Batman Returns

Batman Returns

**1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Three years after Michael Keaton's first appearance as the caped crusader, bat fans - and more importantly, the box office - were crying out for more. The first film had been a phenomenal success, a triumph for the merchandising department, and the studio was keen to reapply Tim Burton's magic touch. As for the director himself, he had found the whole business exhausting. He agreed only on the basis that he be allowed much more creative control. The result is a film that looks absolutely stunning, setting a standard by which all future genre works would be judged, yet which, thanks to his inexperience and the studio's incessant reimagining of the script, is a narrative mess. It's a triumph of style over substance, a romantic tragedy both as a story and as a movie.

Comics always look as if they should be easy to translate into film franchises. They're already storyboarded; they're episodic; characters often come and go and there are numerous subplots to choose from. In practice it's more difficult. The Joker is the obvious Batman villain, a towering figure, and it's difficult to match him. Struggling to find a solution, the studio stuffed two villains into this film, and they sit uneasily together: Catwoman and the Penguin. Let's just be grateful they left out Killer Croc. The storyline, such as it is, revolves around the Penguin's attempt to be elected Mayor of Gotham, whilst for Catwoman it's an origin story. It's hopelessly unbalanced.

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Taking the Penguin story first, we have the old problem of the disabled villain cliché. The Penguin is bitter toward the people of Gotham because they let him down in his childhood. What's never addressed is that this isn't really terribly unreasonable. Yes, he has a mad plan to kidnap the firstborn of the city's elite, but it's odd watching Batman flounder around trying to find a way to expose him when a cup of tea and some friendly conversation might be all that's really needed. Danny DeVito is uncomfortable in the Penguin's clammy skin, never convincing as a criminal mastermind, never dramatic enough to work as a cartoon psychopath. Every time he starts to get interesting another opportunity is taken to humiliate him. It's as if the comic has forgotten where it came from, forgotten the days when it was treasured in lonely corners of the playground by kids who were treated like that.

Catwoman is different. Here Burton is on territory he knows well, and his slinky, whip-wielding PVC-clad heroine is a force to be reckoned with, confidently making every cliché her own. Michelle Pfeiffer clearly relishes the role, presumably glad to get out of the corsetry and flowery dresses to which Hollywood had previously consigned her. Though she's still just a little bit too fragile to stand as a fully realised, independent character alongside the men - she's still configured too much through their gaze - she's certainly a step in the right direction, and she comes close to giving the franchise the kind of iconic figure it so badly needs. The trouble is, she's the only one who does. Beside her, Keaton - always better as Bruce Wayne than when he's wearing the mask - fades into obscurity, leaving her to dominate the film. This means that whilst her scenes work well, the rest of the story flounders. This is a short film about Catwoman weighed down by a lot of vague nonsense you'll end up skipping through.

All of this is beautifully photographed, mostly by night, the Gotham sky fading between blue and black, big flakes of snow drifting across it. The city is a crumbling Gothic industrial wasteland, the perfect home for Christopher Walken's scheming businessman; it's a place which reeks of madness and desperation, where cheering crowds seem ever ready to turn on each other. This is a city which might well give birth to fascinating heroes and villains, a city with a myriad stories to tell. It's a pity we don't get to enjoy any of them here.

Reviewed on: 31 Aug 2009
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Batman Returns packshot
Batman takes on Catwoman and The Penguin in a battle for power in Gotham City.
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If you like this, try:

Batman
Batman Begins
Catwoman