Many are the ironies of Hollywood, where true genius is overlooked and boring mediocrity is worshipped at the altar. The latest example of these ironies is Tim Burton, the twisted genius at the helm of Batman Returns. Yes, I think "genius" may be the operative word here, because Burton is one of those truly unique filmmakers who we're going to look back upon, years from now (not many years, though), and nod wisely when we talk of the "Tim Burton school of filmmaking." This guy's got talent, he's got vision, he makes movies that he can definitely call his own.
But the irony here is that the Batman movies, which are going to be his biggest box-office hits, are not really his movies. Let me put it this way: Tim Burton, and his screenwriter, Daniel Waters, have taken a so-so Hollywood sequel and made an above-average movie from it. They've done with this movie what 20th Century Fox wanted to do with Alien3,and on the whole they've succeeded. Batman Returns is an entertaining, enjoyable, often funny movie, despite a silly, fragmented story and a star who is completely lacking in charisma and screen presence. It has the same weaknesses that plagued the first film, but it also has the same strengths, and this time the strengths outweigh the weaknesses.
First the strengths. As with all of Tim Burton's movies, the scenery and sets are mind-blowing. Setting this movie in winter at Christmastime immediately made me think of Edward Scissorhands on a much bigger budget. The Penguin's underwater grotto is the best Evil Villain's Hideout haven since Lex Luthor's lair in the first Superman movie, and Wayne Mansion, which we see more of this time around, is obviously taken directly from Xanadu in Citizen Kane, complete with a huge roaring fireplace and big, empty rooms that reflect the empty life of their owner. These two sets stand out from the general weirdness of the movie, and they're a sight to behold.
And the characters themselves? As you've probably heard, Michelle Pfeiffer steals the entire movie as Catwoman. When she dresses up in that sleek black leather suit, the hormone level in the audience rises noticeably. Not only can she hold her own with Batman in a fight, but she's equally believable as she begins to fall in love with Bruce Wayne. She's pictured here as a mirror image of Batman - a mousy, shy exterior with a raging demon underneath. And that whip! In her own words, "I am Catwoman - hear me roar!" (I wouldn't mind playing with this kitty myself.)
Danny DeVito's Penguin is a delightful monster as well, the tragic figure who wants to get back at the world for what it's done to him, and who allows himself to be used by Christopher Walken's evil businessman Max Shreck because he has his own secret plan in the works. He throws himself into the role, and I think he put a better job in as the Penguin than Jack Nicholson did as the Joker. But desite all these pluses, there's still the problem of Michael Keaton. What problem? The problem that as Bruce Wayne, and as Batman, he's as stiff as a board. He's boring, he mumbles too much, and his spotlight is continually stolen by the villains. I just can't work up any emotions at all for this guy. I felt that Keaton was woefully miscast in the first movie, and he suffers in the role even more here.
It doesn't help that the action scenes are probably the weakest part of the whole movie. Variety magazine has said that at his heart, Tim Burton is not an action movie director. I agree whole-heartedly with this. In fact, we don't get that much action at all until the climax of the movie, but that's okay because the characters cast a spell of their own, without any gratuitous violence to keep the audience awake. The scenes of Batman battling the Penguin's goons seem to have been put into the movie simply because the movie had to have a few fight scenes in it. Maybe Tim Burton should get himself a second director like Sam Raimi or John McTiernan to handle the fights in the inevitable third Batman movie, because he just can't do them himself. This is why I call the success of the Batman movies ironic. They're not the type of movies that Tim Burton truly excels at, but they're what Hollywood wants, and apparently they're what the public wants. So for most people, Tim Burton will be best known as the director of Batman. (One might say the same thing about Martin Scorese and Cape Fear.)
(These complaints about the fight scenes, however, do NOT apply to Batman's battle with Catwoman. I want MORE! )