Two Batmen, two vengeful women, one outright masterpiece.
Video courtesy of Warner Bros.

Every week from now until The Batman hits theaters, we're watching Batman's theatrical films in chronological order. This week: Tim Burton's 1992 sequel, and an Animated showcase. Last week: Joker's avant-garde new aesthetic. See you next Waynesday, when the nipples arrive.

Kiss me deadly with a taser, paint my dollhouse black. Batman Returns is the merry Christmas movie that starts when two parents toss their baby off a bridge. The unwanted child floats through a sewer to find new life among, like, penguins. Thirty-three years later, he is Oswald Cobblepot (Danny DeVito), paying forward his own attempted infanticide with a plan to murder the city's firstborn sons.

"I mean, killing sleeping children?" asks one of his minions. "Isn't that a little… uh…?"

He sounds like he's giving a studio note, so assume some directorial catharsis when The Penguin shoots him with a shotgun umbrella.

"NO," the bird man says, "IT'S A LOT!!!!"

A baby sent downstream in a Moses basket grows up to be the Angel of Death — and he dies the same age as Jesus, who shares his birthday. Scramble some Exodus with your Gospel, and remember this Penguin's origin inverts Bruce Wayne's tragic myth into outsider comedy. He's a rich orphan — because mommy and daddy didn't want him. But every fairy tale was fractured before Disney invented happy endings. Nobody walks away happy in Batman Returns. There has never been a darker Batman movie, or a funnier Batman movie, or a more human Batman movie. And there's never been a better one, yet.

Film and Television
Michelle Pfeiffer and Michael Keaton in 'Batman Returns'
| Credit: Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

Consider the two big scenes with Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer) alone in her apartment. In my memory, Selina's transformation was the Not Another Teen Movie joke: Lose those nerd glasses, ya secret beauty! Yet before she goes feline, her genial self-loathing would fit in any thirtysomething dramcom. Her best pal is a stray cat known for exotic "sexual escapades." Some rando boyfriend breaks up with her via answering machine. The metro's loud outside her window. Dry cleaning hangs off doorknobs.

She calls herself a "working girl," and I guess you could critique Returns for ambient spinster imagery. I don't think Selina is lonely because she needs a man, though. She's lonely because the city is cruel. (Think Audrey Hepburn but Fritz Lang.) This was the last time production designer Bo Welch worked with Tim Burton, after Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands. It's their apex: Space Age backdrops, underworlds oozing neon, campaign posters that look like wartime propaganda, a ruined zoo gone cryogenic, many many giant statue faces staring straight at the viewer. So Selina's decayed-pink apartment seems to collapse inward, with a diagonal ceiling beam that almost blocks the fridge door. When she breaks everything in her place, it's a redemptive act of violence. She seems to be fighting back. Some days, you just gotta stick your dolls down the garbage disposal.

There's more going on in those sequences than in whole multiverses of superhero saga. And what a swirling plot! Selina works for Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), a power broker who wants to literally break Gotham's power. He's a predatory monster boss even before he pushes Selina out a window. Shreck partners with the Penguin because he needs a new Mayor. Catwoman partners with Penguin to take down Batman (Michael Keaton), even though she's romancing Batman when they're un-costumed.

That's right: Batman, the lucky goon, is in this movie! The screenplay by Daniel Waters (sharing a story credit with Sam Hamm) renders Bruce as the third lead. That means two narrative equals are clashing when Batman meets Catwoman. (I'd argue you're closer to Selina, a likable average person with a legit grievance quest.) He barely knows what to make of her vampy femme fatale act. She massages his body armor. A smile crosses his face.

Waters also wrote Heathers, and he allegedly gave Demolition Man its demented satire. At this point, those perversions are at least as legendary as Burton's stunning early work — and they don't need to answer for Burton's shoddy later work. The director was at his best here, confidently composing his singular vision. Penguin and Catwoman scarcely resemble their source material. Shreck's an explicit Nosferatu homage. There's an election subplot that no longer seems unlikely. (There are, I admit, too many press conferences.) The camera zooms vertically through Gotham's stratospheres, from sewer grates to sky-high boardrooms, countless rooftops for Catwoman to fall off. The snappy dialogue zings, and can cut to the bone. Listen to Penguin talks about his late parents:

I was their number one son and they treated me like number two. But it's human nature to fear the unusual. Perhaps, when I held my Tiffany baby rattle with a shiny flipper instead of five chubby digits, they freaked. But I forgive them.

DeVito is on another level. He's giving us Shakespeare and Maury Povich. "They freaked": I have to pause every time from laughing. DeVito and Pfeiffer are both zipped and stitched and glued. Every move must have been painful, but some of their finest moments are purely physical: Penguin's death stumble, Catwoman licking herself clean, Penguin shuffling up his spiral staircase, Catwoman screaming loud enough to shatter glass. He's the obvious creature, yet Pfeiffer's equally unhinged. When Shreck and Bruce ask Selina about her head injury, this rambly biographical poem is her answer:

You know, it's a blur. I mean, not complete amnesia. I remember Sister Mary Margaret puking in church, and Betsy Reilly saying it was morning sickness, and I remember the time I forgot to wear my underpants to school, and the name of the boy who noticed was Ricky Friedberg. He's dead now. But last night? Complete blur. Couldn't you just die?

