By Marc S. Sanders
I’ve always been a little hot and cold with Tim Burton’s films. They are beautifully constructed in set and costume design, always well cast with exceptional talent and composer Danny Elfman’s music accompanies perfectly with Burton’s wide collection of social misfits and altogether celebrated weird material. Still, more often than not, I leave Burton’s movies feeling less fulfilled than I want. Tim Burton’s one sequel film to date, Batman Returns, is one such example.
To commemorate the annual Batman Day, I opted to watch Burton’s return to the murkiest of comic book locales, Gotham City, where Michael Keaton reprised the role of billionaire Bruce Wayne who dons the costume of The Dark Knight. This time the villains of the week are the grotesque Penguin (Danny DeVito) and the sexy, dominatrix like Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer).
Penguin resurfaces from the sewers of Gotham 33 years after his parents abandoned him as an infant, depositing him into the city reservoir in a bassinet to be raised by…you guessed it…penguins. (Schools of penguins reside in the city sewers???? I guess it’s better than rats.) Nerdy and mousy Selina Kyle is raised from the dead by the gnawing and licking of random alley cats to take on a warrior persona for Catwoman. How exactly a feline resurrection works in either myth or science is never explored. I guess I just have to go with it. The manipulator behind these villains’ actions is a wealthy industrialist named Max Shreck, portrayed by Christopher Walken. I was never sure of his stake here. I’m only supposed to understand that he’s unlikable on the surface and he is not good for Gotham.
I love all these actors. I love them in these roles. I do not love the script doled out for them though, which serves none of them well.
Batman Returns is best when the Batmobile or the Bat Glider is on screen. They are awesome pieces of hardware to see in action as much as any tripped-up James Bond vehicle. However, these are props. They don’t speak, or laugh, or cry, or get angry. Therefore, they don’t drive or develop a story. When Luke Skywalker pilots an X-Wing Fighter, I care about the pilot. The pilot speaks for the vehicle. Batman doesn’t speak for the Batmobile.
It’s ironic that the title character has only one sentence of dialogue in the first 30 minutes of this two-hour film. There’s no dynamic to Batman or Bruce Wayne. Keaton looks great sitting by his fireplace in deep thought or watching his television as the bat signal beams upon him. He stands, and then when we see him next, he’s sitting in his bat car in full horned head regalia. Otherwise, the Batman character is a prop to be used for scapegoat tactics by Penguin, Schreck and Catwoman, or he’s present to hurl a bat gadget, or throw a stiff-arm punch. He doesn’t even do much of that stuff, anyway. In Batman Returns, I learn nothing new about Batman or Bruce Wayne or his crusade to protect Gotham City.
Keaton shares one good scene in the film with Michelle Pfeiffer. It may be the one scene with a story to it as the two are dressed down from their comic book evening wear to dance slowly at a masquerade Christmas ball where they gradually realize who they are when they are not with one another. Of course, we know this should be so obvious, yet a rule of thumb for comic book literature is not to realize what’s right under your nose. A nice touch to this scene is having Keaton and Pfeiffer be the only guests not wearing a mask while everyone else is. Batman and Catwoman have in fact dressed up as someone else for the costume party. Very ironic and almost clever.
Too much material is given to Walken as the conniving Max Shreck. Walken performs well, but just like his Bond bad guy in A View To A Kill, he belongs in a different movie. The Schreck character lends nothing to this Batman adventure. Who’s interested in this guy? McDonalds and the other merchandising companies could even see how unattractive this character is. So, why couldn’t Tim Burton or his writers and producers? I’ll pay you a gazillion dollars for your rare, never manufactured Max Schreck action figure. Yet, the bland script from Daniel Waters and Sam Hamm arguably provides the most dialogue to this guy. You’ve got Batman, Penguin, Catwoman, even Alfred the butler and Commissioner Gordon, and yet this grey-haired guy with a wolf like pompadour in a bland, black business suit is hijacking a Batman movie. Makes no sense. Much of Batman Returns is made with cutting room floor material taped together featuring an unwanted Christopher Walken.
Who else is better to play The Penguin than Danny DeVito? No one! So, it is disappointing when the squat actor has nothing to do. A seemingly inspired storyline from the campy Adam West TV series, and maybe a handful of comics, have him running for Mayor of Gotham. A good start, but then the script does nothing remotely interesting with it, even though this stuff sells itself. Where’s the political jokes to parallel the campaign? Where’s the ridiculous podium debates? Imagine Penguin kissing little old ladies and holding babies while on a campaign trail. None of that happens here. You have outstanding talent from DeVito and yet all he’s left to do is ride around in a duck boat, spit out black and green sludge goo, and scream frustrations in a groggy, ear-piercing bellow on more than a couple of occasions. Unlike Jack Nicholson before him, DeVito is abandoned to play scenes with no dialogue while he chomps on raw fish or screams for the sake of screaming.
An error in judgement was layering the actor in ugly makeup and unattractive costume wear. Usually, DeVito is seen wearing a stained and damp white footy pajama suit with black dental pieces and very black eyeshadow on a whited out facial texture with a giant hook nose. This is Danny DeVito. He already looks like The Penguin. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! The only charming accessories are his top hat and his collection of umbrellas (shooting fire or bullets or flicking out knives) that serve as exclamation points on dialogue when a jokey punchline could not be considered with even just a smidgen of effort from the writers. The umbrellas were more expressive than the guy operating them, and yet even they were hardly used in any action scenes.
Batman Returns has some sloppy scene cuts as well. A scene will appear with Catwoman skipping through a store, then it’ll jump to Batman punching out a few circus clowns, then the two meeting up on a rooftop somehow. Why, where and how did this all happen? The math doesn’t add up. Penguin will somehow appear within this stitchery too. For what reason? Three movies are happening here and none of them are communicating with one another.
Films like the original Batman, or Edward Scissorhands or even Pee Wee’s Big Adventure carry the weirdo trademark of Tim Burton. I know what I’m getting when I turn on almost any one of his films. (Ed Wood being the surprising, and pleasing biographical exception.) These are gorgeous, macabre films to look at, whether they are dimly lit or staged in deliberately bright and gaudy rainbow colors. Yet, there are often scenes or moments that lack that hook that carries you from the exposition to the acclimation I normally get from the universe on screen before my eyes. Batman Returns especially lacks that transition.
Because the film looks so good, it is not the worst of the Dark Knight’s many films. Yet, it is an uninspired and disappointing piece. Any film with such storied and legendary characters as these is going to be a big letdown if they are given nothing to do. Why, oh why, did they give almost all of the lines to the boring guy in the business suit? If I wanted to entertain myself with an accountant, all I needed to do was sit in the lobby of an H & R Block.