On all counts, “Batman Returns” is a monster. Follow-up to the sixth-highest-grossing film of all time has the same dark allure that drew audiences in three years ago. But many non-fans of the initial outing will find this sequel superior in several respects, meaning that Tim Burton’s latest exercise in fabulist dementia should receive even stronger across-the-board acceptance than the original. Warner Bros.’ reported $ 80-million-plus investment will be an afterthought in the wake of the B.O. cascade, which should approach the $ 250 million neighborhood of the first pic domestically.
Initial “Batman” was remarkably heavy and unlikable for such a commercial sensation. Freshly minted item most noticeably lacks Jack Nicholson’s manic Joker, some key artistic personnel are different and film is too long for its own good, but Burton and his cohorts have perpetuated the original’s extraordinary look and embellished it with a host of new ideas.
Batman’s new adversaries– Penguin and Catwoman–are both fascinating creations, wonderfully played. And much of the film, particularly the first half , is massively inventive and spiked with fresh, perverse humor. Burton has once again managed to pursue his quirky personal concerns in the context of broadly commercial entertainment, although the idiosyncracies of the villains clearly interest him far more than the programmable heroics of the title character and the related mandatory action sequences.
Like its predecessor, “Batman Returns” is one big glob storywise, without a strong dramatic arc and propelled by weak narrative muscles. Fortunately, however, the screenplay, by Daniel Waters–whose work on “Heathers” was as memorable as his contribution to “Hudson Hawk” was misjudged–offers up a succession of scenes that ranges from the mildly intriguing to the genuinely inspired. His dialogue has an irreverent weirdness that often provokes mental double takes and unexpected laughs.
Interest gets cranked up high immediately by a prologue that illustrates the creation of the Penguin. Playing the infant’s parents, Diane Salinger and a virtually unrecognizable Paul (Pee-wee Herman) Reubens dump the cradled tot into a freezing stream in Central Park. Like Moses, he survives, although the flock he gathers under the streets of Gotham City is of an entirely different sort, comprising crazed circus rejects and actual penguins.
Disrupting a civic Christmas celebration in a striking, architecturally fascistic reimagining of Rockefeller Center Plaza, Penguin (Danny DeVito) announces that he wants some respect and, now that he has come up from a lifetime underground, aims to find out who his parents were and why they abandoned him.
Calling himself “a child who was born a little different” and displaying the shiny flippers he hasfor hands, this Penguin is a kissin’ cousin to Edward Scissorhands, although a diabolically evil one bright enough to observe, “It’s human nature to fear the unusual.”
Forming an alliance with business tycoon Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), a specialist in industrial waste and leeching off the city, Penguin decides to run for mayor– an interesting coincidental twist in this year of the independent candidate–while simultaneously hastening the community’s ruin with his maniacal terrorist attacks.
Equally intriguing character of Catwoman evolves out of the demeaning treatment dished out by Shreck to his lovely, somewhat disheveled secretary, Selina Kyle. Rather comically continuing her “Frankie and Johnny” routine as a forlorn single woman who barely gets by in a shabby big-city apartment, Michelle Pfeiffer plays a woman who gets thanked for finally standing up to her boss by getting pushed out a window.
Showing her feline propensities, however, she rallies from certain death and becomes a kitten with a whip who can very much hold her own with Batman.
Oh, yes–Batman has to fit in here somewhere. Unfortunately for the twisted imaginations of Burton and Waters, the winged one must remain a relatively straight, upstanding character and therefore of limited interest to them. Batman comes to the perfunctory rescue of numerous anonymous individuals through the course of things but actually spends much of his time being humbled and humiliated by his highly imaginative opponents.
One of the pic’s main drawbacks, as with the first, is that Bruce Wayne/Batman remains a relative cipher, a symbol of the force of good rather than a psychologically dimensional character on a par with the evildoers.
It is an unmistakable Burton touch to emphasize the extreme isolation in which all three of his major characters live, and the bird/cat opposition is played up nicely. But the real accomplishment of the film lies in the amazing physical realization of an imaginative universe. Where Burton’s ideas end and those of his collaborators begin is impossible to know, but result is a seamless , utterly consistent universe full of nasty notions about societal deterioration , greed and other base impulses.
Lensed seemingly entirely indoors or on covered sets, pic is a magnificently atmospheric elaboration on German expressionism. Its look has been freshly imagined by production designer Bo Welch, based on the Oscar-winning concepts of the late Anton Furst in the first installment.
Welch’s Gotham City looms ominously over all individuals, and every set–from Penguin’s aquariumlike lair and Shreck’s lavish offices to Bruce Wayne’s vaguely “Citizen Kane”-like mansion and simple back alleys–is brilliantly executed to maximum evocative effect.
Similarly, costumes by Bob Ringwood, carrying on from the initial outing, and Mary Vogt evince imagination pushed to an advanced level. Batman’s outfit has been appealingly altered to a sharper, more armored look. Catwoman has always been a knockout, but her form-fitting black leather look has been given an extra dimension by the homemade stitching that gradually comes apart. And Penguin’s amorphous shape is often clothed in oddly Victorian garb that outstandingly emphasizes his otherness.
All the way down the line, behind-the-scenesters can take deep bows, notably including lenser Stefan Czapsky (taking over on camera from Roger Pratt), Penguin makeup and effects producer Stan Winston, key makeup artist Ve Neill, visual effects supervisor Michael Fink, special effects supervisor Chuck Gaspar, composer Danny Elfman and the almost endless lineup of craftspeople, artisans and technicians. In few films does the synthesis of so many people’s different contributions into a single aesthetic count for so much.
On the performance side, the deck is stacked entirely in favor of the villains. Briskly waddling, cawing his rude remarks and conveying decades’ worth of resentment and bitterness, DeVito makes Penguin very much his own in a unique and far-from-endearing performance that’s always fascinating to watch.
Although some doubted that she was the ideal choice after she had replaced the pregnant Annette Bening in the role, Pfeiffer proves to be a very tasty Catwoman indeed. Endearingly klutzy initially as Selina, she looks amazing in her skin-tight, S&M-like leather skin, wins the viewer over to her new incarnation with her intimidating display of whip mastery in a department store, then dazzles as she cartwheels through Gotham City on her enigmatic mission vis-a-vis the grand power struggle.
Wild-maned Walken has the right comic understatement and sangfroid as Max Shreck, a character named, as an in-joke, after the German actor who starred as the screen’s first Dracula in F.W. Murnau’s 1922 “Nosferatu.”
As in the first film, Michael Keaton is encased in a role as constricting as his superhero costume, and while the actor’s instincts seem right, the range he is allowed is distinctly limited. Given the psychological dimension provided to the other lead characters, the vacuum at the center stands as the most prominent shortcoming of the “Batman” features to date.
It’s also clear that Burton is not at heart an action director, and the big scenes of mass mayhem, gigantic explosions and crowd movement are those in which the film becomes flat and uninvolving. At 126 minutes, pic runs exactly as long as the original, but trimming by 10 or 15 minutes, mainly from the final section , would have vastly enhanced its pace and impact.