“I liked parts of it, but the whole movie is mainly boring to me. It’s OK, but it was more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie.” Tim Burton’s 2008 confession to Empire rings true for many regarding the director’s 1989 hit flick Batman. Sure, it’s the first movie to take the Dark Knight as seriously as he was in contemporary comic books. And sure, Michael Keaton exuded the loneliness and melancholy nature of the character, albeit overshadowed by Jack Nicholson’s charismatic Joker. Despite that, Burton’s inaugural foray into Batman’s universe is a flawed gem, with some pacing issues, inconsistent characterization, and a so-so storyline. “The best thing that can be said about Batman is that it led to Batman Returns, which was a far superior effort”, states film critic James Berardinelli. And you know what? Many would agree. Here are 10 ways Batman Returns is better than Batman 1989.
10) The Cast is Top-Notch
Michael Keaton, Michael Gough, and Pat Hingle reprise their roles as Batman, Alfred, and Gordon respectively. However, this time, they are joined by a whole host of other incredible talents. This talent includes Michele Pfieffer as Catwoman, Danny DeVito as Penguin, and Christopher Walken as Christopher Wa-er, I mean, Max Shreck.
As with any job, you usually do better work when you enjoy what you’re doing. Pfieffer loved Catwoman since she was a young girl and relished her role while Danny DeVito loved the chance to get evil and hammy as Penguin. It says a lot that while the two found their makeup and costumes uncomfortable, they put everything into their performances. And even though Keaton only played Batman again because of his $10 million salary, he still tops his performance from the previous installment.
9) It’s Not Afraid to Get Graphic
Tim Burton’s visual preferences ooze from every corner of this film. The snow-covered Gotham brings to mind The Nightmare Before Christmas, an animated film Burton would produce a year after Returns. The Penguin scenes, in addition, have Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands written all over them.
As such, Burton isn’t afraid to get graphic in his usual quirky, melancholic style. From the gross black ooze spilling from Penguin’s lips to Shreck mercilessly shooting Catwoman, Burton made the most of his movie’s PG-13 rating. The fact he utilizes it to amplify characterization and enhance the drama rather than for visual exploitation is a great example of why Batman Returns is an underrated movie, especially compared to Batman 1989.
8) Selina Kyle is a Better Love Interest than Vicki Vale
Kim Bassinger does her best with Vicki Vale in the 1989 installment, but there’s only so much you can do with a boring character. While Vicki Vale is a determined, motivated journalist in the Lois Lane vein, there isn’t much more you can say about her. “The bottom line is I knew this was a love story. For Vicki Vale and Bruce Wayne, and also for the Joker as he stalks her,” Bassinger explains in a 2019 THR interview, “I had to be the damsel, I hate to say this, in distress, at the end”.
Vicki was originally set to return as a love interest for Bruce, but an early script containing her was rejected. This is perhaps a blessing in disguise since Selina Kyle is a better love interest for Bruce while being an interesting character in her own right. Both herself and Bruce lead double lives and feel alienated from society, unable to express their true selves outside their costumes. Their interactions are fascinating and their relationship compelling because they are two sides of a single coin.
7) Batman is More Developed
Ironically, despite its title, Burton’s 1989 flick was more interested in Joker than his heroic rival. Sure, we got a sense that Bruce was a tortured soul with a mysterious duality. However, it was only touched upon compared to the follow-up.
In Returns, Batman not only has more screentime, but he’s far more intriguing. This is mainly due to the fact Keaton has a better cast to bounce off. For one moment, we see Bruce relate to the Penguin’s missing parents situation. And, through his interactions with Catwoman, he exposes his vulnerable, lonely side as well as his longing for a soulmate. The Caped Crusader is given far more attention here and the film is better for it.
6) The Action is More Entertaining
Every superhero movie needs entertaining action set-pieces. However, it’s arguable that Batman was lacking in this department. Sure, the clock-tower confrontation is cool, but that’s really about it.
In comparison, Batman Returns stands high above Batman 1989. From Catwoman’s slick acrobatics alongside Batman’s increased physical activity, the film is more creative in terms of the fights. Other props go to the Penguin encounter which forces Batsy to take on a foe half his size yet possessing several tricks up his sleeve. Unlike the previous installment, Batsy faces foes who prove unique physical challenges for him, making fights more fun.
