One of the biggest complaints about Batman Returns is that it’s a Batman movie with very little Batman. He has a line of dialogue in the first half hour and is put aside in favor of Penguin, Catwoman, and Shreck. So the people who showed up expecting to see Batman were disappointed.
But Batman is not the main character.
Catwoman is the main character.
Batman is just love interest.
None of the other characters really have arcs. Batman has a small one (we’ll talk about that later), but Penguin and Shreck start the movie as villains and end the movie as villains. Meanwhile, Catwoman has a huge arc. She goes from a gentle loner who even describes herself as “insignificant”, to a confident and self-reliant character. Her transformation is one of the greatest scenes in all of the Batman movies and exemplifies the whole “expressionist tragedy” vibe of the film. Not only does she become more powerful, but it leads her to grapple with her own duality, her quest for revenge, and her love for Bruce throughout the film. Shreck is just a catalyst for her to become Catwoman. Penguin is just a catalyst for Catwoman to truly become a supervillain. Even Bruce, who is ostensibly the main character, is a catalyst in her struggle to find out if she wants it.
But even though Catwoman fits the role of “main character” better than anyone, it’s still a Batman movie. While he’s not that much on screen, very few movies have spent so much time exploring Batman. It just doesn’t explore it through Bruce. He explores it through Penguin, Shreck and Catwoman.
Each character acts like a dark mirror that reflects a side of Batman. These are all people Batman could have been and could always be wrong about.
Shreck is a mirror of Bruce Wayne, the person Bruce could have become if he hadn’t lost his parents. Without this experience, he might not have become empathetic towards those who might be victimized. He might not have been driven to do good. Maybe he just became a rich, greedy jerk.
Penguin has lost both of his rich parents. So he got bitter, angry, hateful. He even says at one point “I am not a human being!” It represents alienation from the loss of Bruce. Without Alfred, without the purpose and righteousness of his crusade, Bruce could have become just as estranged from the rest of the world. In many ways it still is.
Finally, Catwoman becomes a vigilante in order to take charge and take revenge. Bruce did the same. There is a quote, not from the movie but from a comic book, “My parents taught me a different lesson … lying on that street … shaking in shock … dying for no reason. They me. have shown that the world only makes sense if you force it. ” By putting on masks, by fighting, by being something bigger than themselves, they make sure that no one will hurt them anymore.
But on top of that, there is revenge. Catwoman wants to kill Shreck. She is so lost in who she has become that she is afraid of herself. Batman traditionally foregoes revenge, but not Keaton’s. He wanted revenge on the Joker for killing his parents. Yet he tries to stop her. He tries to save her. He knows she is what he becomes if he goes too far, if he slips too far into Batman.
People don’t like that Batman is so violent and deadly in this movie, but I think it’s important to show how committed he is to his crusade. He waits alone in his mansion, just waiting for the Bat Signal to come and give him a goal. His bow realizes that he can’t just be happy, Bruce Wayne un-traumatized. It would just make him love Shreck. He can’t be bitter, traumatized Bruce Wayne, dead end. That would make him a Penguin. And he can’t completely hide in Batman, because he would get lost as Catwoman.
Through the four main characters, the film explores Batman, while tragically exploring the duality of him and Catwoman. At the end of the day, they can’t be together. That’s what it means to be Batman, to be constantly beset by lines you can’t cross, people you can’t become, lives you can’t lead. And this movie understands it better than any other.