Note: I made some Batman Returns GIFs for fun. I’ll be adding new GIFs all the time to the GIFs page (see link in banner above), so feel free to swing by and use them however you want (Tumblr, Comment threads, etc.).
Introduction: The following are just some supplemental thoughts on Batman Returns. Whether or not you like Batman Returns probably comes down to whether you like Tim Burton movies. However, it doesn’t really matter whether we like Batman Returns or not. It’s a Batman movie and it’s still entertaining on some level even if it’s horrible. Batman Returns falls into a small group of big budget comic book movies that weren’t directed by committee. In other words, the studio stepped back and gave Burton nearly complete control over the movie. So, let’s break it down.
Director by Committee: I’m pretty sure we all understand the merchandising engine that powers practically every single big budget movie. The studio filters all these considerations into a list of directives that the actual filmmakers must follow. In turn, the filmmakers use those directives to draft the script and eventually make the movie. For instance, the studio can order the filmmakers to include a child character, or a scene that incorporates some vehicle for product placement or possible toy. Keep in mind that the filmmakers only have about 120 minutes to tell their story. By the time you finish cramming in all the things that the studio wants, there’s very little room left over for the filmmakers to put their artistic touch on the movie. Therefore the end product is actually a movie that was directed by a committee instead of an actual director. This is primarily the reason Burton wasn’t keen on returning to direct Batman II (later retitled Batman Returns).
Burton enjoyed the artistic freedom of making Edward Scissorhands after completing Batman ’89. However, considering the massive success of Batman ’89, the studio was will to give Burton almost complete artistic control over Batman II and that’s a huge gamble. I don’t want to insinuate that studio executives are bad and artists are good. Sometimes studio-collaboration makes great films. Sometimes an artist can make a piece of shit. It swings both ways. In any case, it’s worth acknowledging that Batman Return wasn’t overly shaped by toy companies or other merchandising groups. The only directives from the studio was to include Catwoman and the Penguin. Burton complied and the rest is history.
Tim Burton Style & Weak Story: Nearly all prolific directors have a distinct style regardless of what their movies are about. Steven Spielberg made things feel magical. Christopher Nolan has a cerebral slant. For Tim Burton, it’s his visual style and your opinion of Batman Returns probably comes down to whether or not you like his visual style. If you subtract that Burton visual style from the movie, you’re not left with a whole lot else.
There-in lies the problem with Batman Returns. It’s not that anything is particularly wrong with Burton’s style. It just feel like instead of fitting “Tim Burton” into a Batman movie, he’s fitting Batman into a “Tim Burton” movie. There’s something inherently self-indulgent about that approach what makes you questions whether this movie is made for you (the audience) or for his own gratification.
The story is pretty weak, as is detailed in the Batman Returns Therapy video. The Penguin shuffles between several plots and never comes close to accomplishing any of them. His primary plot of kidnapping the first-born sons of Gotham City is foiled off-screen. His plot to blow up Gotham City is foiled immediately after it’s introduced. Alfred is already on top of redirecting the bomb-strapped penguins seconds after they begin their march. Max Shreck’s power plant sub-plot never materializes or factors into the overall plot. Catwoman shows up but doesn’t really do anything to service the plot either.
Not even Batman seems interested in the plot of the movie. When the Penguin flees back into the sewers after the crowd turns on him, Batman doesn’t chase after him. Instead we see Bruce Wayne working on the Batmobile and going to Shreck’s costume party. I guess capturing the Penguin wasn’t that high on his priority list. There’s absolutely no tension or urgency to anything in this movie and that makes it hard for the viewer to care about what’s going on in the story.
Legacy: Batman Returns failed to meet WB’s financial expectation. It didn’t help that hardcore fans were mixed on the movie as well. So, naturally the next two Batman movies are desperate attempts to make as much money as they could. Batman Forever and Batman & Robin aren’t good movies, but on some twisted level they’re better than Batman Returns because they at least tell coherent stories. I can’t decide what’s worse. A blatant toy catalog with the Schumacher Batman movies, or Tim Burton being completely self-indulgent. My moral compass tells me to side with the artist guy instead of the toy company, but then I think about it. Would I rather watch a Coca Cola Commercial, or some guy jacking off? That pretty much sums of Batman Returns for me.