5) The Production Design is Improved
One of the things Burton’s 1989 Batman is commended for is its architectural design. Most of the action was shot in London’s Pinewood Studios on sets designed by English production designer Anton Furst. The result was an idiosyncratic mish-mash of vintage gothic and modern sensibilities, described by Furst “[a]s if hell erupted through the pavement and kept on going”. It was truly remarkable for its time and very Tim Burton.
Now, unlike its title character, Anton Furst didn’t return, since he was busy working on the 1990 Oliver Sacks film Awakenings. Instead, Burton recruited the talents of Bo Welch, who worked with him on Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands. Welch’s combination of fascist and World’s Fair architecture, once again combining classic and modern sensibilities, gives Returns a quirky, almost otherwordly feel. From a visual standpoint, the film recreates the comic book fantasy vibes of its contemporary comics. The result is beautiful.
4) Danny Elfman’s Score is Even More Epic
The ‘Batman’ Theme from the 1989 movie is so iconic that the famed movie composer reprised it for the Justice League 2016 theatrical cut. The score helped elevate the mystery of Batman, as well as narrate his conflicted nature. Given his success scoring a high-budget superhero flick, it’s no wonder Sam Raimi didn’t hesitate to hire him for Spider-Man.
That said, while Elfman’s best-known work is the stuff he did for the original film, his Batman Returns soundtrack is criminally underrated in comparison. Many would go so far as to say it’s even better. The signs are evident the moment the film begins as Baby Cobblepot’s descent to his Penguin destiny is remarkably enhanced by a melancholic choir. From this point onwards, we have two hours’ worth of one of the best Batman soundtracks in existence.
3) The Villains Have More Depth
Now, PSA: I love the 1989 original – and Jack Nicholson’s Joker is a huge part of that. I have no doubt fans who grew up on Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy find his performance too cheesy and over-the-top compared to what those films offer. But to me, Nicholson thrives (and enjoys) playing a classic comic book Joker and he steals the scene regularly from the film’s hero.
That said – I gotta admit. The villains in the sequel are far more interesting psychologically, visually, and characteristically. Writing the Penguin as an orphaned mentally-deranged mutant could’ve gone wrong, but the movie pulls it off and even makes us empathize with his lifelong loneliness in places. Catwoman, meanwhile, teeters flexibly between villainess and antiheroine (much as she does in the comics) and her yin-yang with Batsy is fascinating viewing. Last but not least, Christopher Walken’s Max Shreck is exceptional as a sociopathic businessman using whatever means necessary to reach his selfish goals.
2) The Story is Far More Improved
The 1989 original had something of a simplistic plotline. It boils down to a psychotic clown attempting to create as much anarchy as possible. Now, to be fair, there are some attempts at exploring the psyche of Batman and Joker – however, this never really reaches fits potential. It leaves Batman more shallow a movie than it needed to be.
In comparison, Returns has more going with its story. It centers on a corrupt businessman using a mentally-deranged orphan criminal’s sob story as means of gaining more power and influence in society. It also explores Batman and Catwoman finding a mutual soulmate with whom they truly connect and relate. The story is not only more eventful and entertaining – however, it also has more thematic depth as discussed in our number one spot…
1) There’s A More Compelling Central Theme
The plot of Batman Returns is generally considered an improvement over Batman 1989. However, it’s not just because it’s darker, more eventful, and laced with better characters (although certainly those are valid arguments). The biggest reason is that the movie has more to say underneath than the 1989 original.
What ties Bruce, Selina, Penguin, and Max Shreck together? The answer – they are all societal outcasts. Freaks, if you will. Bruce and Selina connect on this mutual feeling – both are individuals hiding parts of themselves behind masks. As Bruce states outright to Selina near the film’s climax – “Don’t you see, we’re the same – split down the middle”. The most “normal” character of the bunch is greedy business opportunist Max Shreck who manipulates Penguin’s tragic past to obtain more power – yet, even he attempts to murder Selina to hide his true business purposes, showing a psychotic nature beneath his supposed normality. Perhaps, Batman Returns asks, nobody is truly sane or “normal”.
Well, there’s our take! Now, what are your thoughts? Is Batman Returns really so underrated that it’s better than Batman 1989? Or have we got it wrong?