Batman Returns Still Has the Best Romance in a Superhero Movie

More than 30 years since its release, Batman Returns has the most honest (and kinkiest) romance in a superhero flick.

Catwoman and Batman in Batman Returns
Photo: Getty Images / WB

Michelle Pfeiffer put a live bird in her mouth in Batman Returns. Let that sink in for a moment: a respected thespian, who by 1992 had already received two Oscar nominations for Dangerous Liaisons (1989) and The Fabulous Baker Boys (1990), put a tricolored Gouldian finch inside her mouth. For nearly a minute! And she never broke character once as she portrayed the feline pleasure in avicide before letting the creature fly out (maybe) unscathed.

The scene is remarkable for a few reasons. First, in the days before CGI trickery (and constant social media scrutiny), filmmakers just went ahead and did something this bizarre for a shot. And secondly, director Tim Burton thought it was necessary to do this for Batman Returns, a studio tentpole with a bigger fiduciary responsibility to sell happy meals than create art in his boss’ minds, a fact he would soon find out the hard way.

Still, looking back at the moment years later, he told THR in 2017 that “I don’t think I’ve ever been so impressed [with an actor]. She had a live bird in her mouth while the camera was rolling.” But then, like Burton, Pfeiffer knew a character who dressed up in an animalistic costume to prowl the rooftops of Gotham City at night had to be a little bit of a freak. And when she’s with Batman, they make two.

More than 30 years after Batman Returns opened in theaters and horrified parents groups around the country, the film’s enduring understanding of who Selina Kyle and Bruce Wayne are, or at least who they should be, is what makes the film the rare thing in superhero cinema: a picture where the romance works. There is of course an irony in this since conventional studio wisdom suggests there should always be a “love interest” in a four-quadrant blockbuster movie, and in the nearly 15 years since Marvel Studios began oversaturating the multiplex with movies entirely about the conventional, we’ve seen a lot of them. Yet one can still only count on one hand all the romances that felt like a pivotal part of the storytelling or character development, as opposed to a box being checked.

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Nowadays, it’s even treated as shocking news when Marvel’s Eternals featured a love scene between two characters. Perhaps fittingly though, the couple turned out to be robots (both in terms of the movie’s sci-fi plotting and the MCU’s rigidity).

But once upon a time in Burton’s intoxicatingly dreary fantasia of expressionistic hell, the love story between Michael Keaton’s Batman and Pfeiffer’s Catwoman wasn’t treated as an afterthought for the story’s denouement. Nor was it simply background filler before the next laugh line. Nay, here was the transgressive, bleeding heart of the film on which the story’s emotional core hinged; and it was unafraid to leave the audience brokenhearted.

When folks think back on the movie, the imagery of Pfeiffer’s Catwoman comes immediately to mind. In a costume of seemingly hand-stitched leather and vinyl, the getup not-so-subtly evokes the type of gear you might see at an S&M club, a fact which was made explicit in screenwriter Sam Hamm’s earliest draft of the script. However, this idea is (at least on the surface) played purely as camp in the finished movie, with Pfeiffer’s Catwoman hanging the Caped Crusader off a rooftop by her whip in their first big scene together in costume. Later, she licks his face as the two spar beneath a seasonal mistletoe and she winds up on top.

It’s so brazenly sexualized that it looks almost like a gag. Yet something Burton realized (unlike his successor Joel Schumacher) was that the strangeness of the characters needed to be played with constant sincerity. The audience needed to believe the fairytale if they were to fall for it; and for that to happen the actors needed to genuinely invest in the psychological profiles of their characters. Only then can her leather and his rubber look as everyday in this Gotham as Christmas decorations.

Some fans take umbrage to this day that Burton and Daniel Waters, Batman Returns’ primary screenwriter, basically threw out 50 years of comic book history when developing the film, but it works to the film’s advantage of becoming a singular and bizarrely compelling vision. Pfeiffer’s Selina Kyle is not really a cat burglar nor based on any established backstory told on the comic book page. She is a metaphor for what was perceived in the mainstream as the feminist struggle of the early 1990s. Which is to say she is a single woman working in a corporate world controlled by chauvinistic men and opportunists at all levels.

Her own implied childhood, defined by the dollhouse she keeps in her bedroom as an adult and the stuffed animals that still populate her apartment, is as important as Bruce’s. While his is marked by an operatic tragedy wherein his parents were murdered before his eyes, hers was apparently the middle class American dream that leaves her still trying to be the right kind of girl in an urban setting: She works studiously as a quiet and put-upon secretary by day, and waits by night on her answering machine…  where her boyfriend dumps her right before the holidays and robo-calls suggest a new perfume will make the boss “ask you to stay late.”

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She’s bought into what was still the heteronormative fairytale (or American dream) of the late 20th century, and it leaves her lonely and aggrieved. It also leads to her literal death after her thankless efficiency causes her to discover the corrupt malfeasance of her boss, Max Shreck (Christopher Walken). When faced with a woman who sees through his generous billionaire illusions, Shreck silences her by pushing her through a window. In a post-#MeToo world, Batman Returns’ opening moments are more disturbing than ever.

They also make the allegory that follows so much more satisfying. In any other film, cats resurrecting a character from the dead by nibbling her frostbitten fingers would be the stuff of queasy camp (see the Catwoman movie of a decade later). But in Burton’s world where dream logic is as mundane as Christmas lights, it’s a natural catalyst toward the arc of Selina’s journey and, subsequently, the romance at the center of the movie. She is a metaphor for female liberation from patriarchal forces and expectations, circa 1992.

