In June of 1992, superhero cinema was still in its goofy primary school phase. The Superman films, once a bastion of prestige, had fallen into the B-movie pit that was Cannon Films. The Marvel Comics characters had failed to escape the small screen, with the only cinematic outing so far being the disastrous Howard The Duck. The lone bright spot was Tim Burton's Batman in 1989, signaling a return to a more adult approach to the superhero character, along with the attendant star power. The immediate impact of Burton's Batman was felt not in a slew of new superhero films, but in comic book films with a pulp influence, from the adaptations of Dick Tracy and The Rocketeer to the new character of Darkman. By and large, however, comic book characters and the films made about them were still viewed as material for children, as evidenced by 1990's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. When Burton's sequel, Batman Returns, hit cineplexes that late June of '92, audiences expected more edgy yet still kid-friendly fun. What they got instead was the unfettered id of an idiosyncratic artist, a work of uncompromising sexuality that sent the superhero film rocketing into puberty.
Sex has been a part of the superhero genre ever since Clark Kent first put on his tights, and while superheroes in comic books had undergone a sexual revolution of their own by the early 90's, superheroes on screen were still relatively chaste. The early Superman films paid the barest of lip service to Larry Niven's infamous "Man Of Steel, Woman Of Kleenex" essay, content to make a few cutesy innuendos and mentions such as Supes being able to use his x-ray vision to tell the color of Lois' underwear. The 1966 "Batman" television show, created by Lorenzo Semple Jr, could get away with a lot given its swinging 60's camp nature, yet it was still made for broadcast television. Even Burton's previous Batman film was fairly innocent, as Burton, Michael Keaton, and Jack Nicholson were more interested in exploring two psychologically damaged men perpetuating a cycle of abuse against each other, with Kim Basinger's Vicki Vale caught helplessly in the middle. Still, there were hints of sexual exploration to come, as Bruce Wayne and Vicki jump into first date casual sex without much judgement, and The Joker lustfully cuts a photograph of Vicki for a collage while he wears light purple gloves. Most telling is the accompanying soundtrack album with songs by Prince, bringing his unabashed sexuality to the characters and the film. Any audience member who sat through the end credit roll of the movie would have heard the sexually explicit song "Scandalous", which on the album is credited as "Lead Vocal by Batman". The superhero's sexuality was finally starting to emerge on screen.
Batman Returns takes the seeds of all the sexual innuendo that had come before in the genre and brings it into full bloom, resulting in a film that is as aggressively sexual as possible without portraying the act itself. Each character in the film has an active sex life (or, in the case of Danny DeVito's Penguin, an active sexual imagination), and are unashamed to discuss it. The film's "villains" (put in quotes given the nuance of their characters), Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman and the aforementioned Penguin, are sexually liberated enough to discuss their sexuality and their desires openly. The screenplay for Returns was written by Daniel Waters, who had previously written the dark satire Heathers, and the sardonic wit, blunt sexuality, and bleak tone of that film shows up here as well. Catwoman moans "life's a bitch, now so am I" in her empowerment, the Penguin grunts "the sexes are equal with their erogenous zones blown sky high!" as he discusses his master plan, and Batman compares himself to fictional pervert Norman Bates and real life sex criminal/serial killer Ted Bundy. The most jaw-dropping bit of dialogue comes when the Penguin discovers Catwoman waiting to meet him in order to talk about framing Batman, and as he sees her lounging on his bed he says, "just the pussy I've been lookin' for", grinning widely. Batman was obviously not meant to be just for kids anymore.
