I have always had a bit of a love-hate relationship with Tim Burton's films. On the one hand I adore his preoccupation with the whimsical, his humour and the fact that he's essentially a niche genre auteur who has won over the Hollywood machine. Then there's his endearingly bonkers art direction - his bizarre and unique mixture of hokey Hallowe'en and German Expressionism all wrapped up in kitsch 50s Americana (yes, I know he's basically Edward Gorey with a Disney schooling, but he's still awesome). However, his films often seem rather hollow to me, and I get fatigued by what increasingly feel like his 'by-the-numbers' visuals.
I therefore approach his work with a bit of trepidation, both warmed and warned by the fact that I essentially know what I am going to get (and not get). I watched Batman Returns again the other day and was struck by how good the production design is on the film. On the Batman films Burton was clearly reigned-in by the studios. His trademarked quirkiness is more subtle and I find this quite satisfying. There's a whole other debate I could explore about the monumental shift he successfully implemented on the look of such an iconic hero, but I want instead to talk about his rendering of Gotham City.
The Wiki does a far better job of describing the origins and themes of the home of Bob Kane's hero. Under the talented hands of Anton Furst the first Batman movie showed us a towering Brutalist pre-war urban sprawn where industry and crime were unchecked by any civic planning. By the time the sequel went into production, Furst had died. Bo Welch replaced him and the success of the first movie meant the budget was significantly bigger. Welch not unreasonably wanted to explore his own vision of the city and the result is a delight. Under a crisp Christmas snowfall, a grander, more Stalinist metropolis emerges. The detail on the second film is quite stunning - frozen canals criss-cross the streets, the Penguin has made his lair in a fantastic decaying World's Fair-esque exhibition site and Catwoman lives in a cramped apartment made even more oppressive by the giant girder that stabs through it.
I agree Returns is not as good a film as the original, but if you've not seen it recently I emplore you to look at it again and enjoy the stunning prduction design. And if you want a Burton-related giggle, watch this video.