Credit: Made Rosenthal/Warner Bros.

You don’t have to look very hard at Tim Burton’s films (Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands) to see that this director spends much of his time dreaming about warped, lonely, charismatic weirdos who suddenly find themselves empowered. His most radically transformed misfit? A reclusive, rather bland millionaire named Bruce Wayne, who, under cover of the night (not to mention a rubber bat suit complete with fake washboard stomach), became the saturnine vigilante hero of 1989’s Batman.

In the exhaustingly inventive Batman Returns, Batman the tormented crime fighter (Michael Keaton) is back — by day he’s still a fairly colorless preppie — only now he’s joined by a veritable parade of Burtonesque nerds bent on revenge.

For openers, there’s the Penguin (Danny DeVito), a blobby, hook-nosed runt who has waddled out of the sewer to become Gotham City’s latest criminal pest. Hands deformed into flippers, his scowling white death-face offset by rotten teeth and a scraggly Dickensian mop, he’s a villain to make you hurl — Humpty Dumpty reborn as a decaying Victorian ghoul. Yet he just wants to be loved! Abandoned as a baby by his aristo-trash parents, the Penguin now mounts a doomed campaign to regain his place as a high-born citizen of Gotham City.

Then, in a Jekyll-and-Hyde routine to rival Batman’s, there is Catwoman, who starts off as timid, repressed executive assistant Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer). Left for dead by her crooked corporate boss (Christopher Walken), who pushed her out a window for leafing through incriminating documents, she gets up in a daze and, in a scene destined to warm the hearts of Catholic school girls everywhere, proceeds to toss away all her inhibitions. Gleefully trashing the ”nice” knickknacks in her apartment, she transforms herself into the baddest bad girl on the block — a whip-wielding tease clad in a home-stitched suit of black dominatrix vinyl.

Burton, it’s obvious, empathizes with every one of his rebellious freaks. As a storyteller, though, he hasn’t begun to figure out what these characters are doing in the same film. Batman Returns offers many jolts of pleasure, yet it’s also a mess — a gilded sketchbook of a movie that keeps falling open to random pages. Narrative has never been Burton’s strong point, but even when his films weren’t seamless they felt like coherent pop visions. This may be the first one that doesn’t hold together. Batman Returns has too many competing characters, too many sets (every scene seems to unfold on a different surreal soundstage), too many ”ideas” that don’t go anywhere. The movie is a genuine spectacle, laced with Burton’s pitch-black wit, yet in its eager-to-please mood it often recalls the jam-packed blockbuster overkill of Steven Spielberg’s Hook.

The first Batman was something of a mess too, yet the film was anchored by Jack Nicholson’s brilliant performance, which only seemed out of control — it was really a grandiose parody of anarchic villainy. Danny DeVito’s Penguin is a funny, explosive little dweeb, but he doesn’t have the same resonance. DeVito issues pleas for love in an impassioned rasp, leers with delight as he fires bullets out the end of his umbrella, and even devours a raw fish. He gets off some scurrilous one-liners, too (especially when ogling potential groupies). Yet the Penguin isn’t really smart, and his master plan never makes a lot of sense. He runs for mayor and then, after an hour, returns to the sewer, at which point he has to start over (and so does the movie). It’s hard to take much demonic satisfaction in the Penguin’s craziness. Mostly we’re just watching Danny DeVito chew the scenery — which, admittedly, he’s quite good at.

The runaway star here is Pfeiffer, whose performance is a sexy, comic triumph. Neither crime fighter nor villain but something in between, her Catwoman is a post-Madonna feminist: She finds emotional liberation in acting salacious. Pfeiffer has perfected a slinky-predatory walk, and she speaks in the honeyed tones of a phone-sex vixen but with an undertow of dark knowledge, as if she had secrets that scared her. What makes the performance a sly turn-on is that Pfeiffer isn’t just playing trashy. She’s playing a nice girl acting trashy (and so the act has to be that much more extreme).

Bruce and Selina have the hots for each other — or is it Batman and Catwoman? The notion of two people who have to put on rubber animal suits to deal with their hormones has satirical (and kinky) possibilities, yet, like so much else in this movie, it just sort of floats by. The romance might have worked better had Burton at least attempted to rectify the central flaw in Batman — namely, that Keaton’s Bruce Wayne was just a polite stiff. Well, he’s still a stiff. It may be that Burton finally has no interest in anything ”normal.” He should realize, though, that normality isn’t the enemy of fantasy: It’s the jumping-off point. This is one Batman that, for all its scattershot invention, never quite takes wing. B-

Batman Returns
  • Movie
  • 126 minutes