Batman Returns
directed by Tim Burton
(Warner Brothers, 1992)

Following the run-away success of Batman, Tim Burton was given a lot more freedom with the sequel. He used that freedom to create a dark, surreal movie that was too intense for many viewers. Batman Returns is the least family-friendly film in the Batman franchise. It is also the most uneven. Burton's sequel waivers between moments of inspired genius and moments of excess.

Returning in the roles of Bruce Wayne and Batman is Michael Keaton. Keaton surprised a lot of fans with his ability to play this part in the first film. Now freed from the burden of having to prove himself, Keaton stretches as an actor. He brings the weight and gravity of his performance in the first film and adds a needed sense of humor. No other Batman in any of the other three films in the series was as complex as Michael Keaton in Batman Returns.

Most notably missing from the first film is Jack Nicholson. His performance as the Joker electrified audiences. It was impossible to take your eyes off his colorful face. In his place, Burton offers Danny DeVito as the Penguin. Unlike earlier, more dapper incarnations of the character, this Penquin is a cruelly deformed freak. DeVito as the Penguin is as grotesque as Nicholson was capitvating. In place of Nicholson's wonderful one-liners, DeVito goes for gross by gnawing on a raw fish and biting off a man's nose.

Fortunately, Batman Returns also features Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman. Her character straddles the line between hero and villain. Like Batman, she is motivated by a need for vengence against those who have wronged her. But she is less mentally stable. Pfeiffer does a marvelous job of capturing Selena Kyle's split personality, and the movie comes alive whenever she's onscreen, slinking around in her skin-tight leather catsuit. Selena feels empowered by her Catwoman identity and the audience shares in her intoxicating freedom.

The third villain of the film is Max Schrek, a corrupt businessman who looks like he walked out of one of Charles Dickens' nightmares. Schrek would be the most ordinary of the villains if he weren't played by Christopher Walken, who plays the part with such gusto he overpowers more colorful characters like the Penquin. Unfortunately, there is very little for him to do once he has wronged Selena. The screenplay tries to work him into the rest of the story, but it never really succeeds in doing so.

Like the first Batman, the sequel's weakness is its plot. The story shifts gears a number of times as the Penguin's plans fail one after another. One minute he is trying to run for mayor and the next he's kidnapping Gotham's first-born children. Somehow he also finds time to team up with Catwoman to try and frame the Batman, who foils each of these schemes without trying overly hard. The story is filled with too many characters and too many subplots without ever offering a central story.

The overall theme of the movie is duality. Each character has a dual nature. The movie itself seems to suffer from duality as well. Sometimes it is a moody masterpiece, sometimes it is just plain banal. It never comes together to be the great film it aspires to be. But at times it entertains and intrigues more than any other Batman movie.

[ by Greg Laber ]
Rambles: 30 May 2002

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