There’s an impossibly moody-looking city. Penguin is reimagined as a gothic villain. Christopher Walken doesn’t feel out of place at all as industry captain Max Schreck, who walks around in a fucking cape. There are huge, exaggerated emotions and motivations throughout like you might also find in a gothic novel or movie. Penguin’s motivation isn’t “he’s a mobster, idk,” Catwoman’s motivation isn’t “she’s a jewel thief, idk.” Both are motivated by revenge, both are more complicated mirrors of Batman’s own trauma. Batman lost his parents, Penguin’s threw him away like garbage because they couldn’t abide difference. Catwoman literally has nine lives, which she gains in a scene that might be Burton’s masterpiece, capturing perfectly the combination of terror and allure he almost always seems to be striving for on some level. Catwoman weaponizes those nine lives. She also weaponizes her sexuality, wielding it as confidently as she wields whip or claw.
This is the best Tim Burton movie.
There’s snow on the ground. There’s a giant Christmas tree that needs lighting. (The tree lights up, then I press the button. No, wait.) There’s an ice princess. At one point, bound and gagged, I might add. She also gets dragged off for “girl talk” by Catwoman with her whip around her throat. I’m not quite certain I’ve ever been more jealous of a bit character. Henchmen pop out of a giant Christmas present. Christmas is celebrated with a lavish masquerade with moody music. The mistletoe can be deadly if you eat it. A kiss can be even deadlier if you mean it. Good will towards men… and women.
This is the best Christmas movie.
Batman doesn’t stand triumphant at the end. Batman preaches the usual nonviolent centrism, the law and order. “Let’s take him to the police.” The idea of a conventional happy ending tantalizes. I won’t say I don’t understand the appeal. Part of me wants that for Selina. It might not be the ending most true to her character, but is it impossible to believe that she might not really be happy with this outcome? She herself admits it. But in the end her resolve doesn’t falter. She cashes in her second to last life to take down her nemesis.
This is the best Batman movie.
Batman doesn’t stand triumphant in the end, but someone does. Catwoman. She takes down the man Batman naively assumes the law will take care of. She makes that naivety explicit. And she fucking wins. She does so without consequence. Bruce might be as horrified as Schreck when Catwoman advances, each of Schreck’s bullets shaving another of her lives, but she keeps coming, and even after cashing in a life to end him, she still has her ninth life. This is no clumsy metaphor, either. Batman desperately digs through the wreckage that collapses atop the two adversaries, grimly certain that he’ll find both Selina and Max’s grisly remains, but finding only Schreck’s.
This is the best DC movie.
The first Batman film ended with Batman standing atop a tall building seeing the Bat-Signal in the night. Later Batman films will adopt this tradition. But not Batman Returns. We get the same iconic shot, but instead of Batman it’s Catwoman who regards the signal inscrutably.
This might be the best superhero movie.