Batman Returns is a mean bastard of a movie. Tim Burton’s Gotham City is inhabited exclusively by monsters: monsters whose insidious natures seep out in discernible deformities, monsters whose evil lurks behind crooked smiles and double-breasted suits. Burton’s Batman is a brooding loner, not a playboy: all stoic glares and placid threats, eerily tranquil as he uses the thrusters on the Batmobile to immolate people. And Burton’s Penguin is purged of his bird-themed gimmicks, adorned instead with flippers, a cigarillo, and a host of sociopathic tendencies. (He tries to kill all the firstborn children in the city because his parents threw him and his baby stroller into an icy river.) In the movie’s third act, a zoo explodes, a chase involving a bird boat with wheels ensues, and everyone but Batman ostensibly dies a very violent death.
This Gotham is a cartoonish, aphotic nightmare world rendered in plastic props, obviously built on vast soundstages; it can exist only as a fictitious place, an overt fantasy. Nothing in it is plausible—even the Bat signal defies logic, its luminescent silhouette cast upon absolutely nothing in the sky. From the demon circus kidnapping children with freak-show trains to the climactic showdown with Batman cruising through cavernous sewers in a speedboat and penguins with rockets strapped to their backs, Batman Returns is Guignol of the Grandest caliber.
Is it also, as so many critics were quick to proclaim upon the film’s 1992 release, really a perversion of Bob Kane’s beloved detective? Hardly: contra Christian Bale’s gravel-throated monologues in the more recent Dark Knight trilogy, Kane’s Batman was always a cartoon character capable of violence. It was the family-friendly Adam West television show that betrayed Kane’s vision, lacing the image of Batman with quirky catchphrases and synthesized onomatopoeia—pow!—in a way that ensured that most people would associate Batman with drawn-on eyebrows and delusional flow-chart detective work for the next thirty years.
It was DC Comics editor Whitney Ellsworth, not Kane, who decreed that Batman would no longer kill; this was a business decision, not a moral one, in that readers couldn’t sympathize with a guy who killed without remorse, and readers wouldn’t pay to read about someone with whom they couldn’t sympathize. But to speak of heritage, look back to 1940, when Batman impaled a Chinese swordsman, threw an American disguised as a Chinese swordsman out of a window, and crushed a crowd of Mongols with a Buddha-like statue; or to two years earlier, in his very first solo issue, where he gunned down a henchman, threw another off a building, and hanged a third from his Batplane. (“He’s better off this way,” Batman said.)
Batman Returns never transcends or eschews this ancestry of cartoonish indulgence or black-as-tar cruelty: it actually flaunts it, wears it as proudly as Hannibal Lecter wears people’s faces. The Penguin is a ravenous, baby-killing (and, for that matter, face-eating) monster, but he’s still a short, fat man with flippers for hands; Batman puts bombs in clowns’ pants and grins as they explode, fleshy debris flying like confetti, but he’s still a grown-ass man in a rubber costume. This collation of the macabre and the silly was the affliction that hurt the film’s reception: it was castigated when it came out, not only by fans who misremembered the original character as a model citizen but also by angry parents, who feared that its extreme violence would corrupt young viewers.
The fervid anger Batman Returns elicited stems from a misconception that cartoons and fantasy are historically, perhaps innately, lighthearted and unbarbed—kid stuff. Burton’s cartoonish aesthetics mock that notion: he delivers nightmares in droves, punishing children for sins committed by parents, channeling the plagues of Egypt and the purgations of a vengeful god while staying rooted in fantasy. Making a Batman film about killing kids, Bible-style, in an era when viewers treated cartoons as children’s entertainment, was his way of staying faithful to the embryonic vision of Bob Kane.
By comparison, Christopher Nolan’s far more successful Dark Knight movies are not cartoonish at all: they’re full of violence and destruction, but permeated by an air of regret about the aftermath. Nolan’s Batman is stout with remorse, a flawed, heartbroken man trying to redeem himself; his villains are driven by philosophies, ideologies, and seek to destroy Gotham and its inhabitants without prejudice. Burton’s Batman isn’t a person at all: he’s a rubber suit with gleaming eyes and a yellow insignia stamped on his chest; as Jack Nicholson’s Joker keenly noted in the first film, his gadgets are toys. And Burton’s villains aren’t terrorists or revolutionaries: they’re cartoons, and they’re ridiculous.
In The Dark Knight Rises, Bane threatens Gotham City with total nuclear devastation, and his ploy feels banal compared to the Penguin’s choo-choo train of death. One scheme is plausible, and it earned a billion dollars; the other scheme is silly, and it earned the ire of parents. Nolan’s trilogy was praised for being “dark,” but what people really meant was that his films were rooted in realism: his Joker’s threats of violence, of chaos and anarchy, felt more plausible and penetrated deeper. His Gotham stands in for any major post-9/11 American metropolis, where the greatest fear is loss of control. Burton’s is hell, torn through the pavement and twisted skyward in expressionistic towers that loom like so many guilty consciences.