"An opera - a gothic, Teutonic, thickly textured hybrid of various theatrical and cinematic conventions. To call this film Wagnerian would be understating the case, because even the Ring has its light and shade...[it] recalls the elliptical and symbolic world of Strauss-Hoffmannsthal's Die Frau ohne Schatten, with its somber metaphysical contrivances and obscure progressions. You may need a miner's helmet to see it." These words (and others) were written by me in these pages upon the premiere of Batman in 1989. Three years have passed since the epoch-making twelve months that shook the world. Some things - my view on Tiannanmen Square and genocide to name two - aren't shaken or replaced easily. But others are open to review. And in light of Tim Burton's Batman Returns having opened nationwide last Friday, I conclude that my critical response was perhaps premature. Three years premature.
The first Batman was a mere operetta next to this black-as-coal, impossibly overwrought, and resultingly unwatchable, sequel. If a miner's helmet helped you through the first one, then cataract surgery, a flashlight, and that high-powered hard top may be necessary to trudge through this caped caper. Even the blind would cavil at this bat.
Which is not to say that it is entirely without its fleetingly diverting attributes. For one thing, it's more broadly comic. In Batman Returns, the good-versus-evil duet performed by the Joker and Batman has been replaced by a mixed-up-versus-more-mixed-up menage a trois, pitting the Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) and the Penguin (Danny DeVito) against Batman and Gotham City. The ganster role played by Jack Palance in the original film - wisely dismissed early on - is extended here, and performed by an elegantly tailored and gray-haired Christopher Walken. (Quite nicely, too.) Pfeiffer's sexy kitten is all you could hope for: elusive, sinuous, estrogenous. Her black patent-leather costume bearing irregularly sewn seams and those peering blue eyes work a kind of magic when she's on - and Pfeiffer's delivery is definitely on. The best lines are cabaret-inspired genius: "Meow"; "I am Catwoman. Hear me roar"; "Every woman you try to save ends up dead...or deeply resentful"; and "Life's a bitch and so am I." Michelle Pfeiffer scores a perfect ten in Batman Returns.
As for Keaton, he is quietly charismatic, as before, but as Batman he's been given too many lines to speak, and that diminishes him - he's a dud, a stiff. This time around, Burton has chosen to limit the number of shots of Batman moving jerkily and mechanically offsetting opponents, adding more dialogue - a big mistake. The Penguin, on the other hand, is MTV vaudeville - Archie Rice as veejay. Trickles of bilious swill ooze out of this Penguin's rotten-toothed mouth. Short and obese (and wearing what for all intents and purposes is body-suit thermal underwear), Danny DeVito looks like a cross between Sam Kinison and Nancy Walker as the earthbound bird. Children reared on Burgess Meredith's TV assumption will be disappointed - and possibly repelled - by his unsightliness.
But as I contended in 1989, Burton's vision is not intended for youngsters. As this director sees it, the world of Bruce Wayne/Batman is a Stygian nightmare setting placing preadolescent paranoia at one extreme of the spectrum and an obsession with sophisticated technology and design at the other. Burton's psychosexual propositions in both films are, like those of Alfred Hitchcock, entertaining but rather childish: It is no coincidence that Bruce Wayne's loneliness and libido was fueled by parental demise in Batman, while the Penguin's sexual innuendos here are rooted in another form of separation from his parents. Burton's scenarists - Anton Furst for Batman, Bo Welch for the sequel - have provided the prescribed retro-fascist backdrop. (Furst's design - borrowing from architects Louis Sullivan and Shin Takamatsu, Spanish Art Nouveau, and Russian Constructivism - was the more varied; from Welch we get one Reich-inspired gray erection after another.) But the irony of this nod to adult fantasy is that a majority of adults - at least at the jam-packed screening I attended - reacted with little more enthusiasm for this sequel than Roger Keith Coleman evinced for the electric chair.
Daniel Waters's script is less assured of the overall progress of the film - there's hardly a story to speak of - but still there are little gems of campiness peppered throughout Batman Returns to (almost) compensate. DeVito has a large share of these, such as when he's trying to woo the Catwoman, and upon seeing her, exclaims: "Just the pussy I've been looking for." In another scene, he bellows at Walken's Gotham City magnate: "Remember, Max. You flush it, I flaunt it!" And perhaps the Penguin's finest shot, lamenting his parents: "I was their Number One Son - and they treated me like Number Two." As writing, it succeeds only as rapid-fire hyperlocution, but Waters - aided by Sam Hamm - doesn't supply the necessary compass to steer this bat-vessel away from Burton's ocean of special effects and granite design. (At least for those special effects, Burton has hired a true genius, Stan Winston, who would probably re-create the creation of the universe and impress the Almighty.)
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Oingo Boingo's talented Danny Elfman (who has composed music for each of Burton's feature films - Pee-wee's Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Batman, and Edward Scissorhands) contributes once more an overblown, martial-sounding, heavily orchestrated score. Some of the brass fanfares are omitted this time, but that is the single example of restraint. For the death and funeral procession of the Penguin, he even brings in a bit of Bach.
What is to be done with the concept -and proliferation - of popular culture? It is a temptation, naturally, for critics and other armchair pundits to look for concealed agendas and subliminal wisdom in works of music, film, and television whose ostensible purpose is first to entertain, and whose more obvious raison d'etre is to generate fodder for mass consumption. Some of it can be intelligent and subtle; but not often, let's face it. Yet the campaign to rake in those recession dollars has been launched, and I hear even McDonald's is featuring Batman and Catwoman on their Big Macs and fries. I wouldn't be surprised if Batmania fosters Catmania, too - and a line of commemorative bathroom tissue isn't even the bottom of the promotional barrel. There's something approaching decadence in a society and culture, popular or otherwise, that succumbs so gladly to hype. And something surpassing putrescence when the hyped subject is a cartoon character on a screen rather than the decimated victims of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Directed by Tim Burton; written by Daniel Waters from a story by Daniel Waters and Sam Hamm; with Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Pat Hingle, Michael Murphy, and Michael Gough.