1989’s Batman is, arguably, a good movie. It tends to be overshadowed by Jack Nicholson’s Joker, relying so heavily on him that you forget what the actual plot of the movie is.
In Batman Returns, Danny DeVito plays the villain, Penguin, who helps carry this movie (and is actually much creepier than the Joker), but it never becomes solely about him.
Batman (Michael Keaton) tries to stop Penguin and the corrupt Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) from taking full control of Gotham City. Meanwhile, Shreck’s vendetta-filled ex-assistant, Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer) is figuring out how to become Catwoman.
It’s fun the watch the 1989 film first (and as a completist, I think you should), but it’s far from necessary. There are basically zero references to the predecessor. Luckily.
They’re both directed by Tim Burton, known for his dark and macabre style. Yet, this film does absolutely everything better than the last. There’s an actual coherent story, clearly defined motives, nuanced depth of the characters, and there are several villains to occupy us with.
The script explores much less of Bruce Wayne’s history, yet he seems more filled-out here. Possibly since Keaton appears to have an actual invested interest in both main villains–and so do we as an audience. Batman has no prior history with them, but he seems to have more at stake still.
It also helps that both Catwoman and Penguin are much more complex characters than the Joker. Their stories are more poetic. And so is this movie.
Batman Returns actually has something to say. With subtle jabs at the the media and our headline-grabbing culture.
It’s also more than just a superhero movie, but a character study paying dividends even in its final moments.
It’s also important to note that composer Danny Elfman’s score compliments Burton’s auteur in this film much better than the last. In those three years, he really found and established his style that we all know him by.