The Penguin is the main antagonist of Tim Burton's 1992 superhero film Batman Returns.
This version of the Penguin is depicted to be a lot more tragic and malevolent than his comic counterpart. He was a deformed man who was abandoned and raised in the sewers as a baby. He carried trick umbrellas and his horrible past turned him into a bitter and ruthless psychopath. He was also the nefarious leader of the Red Triangle Circus Gang.
Tim Burton says that this version of the Penguin was inspired by "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari". The film departs from the traditional portrayal of the character as an eloquent gentleman of crime, instead depicting him as a physically deformed psychopath with a homicidal grudge against Gotham City's social elite. While this Penguin retained a number of trademarks, particularly the variety of trick umbrellas and the use of a monocle, he was given a huge visual makeover. His hands were now flippers, with a thumb and index finger, and the remaining three fingers fused together.
Where the comic version had varied between a full head of hair and varying degrees of thinning, this Penguin was bald, with his remaining length of hair long and stringy. Instead of a tuxedo, he wore a more Gothic, Victorian-style outfit, with a jabot as opposed to a bowtie. Other instances show him in black boots, a bib-like cloth around his neck, and something akin to a child's blanket sleeper, or the old long john-style underwear of the 1800s. Combined with his long dark coat/robe, the full white front of the bodysuit gave him an even more penguin-like appearance.
One visual aspect that remained fairly intact in this re-imagining was the familiar top hat. Another new touch was his large yellow duck vehicle, which had the triple functionality of being a boat, a car, and an elevator-like lift.
In stark contrast of his comic book incarnation who prides in being a gentlemen, this version of Penguin is a tragic but mentally unstable, petty, vindictive, murderous, depraved, bitter, and somewhat animalistic sociopath who even developed signs of homicidal tendencies as a baby. He is also shown to have man child-like qualities such as flying into a terrible rage when things didn't go his way due to the lack of actual parental figures in his early life, given that those who raised him are his penguin pets and his handlers in Red Triangle Circus. He further showcases this by flying into a rage whenever he feels like taking his anger out on someone else.
Through his schemes to get his revenge on entire Gotham City for his sad upbringing, Penguin is shown to be intelligent enough to manipulate others to get what he wanted; he successfully conspired with Max Shreck to stage his act of heroism in saving a mayor's infant child from his own gang members and later, using his own feeling of loneliness to make his speeches about being abandoned by his parents more convincing in order to gain the citizens' sympathy. The only one who is not convinced by his ruse is Bruce Wayne, who correctly deduced that Penguin is actually up to no good, which was later confirmed through him ordering his gang to hack his Batmobile in order to frame the Dark Knight. After Batman exposed his true colors through botching his speech when he's about to become the city's new mayor, the humiliated Penguin ultimately snapped, and is forced to advance his original plans against the citizens of Gotham. To add an insult to his injury, Batman foiled his plans time and time again, and visibly devastated upon seeing that the Dark Knight has Alfred turn his army of missile-armed penguins (whom he treated as his family) against him. As depraved as he had become, Penguin is a tragic monster at the core, as he likely would have become a better person had he raised by genuinely loving parents despite his deformities. Therefore, he remains sympathetic despite his unforgivable crimes.
Around Christmas time in Gotham City, the aristocratic Cobblepots gave birth to a baby boy. Because the child was hideously deformed, they locked him in a black box, where he showed his first sign of homicidal tendencies when he attacked and killed the family cat. Unable to deal with this atrocious behaving baby, they dropped him over the bridge where the water lead to the sewers. Eventually the Cobblepot baby washes up onto the shore of the Arctic World exhibit show at the Gotham City Zoo.
Not much is known of his early life from then on, 30 years later, except that he runs off to join the Red Triangle Circus. Then when the circus returns to a town for two weeks which featured newly added to their freak-show: The Poodle Lady, The World's Fattest Man, and an Aquatic Bird Boy (Some believe that this was the Cobblepot baby). The circus's two week stay was put to an end early because while guests were at the circus, their children went missing. One of the freak-show performers vanished before he could be questioned, some say that it was the Aquatic Bird Boy who would have by this time have been nicknamed The Penguin by his fellow freaks.
