For Hollywood, summer is increasingly the season of the big-budget gamble. Batman Returns may be the surest box office bet of the year, but when you get past the saturation merchandising to the movie itself, it's hard not to notice there's no Joker in the deck this time.
It occasionally happens that the true measure of a great actor's contribution to an original film can be felt only when he is necessarily absent from the sequel. Jack Nicholson, the exuberant, satanic soul of Batman, made his flamboyant exit as the Joker who really was wild, leaving director Tim Burton with a gaping hole that he has not been able to fill. The clash of Batman and the Joker allowed Michael Keaton and Nicholson to give us a richly sardonic and glumly knowing consideration of good and evil. In Gotham's cesspool of corruption, the line between the two was blurred and shifting.
In Batman Returns , the villainy is divided among three opponents for Batman - Danny DeVito's Penguin, Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman and Christopher Walken's megamillionaire Max Schreck. Three turns out to be a crowd and, perhaps sensing the problem, Burton and screenwriter Daniel Waters opted to concentrate on the Penguin.
This means Walken disappears from the film for long stretches, and Pfeiffer's fetching feline, slinkily and sometimes kinkily sexy and cattily
witty ("Life's a bitch, so am I"), is unconscionably slighted. Her scenes with Keaton, who renders the Caped Crusader with the same effective and subdued reticence, boast the film's best dialogue - and a charged ambivalence and subtlety missing from the rest of Batman Returns .
Their literally tangled relationship and the ironic parallels in their lives lift the story and the characters to the stunning level of the film's production design and darkly opulent vision. Here, surely, was the double opportunity to allow Keaton to expand and deepen the hero, while giving Pfeiffer the room she deserved.
But, as Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands reminded us, Burton always has been more absorbed by what his audience sees than by what his movies say. It's part of his unique talent as a filmmaker, but it leads him to ignore the flaws in the structure of what is, after all, supposed to be an exciting adventure film.
Important plot points simply disappear. One that didn't have any point in the first place involves Schreck's diabolic scheme to build a giant facility that would consolidate all Gotham's electric power in his hands. It is raised and then abandoned. Next, DeVito is coming up with a particularly fowl play and running as a sort of H. Ross Penguin independent candidate for mayor of Gotham. With the observation "We've elected people much worse than the Penguin" as his campaign rationale, this highly topical theme of voter gullibility arrayed against a backdrop of growing urban chaos has real possibilities - which, once again, go unrealized.
Instead, the action veers to the Penguin's most vengeful deed, in which he
plans the kidnapping and drowning of the firstborn sons of Gotham's richest
families. Mass infanticide is an idea you understandably don't come across very often, and it's the first time I have encountered it in a Hollywood movie that millions of children will want to see. Parents should also be warned there are some other jarring and scary moments that might upset younger children.
Since the Penguin has his flipper on the controls of these increasingly erratic plot swings, the burden of Batman Returns falls to DeVito. With his twin-beaks makeup and bowling-ball body in vaguely Victorian attire, the Penguin looks like a taskmaster stalking a Charles Dickens workhouse.
Where Nicholson and his elevator eyebrows did the Joker as the cheerful culmination of all the devilment in his other movies and as a villain who rejoiced in his evil, DeVito tries for something different. Abandoned as a hideously deformed baby by his parents (pay attention: that's a barely recognizable Pee-wee Herman as the father), the Penguin grows up underground. His empire is the sewers beneath Gotham, and his subjects are a bizarre mix of loyal penguins and circus performers.
On its own terms, DeVito's is an entertaining reading, but he is surely made to be more of a sidekick in this kind of movie. And, given his plans for Gotham's children, his attempt to go for pathos in the Penguin was a mistake. The director's lack of support also forces DeVito into some repetitive ranting.
Burton is more interested in cramming Batman Returns with odd visual twists (who else would think of penguins as missile launchers?) and puns and references to other movies. There are citations of everything from German expressionist masterworks of the silent era to Citizen Kane and, above all, Cecil B. De Mille's The Ten Commandments.