Three decades after its release, Return of Batman still stands as one of the most iconic movies in the comic book genre. Tim Burton’s classic superhero film set a precedent of dark tones and complex characterization that has become the norm in today’s era of superhero media. The film is so iconic that its influence can be seen in Batman media for years to come. From stellar performances to the classical score, Return of Batman is one of the best superhero movies of all time and only developed further themes in the modern age.
Released in 1992, Return of Batman was the hit sequel to Burton’s cultural phenomenon, Batman. After the “Bat-mania” of the summer of 1989, the highly anticipated next installment reunites director Burton, composer Danny Elfman and Batman/Bruce Wayne actor Michael Keaton. Joined by Michelle Pfeiffer as Selina Kyle/Catwoman, Danny Devito as Penguin/Oswald Cobblepot, and Christopher Walken as industrialist Max Shreck. Following the events of the previous film, Batman has been accepted as Gotham’s guardian and the city begins its Christmas celebrations. These are complicated by the reappearance of the Penguin, who – abandoned as a baby – seeks revenge on Gotham. The Penguin teams up with Shreck, who seeks to tighten his grip on the city through illegal means. Shreck’s downtrodden assistant Selina Kyle stumbles upon his misdeeds, whereupon he attempts to kill her. Selina survives and seeks revenge, transforming into Catwoman.
Return of Batman celebrates 30 years as the most iconic comic book movie of all time. Indeed, Burton’s signature style was much more evident in Return of Batman than in its predecessor. Burton weaved an homage to German Expressionism with a gothic art-deco style, forming a gruesome take on Gotham that influenced much of later Batman media. The 1990s classic Batman: The Animated Series took its design and tone from Burton’s films, including a Batman-themed variation from Elfman. The video game Batman: Arkham City and its sequels feature numerous street scenes that echo Burton’s film noir gothic style, including a building that sports the same giant Cheshire cat’s head that dons the Shreck department store in Batman returns.
Burton’s character design innovated some of the Penguin’s enduring physical characteristics and deformities. Although somewhat long-nosed and quackish than previous incarnations of Penguin, Burton’s inclusion of a more pronounced hook, fins, hunch, pasty appearance, and Victorian Gothic attire is observable. in many Penguin designs that followed. The television series Gothamas an example, featured a penguin in Victorian dress with a pale, pointed face and a pronounced limp.
Just as the physicality of the Penguin has evolved beyond Return of Batman, as are the details of his political intrigues within it. During the Penguin’s election campaign, he remarked that it was all about “touching people… groping people!” The idea of a political figure using his power and influence to take advantage of women for their own sexual gratification has parallels to the accusations that surrounded Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. The Penguin’s grabbing fins recall the infamous Trump interview on ‘locker room talk’. As the Penguin continues to mock every woman he meets, his actions become even more uncomfortable in the post-MeToo era. His slimy and rather pathetic attempts to seduce Selina echoed the sex scandals that rocked Hollywood in 2017. As society becomes more aware than ever of powerful men taking advantage of women, review Return of Batman 30 years later, the film gives another layer and instills greater sympathy and allegiance to Catwoman.
Burton’s Selina Kyle transforms from a woman gone mad into a feminist vigilante, avenging her own oppression and saving women from male abusers. When Max Shreck rejects Selina’s suggestion at a meeting, he remarks to the all-male attendees, “I’m afraid we haven’t gotten the house properly with Miss Kyle.” While the cat reference is somewhat pleasing, the overall attitude and comparison of women to pets smacks enough of misogyny in 1992. But viewed with 2022 sensibilities, the scene becomes even more repugnant. So when Shreck tries to murder Selina by pushing her out of a window, he becomes even more repulsive and mean than The Penguin.
Even the answering machine message, which triggers Selina’s collapse and her ultimate transformation into Catwoman, becomes another metaphor for female oppression. The post is a Shreck Industries ad for a new line of perfumes, suggesting that if worn, his boss may be tempted to ask you to stay late. This message acts as Selina’s “drop in the bucket” and nudges her in her transformation. After all, Shreck Industries was her former employer and her boss, Max Shreck, tried to kill her while she was staying after work. In 2022, the concept of an ad suggesting that a woman’s desires and worth are based on her boss’ inappropriate sexual advances is as laughable as it is offensive. The message reeks of 1990s sexism in which women were meant to be equal by a society that still treated them like sex objects and secretaries and nothing more.
While these feminist interpretations obviously resonated with women when it was released, watching Return of Batman in an era that consciously challenges inherent systemic biases, lends even more credence to the idea that Catwoman is a feminist heroine. Where an audience once accepted its transformation due to circumstance, it now becomes both necessary and welcome for an audience that actively encourages it. Plus, a modern audience can further expand and interpret Catwoman’s signature line, “Life’s a bitch, now so am I!” The term was certainly highly controversial back in 1992, but the 21st century has seen attempts to positively reclaim the word. Catwoman’s ownership of the term maintains its new feminist identity until a 2022 interpretation.
Pfeiffer’s Catwoman certainly enjoyed unprecedented characterization and development compared to previous and subsequent incarnations of the character. Meanwhile, Michael Keaton’s Batman has seen a resurgence in popularity following the introduction of multiverse crossovers. His role as Bruce Wayne was so influential and beloved that Keaton is set to reprise his Batman for the upcoming DC Extended Universe. The Glow (due June 23, 2023) and will also return as Batman for HBO Bat girl. Keaton’s return is eagerly awaited by fans of the franchise eager to determine just how involved his Batman will be. In fact, rumors are swirling that Keaton, Pfeiffer, Burton, and Devito will return for another Batman outing, based solely on Batman’s Return lasting success.
Return of Batman maintained a legacy into the 21st century. The Christmas decor has inspired many fans to include the film in their festive traditions, as has the phenomenon around die hard. Its subsequent inclusion on Netflix’s Christmas movie slate encouraged viewers to reconsider it beyond just superhero fodder. In fact, during a Christmas rewatch, many noticed the appearance of actor Doug Jones during the opening scenes of the film. Playing one of Penguin’s clowns, Jones is known for his magical characters, like Abe Sapien in the Del Toro Hellboy series and Billy Bones in the equally iconic Hocus Pocus and its upcoming sequel. Spotting Jones facing off against the Caped Crusader without his usual prosthetics thrilled many fans who had never noticed him before.
Many Iconic Burton’s Moments Return of Batman can be seen in later superhero entries, most notably the gradual rise of the hero’s head over a cityscape. The similarity between a hero and his enemies is a trope seen throughout the DCEU and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, masterfully pointed out in Return of Batman by Elfman’s score, composing three distinct but interrelated musical themes. Additionally, Catwoman’s iconic fight scenes, characterization, and feminist agenda paved the way for later films led by female superheroes. Burton’s Return of Batman proved to be a powerful installment in the Batman canon, whose legacy continues to come to fruition.