Earlier this week it was Grease 2 turning forty. June is a big release month for epic Michelle Pfeiffer performances and pfilms, so today we celebrate Tim Burton’s phantasmagoria of gothic opulance Batman Returns, which turns thirty. In a world full of people willing to claim that the recent The Batman is the greatest Batman movie we’ve seen yet—seriously, these people exist, and in droves—I am here to flatly and firmly dispute this eroneous claim, because Batman Returns is the best Batman movie ever made. And nothing that’s come before or since has changed my mind yet.
Like Grease 2, Batman Returns is absurdly, insanely quotable. Daniel Waters and Wesley Strick pack the film full of delicious wordplay and double entendres—
Bruce Wayne: “So, uh… no hard feelings then.”
Selina Kyle: “Actually… semi-hard, I’d say.”
Catwoman: “Oh please. I wouldn’t touch you to stratch you.”
And the sort of self-empowering declarations that have made Michelle’s Catwoman an iconic character—
Selina Kyle: “It’s the so-called ‘normal’ guys who always let you down. Sickos never scare me. Least they’re committed.”
Beyond being the sort of movie I’ve been quoting continuously for thirty years now, it’s also filled with uniformly excellent peformances—and one staggerling monumental perforance by Pfeiffer—sumptious set designs that amplify the Gothic-inspired sets of Burton’s Batman (1989) into the realm of nightmare fodder, and darkly fantastical characterizations of characters that often don’t bear much resemblance to the comic book source material, but which take them in such odd and fascinating directions that I don’t even care about that. That last point is worth extrapolating: Burton clearly wasn’t concerned with fealty to the comics, which is a huge reason why Batman Returns is so memorable. By offering his own uniquely bizarre take on the world of the Batman, Burton—and cast and crew—created what still stands as the most unusual and unforgettable superhero film ever made. Can you imagine a studio allowing a visionary director that much latitude with their intellectual properties today? Nope, me neither.
Michael Keaton’s second time out as the Dark Knight offers even more rich and rewarding character moments. So much of his performance is subtle—he requested that Waters cut most of his lines from the script because he felt Bruce/Batman would work best as more of an observer upon the film’s other strange, surreal characters. As Bruce, Keaton broods in a contemplative zen state at Wayne Manor, then jumps up dramatically at the sight of the Bat signal lighting up the night sky. When talking to Selina, he stammers and stares, clearly flustered by his infatuation with her. It’s a beautiful performance and combined with his work in Batman, cements Keaton as the best cinematic Batman we’ve ever had.
Danny DeVito and Christopher Walken as the Penguin and Maximillian Schreck, respectively, are cleary having a grand old time playing such dastardly villains. DeVito really leans into the script’s portrayal of the Penguin as a sleazy, slimy, sewer-dwelling mutant. It’s about as grotesque a performance as you’re ever likely to find in a mainstream summer popcorn movie—and a huge reason why marketing the film to kids was such a fraught proposition. Walken is his usual charming self, making Max appealing at the same time we’re repulsed by his greed and evil actions. You get the impression that his privileged ycoon is more than a little grossed out to be slumming it with the Penguin, which makes for a delightfully awkward criminal partnership.
I have, of course, saved the best for last. While not everyone agrees that this is the best Batman film ever made—despite my continual efforts to make them see the light, dammit—Michelle Pfeiffer’s performance is widely recognized as one of the best of her career, one of the best of 1992 (and which really deserved award nominations), and one of the best in superhero/comic book movie history. She has all the best lines, and she delivers them with flare and ferocity. Here are just a few:
“Honey, I’m home. Oh, I forgot. I’m not married.”
“You poor guys. Always confusing your pistols with your privates.”
“Two lives left. I think I’ll save one for next Christmas. But in the meantime, how about a kiss, Santy Claus?”
“I am Catwoman. Hear me roar.”
We’ve all heard the stories by now, of how Michelle became so adept at using Catwoman’s whip that even her trainer had never seen anyone take to it quite that quickly. She was vacuum-sealed into that incredible costume, which is one of the best and most iconic in live-action comic book movies. That word—iconic—is one I probably overuse when discussing Michelle as Catwoman, but geez if the spiked black heels fit…
If we break down the word “icon”—Merriam-Websters says it’s “a person or thing widely admired especially for having great influence or significance in a particular sphere”—then I don’t think it’s possible to overuse it when talking about Michelle in this movie. Let’s not forget, she crafts not one but two epic performances in the same film. First, she introduces us to the shy and easily intimidated Selina Kyle, Max’s cowering, mousy administrative assistant. As Selina, she’s awkward and fumbling at work, but outside the office has a penchant for talking to herself, sardonically commenting about her lot in life—“The party never ends on Selina Kyle’s answering machine.” Michelle shows us there’s already a spark of defiance in Selina. After being pushed to her death by Max, she is magically transformed into Catwoman—in a scene so outrageously ludicrous it’s impossible not to love—and Selina’s inner fire is given new, bold life. She is Catwoman now. Hear her roar.
Catwoman is all alpha badassery, backing down to no man, in fact, high-kicking them into submission. In some ways I see Michelle’s work as a glorious third-wave feminist take on Julie Newmar’s Catwoman. The actress has spoken at length about how obsessed she was as a kid with Newmar’s Catwoman, so that’s no surprise. Michelle as Selina/Catwoman is the perfect a marriage of performer and character. It’s also worth noting Pfeiffer and Keaton have amazing chemistry, capturing what makes the characters’ relationship so electrifying in the comics, while gifting us with the hottest Bat-Cat onscreen romance ever. Don’t even get get me started on their scene at the masquerade ball—it is, quite literally, cinematic bliss. To think she got the part only after Annette Benning had to drop out of the project. No offense to Benning, but the right woman got the part, and the rest, as they say, is cinematic history.
Michelle’s astonishing performance might be the most obvious reason the film achieves true greatness, but the entire production is worthy of the grandiose title of Greatest Batman Movie Ever Made. Happy thirtieth, Batman Returns. You continue to age like a fine wine.