“Wow, THE Batman — or is it just ‘Batman’? It’s your choice, of course!”
Batman Returns is, in my opinion, the Dark Knight’s best representation on the silver screen. His tortured soul is laid bare, and the thin line that separates him from the villains he pursues is clearly shown.
No one will ever bring Batman back to the screen like Tim Burton. Burton’s visual and storytelling styles are ideally suited to these stories. It’s obvious that Burton understands that Batman isn’t a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde split-personality situation. Batman isn’t the mask or the alter ego. From the moment his parents were killed, Bruce Wayne ceased to exist. His life was replaced by an unwavering desire for justice and revenge, personified by Batman. Rich playboy Bruce Wayne is the façade, not the cowled hero of Gotham City.
Batman, Burton’s first entry in the series, was the first time the Dark Knight had been brought to the big screen since the campy television series of the 1960s. It established the visual style and the nature of the hero. In Batman Returns, Batman (Michael Keaton — Mr. Mom, Beetlejuice, Jackie Brown) is contrasted to the villains he must face. In this entry, he is up against The Penguin (Danny DeVito — Get Shorty, L.A. Confidential, Man On The Moon) and Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer — The Fabulous Baker Boys, One Fine Day, The Story Of Us).
The movie begins by establishing the origin of The Penguin. The deformed baby was dropped into the sewers by his rich parents, and was then raised by circus performers. Cut to 33 years later. Sightings of a hideous penguin creature living in the sewers have the citizens of Gotham City frightened, and hooligans in clown garb besiege the town. Meanwhile, high above the streets below, Max Shreck (Christopher Walken — The Deer Hunter, True Romance, Pulp Fiction), industrialist, conspires to build a power plant to siphon off and store the electricity flowing into the city. His secretary, Selina Kyle (Pfeiffer), finds out about the plan, and is supposedly killed by Shreck. She is revived by a swarm of cats, and soon dons the sleek garb of Catwoman and takes to the streets.
The Penguin blackmails Shreck, forcing the respected citizen of Gotham to stand by the hideous creature and try to gain him some respect. In turn, The Penguin goes along with Shreck’s idea to run for mayor. The Penguin conspires with Catwoman to disgrace their common enemy, Batman. However, Selina/Catwoman does not realize that the man she is dating, Bruce Wayne, is the man behind the bat. The two are attracted to each other, both in costumed and out, without realizing that at night they are each other’s nemesis. In one particularly poignant scene at a dance, Bruce and Selina realize that each has a secret life. Selina asks, “Does this mean we have to start fighting?”
As Batman/Bruce Wayne, Michael Keaton has more charisma and character than the two actors (Val Kilmer and George Clooney) who donned the cowl after him put together. Even under a heavy latex suit, his intensity comes through and breathes life into what could be a wooden role. Michelle Pfeiffer is at her most impressive as Catwoman. She purrs her words. It could be a very campy performance, but she brings strength and the right amount of sensuality to it. Danny DeVito’s Penguin doesn’t stray far from the voice and mannerisms set by Burgess Meredith in the television series, only the character is made more grotesque by the excellent makeup work. Neither DeVito nor Pfeiffer rises to the bar set by Jack Nicholson as The Joker in the first film, but I don’t think that it’s fair to compare. Max Shreck oozes evil, but what else would you expect from Christopher Walken? The guy would sound menacing in a TV commercial selling baby diapers.
A movie this dark needs a DVD transfer that will bring it to life, and Warner Brothers must be congratulated, because the disc is beautiful. Everything in the image that should be black is very, very black. The rare well-lit scene doesn’t suffer. The movie suffers from very few defects. One or two scenes, particularly in the Batcave, are a bit soft. Some of the fine lines cause shimmering, particularly in the stitching of Catwoman’s vinyl outfit and the birdcage in The Penguin’s loft. It is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and full-frame, on opposite sides of the disc. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track is also impressive. The surrounds are used frequently, no better than at the 3:08 mark, when the main title is displayed — a flock of bats will fly around your room, accompanied by Danny Elfman’s amazing score.
The only low point of the disc is the lack of extras. Scant cast biographies and production notes are all that are provided. It was an early WB release, but you’d think that a franchise that brought them so much money would receive a nicer package of goodies.
Even if Jack Nicholson’s performance in Batman set the standard by which all other on-screen comic book villains would be judged, I still prefer Batman Returns. How can you resist a movie with rocket-toting penguins or a poodle that’s the scariest thing in the movie? This movie (and its predecessor) should be in every collection.
One note on a link at right. I have included a link to a Frank Miller fan site. Frank Miller’s gritty “Return Of The Dark Knight” graphic novel had the most impact on the visual style and nature of the Batman character in Burton’s Batman movies.
If there’s one person in this world that I would like to meet, it is Tim Burton. His idiosyncratic vision and unusual approaches to storytelling make me think that he would be a great guy with whom to share a cup of coffee and talk about movies. I doubt he’ll ever have the stature in Hollywood of Orson Welles or John Huston or Francis Ford Coppola, but I’d rather watch Burton’s fun, quirky, whimsical romps any day. Every single one of his films is a perfect 10 in my eyes. I’ve said on other occasions that the movie I am most looking forward to on DVD is Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, and I’m glad it’s being released this year. If anyone wants to start a campaign for the release of Edward Scissorhands or Ed Wood, you can count me in.