homing batarang, and Catwoman’s whip exude comic book vibes.

Cinematography
I love the play of light when Michelle Pfeiffer character Selina Kyle is transformed into Catwoman. The shadow of her glasses in the harsh light gives the imagery of cat’s eyes. Additionally, the costume ball in the film is quite magnificent: the multitudes of masked patrons serve as a foil to Bruce and Selina, who are not wearing masks. Their “secret identities” are their true masks. Much of cinematography is foreshadowing, even using shadows to accentuate or give the viewers a feeling of ink on a comic book panel.

Sets/Locations
I enjoy the sets of Batman Returns. The white snow clashes with the blacks and blues and makes the film seem cold and alienating. The Ice Park set is also unique in scope and certainly has a tinge of Tim Burton’s artfulness. It is one of my favorite movies to watch around Christmas because of its Christmas theme.

Gotham seems a little bit smaller this time around. The fact that the sets were smaller this time around may be a factor. Tim also wanted Batman Returns to be completely different film from Batman, and it seems he achieved this goal.

Should you watch Batman Returns? It depends. Did you like the first Batman? Then you should watch this knowing that it is completely different. Do you like character pieces over unoriginal plots? Then you will love this sequel. Make sure to check it out this Christmas on Netflix before it expires January 1!

Tune in next week when I review Batman Begins. Same Bat time…same Bat channel!

Read the first in the series: 75 Years of Batman
and third in the series: The Dark Knight Trilogy Summarizes Batman’s Anniversary

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