"Odd and sad, but not exhilarating." - Roger Ebert
#5 - Batman Returns
This was the toughest spot on the list. It is a crossroads in the Batman movie universe, where things go from bad to just a little bit better. There were two clear candidates for number five on the list, and my childhood won the battle in the end. More on that later. Batman Returns is decent, but that is about all it turns out to be in the end. Tim Burton and Michael Keaton's second adventure behind the mask of the caped crusader definitely has its moments of style and visual mastery. But the abandonment of comic history and the inclination to prefer style over substance makes everything seem just a little too hollow. Roger Ebert's description may sum it up best; it is odd and sad - it is also visually stunning - but it is not an exhilarating film. In fact, the more I watch it, the less interesting everything gets.
Burton leaves behind the comic background of the characters to create his own vision in Batman Returns. For this I do not fault Burton; he has a direction, which is more than I could say for the previous two entries in this list. Tim Burton makes Batman, Penguin, and Catwoman all outsiders shunned by their society. He draws a clear line between the three. He creates fascinatingly grotesque and sexualized characters in Penguin and Catwoman. Only Mr. Burton has very little for them to do that is interesting. Danny DeVito disappears under the makeup and the fins to embody a sewer dwelling penguin intent on ruining Gotham. Catwoman, on the other hand, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, exists as a fetishized version of the character. In the comics, Catwoman is a master thief and Martial Arts expert. Here, she is a woman scorned.
Aside from Penguin and Catwoman wreaking havoc and taking on Batman, Christopher Walken plays another villain, Max Schreck. Schreck is a real estate mogul in Gotham and a power-hungry cardboard cutout, despite the fact that Walken tries his hardest to make Schreck stand out. Schreck is more a villain to Bruce Wayne than he is Batman, and that is never quite as interesting.
I have piled on the film enough without saying that Batman Returns has redeeming aspects about it, including a world from Burton's imagination which grows bigger and broader without spiraling out of control. Mostly, because Burton doesn't choose to overuse neon lighting the way Schumacher does. The visuals are stunning, only the film works like a painting. There is a great deal of visual poetry to look at, but very little movement to accompany the look. However, there is some effective chemistry between Batman and Catwoman. The energy between Pfeiffer and Keaton is often overlooked; then again, the effectiveness of Keaton as Batman has always been criminally overlooked, so adding a layer to his characterization is forgotten before it begins.