Okay, trying really hard to weed out pure nostalgia, because this movie is always a treat for me in that it returns me to age 8.
I'm not gonna be too long on this one because there's already a good-sized critique of Batman Returns to be found here, and I find it hard to argue with most of the criticisms, although I find them much less infuriating.
But. Everything in this movie is obvious; there is no mystery. A lot of things seem more interesting than they really are. The Batman/Bruce/Catwoman/Selina thing is a love quadrangle that turns out to be between just two people, but then it’s like, is it just two people? It seems interesting because it keeps reversing itself, but there’s never any question where it’s going to go, so it’s really just a formal interest. Likewise Christopher Walken’s Max Schreck. There’s a certain potential for commentary from Tim Burton here, that the so-called “respectable people” are just as monstrous, if not moreso, than the “freaks,” but it’s not a lesson learned because it’s obvious from the start that this is a bad guy, and all of the characters in the movie (Bruce, Selina, Alfred, the mayor, the Penguin) are already aware of this as well, so it kind of loses its effect. The only people who seem to be fooled by Max are the nameless Gotham crowds; is the Penguin right to call them “pinhead puppets” after all?
I do however, ultimately love Schreck for the reasons you’ll find in that essay I linked to above; he’s an ordinary businessman who thinks he’s a supervillain, and he dresses fancifully and says all these stock villainous phrases, but Walken’s performance is so awkward, deliberate or not, that it exposes him as a poseur. Like that Charlie Caligula character from Grant Morrison’s "Batman RIP"story, who only pretended to be a crazy criminal so everyone would think he was an evil mastermind like the Joker. There’s that intersection of the “real world” and the comics world again.
Danny DeVito's Penguin, however, has no redeeming qualities. I never find him all that compelling, and his vulgar jokes are only annoying. There’s a certain anti-surprise at work here as well. He seems interesting because he seems to be set up as a tragic character, a monster trying to get in touch with his humanity. Sometimes it’s a show, like his over-the-top phony forgiveness of his parents, but when he insists one of his henchmen call him “Oswald” instead of “Penguin,” well, that’s got to be genuine, right? Is his monologue to Schreck at the beginning of the movie fake or real? If it is real, why does he seem to have the plan to kill the first-born sons of Gotham in place from the very beginning? If it’s real, why doesn’t the Penguin find satisfaction when the people of Gotham readily accept him? But if it’s fake, why does the music indicate sincerity?
The impression I am left with is that the Penguin is an irredeemably evil freak, which seems like an uncharacteristic message in a Tim Burton movie. Contrast it with perhaps the most obvious example, Edward Scissorhands, about an individual who is hated and perceived to be evil because of his appearance but is actually good; the Penguin is quickly accepted by the people of Gotham despite his appearance and turns out to be evil all along. Were the Cobblepots right to toss the kid in the drink all along?
Despite the movie as a whole not really hanging together, I find this to be such a likable sensory experience. It’s beautifully shot and wonderful just to look at. The music is some of Danny Elfman’s best (helped in my estimation, in no small part I am sure, by the fact that I had a cassette tape of the score when I was a boy). Michael Keaton’s Batsuit in this movie is as good as the black leather look gets in any Batman film to date. I love the rocket penguins — an almost perfect expression of the mix of absurdity and danger you find in Gotham City. And I think it is a brilliant choice to play Elman's exciting Batman march over the image of the Penguin’s bassinet lazily drifting through the sewer instead of an action sequence; the theme becomes more of an overture, standing apart from the movie rather than being a part of it (although I am almost positive that I am using musical terms totally incorrectly).
But the thing that ultimately elevates this movie is that Burton has chosen to put Batman in a fairytale, and it turns out to be absolutely wonderful. Everything, from that nearly wordless opening “once upon a time” sequence, to the Christmastime setting, is in service to that. How would emperor penguins really “raise” a child, anyway? But you accept it (I accept it, at least) because this is a demented little storybook narrative that Batman has somehow managed to intersect with, and the result is a stylized environment in which a larger-than-life character like Batman can thrive.
Short version: I find this compelling because of Burton’s style, although as a result it’s maybe a better Tim Burton movie than it is a Batman movie.
Next: A landmark (well, a man can dream, can he not?) defense of a film generally hated by fans.