Battier and Better

Batman Returns is a funny, gorgeous improvement on the original and a lesson on how pop entertainment can soar into the realm of poetry

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Scared, scarred Selina Kyle is trudging homeward after another wretched day as secretary to the mighty Power & Light lord Max Shreck when she bumps into a fellow in a black cape. "Wow! The Batman!" she apostrophizes. "Or is it just -- Batman?"

The 1989 movie Batman, director Tim Burton's first go at the Bob Kane comic- book character, earned well over $1 billion in its theatrical and video release and in a boffo merchandise blitz. Yet, however imposing its grosses, however many kids in developing countries wore T shirts with the logo that is supposed to look like a bat in a halo but inevitably suggests a gaping mouth with five rotten teeth, the film was wan, jangled, lost in meandering murk.

That one was "just -- Batman." Now Burton has made Batman Returns, opening Friday on more than 2,500 screens, and it looks as though Warner Bros., which produced the film, got its $55 million worth. It is a funny, gorgeous, midsummer night's Christmas story about. . . well, dating, actually. But hang on. This is the goods: "The Batman." Accept no prequels.

Like a superhero for cinema, Batman Returns arrives in the nick of time. Movies are in big trouble. The magic is gone; the danger is missing. Genres that vitalized the box office a decade ago -- the sci-fi epic, the horror movie, the adult comedy -- look sapped. Top directors like Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese remake their own or other people's movies. So does everybody else. Lethal Weapon 3 and Patriot Games and Sister Act may bring millions into a cool theater on a hot evening, but are audiences getting the fresh kick that good films are supposed to deliver? Movies today are like the Bush Administration in its fourth year: aimless, exhausted, myopic. They lack the vision thing.

The first Batman seemed a symptom of that malaise. Batman Returns is an antidote. For a start, it's alive, not an effects showcase in a shroud. Daniel Waters' script delights in elaborate wordplay and complex characters. "The characters are all screwed up," Burton notes. "I find that much more interesting." Returns tops the first movie's shrill wrestling match between Batman (Michael Keaton) and the Joker (Jack Nicholson) with a funnier, more lithe and daring villain: the Penguin (Danny De Vito). He is a vicious troll with a righteous grudge: his rich parents dumped him in the sewer when they saw he had flippers for hands. Now he wants to be loved and, even more, elected -- mayor of Gotham City. In DeVito's ripe performance, Penguin is a creature of Dickensian rhetoric, proportions and comic depth.

But this brisk, buoyant movie gets its emotional weight from an entirely other conflict: the tangle of opposites between -- and within -- two credible people. Wealthy orphan Bruce Wayne (Keaton again) -- the "trust-fund goody- goody," as Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) calls him -- is also Batman, a trussed-up do-gooder who cannot reveal his identity. Selina Kyle, the single woman with a lousy love life, is also the vengeful kitten with a whip: "I am - Catwoman! Hear me roar!" Bruce and Selina are drawn to each other's worldly wise grace and the hint of hidden wounds. They are attracted by the fear of what they might find. And when they don their business suits, as Bat and Cat, the animal comes out. Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde. Hansel and Grendel. Fatal Attraction meets Beauty and the Beast.

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