Risen from the dead and now with the power of nine lives, Selina is enraged by her murder yet freed from the pressures her previous life left shattered on a snow-encrusted alleyway. Her anger might make her seem “crazed” to the men around her, but that’s only because she has yet to find a way to channel it. So initially she contains it with needle and thread, sewing together a new psyche and persona to replace the one that was broken. And, indeed, for much of the rest of the movie Selina’s mental stability is visually linked to the state of her costume. As with the German Expressionist masters Burton channels furiously in both of his Batman movies, Selina finds internal meaning from her external appearance, and as that deteriorates from fights with Batman and the Penguin (Danny DeVito), so does the image of the “evil” Catwoman supervillain she has concocted.

In the meantime though, she becomes a perfect foil to Keaton’s Bruce Wayne, who is himself escaping the pressures of mainstream heteronormative life. Notably, this is in contradiction of what Batman (1989) screenwriter Sam Hamm originally intended for the character. After helping create a scenario in which Kim Basinger’s not-Lois Lane, Gotham Globe reporter Vicki Vale, discovers Bruce Wayne is Batman and agrees to wait up for him at night with Alfred, Hamm’s original draft for Batman II ended with Bruce proposing marriage to Vicki while adopting a young Dick Grayson on Christmas Eve. It was the American dream come true for the city’s benefactor.

It is also close to what probably a lot of audiences might’ve expected in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s from a sequel. It’s just so clearly not how Burton or, ultimately Keaton, saw the character. To hell with continuity and audience expectation; they were not going to introduce Catwoman as simply a naughty foil for Vicki Vale to defeat in the bedroom (read the early script!). Instead Vicki is only dismissed off-hand in the finished version of Batman Returns, with Bruce suggesting she had trouble “reconciling” his darker side to Selina.

Catwoman retorts, “It’s the so-called normal guys who always let you down. Sickos never scare me, at least they’re committed.” Selina then passionately kisses Bruce first.

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Batman Returns recognizes the type of psychology that finds fulfillment (if not necessarily happiness) from wearing a costume and going out at night looking for action would never be content with staying home and playing house. It respects its characters enough to ask what they would really look for from a significant other, and the answer is about a million miles removed from the generally benign sitcom scenarios that fill out the background of countless modern superhero movies. Hence in their first scene as Bruce and Selina, he finds her fascinating when other men write her off as “damaged.”

Yes, Burton, Pfeiffer, and Keaton lean into the lascivious when Catowman pins Batman down to lick him in one moment, and then stab him with her claws in the next, but they also recognize something often unremarked upon at the center of these power fantasies: people who do this are a little weird. And what makes the romance poignant is that these versions of Bruce and Selina realize that deeper truth. Later in the movie, the Penguin (Danny DeVito) taunts that Batman is “just jealous because I’m a genuine freak and you have to wear a mask.” The Dark Knight does not dispute this. Rather, he and Selina embrace it.

In one of their other pivotal scenes, Bruce and Selina find each other again at a costume party (one that’s tastelessly being thrown by Max for the city’s elite on Christmas Eve), and they’re the only two to arrive without masks on. But then, to paraphrase another Batman movie, their faces are their masks. While in tuxedos and eveningwear, they’re basically playing Halloween by hiding from their true identities. Also as they dance, they realize in this moment that the other is their nocturnal antagonist (and obsession). It’s a moment of genuine tragedy as a single tear wells up around Selina’s eye, and Bruce wipes it away.

“Does this mean we have to start fighting again?” she asks. Bruce doesn’t answer, because he cannot accept the truth. So she’ll do it for both of them. During the movie’s climax, Selina Kyle is done playing dress up, either as Bruce Wayne’s latest liaison or as a supervillain who schemes with the Penguin like it’s a Saturday morning cartoon. She’s tried both hats on, and now winds up where she knows she must: with her hands around Max Shreck’s throat and ready to squeeze. 

Bruce attempts to intercede, offering Selina a respite from the darkness he embraced by killing the Joker in the last movie. Instead of seeking revenge like the men in her life do, he insists she can surrender Shreck to the authorities and come live with him. Bruce paints a picture where one of the city’s richest men is punished fairly by our institutions, and Bruce and Selina are at peace, living quietly in his mansion. Normal.

“Bruce, I would love to live with you in your castle, forever just like in a fairytale,” Selina says with a fading voice that betrays a moment of wistful daydreaming. She then slashes three claw marks across his face. “I just couldn’t live with myself.”

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When we first met Pfeiffer’s Selina Kyle, she was playing by the rules and literally carried water for the men around her. At the end of the film, she is clear-eyed enough to see it would be a lie to seek a happily ever after as the rich man’s domesticated pet. She is done lying to herself and instead completes a portrait of liberation from the fables parents often tell daughters.

In its place, Selina creates her own modern parable with Bruce, one that is tragic, bittersweet, and which rings as unflinchingly true for these characters and the world they reflect. It gives Batman Returns and its romance a sorrowful soul, and it’s as undeniable as the frigid snow melting on a lonely billionaire’s face later that night. He’s going home alone. Maybe a little wiser.

It is not the only good romance in a superhero movie. It’s not even the only good one between Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle after last year’s The Batman at least promised the beginnings of something more accurate to their modern dynamic in the comics. Yet when the genre is taken as a whole, Keaton and Pfeiffer’s BatCat tragedy is the only one that leaves a mark.