Film Reviews:

Batman Returns

(Tim Burton, US, 1992)

As Tim Burton's 1989 Batman received less than widespread glorious praise in this country, it was always going to be interesting to see the critics (and the fans) reactions to Burton's sequel. As one of the few people who enjoyed Batman immensely in the first place, I was hoping the follow up would equal if not exceed it. As a cautionary measure, I viewed the first film twice before committing my thoughts to print. I'm not sure how many times I've seen Batman Returns now, but let us say that nine years after its release, I've not exactly been on it like a bullet from a gun. So, the verdict? It's an example of that extremely rare beast - the sequel superior to the original.

Having said that, it's not without its faults. Like much of Burton's work, once you get over the sumptuous trimmings and dig below the surface, there's an apparent lack of firm direction. Which is odd given the wealth of psychological material to be found in the three leading characters - Batman, Catwoman and The Penguin. For it is here that the film's strengths really lie. Michelle Pfeiffer is, despite all my original instincts at the casting announcement, faultless as Selina Kyle/Catwoman. She brilliantly expresses her character's inner torment in an utterly compelling manner. Diminutive Danny De Vito always did seem like a perfect choice for the equally diminuitive Penguin. Typical of Burton's uncompromising attitude, The Penguin here is like nothing we've ever seen before outside of the adult era comic books. Repulsive is the only word that can do justice both to Burton's 're-imagining' of the character and De Vito's admirably aggressive portrayal. Yet, despite all this, and due no doubt to the director's sensibilities and talents, we still feel pity for this fish stinking mutant. Michael Keaton's return to the Bruce Wayne/Batman role reaffirms that he is well-suited, if not quite perfect, for the part.

Batman Returns, like its predecessor, has several niggling shortcomings. The set design lacks the imposing presence of the late Anton Furst's in Batman. This is further hampered by obvious attempts at keeping the budget in check, such as the scene set in a disappointingly miniscule graveyard - surely the most poorly missed opportunity for an atmospheric matte painting? In place of the pointless Batwing plane seen before, we have the equally pointless inclusion of a Bat-jet-ski-boat thing. Again, just like its predecessor, as soon as it appears from nowhere it duly ends up in pieces only moments later. (It is as if these needless accoutrements were forced upon Burton and the only thing he could do was to get rid of them as quickly as possible.)

However, the improvements are far more significant. The focus on the duality of the Wayne/Batman and Kyle/Catwoman personalities provides a much needed anchor for the fantasy to hold onto. Without the human element the film would run the risk of coming across, like the abysmal Batman Forever, as merely a circus parade on screen. There's also some brilliant, emotionally laden dialogue that adds flesh to the bone of these characters. A feature unequaled so far in the series. Minor but nice touches will please fans of the comic book character - the totally different and fantastic Batcave; Batman seen dispatching villains with a single, forceful punch; some nice expressionist touches; Danny Elfman's improved score, and Paul (Pee Wee Herman) Ruben's cameo as The Penguin's father in a sequence worthy of the Brothers Grimm on a bad day. Although it does falter in places, and overall there's still a slightly 'hollow' feel to it, the pinnacle of Burton's talent is exemplified in the masked ball sequence when both Wayne and Kyle drop their psychological masks for an incredibly moving moment. Even now (2001) Batman Returns remains high in the Burton ouvre.

Rob Dyer

See also:

The animated Batman: Mask of the Phantasm
The Crow
Judge Dredd

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