It can only be hoped that “Batman Returns” is not representative of the state of Tim Burton’s mind. If it is, I’d like to recommend extensive therapy. While it’s true that Batman has always been about the dark weathers of the human soul – particularly to the outsiders – Burton’s movie does little to explore them. This is one of the most depressing movies he’s ever made. It’s a nasty, nihilistic and uncompromisingly ugly little movie that wallows in misery and despair.
Consider the opening scene. A deformed baby is born to a wealthy couple who keep him in a secure cage fit for The Tasmanian Devil. Without a word, they put their little bundle in a basket and throw him in the river where he spends the bulk of his life living in the sewer. This image is as depressing as it sounds, made worse by the fact that the parents never speak. Perhaps a piece of dialogue might have helped us to understand their decision. Heck, it might have helped if they seemed even the slightest bit bad about it.
The rest of the movie is pitched at that level, and isn’t made any better when the kid grows up and emerges from the sewers years later and becomes the pawn of a heartless industrialist Max Shreck who, despite his disgusting appearance, wants to make this penguin-like creature into the city’s mayor because Penguin has blackmailed him. Shreck looks like a cross between David Bowie and Andrew Jackson and played by Christopher Walken as if he’s doing a bad impression of himself. In all reality, he’s more or less extraneous to the plot. The story could easily go on without him.
Shreck is guilty of all manner of corporate corruption and gives no second thought to murdering his nerdy secretary, Selina Kyle when she uncovers his evil schemes. He pushes her out a window, she is licked back to life by cats, she goes home and makes herself a skin-tight cat suit and – VOILA! – Catwoman. Actually, in the comic books, Selina Kyle earned her moniker because she makes her living as a cat burglar. Weighing the former with the latter, the cat burglar holds more credibility. Then again, there’s hardly anything in this movie that does.
The Penguin and Catwoman are supposed to be sympathetic. One of the treasures of Batman lore is that his adversaries always have a method to their madness. Their circumstances illicit our sympathies, yet somehow, this script misses the boat. We are suppose to feel for the Penguin character who was thrown away and shunned by society, but Danny DeVito’s portrayal doesn’t help. How can we feel sympathy for a rotten little man with bits of raw fish dribbling down his chin and blood pouring out of his nose? He almost dares us to like him. DeVito is one of the best comic talents but his performance is curtailed by what he’s required to do.
As Catwoman, Michelle Pfeiffer does give a serviceable performance, but there’s nothing beyond her posturing. Around the edges of the story lies a potential strained relationship between her and Bruce Wayne. The pieces are there and so is the sexual tension, but the script just won’t go there. That’s the problem with the whole movie. The characters seem halted, as if Burton doesn’t want to hold them back as characterizations without letting become people.
Batman himself never emerges as anything more than a functionary to this story. He actually seems out of place here amid a cityscape that seems to be made up of rot and decay. The script and the production design soak in their misery without ever giving us a rhyme or reason. It is unclear what Burton really wanted from this script, or from his production design. “Batman Returns” looks grim and gloomy, like a nightmare world where the sun never seems to come out