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Long before The Batman, Tim Burton mastered the art of a dark Batman movie

As the superhero genre grows blander, this 1992 film’s sheer weirdness stands out.

Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) stands beneath a Bat emblem in Tim Burton's Batman Returns

Tim Burton is making his directorial return this week with Wednesday. The Jenna Ortega-led take on The Addams Family was co-created by Burton, who also directed four of its episodes. That makes it the first project Burton has directed since the 2019 live-action Dumbo, which you forgot exists and will forget again after you finish reading this paragraph. But while Dumbo disappointed, early reviews for Wednesday suggest that the director has returned to his Gothic form.

Burton has been offering his unique takes on beloved characters for decades, but he’s never done it quite as successfully as he did in 1992’s Batman Returns. In honor of Wednesday’s premiere, now is a great time to revisit one of the Caped Crusader’s most memorable outings.

The sequel to Burton’s Batman, Returns follows Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) as he attempts to put a stop to the villainous efforts of The Penguin (Danny DeVito), Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer), and a wealthy industrialist named Max Shreck (Christopher Walken). His investigations not only bring Bruce face-to-face with some of his most formidable foes, but also threaten to turn Gotham City against him forever.

If that sounds like a straightforward plot for a superhero movie, that’s because it is. Batman Returns, unlike so many modern comic book movies, is more concerned with conveying its own unique mood than burying you in reams of lore. That results in a film far less narratively involving than Batman Begins or The Dark Knight, but also one that allows Burton’s creative interests to shine far more brightly than they did in Batman Returns’ 1989 precursor.

Burton, famously, wasn’t interested in returning to direct a sequel, only agreeing after he was promised more creative control. Warner Bros. kept its word and allowed Burton to release a superhero movie so odd and dark for its era that it was received somewhat divisively. Now, however, the film is beloved by comic book fans, and it’s not hard to see why.

Visually, Batman Returns is one of Burton’s most effective films. From its signature gothic architecture to its almost monochromatic color scheme, Returns has a look and texture that stands along among superhero movies. There are even moments, usually involving the Penguin, that rank among the most disturbing scenes that Burton has ever filmed.

It’s also one of Burton’s — and Batman’s — hornier films.

Warner Bros. Pictures

Between Danny DeVito’s terrifying turn as the Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer’s slinky portrayal of Catwoman, Batman Returns also features two of the best comic book performances of the 1990s. Together, Pfeiffer and DeVito not only sink into the skins of their iconic villains, but breathe life into Burton’s eccentric versions of them. The result is one of the greatest marriages between director and performers in the comic book genre.

The film also remains one of the best examples of Burton bringing his own take to a familiar property. In Batman Returns, his Gotham City is equally terrifying, cool, and perverse. The same is true of his characters, who have never been brought to life in quite the same way again. Today, Burton is caricatured as a one-trick pony, but Returns is a reminder of just how effective that so-called trick can be.

Batman Returns is streaming on HBO Max.

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