When we speak of directors, the label of ‘auteur’ carries cachet and currency. Burton, Beatty, and Raimi are all considered auteurs, while The Rocketeer director Joe Johnston is a filmmaker who might affectionately or disparagingly be called a ‘journeyman’. It’s not an especially sexy label, but there’s a place for journeyman directors ala Johnston and Roger Donaldson and Peter Hyams: filmmakers who can switch genres and tones and deliver satisfying, functional meat and potato entertainment. Johnston has helmed some fun films (Honey I Shrunk the Kids, Jumanji, Jurassic Park III) and like Raimi has straddled more than one era of comic book movies, helming 2011’s Captain America, another World War II-era superhero adventure film. I’d say The Rocketeer and Captain America tie as Johnston’s best films but would give the edge to The Rocketeer on several levels, including its colourful supporting characters and casting. Captain America’s Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell, Stanley Tucci and Dominic Cooper are nothing to sniff at, but in their equivalent roles Timothy Dalton is tremendous fun as the Nazi agent posing as Hollywood matinee idol (a role riffing on salacious and bogus rumours about Errol Flynn), Jennifer Connelly is luminous as Jenny, Alan Arkin is droll and endearing in this signature manner, and Terry O’Quinn as Howard Hughes is gravy atop the hearty dish. However, while Secord gets an arc of sorts, the character is ultimately a fairly generic, bland cut of meat, meaning Billy Campbell’s likeable work cannot quite compete with Chris Evans’ pitch perfect, heart-on-sleeve sincere performance in Captain America.
The Rocketeer isn’t as bold in its aesthetic or storytelling choices as its 1989–1992 peers, but its classical old-school vibe conversely gives it an evergreen quality. And in an era where misshapen superhero product—I’m looking at you Fantastic Four, Suicide Squad, Justice League, X-Men: Dark Phoenix—still manages to emerge from the factory hideously overpriced, fundamentally broken, and neither fish nor fowl, The Rocketeer is tribute to rounded, functional filmmaking under the steadiest of hands.
In today’s superhero movie climate, by virtue of shared universes, nearly everything is a prequel or sequel. Batman Returns is the only sequel in the class of 1989–1992 (further Bat films would follow later in the decade, as would two lousy Neeson-less and Raimi-less direct to video Darkman sequels). Billed as an epic showdown between The Bat, The Cat, and The Penguin, the real villain of Batman Returns—conspicuously absent from the trailer above and other advertising—is wealthy businessman Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), who propels the grotesque, sewer-dwelling orphan-turned-circus-attraction-turned-gang lord Oswald Cobblepot/Penguin (Danny DeVito) into the spotlight and mayoral candidacy, and attempts to murder his inquisitive secretary Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer), spawning the avenging Catwoman.
Where Batman’s art deco set design and costuming evoke a bygone era in the vein of Donner’s Superman, Dick Tracy and The Rocketeer are definitively set in the 1930s, and Darkman homages the Universal Monster movies of that very decade, within five minutes Batman Returns sends viewers via tracking shot to the top of a sleek modern skyscraper, thrusting viewers into the modern day and unshackling Batman Returns from the pulp baggage of the class of 1989–1992. Atop the skyscraper is an enormous rotating cat head, the logo of Shreck’s company. Shreck is named after Max Shreck, the star of Nosferatu. This has no bearing on Shreck’s characterisation or choice of logo, although does hark back to Burton’s keen interest in German expressionism. His secretary Selina Kyle is a timid cat lady who becomes Catwoman. Shreck’s corporate logo and Kyle’s nomenclature are also unrelated.
It’s important to realise that Batman Returns works best if you don’t care about such things. Indeed, a better title could be Batman Returns, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bat. However, there’s another important thing to know – returning director Tim Burton seemingly neither worries about nor loves the Bat. Batman fares poorly in fights with Catwoman, shows up late twice to thwart the Penguin’s marauding gang, fails to save Gotham City’s Ice Princess (Cristi Conaway) from a fateful plummet, gets his Batmobile hijacked, and is an infrequent screen presence in his own movie. In Batman, his elusiveness kept the character mysterious and enigmatic; here, Batman/Bruce Wayne becomes a minor character in his own sequel, with Burton gravitating more towards his colourful and freakish rogue’s gallery comprising Shreck, the Penguin and Catwoman. There’s a school of thought that the antagonists all represent facets of Batman’s personality—the wealthy businessman, the orphan freak, the costumed crime-fighter/avenger—and another that Batman, Catwoman and the Penguin are all survivors of and present disparate responses to trauma, be they vigilantism and civic duty (Batman) or revenge against an enemy (Catwoman) or the whole wide world (Penguin). But these lively interpretations feel projected upon rather than emerging from the film, and are not really supported by the rather un-sturdy frame of Daniel Waters’ script, which has some delightful lines and venomous quips but also filler dialogue like this scene:
Batman: You’re not the mayor.
Penguin: Things change.
Batman: What do you want?
Penguin: Ah, the direct approach. I admire than in a man in a mask. You don’t really think you’ll win do you?
Batman: Things change.
