``Batman''lost in illusions

June 19, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

The main problem with "Batman Returns" is that Batman doesn't return.

Of the main characters in the $55-million film, Michael Keaton's Batman is the least dynamic, the least interesting, and the most isolated. It's a little mouse of a performance: Keaton looks boyish and unprepossessing in his Armani suits as Bruce Wayne, and as Batman, he lets the Styrofoam chest do all the acting; one can imagine this shrunken, dweebie little feller inside the rippling plastic bodymold, and it considerably deludes the illusion of omnipotence.

And since illusion -- rather than sense or story or psychological coherence -- is the core of the piece, that's a serious difficulty.

It's almost as if director Tim Burton has lost interest in the central icon of his strange and wondrous universe and decided that Batman is fundamentally just a cop in a funny hat. This Batman has no inner life whatsoever; we're never privy to his calculations, his rages, his obsessions. Adam West could have handled it. Meanwhile, Burton has moved on to more extravagant night creatures.

Of these, the most dynamic -- the most dazzlingly imagined, the most powerful, the best performance -- is Catwoman, played by Michelle Pfeiffer. Pfeiffer is so stunningly beautiful she is frequently not granted the credit she deserves for the intelligence of her acting. But, beauty aside, she's simply wonderful. It's too bad nobody affiliated with the movie could figure out a way to get her into the story.

When first we see Pfeiffer's Selina Kyle she's almost anonymous: a drab secretary with bowlegs and heels that keep losing their purchase on the ground, exactly as Selina has lost purchase in her life. Somehow she's bumbled into a job as exec assistant to industrialist Max Shreck (a dull Christopher Walken) who's involved in a plot to defraud the city of yet more millions by building a bogus power plant. When she discovers his perfidy, he tosses her out a window.

The movie is unclear about the mechanism, but she appears to be licked back to life by a tribe of magic cats who somehow miraculously imbue her with their power; the movie makes an unconscious connection between feminity and cats. But it's also a signal of how incoherently the piece is imagined that the movie really does nothing with this idea. Is she an avatar of abused women, a feline Thelma, come back to haunt the city and the men who run it? Or is she just a kitten with a whip? Burton doesn't know, and he's unsure how to use her; she just shows up at odd moments, flirts dirtily with Batman, or trades karate kicks with him (same thing in this world). Then she departs, sometimes deserting the movie for what feels like hours at a time.

In another and generally unrelated part of the story, Shreck forges an alliance with the tragically deformed master criminal known as Penguin (Danny DeVito), who looks like the German ghoul Nosferatu after a crash bulk-up program at Dunkin' Donuts. It's a strange image: a golf-ball of flesh with the head of a vampire in a costume by Mack Sennett. Clearly, however, Penguin engages Burton fully: He's the second most provocative character in the film, a freak of birth like Edward Scissorhands whose exile from the race has twisted him in deliciously strange ways. His crimes have a psychopathic cast to them: He wants to punish the parents who abandoned him through the medium of parents who haven't abandoned their children. How's this for a cheery topic: "Batman Returns" is the first $55-million movie about murdering hundreds of kids by drowning them in industrial waste.

It's easy to tick off formal flaws in the piece. In the original, Jack Nicholson's demonic presence galvanized the movie; by splitting the villainy into two and a half (Penguin, Shreck and the ambiguity of Catwoman), the movie fragments considerable emotional power. Worse, perhaps, is the storyteller's ineptitude in integrating plot elements into a satisfying whole: The Catwoman subplot only brushes with Shreck and Penguin's plan. Burton also has irritating tendencies to evoke issues -- Penguin's parentage, Shreck's power plant -- and then abandon them.

But then it's not really a movie. It's a painting and Burton is a painter, a Hieronymus Bosch for our time. The thing seems to come straight from his subconscious and unspool in dream-logic, abetted by a coherent visual impression of a strange and threatening universe, part Brechtian theater of the folk, part nightmare from the heart of darkness, part '40s film noir. As pure visual spectacle, "Batman Returns" never lets up.

The set pieces are marvelous: an assault by missile-armed penguins on Gotham City, a roaring plunge through the sewers in what appears to be the Bat torpedo, attacks by giant toys, an army of clowns. Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas #F anymore. We're not even in Oz. This baby takes place in Tim Burton's id. It's a great place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there.

'Batman Returns'

Starring Michael Keaton, Michelle Pfeiffer and Danny DeVito.

Directed by Tim Burton.

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated PG-13.

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