Batman Returns (1992) / Action-Fantasy
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence, sexuality and innuendo
Running Time: 126 min.
Cast: Michael Keaton, Michelle Pfeiffer, Danny DeVito, Christopher Walken, Michael Gough, Michael Murphy, Andrew Bryniarski, Pat Hingle, Vincent Schiavelli, Paul Reubens
Director: Tim Burton
Screenplay: Daniel Waters
I remember when I was much younger being completely entranced by this sequel to the mega-blockbuster, Batman, for its darkly complex, psychological world of gray-area shades of good vs. evil. Watching it today, I wince a bit at some of the poorly conceived plot angles, nonsensical moments of action, and some truly atrocious screenwriting at times. While I acknowledge that there are some flaws to this film, many of them quite substantial, ultimately I still feel that the good elements do manage to outshine the bad.
It's a sequel, but not really a direct sequel, so if you haven't seen the first film, you probably can still catch this one, provided you understand enough of the Batman mythos going in. The film opens with a wealthy couple giving birth to a baby with hideous mutations, having flippers instead of hands, and a monstrous appetite, eating things like the family cat. Fearing what they have created, they release the baby downstream, where it ends up growing up raised by penguins, and living in the sewers under the streets of Gotham City. Now an adult, the Penguin (Danny DeVito, The Rainmaker) , as he is known by his gang of acrobatic thieves, is a kingpin of crime of his own sort. Meanwhile, Gotham's top businessman, Max Shreck (Walken, Sleepy Hollow) , has a plan to steal the power away from the city with his new power plant, and when his mousy secretary catches wind, he pushes her out of a high-story window, leaving her for dead. She isn't as she is "resurrected" by some stray cats in the neighborhood, causing her to take on the agility and fighting skills of a cat, becoming Catwoman (Pfeiffer, Fabulous Baker Boys) . With three new villains on the scene, each with their own agendas against one another, Batman (Keaton, Beetlejuice) is the city's sole savior.
As you can tell from the plot summary above, Batman Returns is a very ambitious second film, perhaps overly so, as the storyline is only held together by the most tenuous of cohesion to still be followed. In less kind words, it's a fairly big mess of a movie, but the confrontations and developments are interesting enough that entertainment value can still be had. Much of the credit, as well as much of the blame, goes to the artistically inclined mind of director Tim Burton (Big Fish) , who breathes new life into this old franchise, but also introduces a pitch-black sense of humor that makes the film very uneven in tone. Very corny jokes are mixed with scenes of brutality, and the result is a film that is at the same time too juvenile for adults to take seriously, but too violent to be called children's fare.
There's a beauty to Batman Returns, as well as an ugliness. The beauty comes from the wonderfully realized costumes, sets, cinematography, and the gorgeous score by Danny Elfman (Spider-Man, Planet of the Apes). The ugliness comes in the form of the cold-hearted motivations, sadistic moments of terror, and a macabre assortment of bad guys that are as menacing as they are pathetic. With three major villains involved, the movie's sole protagonist is largely absent from the proceedings, dwarfed by Burton's new creations to play with, which creates a lopsided amount of emphasis on evil, making this a dark and somewhat repugnant form of entertainment.
Batman Returns is a worthwhile sequel in that it continues the thematic trend of the original and heads into a different direction of sorts, but doesn't really improve on the formula. If you love Burton's style-over-substance delivery and surrealistic vision, you'll find a lot here to admire. If not, you're left with having little to do but admire the sheer scope and breadth of the artistic elements, and eschewing all attempts to make sense of any of it. Batman Returns is a bells and whistles kind of film, more admirable for the superficial elements than for its story, character depth or plotline. Yes, it's occasionally cacophonic, but more often than not, these bells and whistles make for some interesting music.
-- Followed by Batman Forever and Batman & Robin.
©2004 Vince Leo