Thirty-three years ago, there was born to a rich Gotham City couple a baby that failed to live up to their expectations of a bundle of joy. In fact, it was a twisted and violent little thing, and the gravely embarrassed Cobblepots opted to take the child's cradle, with the child still in it, and let it float out of their lives and into the sewer. Now, what was the infant has grown into a myth, the myth of a deformed man who lives underneath the city; not much to bother a wealthy businessman like Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) as he prepares for the annual switching on of the Gotham Christmas tree lights. Not much until The Penguin (Danny DeVito), for it is he, makes his entrance...
For this, the sequel to 1989's Batman, the stakes were raised with not one but three villains for the Dark Knight (Michael Keaton was back) to vanquish. Originally they were supposed to have been The Penguin, Catwoman and Two-Face, but the latter's role was rewritten for Christopher Walken as the mogul who plans to sap Gotham of its energy with a new power station, a scheme discovered by his somewhat gauche personal assistant Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer) who pays dearly. After being pushed out of a high storey window, what's a girl to do but turn villainess?
In the face of director Tim Burton's Bat-universe, it's the only sensible way out for Selina, who sews a PVC raincoat into a catsuit and mask to become Catwoman. Just as Bruce Wayne's sole course of action in a world out of control was to become the Batman to try and impose order, it all indicates the theme of split personalities in the script (by Sam Hamm and Daniel Waters), but for The Penguin it's the other way around as he denies his essentially bestial nature to aim for respectability. This is the fresh plan of Shreck, to encourage the outcast to run for Mayor and thereby have his puppet in control of the city.
DeVito offers an incredible performance of loathing and loathsomeness, squawking and squinting under Stan Winston's superb makeup, giving a reading that matches his over-the-top surroundings and very nearly stealing the show from his co-stars. Indeed, Keaton comes across like a supporting player in his own movie for the first hour until the romance between Wayne and Kyle is sorted out: with their alter egos, it's a sadomasochistic one, naturally. There's a clever scene near the end where the two characters attend a fancy dress ball and they're the only ones not in disguise because their masks are their true identity.
It's the set pieces that catch the eye, however, with Catwoman taking out her frustration on Shreck's department stores in explosive fashion (Pfeiffer was never so much fun, before or since), or The Penguin taking over the Batmobile through remote control and joyriding the vehicle through the streets with Batman inside desperately trying to stop him. There's plenty of plot to pack in, at risk of drowning out any sense, but two of the villains attempt to frame Batman for the murder of a local celebrity (Cristi Conaway), though have the tables turned on them. Never mind that, though, sit back and enjoy the film's artistry with one of the best looking blockbusters of the nineties; even keeping an eye out for the actual penguins appearing is satisfying enough in itself. All in all, Burton turned a Batman adventure into his own nightmare before Christmas, perhaps sacrificing the identity of the famous hero in the process as an unredeemed outsider. But that design! Music by Danny Elfman.
American director, producer and writer, frequently of Gothic flavoured fantasy who has acquired a cult following in spite of the huge mainstream success of many of his projects. He began as an animator at Disney, who allowed him to work on his own projects while animating the likes of The Fox and the Hound, which garnered the attention of Paul Reubens to direct Pee Wee's Big Adventure.