The Penguin then retreats to the now abandoned Gotham City Zoo, in order to hide from the police. This is where his nickname is put to use rather literally. He goes back to the arctic World exhibit. Somehow, he was able to track down fellow members of the circus and they formed the Red Triangle Gang. The Penguin runs around the Gotham City sewers because there is an accesses way from the arctic world exhibit (the same way he floated in when he was a year old). He uses a duck vehicle from a skyride at the zoo to get around the sewers easily. This brings us to Christmas in Gotham City, when the Penguin is 33 years of age.
Millionaire businessman Maximillian Shreck is kidnapped by the Red Triangles and is brought to their leader, a short, deformed man known as "The Penguin" at his secret hideout. Penguin blackmails Shreck with incriminating evidence of his many crimes, such as the toxic waste from his clean textile plant, documents that proved that Shreck owns a few firetraps in Gotham, and his murdered partner Fred Atkins' hand. This prompted Schreck to agree in helping Penguin find out his true identity and his parents.
Shreck arranges for the Penguin to rescue the mayor's infant child from his own gang members. The plan works, and Penguin becomes a hero to all, with the exception of a suspicious Bruce Wayne (Batman's alter-ego). After finding out his original birth name of Oswald Cobblepot (as well as the names of Gotham's first born sons), Penguin eventually wins the approval of citizens of Gotham and, after being persuaded by Shreck to do so, intends to run for Mayor.
After he encounters Batman and Catwoman while taking a walk around his future constituency at night, Penguin is contacted by Catwoman the following day, who notes that she and Penguin share a hatred for Batman. Although Penguin states that he is already planning to sabotage the Batmobile, Catwoman notes that Batman would have more power as a martyr, and the only way to truly destroy him would be to frame him and turn him into one of the villains that he despises. Catwoman thought that the Penguin was there to help her, but all he cared about was returning to Gotham and revenge.
When the subsequent plan is put into action, Batman is framed for kidnapping and murder and finds himself trapped in the Batmobile under Penguin's remote control. However, Catwoman and Penguin's alliance falls apart when she rebuffs a sexual advance from him, and Penguin tries to kill Catwoman himself, although she successfully escapes with the use of his air bound umbrella before accidentally letting go and falling into a greenhouse, but she once again miraculously survives the attempt, counting as her third of nine lives. The Penguin's campaign to oust the current mayor is quickly destroyed when Bruce Wayne plays selected comments he made insulting the people of Gotham while controlling the Batmobile at one of Penguin's speeches, the most prominent phrase being, "You've got to admit, I played this stinking city like a harp from hell!" The people of Gotham get angry, forcing Penguin to defend himself with his gun umbrella, and the police chase after him. But Penguin flees into the sewers, and reveals his original plan: to kidnap and kill the first-born children of Gotham's most prominent families in revenge (comparable to the Pharaoh killing the first-born Hebrew babies in the beginning of the Book of Exodus in the Bible).
Bruce meets Selina at a ball hosted by Shreck, where she reveals to him her intentions to kill Shreck. While dancing, the two subsequently discover the other's secret identity, but before they can leave to discuss this development, Penguin storms the hall with a shout of "You didn't invite me, so I crashed!" and tries to take Max's beloved son, Chip. Max successfully pleads with Penguin to take him instead. Batman attacks Penguin's Red Triangle Circus goons and puts a stop to the kidnappings. Penguin then dispatches an army of Missile-armed Penguins to completely annihilate Gotham. Batman manages to jam the birds' control signals and turn them around. The Dark Knight then tracks the villain down through the sewers.
Knowing that Batman is closing in on him and after seeing the rest of the Circus Gang flee, the villain rushes over to his Duck Mobile, grabs one of his umbrellas along the way and drives to the surface, Batman follows him by flying up to the surface going straight through the walls at the top and destroying the vehicle. Batman gets out and surveys the wreckage, but the Penguin pounces on him and they begin to fight with the villain unsheathing a sharp blade from the tip of his umbrella. The Dark Knight responds by taking out a remote control from his utility belt, which causes all the Penguins to appear in the zoo.
The Penguin is furious and viciously swipes his umbrella at Batman, however he breaks the blade when he accidentally hits the duck wreckage, but he manages to knock the control out of Batman's hand.
Grinning with triumph he picks it up and presses the glowing red button which causes the Penguins to fire their missiles. A huge flock of Bats suddenly surround the villain and he falls through the main glass window of his lair into the water below. Meanwhile the Penguins continue to fire the missiles destroying the outside of the Penguin's lair and everything around it including killing the remaining members of the Red Triangle gang.
