The huge box office success of Batman allowed Tim Burton to pursue a more personal project in the shape of Edward Scissorhands. Mixing gothic fairy tale with social satire and nods to classic horror movies, it was Burton's first truly great work and began his artistic relationship with Johnny Depp. With both critical and commercial success behind him, Burton was free to make Batman Returns much more of the film he wanted. As before, not everything works, but in certain key areas it is a marked improvement on the original.
Whereas Batman felt like a film where Burton was one of many influences fighting for control, Batman Returns is a Tim Burton film first and a comic book adaptation second. Some of the overtly expressionist touches from the first film remain: apart from the continuity of Gotham's architecture, there is the contrast of black and white prams in the credits and the long pan up to the skyline in the final shot. But this film is much more of a gothic fairy tale, as though Scissorhands' close relatives had broken into the Bat-cave.
This shift is most clearly present in the pre-title sequence. Burton's title sequences have always been elaborate, using evocative imagery to pull an audience into the world he is creating so that any initial preamble can be minimised. But the influence of Edward Scissorhands is clear from the outset, with falling snow and the child that nobody wanted - the only difference being that the Penguin is banished from the castle rather than being kept in it. This sequence has a poetic, bittersweet quality which slowly mutates into something creepier; the longer the camera follows the floating pram, the more we start thinking about Rosemary's Baby.
Batman Returns sees Burton putting his stamp on Gotham and the characters in a far more distinctive way. He reworks the theme of outsiders from the first film and plays it out in the visuals to a far greater extent, rather than relying on the characters simply talking about it. The costumes emphasise the fractured nature of the characters, from the stitching on Catwoman's hand-made suit to the Penguin's rubber gloves which stand at odds to his waistcoat and walking stick.
Whereas the first film saw Batman as the hero and ended on a triumphant note, Batman Returns is more nuanced and shows the characters at a more mature and established point in their history. The film expands on the "duel of the freaks" and taps into a central thread of the comics, namely that Batman is no better than the villains he is fighting. Batman, the Penguin and Catwoman are all vigilantes who do what they do because the law has in some way failed them; whatever individual acts of good they may perform, they are all potential enemies of the law, whose level of allegiance to the authorities changes several times over the course of the film.
With this relativistic set-up, it becomes a question of whether the characters use their status, as outsiders and vigilantes, as a force for good or evil. Batman chooses the light, directing his moral compass on the people of Gotham, funded through his/ Bruce Wayne's immense wealth. The Penguin keeps changing his mind but eventually opts for darkness, choosing violence and revenge and over any possible form of redemption. Most interesting of all is Catwoman, who is trapped somewhere between the two extremes. At the end of the film she is still trying to pin down her raison d'etre, trying to reconcile both her personalities to Gotham, her past life and her costumed rivals.
One of the complaints made about this film, and subsequently about The Dark Knight, is that Batman becomes marginalised in favour of the villains. While it is undoubtedly true that Burton finds the villains more intriguing, it makes sense both narratively and thematically for Batman to be on the back foot. Because he has no natural powers - he is not, as the Penguin puts it, "a genuine freak" - it takes time for him to respond to new threats and to defeat his enemies using wits rather than convenient gadgets. There's nothing more boring than seeing a hero brush villains aside with one punch, and the relationships which these three characters build during their various encounters give them a new depth.
Like all the best comic book movies, Batman Returns is centrally focussed on the people trapped within the circumstances of their special powers. With Batman it is doubly interesting because there is no freak accident or supernatural force involved, so that it becomes a moral examination as much as a psychological one. But Catwoman and the Penguin also wrestle with their new identities, and the film is suitably ambiguous as to how far these people have come to terms with who they are.
The best scenes in Batman Returns are those between Michael Keaton and Michelle Pfeiffer, in either of their incarnations, trying to decide how much of themselves they should reveal, second-guessing whether one knows who the other is, and weighing up whether to be lovers or enemies. In one scene they are kissing on the couch, trying to give in to their passions, but also trying to hide the injuries they sustained from fighting under their respective masks.
In a later scene, Pfeiffer is dancing with Keaton at Shreck's ball, having come her to kill the latter at Catwoman. As Keaton puts two and two together, Pfeiffer remarks "does this mean we have to start fighting now?", a line which perfectly conveys the conflict their characters are facing. Pfeiffer's face shifts dramatically in this scene, taking in panic, fear, angst and sadness as she desperately runs through all those questions in her mind. Does she really want to kill Shreck? Can she live with Bruce Wayne knowing that he is Batman? Can she in any circumstance live with herself?
For those of us who are less interested in the psychology of the characters, there is still plenty in Batman Returns by way of popcorn entertainment. Burton may not be the most adept action director, but the set-pieces in Batman Returns are packed full of pyrotechnics and impressive stunts to keep younger viewers entertained. Some of the individual movements feel contrived, such as a gadget which rotates the Batmobile through 180 degrees just so a clown can be set on fire. But in the sheer variety and frequency of the set-pieces, there is something for pretty much anyone.
The flaws with Batman Returns comes less from Burton's vision than from the demands of a blockbuster sequel. The film is rather too long, and in complete contrast to its predecessor has too much plot rather than too little. Christopher Walken is underused for most of the running time, with his evil plots being quickly reduced to an expository sideshow. The film does fall into the Spiderman 3 trap of having too many villains, albeit not so catastrophically as Sam Raimi's effort.
There are also elements of Batman Returns which seem out of a place for a 12 certificate films. Danny DeVito gets a number of unsavoury lines surrounding "filling the void" and "unlimited poon-tang", which come across as more disgusting than funny, even considering the grotesque nature of his character. And the Penguin's encounters with Catwoman tip over so often into sex talk that you begin to wonder whether this film was misjudged or simply given the wrong rating.
Despite its flaws, Batman Returns is an improvement on the original and the best of the Burton-Schumacher canon. Its exploration of the characters is more complex and consistent than before, and Burton's evocation of Gotham is darkly distinctive. In hindsight it was probably for the best that Burton moved on to other projects, since he had taken the characters as far as his talent and interest would allow. One only wishes that Joel Schumacher had taken more care once Burton had handed over the keys.