Batman Returns
Rating -

Fantasy/Action (US); 1992; Rated PG-13; 126 Minutes

Michael Keaton: Bruce Wayne/Batman
Danny DeVito: Oswald Cobblepot/The Penguin
Michelle Pfeiffer: Selina Kyle/Catwoman
Christopher Walken: Maximillian 'Max' Shreck
Michael Gough: Alfred Pennyworth

Produced by Holly Borradaile, Ian Bryce, Tim Burton, Robin D'Arcy, Denise Di Novi, Larry Franco, Jenny Fulle, Peter Guber, Benjamin Melniker, Jon Peters, Michael E. Uslan; Directed by Tim Burton; Screenwritten by Daniel Waters and Sam Hamm; based on the characters of Bob Kane's "Batman" comic books

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Written by DAVID KEYES

The frigid, wintry images found in Tim Burton's "Batman Returns" are at the heart of the Batman comic books, in which the city felt more alive than the actual characters. In the original movie, and Joel Schumacher's later efforts, Gotham City was colorful but climateless, giving us an environment pleasing to the eye but futile in realism. Here, Burton hands us a place filled with chilly temperatures and heavy snowflakes, underscoring the cold impulses of three superhuman characters who play in the shadows like children on a playground. Of all the "Batman" pictures, this is the most striking, atmospheric and effective.

Like Burton's prior entry into the series, "Batman Returns" offers us a story of two clashing forces; in one corner, we have the infamous Bruce Wayne (a.k.a. Batman), who fights crime and swears justice in the vast Gotham city; and in the other corner, we are given the Penguin, a deformed, lopsided mutant-like man who lives in the sewers and finds companionship in his web-footed friends. In the movie's first shots, we see the desperation and fear from his parents, who witness his dreadful birth and later watch on as he ingests a live feline. They are confused, tormented, ignorant to the disfigured child, and as a last resort (I guess), they throw a basket into the river, which is carried down into the sewers where he is eventually found by penguins.

When the movie enters the present, this child has grown into a mastermind, contemplating Gotham's respect for Batman, and his potential success in the world above. All of his ideas and plans are eventually put into motion by the diabolical Maximillian Shreck, who is called Gotham's Santa Claus for obvious reasons. Using some of the antics of his intelligence arsenal, Shreck turns the Penguin into a media event, in which we see viewers pity his disfigurement and shed tears for his broken heart. "I want to find my family," he says on camera. Meanwhile, behind closed doors, his mind is more at work with dispatching Gotham's admiration for the caped crusader.

Of course, all of this would not be possible without the help of a love interest for Batman. Her name is Selena Kyle, and she is played by Michele Pfeifer. She begins her role as a simple, lonely and "say-all-the-wrong-things" girl, and later evolves into a serious, more subtle personality. What Bruce Wayne, and Batman, don't know, however, is that Selena Kyle also carries the trademark of Catwoman, a viscous, sexy woman who is hidden behind a tight black costume and priceless stolen goods. Pfeiffer gives us a penetrating and observant performance, one which actually overshadows those of Danny DeVito and Michael Keaton. Her eyes tear through the screen like a cat's claws, her voice shrewd and calm, her body language aroused with attractiveness. She and Batman have some of the most interesting chemistry I've ever seen on screen, not because they're essentially made for each other, but also because they are on opposite sides. One cares about the city, the other cares about herself. Try picturing a romantic scene between the two which ends with Catwoman being thrown down into a sand truck.

But the eyes always come back to Gotham city itself. Visually striking and evocatively textured, here is an environment of dark, creepy colors and steep buildings that feels limitless for these characters to travel around in. The arctic-like conditions that engulf the metropolis are additional virtues, allowing us not only to see the city, but to feel it.

What succeeds in visual richness, however, can be brought down by the film's one missing link: a convincing main villain. DeVito is transformed miraculously into the Penguin, but when he is on screen, ranting about the need to be mayor, it seems more like he's rehearsing his lines rather than trying to bring his character to life. And Christopher Walken, who is famous in the movies for his fearsome character roles, is a little less convincing here, basically standing off to the side while the Penguin takes all his credit and fame.

But the eye seems more important here than the mind. I award the movie three-and-a-half stars because of its style, and not substance. This is one of those rare occurrences when we pay more attention to the images rather than what happens in front of them, simply because the foreground would lose its effect without the background. In any case, visually and thematically, "Batman Returns" is a triumph.

1999, David Keyes, Please e-mail the author here if the above review contains any spelling or grammar mistakes.
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