Allow me to present my case: Batman Returns, released in 1992 and now reaching its 30th anniversary, is the ultimate Batman movie ever screened in theaters. Here’s why it is considered by many as the best Batman movie in history.
Its appeal lies in its imaginative plot that effortlessly blends dark undertones with a playful spirit. The multifaceted villains range from empathetic to downright malevolent. What sets this movie apart from others is the fact that the character of Bruce Wayne never becomes a burdened, melancholic figure. It’s thrillingly brutal.
Unfortunately, with the official and unexplained cancellation of Batgirl (featuring Michael Keaton’s return as Batman), Returns will likely remain Keaton’s final performance as the iconic superhero.
However, this platform is not intended for scrutinizing the other portrayals of Batman. Each actor who has embodied Bruce Wayne, including Bale’s troubled heir and Affleck’s intimidating brawler, or even Pattinson’s edgy version, has contributed something distinctive to the character. So, let’s focus on a specific scene that epitomizes why Returns is the ultimate Batman movie, even though it does not feature Batman himself.
At some point in the second act of the film, Max Schrek (played gleefully unhinged by Christopher Walken), a business magnate, is persuading Danny Devito’s Penguin (also known as Oswald Cobblepot) to run for mayor of Gotham City. Schrek has enlisted two smug image consultants who begin offering suggestions on how to make the Penguin appear less frightful.
One of them quips, “Not many reflective surfaces down in the sewer, huh?” to which the Penguin responds by sinking his teeth into the consultant’s face, causing blood to spurt out. The scene is simultaneously frightening, amusing, and grotesque, but what makes it truly brilliant is its unexpectedness. This element of surprise is what sets Returns apart: throughout its 126-minute runtime, the film continuously catches the audience off guard.
Despite the Penguin’s genuinely imaginative character development, which sees him being born to wealthy parents before being discarded due to his freakish appearance, he is not the main antagonist in the film.
That role is held by Walken’s Schreck, a villain who is not featured in the comics. Modern studio executives, who rely heavily on algorithmic data, would likely panic at the idea of a new villain in a high-budget superhero movie, but in Returns, it works perfectly. Walken’s character is menacing, imposing, and perhaps most notably, peculiar in appearance. He is an industrialist who is not motivated by psychotic impulses like the Joker in the 1989 Batman movie.
He is not a ruthless henchman posing as the leader of a revolutionary movement like Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. He is not an imitation of the Zodiac Killer, like the Riddler in The Batman. His sole objective is to accumulate wealth and power for himself by manipulating others – such as the Penguin and Catwoman – into doing his dirty work for him.
While Burton is now frequently criticized for producing CGI-heavy movies, in the early 90s, he was still the unconventional visionary who repeatedly clashed with studio executives. Unlike the visions of Nolan or Reeves, Returns presents a Gotham that perhaps doesn’t feel like it deserves to be rescued: its wealthy citizens are clearly morally bankrupt, and the city itself exudes malevolence. (The set design was partially influenced by fascist architecture from the 1930s.)
Burton and writer Daniel Waters also rewrote the original script to deviate from the comics. They eliminated Robin’s character, made Batman less effective, and transformed Selina Kyle from a cat burglar to a spurned secretary.
Batman Returns earned $266 million at the box office, which was less than the financial success of the 1989 Batman film. Despite this, Warner Brothers wanted Tim Burton to direct a third Batman film, but with less creative control. The film, tentatively titled Batman Continues, was supposed to feature Robin Williams as the Riddler and Billy Dee Williams as Two-Face, with Michelle Pfeiffer reprising her role as Catwoman and Marlon Wayans joining as Robin.
However, Burton eventually left the project to direct the Superman film with Nicolas Cage. After Burton’s departure, Keaton and Pfeiffer also left the project. Warner Brothers hired Joel Schumacher to direct the third film, which introduced Chris O’Donnell as Robin, Jim Carrey as the Riddler, and controversially, nipples on the Batsuit. Instead of a third film, a direct sequel to Batman Returns was released in August 2021 as the comic Batman ’89, which featured the introduction of Robin and Batgirl, and Harvey Dent becoming Two-Face, portrayed similarly to Billy Dee Williams.