Batman Returns is not a movie about Batman.
I didn’t realize that when I watched it as a kid, but the film gives the audience three fairly early signals:
1. The first person shown on screen is Paul Reubens. He’s not playing Pee Wee Herman, but he’s not playing A Regular Guy, either.
2. The opening credits roll over footage of Baby Penguin’s pram floating merrily through the sewer, like a flippered Moses.
3. Batman doesn’t show up for the first 13 minutes, and he doesn’t make his second appearance until we’re 35 minutes in.
Batman Returns could pivot at that point and become a movie about Batman, but it doesn’t. The other movies in this universe, from the very serious to the very silly, take some time to pontificate on some essential aspect of the main character: Is Batman’s cause just? Are his methods effective? What drives his unceasing patrol? Is Batman the man’s true persona while Bruce Wayne is his costume? Could Bruce Wayne be using Batman to ignore a deeper emptiness that punching petty criminals cannot fill?
Batman Returns takes the space for those questions and instead focuses on the antagonists. Penguin and Catwoman are the ones going on journeys of self-discovery, albeit violent ones (which, same as Batman, don’t get judgy). In one scene, Selina Kyle stares into a store window display and asks herself “Why are you doing this?” Bruce Wayne never comes close to that kind of introspection in this movie!
Ultimately, both villains decide to embrace their darker sides, but Batman Returns makes clear that alternate paths were open to each of them. Had Penguin abandoned his grudge against Batman and his plan to drown half the firstborn sons of Gotham – this movie is very Exodus-heavy, considering the whole thing takes place at Christmas – he could have become mayor. A corrupt, pervy mayor, but mayor nonetheless!
Catwoman’s chance for a different outcome is offered by Batman, who pleads with her to turn Max Shreck (played by Christopher Walken with a nicer version of Doc Brown’s hair) into the police instead of killing him. She thinks it over ... and then electrocutes Shreck while making out with him.
Let us pause for a moment at the sheer audacity it took for Tim Burton to make a Batman movie where huge chunks of the movie are Walken and Danny DeVito-in-heavy-prosthetics just acting their asses off. You paid to see the Caped Crusader; instead, here are two dudes in their late forties being weird as hell!
The villains of Batman Returns don’t just get more character development than the titular hero. They also frequently outsmart and outfight him. This is especially wild considering that one starts the movie a secretary with no self confidence or martial arts skills, while the other’s spent his life hiding in an abandoned zoo and can’t sprint because his body is too penguinoid. But there they are, blowing up a department store and hijacking the Batmobile and framing Batman for murder and evading capture by making Batman too horny to fight crime.
Fighting crime used to be the number one thing that made him horny!
Batman’s triumphs in this film aren’t even particularly significant. He only thwarts Penguin’s political and mass-child-drowning ambitions because, like a Bond villain, Penguin can’t just shut up and see the plan all the way through before bragging about it. It’s not amazing detective work when your adversary says “I’m going to kidnap all these kids!” and then you just stop them from doing that.
Again, this isn’t a movie about Batman. He’s a necessary element, because most people don’t want to watch a film where Danny DeVito puts on long underwear and murders a bunch of kids (and it definitely won’t get that PG-13 rating). But he’s not the most important or interesting character, not by a long shot. Batman is there as a force for Penguin and Catwoman to contend with in their own narratives.
Which really makes the title confusing. It’s not like the dude left.