Feb 17, 2009

Batman Returns (1992) - Review

Starring: Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Michael Gough, Michael Murphy, Cristi Conaway, Andrew Bryniarski, Pat Hingle, Vincent Schiavelli
Tim Burton

Running Time: 126 minutes
Action, Crime, Fantasy, Romance,

The 1992 sequel to Tim Burton's dark vision of Bob Kane's iconic comic book hero only got darker and better than the original, with the Dark Knight facing off against two villains in what would become the best "Batman" film of the franchise. This isn't necessarily a good thing, even considering what happened to the series once no-talent hack Joel Schumacher took over the reigns, because even Burton's manic brilliance is washed over with campy special effects and an incessant use of B-movie humor. Still, no one can deny the highly efficient tripartite formed by Michael Keaton, Michelle Pfieffer and Danny DeVito, whose amazing performances opposite one another help to carry the film past subtle mediocrity.

Keaton returns in his last hurrah as millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne, and his superhero alter ego Batman, who has devoted his life to protecting the city of Gotham from its growing list of drug-store criminals and comic-book villains. It's Christmas time in the gloomy metropolis and Batman is called into action when the annual lighting of the tree is cut short by a band of circus misfits working for the mysterious Penguin (DeVito). The Penguin, banished to the cold underground sewers by his parents at birth, quickly aligns with industrial bigwig Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) and makes a run for mayor while planning his sweet revenge on the city that originally turned its back on him.
Meanwhile, lowly secretary Selina Kyle (Pfeiffer) is experiencing a little change of her own after taking a fatal fall into the snow-covered alley. It's true she was caught snooping around hidden computer files that indict her boss of shady business ethics, but everyone deserves a second chance, right? Nine chances to be precise, and now she's adopted an alter ego of her own, prowling the streets of Gotham as the leather-bound Catwoman and stirring up her own pot of trouble until she is confronted by Batman, the enigmatic hero with whom she falls in love.

The relationship between Batman/Bruce Wayne and Catwoman/Selena Kyle is probably the most interesting element in the script -- since their dark histories both yielded alternate egos -- but it's horribly sidetracked by the main story of the Penguin's rise and fall from freedom, which unnecessarily eats up a big portion of the film. Regardless of the commonplace script of "Batman Returns," the acting is superb throughout. DeVito and Pfeiffer are the true stars as the respected villains, and even though Keaton makes a damn good Batman, he's painfully dreadful as Bruce Wayne. The audience should probably laugh when they see the relatively short Keaton playing Batman, yet he demands an overpowering respect behind the mask. Still, as the suave playboy Wayne, Keaton comes off as a deadpan geek.
To say Batman himself has an almost superfluous role would be unfair, but he certainly doesn't seem to be Burton's main focus. While we get to see the origins of both Penguin and Catwoman, the background of the pointy-eared one's true identity Bruce Wayne is again left out of the picture. As a result, Batman - unlike Superman or Spiderman or even the Hulk - is a tough character to care about. His dark side makes him in many ways a more interesting superhero than any of those others, but it's an aspect that Burton devotes little time or attention to.

Both Pfeiffer and DeVito are absolutely superb, and Keaton, despite the limitations of his role, looks in hindsight like the perfect choice for the part (especially having seen the dismal attempts of Val Kilmer and George Clooney in later abominations). Another massive plus point is the marvellous score provided again by Danny Elfman.

"Batman Returns" will forever be the best of the original four Gotham City adventures thanks to the gothic atmosphere created by Burton, but it doesn't live up to the current level of excellence that Hollywood has recently shown to our favorite superheroes. While the film offers plenty of exhilarating action and features one of the best acting trios of the decade, it still falls short of what moviegoers have come to expect from one of the biggest comic book icons of our time.

Two-Disc Special Edition DVD Review:

The two-disc special edition of "Batman Returns" includes a commentary by director Tim Burton, cast and crew interviews, and part four of the extensive "Batman Anthology" documentaries. Also featured on disc two of the set are costume and special FX featurettes, a music video by Siouxsie and the Banshees, and profile galleries of the film's heroes and villains.