Sam Hamm, who wrote Batman (1989) once said that the thesis of that film was ‘what would happen if an insane person fell in love and started to go sane’. I think that was really Daniel Waters task in writing Batman Returns, which while technically being a sequel to Batman, is at best only tentatively connected to its predecessor. Batman Returns is less a movie about a superhero saving a city, and more about a person in search of saving himself. Nothing could be more illustrative of this point than the first time you see Bruce Wayne on screen.
The initial appearance of Bruce Wayne occurs maybe fifteen minutes into the film, and it’s the most unconventional introduction of a character in the entire series. Instead of some grandiose action scene, a dramatic suiting up, you have Bruce Wayne sitting alone in the dark, doing absolutely nothing, just waiting for a bat signal so he can spring into action. There’s a reason for this: There is no more Bruce Wayne. Batman Returns is Batman at his least restrained, least human. He’s become the singular focused creature of vengeance he always intended.
There are those who complain that the sequels of the 80’s/90’s Batman franchise focus too heavily on the villains, but that reliance on the villains is integral to this film. You see, the three bad guys (yes there are three) are all dark reflections of Batman/Wayne himself. Think about it, Max Shreck is an eccentric millionaire, but instead of facing the tragedies that Wayne himself has faced, he’s had everything handed to him, which has twisted his sensibilities into believing he can have whatever he wants by any means necessary. Cobblepot/Penguin comes from a similar background, and much like Wayne, suffered the loss of his parents, but under an entirely different set of circumstances (namely his parents abandoning him in a sewer due to his severe physical deformities), and much like Wayne, Cobblepot’s childhood is spent planning his war of vengeance on Gotham. Then you have Selina Kyle/Catwoman, a character conceived in an act of violence, who like Batman, dons a costume and an alternate identity to bring about suffering and order to the men who wronged her. They are everything that Batman could be and yet somehow is not.
But besides being his fun house duplicates, they also exist to point out what an anomaly Batman/Wayne truly is. You see, these pieces of Wayne’s psyche can’t possibly cohabitate. Penguin tries to work with Shreck and ends up trying to kill him. Schreck attempts to kill Selina Kyle, Penguin tries to murder Catwoman, Catwoman then murders Shreck. It’s a cycle set up to prove that Bruce Wayne is impossible. Yet, somehow he’s made it work, and he’s done so by sacrificing everything there was of his own humanity to the Batman persona.
However, a lot of that changes as the film progresses, some of which is brought about by his initial compassion for Penguin, but more importantly, his kinship with Selina. Selina is the one villain least like Wayne, even if Catwoman is seemingly the most like Batman. As Selina loses herself more and more to Catwoman, Bruce begins to detach from Batman. By the end of the film, you actually have a Bruce who can separate himself from the ‘monster’ he’s become, and you physically see this when he rips his mask off in front of Schreck, and offers Selina the chance to run away with him.
This is what makes this movie fascinating. Whereas Batman ’89 ends with Vicki Vale waiting for Batman to finish up his night of crime fighting, as he poses majestically in front of the bat signal, Returns ends with Bruce Wayne, chauffeured by Alfred, possibly searching for Selena, possibly believing he can still save her, even if it isn’t his place. But it’s important that it’s Bruce, not Batman who we see. We’re then treated to the final shot of the bat signal, and instead of seeing Batman, we see Catwoman. We’re left with two questions, does Bruce need Batman anymore? And is there even a Selina Kyle left inside Catwoman? Unfortunately we never get the answer to that because we’re treated to the Las Vegas Rhinestone Nightmare that is Batman Forever.
And don’t even get me started on why the city is a glimpse into Batman’s own twisted psyche, which is why it’s so different looking than in the first one.