Friday 16 August 2013

Movie Review: Batman Returns (1992)

A sequel that improves upon its predecessor, Batman Returns sets the Batmobile on a proper path, matched against the twin evils of corporate greed and individual dementia.

Born hideously deformed, a baby boy is thrown alive into Gotham City's sewer system. 33 years later, that baby has grown into The Penguin (Danny DeVito), an embittered, ugly and stubby man who has collected an army of mutants. His minions unleash a campaign of terror on Gotham, keeping Batman (Michael Keaton) busy trying to maintain peace and order. The Penguin claims to want nothing more than to search for the identity of his parents. Bruce Wayne (Keaton) is suspicious, and believes that The Penguin wants access to the city archives for other reasons. Meanwhile, wealthy businessman Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) tries to gain Wayne's support for a new power plant, but Wayne realizes that Shreck is up to no good. The real plot is for the new plant to secretly suck power out of Gotham's grid, giving Shreck control over the City.

When lonely secretary Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer) stumbles upon the conspiracy, Shreck attempts to kill her but she is revived by a large group of alley cats and transformed into Catwoman, an agile warrior seeking revenge. Batman starts to encounter Catwoman dishing out her version of street justice, while Wayne finds himself strangely attracted to Selina. With The Penguin, now identified as Oswald Cobblepot, seeking to destroy the city that dumped him into the sewer, and Shreck plotting to overthrow the Mayor standing in the way of his power plant, the businessman and the mutant join forces, and Batman has to save Gotham from another major disaster.

In his second and final outing in charge of a Batman movie, director Tim Burton makes some amends to improve on the relatively disappointing original. Batman Returns is a darker, more intense, more adult and more engaging film. The Penguin is a villain both frenzied and pathetic, a combination that Danny DeVito exploits with a tender nuance missing from Jack Nicholson's overbearing Joker. Michael Keaton appears more comfortable as Bruce Wayne and more fluid as Batman, doubtless helped by a lighter suit. And in this sequel, the Daniel Waters scripting is tight, the evil plots and motivations intact, and the film's visual style complements a sturdy plot, rather than overwhelming it.

Christopher Walken lends an aristocratic presence of nefariousness, creating in Max Shreck a suave businessman killer perfectly capable of partnering with someone as hideous as The Penguin to achieve his repugnant objectives. And Batman Returns rounds out its rich set of characters with Michelle Pfeiffer's deliciously over the top performance as Catwoman, a catalyst for a torrent of sexually charged and often not so opaque dialogue exchanges. Pfeiffer seems to be having almost too much fun wedged into Catwoman's suit of dangerous shiny latex, purring and prancing her way around Gotham City and into film legend.

Burton does not get everything right. Some of the elements intended to be freakish come across as childish, and the search for a large audience and boffo box office means that the violence is toned down to tepid levels. The Penguin's army of terrorists seem to be more carnival clowns than scary sociopaths, and indeed Max Shreck's insidious charm appears more dangerous than anything concocted by Oswald. And as good as Keaton is, Batman Returns studiously avoids revealing any new insight about the man inside the batsuit, the film devoid of texture-enhancing or emotionally engaging scenes.

But Batman Returns does provide the requisite entertainment, a visually rich experience filled with flair and flamboyance, a vulnerable hero thrown into a battle against demented villains in a city drowning in dark misfortune. Overall, a perfect setting for a black cat.

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