The other thing that drew Burton back was the involvement of the Heathers screenwriter Daniel Waters, who gave the material an arch, black-comic zinginess. The absurdist political angle of the plot was his
idea. It's an inspired gag, imagining that a creature as vulgar as the Penguin could steal the electorate's heart. In the film's funniest reveal, DeVito's supervillain is interrupted mid-meal, chowing down
messily on a raw fish, by the new staff of beaming operatives and volunteers applauding his candidacy. What seemed cynical in 1992 now looks rather touchingly naive. Imagine a politician dropping out of a
race just because he got caught on tape disparaging his base.
Waters' plot is lumpy, forcing an illogical allegiance between the villains. No matter - for Burton, it's just an excuse to collide these outsized cartoon personalities, to build a vaudeville stage for
three tortured, animal-themed outlaws. The director twists that classic Batman theme of the bad guys being warped reflections of the good guy to suit his own enduring love affair with misfits. DeVito,
deliciously overacting under mounds and hours of daily prosthetic labor, makes the Penguin a sympathetic monster: horrifying in appearance, crass and corrupt in nature, but still a tragic figure. Burton
loves him as only a father could. And he recognizes him as a kindred spirit to his archnemesis. Who is Cobblepot but Wayne without privilege, abandoned instead of orphaned?
"You're just jealous because I'm a genuine freak and you have to wear a mask," he tells Batman. It's a point the dark knight concedes.
Pfeiffer, meanwhile, who nabbed the role after Annette Bening got pregnant and vacated it, delivers one of the great movie star turns in all of comic-book cinema: a slinking embodiment of hell-hath-no-fury
attitude, hissing venomous one-liners with aplomb and waging war on the powerful, sexist exploiters of Gotham. In both stylized performance and instantly iconic skin-tight, patchwork attire, she could have
strutted straight out of the panels of the source material. Yet Pfeiffer also summons the raw desperation of a true identity crisis, which comes roaring to the surface during a great alter-ego, ballroom
tango with the enemy in the film's quiet before the climax.
If the political contest suggests a classic Preston Sturges comedy in superhero drag, there's a touch of Ernst Lubitsch to the screwball romance between Keaton and Pfeiffer, circling each other in
different forms of evening wear, concealing their double lives, secret identities and battle scars during a fireside canoodle. Batman Returns is easily the kinkiest big-screen treatment of these
characters the one that dares to see some S&M fantasy in people burying their svelte physiques under rubber and leather. It's one reason parents were so incensed by the stranger sequel, and why McDonald's
nixed the Happy Meals line. The dialogue drips with innuendo. The Penguin, a cackling pervert, ravenously sniffs Catwoman's boot