After reinventing the Batman character in 1989, and introducing audiences to a new level of box office bravura, Tim Burton decided to up the ante in every way with the inevitable sequel. But even the soulless title has overtones of what to expect here: Batman is back, and has a new round of villains to fight. The weird thing is, Batman never went anywhere at the end of the first film, so why did he have to “Return” for round two? Alas, such questions will find no answer here, as the point is to simply push the envelope of good taste and cash in on a newly-minted franchise. And while Batman Returns isn’t a complete train wreck, it jumps off the rails early on and never even tries to find its way back.
Burton’s first Batman movie, while flawed, at least provided some good entertainment and a solid hero/villain tale. Batman was well matched against The Joker, and the conflict provided for some interesting, if not entirely quality, film making. In an attempt to up the ante with Batman Returns, the story has two villains: The Penguin and Catwoman, neither of whom is as interesting or compelling as Jack Nicholson’s Joker. To further complicate matters, each villain has an origin story in this movie, which means that the title character actually gets painfully little screen time. The film begins with the grim birth of The Penguin, a child so horribly disfigured that his parents abandon him in a baby-sized river basket to float to a watery grave. But since this is a comic book movie, this child is (of course) adopted and raised in a secret chamber inside the Gotham City zoo by a pack of wild penguins. Years later Danny DeVito emerges from the sewers as The Penguin, ready to wreak havoc on the city.
Meanwhile, plucky do-gooding secretary Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer), who just can’t seem to catch a break, is tossed out of a window and left for dead by her evil corporate boss Max Schreck (Christopher Walken, whose unapologetic scenery-chewing is the best part of the movie). But since this is a comic book movie, mere secretaries can’t simply die after 20-story defenestration! No, they are brought back to life by a pack of wild cats. Somehow. And thus begins her transformation into Catwoman.
None of this makes any sense whatsoever, but when watching a movie about a rich dude who fights crime in a bat mask, all bets are off. For reasons entirely unexplainable by any stretch of logic, Max Schreck recruits The Penguin to run for mayor in exchange for some political favors. Never mind the fact that just a week earlier The Penguin was entirely unknown to Gotham and had spent his entire life in a penguin-filled sewer. (I know we live in a world where professional wrestlers can become state governors, but even this is pretty ridiculous.) And because the plot requires it, Catwoman joins forces with The Penguin to (what else?) get rid of Batman. Because, you know, it’s a comic book movie and stuff. In the middle of this is an awkward romance between Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle (oh, the irony!).
Michael Keaton reprises his role as Bruce Wayne, either out of contractual obligation or some type of legal fine print. His blandness pervades every aspect of the character, and when he is not throwing awkward punches or delivering a menacing glare through the Caped Crusader mask, he is squirming uncomfortably in a suit or trying to warm up to Michelle Pfeiffer in front of a ginormous fireplace back at Wayne Manor. DeVito turns in a solid performance as an aquatic terrorist, but the entire Penguin character is a disaster from top to bottom. There is no reason for the character to exist, no reason for a conflict between him and Batman, no way (even by comic book logic) that he could have established a massive underground terrorist organization, dependent on mindless henchmen and hundreds of trained penguins, from inside a city zoo. And somehow, wearing a skin-tight leather suit and assigning an feline-based moniker makes one impervious to the penetrating power of 9mm bullets. The list goes on. The entire movie is a series of face-palm-inducing moments and cheap thrills, wrapped up in a sadistically violent tale in which Batman himself is largely peripheral. But hey, if it sells happy meals, why not? Oh, wait.
Last 5 posts by Simon R.
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