Burton and his team (especially makeup designers Stan Winston & Shane Mahan and costume designers Bob Ringwood & Mary Vogt) take the more sexually explicit script and support it visually. The design for the Penguin is a far cry from the dapper quacker from the 60's show or the rotund brute from the comics. Instead, his outward appearance reflects his sexually aggressive and repugnant nature. An elongated, phallic nose is the most prominent feature, with perpetually matted, stringy black hair hanging off the back of his head and a roundish, almost oblong shaped body. Combined with fleshy pink flippers for hands and the fact that (especially at the end of the film) he is always drooling or oozing some kind of fluid from his mouth, the Penguin is, in effect, a walking male sex organ. His choice to wear black leather gloves over his hands in public connects him thematically to the other two characters decked out in fetish wear, Catwoman and Batman. Batman's cape and cowl, a slight redesign from the previous Burton film, remains both skintight and rigidly erect, causing Keaton to move dynamically and with purpose each time. Catwoman, by contrast, is as sinuous and slinky as the character is typically portrayed, with the added elements of a bright red lipstick standing in contrast to a pale, almost kabuki white face, and hundreds of visible white stitches lining her black skintight costume, reflecting the character's damaged psyche. In Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises, Anne Hathaway's Catwoman wears her skintight leather outfit purely for function, using the material as physical armor as well as a weapon via the shape of her sexuality. Pfeiffer's Catwoman costume, however, has no real physical function; indeed, it tears away over the course of the film. Catwoman wears her outfit as an expression of liberation, a way for Selina Kyle to finally be herself.
It's that liberation that the characters are really seeking, using superheroics (or supervillainy) as an expression of their sexual personality. In the first film, Burton and Keaton portray Bruce Wayne's secret identity as a double life, with Bruce becoming Batman as a way for a traumatized little boy to exert control over his life as a man, and enact justice and revenge on those who seek to victimize others. In Returns, Bruce is still in pursuit of justice (as he cockily flaunts the moral high ground over the film's true villain, Christopher Walken's mogul Max Shreck), yet due to Batman being more accepted by Gotham City (even going so far as having a casual walk and talk with both the mayor and police commissioner Gordon), he continues being Batman because he enjoys it. Far from being an angry vigilante relegated to the shadows, Bruce literally comes alive when the Bat-signal is turned on, with Batman being the reason he exists. That all changes, of course, after he's framed by Catwoman and the Penguin, forcing him to run into the shadows again for a time, yet Batman remains the true expression of his self. It's why his relationship with Selina/Catwoman is so close, as she finds herself liberated from the secretarial doormat she is in the beginning of the film to a woman open about her needs and desires, who takes what she demands. The most telling scene comes when the two meet at Shreck's masquerade ball, and they're the only two people who are not wearing masks. Far from being just a neat allusion to their alter egos, it's made explicit here that Catwoman and Batman are their true selves, and Selina and Bruce are, essentially, their role play. On their first date together, like most couples, they were too shy to reveal their true sexual identities, stopping each other from discovering their telltale scars from their rooftop fight the night before; at the masquerade, the truth comes out. The Penguin, by contrast, tries desperately to conceal his true self and his motives by "reclaiming his birthright" and dressing like a high class dandy, yet ultimately is exposed for who he is, causing him to seek revenge against his former collaborator Shreck (who, incidentally, dresses like a Sugar Daddy the entire film, preening with money). When confronted by Batman, Penguin taunts, "you're just jealous, because I'm a genuine freak, and you have to wear a mask!". To which Batman replies, "you may be right". Selina and Bruce need to externalize their inner selves in order to function, and Penguin, unable to conceal his externalizations, is undone by it.
In June of 1992 I was a few months shy of 10 years old, and all of this material sailed unnoticed over my head. I couldn't understand why my parents reacted so virulently toward taking us to see the film, nor why there was such national controversy surrounding a McDonald's Happy Meal campaign featuring toys based on the movie. A few months later, I was gifted a copy of the movie on VHS, and I watched select scenes over and over on repeat, mesmerized without being able to quite articulate why. A few years later, after hitting puberty, I knew very well why I was captivated, and it brought me a greater appreciation for the film to discover how subversive it was. Batman Returns broke ground in making the superhero film more adult, using the characters to explore themes beyond simple heroism and a desire for justice. It remains a unique expression of its auteur director, as well as the most sexually explicit non-portrayal of sex in the superhero genre.