In 1992 I was still getting over my Joker-phobia from the first Tim Burton Batman movie. I was almost ten years old and the hysteria over the first movie had long since calmed down, but I still wasn't ready to dive into it and watch a full "adult" Batman movie yet. Reruns of the 1966 TV show were suiting me just fine.
Then I got lucky when a new Batman movie was released: Batman Returns, the sequel to the 1989 smash hit. Michael Keaton was back as The Caped Crusader and this time he was fighting Danny DeVito's Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman. I knew DeVito from reruns of Taxi and Throw Momma From the Train, but I had never heard of Pfeiffer until then. I had also never heard of Christopher Walken, which is just a crazy thing to think about that a Batman movie is how I was introduced to him as an actor. He played wealthy Gotham business owner and socialite Max Shreck who had designs on removing the mayor of the city from power, of course.
I didn't get to see Batman Returns in theaters, likely because my family was convinced that I would be just as, if not more terrified of it than I was the first movie. In fact, my godmother who did see it in theaters was convinced that The Penguin would scare the hell out of me. I could see why she thought that, but none of the commercials or advertisements even fazed me one bit and you saw plenty of Penguin in them. That summer I got a copy of the comic book adaptation of the movie and read it a bunch of times before finally getting to see the movie after imploring my dad to pick it up on VHS, which was a complete 180 from my begging him NOT to buy the first one on VHS just a few years earlier.
I loved it, but in retrospect I don't know why the movie never scared me. It's CREEPY weird as hell in a way that even the first Burton film never touched on. I mean, the Joker's origin is one thing with him falling into the vat of chemicals, going to the plastic surgeon and then revealing himself from the dark to be a grotesquely demonic clown. That's a Saturday morning cartoon compared to the Penguin's backstory, which shows his parents screaming in horror the day of his birth, him being kept in a steel cage "crib" as a baby, eating a cat that got too close to the bars and then being tossed into the river in a bassinet by his parents that no longer wanted him, where he sails the sewers of Gotham during the opening credits before finally winding up at the Penguin exhibit of the old Gotham Zoo, to be raised by them. That's how the movie STARTS.
Fast forward 33 years to present day Gotham, one that looks VERY different from the one in the first Burton film, and Batman is fending off an attack from the Red Triangle Circus Gang during a Christmas tree lighting ceremony in the city. It's all a prelude to The Penguin's return to essentially take over Gotham with Shreck's help as he becomes the feel good orphaned "freak" that will replace the mayor in a recall election. That's the first part of the plan. The other part involves him finding his original parents, The Cobblepots who have long since died, and in the process collect a list of all of the first-born sons of Gotham City, whom he is going to have his clown gang kidnap and kill when the city turns on him. When that doesn't work, thanks to Batman, he resorts to using an army of penguins armed with missiles to destroy the entire city.
We haven't even gotten to Selina Kyle yet, who in this movie is a weak-willed, meek secretary and assistant working for Shreck who accidentally stumbles upon his evil plan to steal energy from Gotham with his new power plant build. When Shreck discovers what she knows, he drops her out of a window into an alley, which DID kill her, but she was literally brought back to life by a swarm of alley cats who find her body and......violate it with a lot of action that we don't see on screen short of Selina's body twitching, her fingers being bitten, the cats slinking across her legs and her eyes erratically blinking until they stay open. It's the weirdest, most macabre scene in the entire movie and it's up to you to decide just what the cats were doing to her.
At any rate, Selina returns home a completely changed woman and sets about destroying her cute and cozy home just before cannibalizing her patent leather jacket to stitch together a sultry, sexualized cat outfit for her new alter ego, Catwoman. You're not totally sure what her goal is other than killing Shreck and destroying his business out of vengeance, but she does aid The Penguin in framing Batman for the Ice Princess' death at the tree re-lighting ceremony. You have to give Pfeiffer great credit for really being able to play two completely different versions of Selina in the movie because her transformation in personality is really jarring and believable in a weird sort of way, despite the fact that it is a completely weird and otherwordly explanation for her existence as a villain.
Seriously, Batman Returns is the weirdest, most macabre Batman movie in existence and that alone makes it a classic one. Tim Burton had definitely done some weird things with imagery, characters and set design in the first movie, but he took it to a "Beetlejuice" level and beyond with the sequel. Had this movie come out today as part of the DC Extended Universe, it would be absolutely skewered for the liberties it takes with all of the characters, including all of the Red Triangle Circus Gang members that Batman openly kills in combat during the movie, and it would be criticized for the continuity "issues" that it has coming from the first movie. Gotham looks radically different, the Batcave is larger and more complex, Wayne Manor has been completely remodeled from top to bottom and has moved further outside of the city, and aside from one or two small references to Vicki Vale there's almost nothing to even note that the first movie ever happened. Keaton, Michael Gough's Alfred, Pat Hingle's Commissioner Gordon and the Batmobile are the only major holdovers from the first Batman movie in 1989.
That being said, does anyone really care in retrospect about the continuity issues with Batman Returns? I really don't at all and that's just another thing about the movie that is weird but somehow works. The fact that the movie really can stand on its own as a solo Batman film while still being a viable sequel is impressive, even with Burton's trademark weirdness all over it. Maybe it is that weirdness and creepy dark quality of the movie itself that allows it to stand alone?
It's amazing to me that Batman Returns is now a 25-year old movie because it really doesn't seem that long ago and yet it has been. It was also the movie that taught me the major difference between Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis in this sense: I had the Batman Returns video game for both systems and they were both action-adventure melee combat story games. The Super Nintendo version followed the movie plot almost perfectly and I never beat it......because I didn't have a Game Genie. I got close though; all the way to the fighting Penguin at the Gotham Zoo at the end. The Sega Genesis version was another story altogether. That game didn't follow the movie at all and had you fighting gargoyles and demons that popped out of the wall and came from the crazy architecture in the re-designed Gotham City for the movie. I barely played it and wasn't even interested in finishing it. That was the day that Batman Returns proved to me that SNES was a better console than Genesis. Sure there are other reasons and that's just a personal preference for me, but I stand by that even today.
Batman Returns didn't do as well as Batman 1989 at the theater, but it was still a successful sequel and continued the Bat-mania through to the Animated Series in the same year, and the rest of the movies afterwards. You still get people who consider Pfeiffer their favorite Catwoman and the best live action version of the character to this point. It's amazing to think of how the franchise has evolved in the past 25 years and you wonder if any of us could have predicted just how much bigger Batman was going to become as a franchise.