FILM / Kerpow] that only goes Phiz

WHAT does Batman do all day? Hang around in the cave of his home, apparently, frowning a lot. He plays with toys and computer games, like a spoilt teenager, or prepares for battle with new enemies like Catwoman and The Penguin. But mostly he just thinks. That's how we first see him in Batman Returns, which, like the earlier Batman, is directed by Tim Burton. Michael Keaton again stars as the millionaire weirdo with a wardrobe full of hoods; if he hadn't been a superhero, he would have made a pretty good hangman.

The plot is an amazing shambles, plainly given a fraction of the care devoted to technical tricks. The mayor of Gotham City (Michael Murphy) is badly in hock to an evil entrepreneur called Max Shreck (Christopher Walken). At least we hope he's evil. Certainly, with his smoky explosion of Einstein hair and those eyes like dipped headlights, Walken looks programmed to destroy. Something wicked this way comes, all about toxic waste and power plants, but then it steals away again and we hear nothing more. Such is the pattern of the whole movie: it's a brain-shaking contraption, hectic with happenings, but nothing you really want to happen ever seems to turn up.

Shreck is soon shoved aside, or at least dropped into the pocket of the next villain. Characters here don't interact, they just queue up to perform, take a bow and make way for the next comic turn. Fighting his way to the front is The Penguin. As played by Danny DeVito, he's an extraordinary sight: the double domes of trunk and head, the putty-grey of his pate, the nose that pecks like a beak and the lips that bubble with black drool, as if he were chewing a squid. He probably is.

You can sense Burton's delight in this little lump of nightmare, this wad of Dickensian grotesques. The tubby Penguin dresses like Mr Pickwick but seethes with the malevolence of Quilp; perched in his high chair with his quill pen, he could be Bob Cratchit, or Vholes of the eruptive face; he seeks out family graves like Pip and Lady Dedlock, but only under the pretence of love. So why does his impact seep away so fast? Why do we get bored with him? The trouble is that Burton dreams up the look of his characters, then stands back and thinks: that should do the trick. In fact, it's just the beginning. At his best, in Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands, he is indeed a Dickens of a director: you get bounced around by the wild morbidity, the gleeful ballooning of invention. But here he's more of a Phiz who thinks he's a Dickens; the Batman movies pull back from the edge and huddle for comfort inside their fabulous designs.

This leaves the actors roaming around on their own. DeVito takes hideous advantage of it, deciding that physical caricature requires a matching dramatic technique. So he leers and gawps and screams all his lines, which consist of stinking puns or lip-smacking epigrams about the sewer of his soul: 'You flush it, I flaunt it.' Some of these are fun - 'I am not a man] I am an animal]', he cries, with a snarl at the pretensions of his fellow freak, the Elephant Man; but as they pile up, suspicion mounts that the film is resting on a pile of set ideas. Just as Batman looks more and more like an abstract virtue inside a rubber skin, so the baddies tend to proclaim their sinfulness rather than doing anything with it.

All of which leaves Batman Returns strangely undeveloped, an adventure that doesn't want to go anywhere. That sounds like a bizarre charge to level at two hours of sound and fury. For once, however, I saw what stunted really means: too many stunts. It's odd how quickly violence grows boring - especially the brand that the studios beg for nowadays, the rhythmical snap of bones like a string of firecrackers. Remember the television Batman, those cartoon sunbursts of 'Kerpow]' and 'Bam]' that broke over the fist-fights? Well, this movie remembers the noises, but forgets that they were a joke.

Burton is simply not a good action director; none of his combat scenes leave you with the winded thrill you get from Walter Hill or James Cameron. He has a more elegant eye - look out for a tracking shot near the start, with the camera flying a lovely curve through the city zoo. It's a spooky place, all blue and skeletal, like a cemetery for whales. By the end, however, it just blows up, which means the movie itself has given up trying. If I wanted random fireballs, I could have watched any old James Bond film on tape.

Only in one area does the film pause for thought, and breath, as well it might. When Michelle Pfeiffer purrs into view, you look at her and think, so this is what Batman Returned for. She starts off as plain Selina Kyle - scruffy and hopeless, living with her cat by night and working by day for another animal, Max Shreck. He tosses her out of a high window and into that realm of casual mythology where Burton plays his best magic. You can catch his drift from the snow - it fell at the end of Edward Scissorhands, and was still falling at the start of this one, as though it always falls across cinema screens in between films, when there's no one watching and nothing else to show.

Now it makes a flaky bed for Selina Kyle, and you know that something is in the air. Her cat, in fact, followed by all its friends, a pack of sharp shadows and claws overrunning her silent body. Are they waking her up? Or is she dead, and being licked back into feline life? And if these are such helpful pussycats, how come one of them is munching her finger . . ?

It's a wondrous moment, all the possibilities blooming in horrified quiet. Burton enjoys a good hiatus - think of Pee-wee Herman watching the sun come up from inside a dinosaur's mouth - and this is one of the few he allows himself in Batman Returns. It seems to give Pfeiffer more confidence: of all the stars, she alone relaxes into her role and sets her own graceful tempo, inviting the movie to unwind and join in. Selina goes back and trashes her spinster flat, then stitches up an old black raincoat into a new uniform, the kind that makes masochists of us all. Her cat looks on in approval.' I don't know about you, Miss Kitty,' she croons, 'but I feel so much yummier.'

Fine, but you've frightened the film: it doesn't know whether you're good or bad. First you take on the male sex for being molesters, then the female sex for being wimps, then Max Shreck for murdering you, and finally Batman for - well, for wearing more black than you, for a start. You have longer nails, but he has a nicer house and, if possible, an even splitter personality.

Batman Returns gets fairly heavy on the subject of true selves. In the first film only Batman wondered who he was: now they're all at it. If you set up as a Batshrink in Gotham City, you could make a lot of money. 'Why are you doing this?' Catwoman is asked - not a bad question in itself, but the wrong thing to say in a movie born of a comic-strip. The hero's hood and breastplate are now as hard and sculpted as his car, but the motives around him grow fuzzy with ambiguity. Sitting in a full cinema in Leicester Square, with Danny Elfman's score gusting about us, I couldn't sense the audience rooting for anyone on screen. We were powered along by the heat of the film, but didn't really mind what direction we were going in. Batman Returns may be dark, but it sure ain't dangerous.

'Batman Returns' (12): Empire Leicester Square (497 9999), Camden Parkway (267 7034), MGM Baker Street (935 9722), Fulham Road (370 2636), Oxford Street (636 0310) & Trocadero (434 0031), Notting Hill Coronet (727 6705), Screen on the Green (226 3520), Whiteleys (792 3303). All numbers are 071.

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