Following the dramatic final confrontation between Batman, Catwoman and Shreck, culminating in Catwoman killing Shreck with a damaged stun gun and a high-powered electric cable, the now-unmasked Batman is left to confront a gravely injured Penguin emerging from the water, ready to kill him. Although heavily bleeding from his nose and mouth, and horribly weakened by the impact of the fall, The Penguin draws an umbrella from his collection, only to find it's a harmless toy, and proceeds to drop it. Complaining of the heat, Penguin mentions to Batman that he "will murder him momentarily", just as soon as he "can get a cold drink of Iced water", which ultimately turn out to be his last words. He then collapses to the concrete and dies from the poisoning, as well as his injuries. At that moment, six Emperor Penguins emerge from the shadows and solemnly drag his remains back into the water. As a result, the Penguin slowly sinks to his final resting place in a cloud of his own blood.
Oh, but you can. Oh, but you will.
~ The Penguin when hearing Max Shreck's speech.
You gotta admit, I played this stinking city like a harp from Hell!
~ The Penguin to Batman.
My name is not Oswald! It's Penguin! I am not a human being. I am an animal! Cold-blooded!
~ The Penguin accepting his identity.
You didn't invite me... so I crashed!
~ The Penguin to the party guests.
You're just jealous because I'm a genuine freak and you have to wear a mask!
~ The Penguin to Batman.
Oh, shit. I picked a cute one. The heat's getting to me. I'll murder you momentarily. Acck. But first, I need a cool drink of ice water.
~ The Penguin's last words before dying from his injuries and the toxic waste in the sewer.
The Penguin is the only one of the main villains of Batman Returns not to discover Batman's identity, although he did see him unmasked but didn't recognize him. However, Catwoman faithfully kept the secret due her love to Batman yet Max Shreck took the secret to the grave when Catwoman killed him.
Bob Hoskins, Christopher Lloyd, Joe Pesci, Rowan Atkinson, Dustin Hoffman, Dudley Moore, Marlon Brando, John Candy, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Waite, Dean Martin, Alan Rickman, Phil Collins, Charles Grodin, John Goodman, Ray Liotta, Alex Rocco, Christopher Lee and Gabriel Byrne were all considered for the role of Penguin before DeVito was cast.
Tom Mankiewicz's original script for the first Batman film included the Penguin along with the The Joker, with the Penguin described as a thin man unlike the comics. Mankiewicz wanted the late Peter O'Toole for the role, but the Penguin was removed along with Dick Grayson from the film's script after Steve Englehard was brought onto the project and felt that the film was overstuffed.
Danny DeVito remained in character between takes.
Danny DeVito had previous worked with Keaton in a previous movie and later played another in 2019, which is also directed by Burton. DeVito and Burton also worked together with other movies.
Despite the critical and box-office success of Batman Returns, Danny DeVito's portrayal of the Penguin was polarized by some critics, which mostly found him as inferior to The Joker from the first film. DeVito was even nominated for the Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Supporting Actor for the role. The Penguin's dark nature was criticized too for being one of the factors which led McDonald's to shut down their Happy Meal promotion for the film. Conversely, along with the film's version of Catwoman, this version of the Penguin was nominated in the AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains list in 2003.
Danny DeVito was advised by friend Jack Nicholson aware of his own financial success with Batman, to take the role of The Penguin.
Danny DeVito refused a stand-in for the scene where the Penguin gets pelted with rotten food by an angry mob.
Originally, the Penguin was set to make a comeback in Batman Unchained, the unproduced fifth film in the series which was cancelled after the disaster of Batman & Robin. In the film, the Penguin was going to reappear to Batman as a hallucination caused by the Scarecrow's fear gas with Danny DeVito reprising the role.
Despite being the main antagonist and his plot to drown all firstborns of Gotham City's wealthiest, an increasing group of Batman fans sympathize with the Penguin due his portrayal as a tragic villain. Indeed, some felt that the fact that his penguins gave him a "burial" on the zoo after his death symbolizes that while his family, the city and even his circus henchpeople all left him during his life, his beloved penguins were the only ones who remained with him until the very end, giving the Penguin a fitting ending for his miserable life.
The Penguin has around 36 minutes of screen-time.
Danny DeVito spent two hours a day in make-up. He was forbidden to describe The Penguin's make-up to anyone, including his family.