What exactly changes? Does Batman think he’ll win, but might change his mind? Does he not think he’ll win, despite winning against the Joker in his last screen adventure, but may start to think he’ll win? I suspect the on-set musings while shooting this scene went something like this:
Keaton to DeVito: I don’t really get what this line means, but I know when Tim pulls it all together, it’s gonna sing.
Burton to self: How many skull necklaces will I wear today?
Where the millennial Nolan Batman films are literal-minded and utilitarian, Batman Returns operates on a fairy tale logic, and is conspicuously uninterested in continuity from scene to scene, or indeed from film to film, with a new paramour, new sets and surrounds, just a trio of returning characters (Keaton’s Wayne/Batman, Pat Hingle’s Commissioner Gordon, and Michael Gough’s faithful butler Alfred), and only cursory allusion to past events. The scene above also exemplifies Batman’s largely reactive rather than assertive status in proceedings.
Lest this seem like a hatchet job on Batman Returns, let me clarify: this film is good. Todd Phillips spent much of the Joker press tour boasting about smuggling a gritty 1970s-style art film into the mainstream. But almost three decades earlier, Burton made a $60+ million art film with a freakish villain raised by carnies who bites WASP noses, oozes both black bile and innuendo, and sends an army of rocket-wearing penguins on a suicide mission, and there was a McDonalds Happy Meal toy for said character. Much like Raimi on Darkman, Burton uses Batman Returns as a vehicle to create cool images and moments that interest him, and does so with little obligation to fandom, franchise-building, or corporate imperatives. Of the 1989–1992 batch of superhero movies, Batman was the most corporate and synergistic; The Rocketeer and Dick Tracy are similarly polished studio product, but the former is deeply earnest and the latter a labour of love for its director-star infused with his innate weirdness. While Batman has Burton’s fingerprints all over it, not unlike Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion-animated King Kong, Batman Returns has Burton’s fingerprints, smells, and breath all over it. Imagine the pottery scene in Ghost, but Burton is Patrick Swayze and Batman Returns is Demi Moore and the pot.
While I kid, the analogy is fitting. Despite costing a fortune, there’s a handmade quality to much of Batman Returns—from the fakeness and claustrophobia of its city sets populated by Gotham’s seemingly two dozen citizens to Catwoman’s outfit with its artfully visible stitches to Siouxsie and the Banshees on the soundtrack; far from slumming but a far cry from the precursor film’s wall-to-wall Prince music—which goes hand in hand with a sort of Goth teen nihilism that permeates the film. There’s more than a whiff of adolescent dysfunction to Batman Returns: Selina Kyle delivers an emo freakout for the ages, the Penguin hates everyone and wants to blow Gotham to smithereens, and Max Shreck is the conniving adult who betrays them both, and Batman is an ineffectual teacher.
Danny DeVito was renowned for playing scuzzbuckets, but never quite as intensely (or outwardly) as the Penguin, and he swings for the fences. Alas, a tacky celebrity of dubious moral character with utter contempt for the populace entering a major electoral race is no longer as far-fetched as it seemed. Pfeiffer similarly swings big, and while at times her performance is just a notch below Mommie Dearest, she navigates the role dexterously. The other romantic female leads of 1989–1992—Basinger, Headley, McDormand, and Connelly—are all damsels and at some point held captive by the villains. Where Pfeiffer’s Selina Kyle is initially dominated by Schreck, she becomes a commanding protagonist. The character is part female empowerment, part drooling male gaze, and is a rare situation where both sides win, largely thanks to Pfeiffer’s excellent work. Whilst Batman is relegated to the status of an action figure missing a cape and a leg that nobody wants to play with in his own movie, Keaton once again essays his dual role with alacrity. Rounding out the lead quartet, Walken has fun as Shreck and Batman Returns deserves credit as one of the first films to knowingly harness the disjunction between the actor’s WASPy looks, otherworldly aura, and interplanetary cadence.
Batman Returns was a massive financial disappointment, earning only a quarter of a billion dollars. I jest, but the film weirded out punters, parents, and studio suits. I can’t really blame Warner Bros for wanting to make subsequent sequels more accessible, nor can I blame Burton and Keaton for abandoning ship, nor Michael Gough and Pat Hingle for staying aboard and cashing a cheque, nor Joel Schumacher for boarding the ship and pulling his own heist with Batman Forever and Batman and Robin, smuggling his own camp sensibility and preoccupations into the mainstream.
In addition to those Batman films in 1995 and 1997, the remainder of the 90s saw two more retro pulp efforts (The Shadow, The Phantom), a mixed bag of other comic book adaptations (Tank Girl, Barb Wire, Judge Dredd, The Mask, Spawn, Steel), and eventually the first Marvel hit (Blade) that paved the way for the next two decades.
Yet the potential and momentum of the class of 1989–1992 was never quite recaptured. They comprise a flawed but quite special collective: while uniform and undeniably relics in some respects, they’re idiosyncratic and aesthetically rich in others. Each does its own thing, and each is a blast to watch.
 Darkman made $48.8m on a budget of $16m; Dick Tracy made $162.7m on a budget of $47m; The Rocketeer made $46.7m on a budget of $40m.