Pfeiffer is playing five levels I can count. She's pretending to be stupid; she's cathartically excavating childhood memories; she's trying to shock the dudes; she might actually be brain damaged; she wants Max to suspect all of the above. Somehow this fascinates Bruce, the one person in the room with no idea what is going on. That confusion is crucial. The mystery he's trying to solve is less Big Sleep than Bringing Up Baby: Who the hell is this woman, and who the hell am I if I really like her? Keaton is the best Batman, I think, for the intrigued look on his face when he licks Catwoman's saliva off his lips.

I was a kid who loved Batman Returns, and now I can barely conceive what my kids would say about it. Do you know how many times Catwoman gets shot by bullets? Did I mention all the kidkilling chat? How grind-y can Batman and Catwoman get? On the other hand, I loved Batman Returns when I was too young for it, and I still successfully became a parent lame enough to worry about it. Don't children deserve to get their minds blown?

And aren't young people better prepared to question authority? Twenty years after Batman Returns, a vastly more successful Batman movie turned its own protagonist into a messianic legend, whose apparent martyrdom inspires a whole generation toward self-improvement. This movie knows that movie is bull. The guy with Christ coding is a phony hero the dumb public loves. The real protagonists are lonely weirdoes whose mutual emotional damage does not miraculously heal each other. It's notable, I think, that Batman's biggest moment in the action-packed climax is non-violent revelation. He removes his mask to show Selina his truth — and then gets knocked unconscious for the grand finale. You can't depend on any of these guys. Catwoman has to set the night on fire. Herself, too.

Batman Returns, Selina Kyle; Mask of the Phantasm , Andrea Beaumont
Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer) in 'Batman Returns,' Andrea Beaumont (Dana Delany) in 'Batman: Mask of the Phantasm'
| Credit: Warner Bros.(2)

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm arrived one year later. But when the animated Bruce (Kevin Conroy) meet-cutes Andrea Beaumont (Dana Delany) at a cemetery, she wears a neck-scarf over a baby blue trench coat, and drives a white two-seater convertible. It's Great Gatsby fashion. Their big date is a tour of a local World's Fair — this, in a movie released in 1993, a century after Chicago's Columbian Exposition.

The creators of Batman: The Animated Series had already blitzed a nation's afternoons with 65 episodes before this feature spinoff. They knew precisely what retro-future landscape they wanted to patrol. This Gotham has casino parking on top of a skyscraper. These gangsters sound pre-Godfather. Joker (Mark Hamill) wields proprietary missile technology.

The most contemporary thing about Phantasm is Phantasm, though nobody ever calls her that. The masked mobster-killer has a hockey-looking facemask: very genre-trendy, think Jason Voorhees or Casey Jones. Her right hand is a blade, because every super-anything in the Image Comics era was at least partly Wolverine. Her cape is ripped like Cobain's jeans.

That's right, "her." Phantasm's biggest spoiler is, frustratingly, the coolest thing by a mile. Flashbacks reveal a secret Chapter 0.7 in Batman's origin story. Andrea was the great love who nearly derailed his lifetime of crimefighting. He gave her an engagement ring; she ran off to Europe. The identity of Phantasm should be a big mystery, with lots of likely suspects. But there are like four characters. When Andrea finally takes off her mask, we're close to the one hour mark in a film that's barely 70 minutes long.

Too bad. Phantasm exudes a calm no other Batman movie even attempts. It's a unique confidence you only get from repetition: Story Number Sixty-Six, with nothing left to prove. There is time for Andrea to fend off advances from corrupt councilman Reeves (Hart Bochner). Alfred (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.) has some quiet chats with Master Bruce. Joker doesn't even appear until the halfway point.

'Batman: Mask of the Phantasm'
| Credit: Everett Collection

The Animated Series turned out to be the sacred Batman text for my generation, and I have to admit it was never my thing. I appreciate how deftly it juggled all the different Bat-tones: psychological tension, carnival absurdity, outright fantasy, street crime. If you like Dark Knight and hate Batman Returns, or if you like the insane Arkham stuff and can't stand any Falcones, or you want all the Bat-gadgets, or you adore Robin's smile — there's something for everyone, and you're guaranteed satisfaction at least some of the time. It's an impressive act of stylistic fence-sitting. I prefer brazen commitment, I guess. Give me the mind-controlled missile penguins, unfiltered!

That little-bit-of-everything problem defines Phantasm's first two acts. The cops are hunting Batman, and he's sad about his parents, and Joker has reprogrammed some robots, and the skyline looks like organ pipes, and the Batcave's computer measures macromolecular polymers. Young Bruce declares that he can't be an ultimate crimefighter "as long as there's somebody waiting for me at home." Pause to imagine Selina Kyle hearing that line on her answering machine.

The last 15 minutes are killer, though, once all the secrets are out. "Look what they did to us!" Andrea screams at Bruce in the final setpiece. "What we could have had!" They're back in the World's Fair, once a "bright tomorrow filled with hope and promise for all time," now a ruin. Conroy makes his Bruce sound desperate, even pitiful. He's still got that old moral timidity. He doesn't want Andrea to kill; he doesn't want Joker to die! Whereas Andrea barely seems to care about her own life anymore. Something special was in the Gotham air in the early '90s. Righteously mad women kept committing murder-suicide rituals to slay the monsters who made them monsters. Their Batmen could not help them. Their Batmen just watched.

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