FILM / Rubber soul, plastic passion: Tim Burton's Batman Returns reviewed - The rest of the week's new releases - Clocking the last detail

ONCE IN a great while, when facing a difficult choice or a crisis of conscience, Superman would retreat to his Fortress of Solitude for some severe introspection. On these special occasions, the Man of Steel took on the pose of Rodin's Thinker. Batman, on the other hand, first in the film of the same name, and now in Batman Returns (12), seems to regard his vigilante duties as interruptions of an existential brooding that is more or less continuous. The Batsign summons him to bouts of strenuous crime fighting that do not apparently alleviate his mood. In his insistent melancholy, despite an enviable life, he is more like Byron than Biggles.

Superman, as played by Christopher Reeve in a series of variable films in the late Seventies and early Eighties, was always a precarious fantasy. The character's apparently untempted virtue would have seemed clunky long before it did, if it had not been for Reeve's knack of making old-fashioned values seem fresh.

But the new Batman (first unveiled in a comic-book whose title the new film echoes - The Dark Knight Returns) is a development so revisionist, so determined to include the elements that its genre traditionally rejects, as to be oddly self-defeating. What's the point of fantasies that don't console? What part of an audience is satisfied by seeing a character who is inflated beyond the human in any number of ways, and then shrunk all over again by neurosis and self-doubt?

Only in the loosest sense are the Batman films more 'realistic' than the Superman cycle. Realism here means only a decorative emphasis on darkness and tarnish; it is a pseudo-realism superimposed on something that has no roots in the real. Dreaming of sombre skies rather than blue ones is not at all the same thing as being awake. All it means is that you aren't enjoying your dream, or enjoying it the way an adolescent in a bedroom painted black, defensively weary of the world without having any experience of it, enjoys depressive heavy metal lyrics or the certain prospect of global warming.

In the first movie, Batman / Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) was obsessed with the death of his parents. In Batman Returns, no reference is made to them. Here, the hero's vague brooding is an end in itself, a habit that needs no excuse rather than an activity with a purpose.

When the Batmobile is tampered with by baddies and runs over scores of Gothamites, Batman doesn't agonise over-much. His brooding is not to be confused with moral over-sensitivity. He gets down to the job of repairing the car, and presumably wiping bloodstains from the coachworks.

Nor is Batman's wealthy sophistication what it used to be. When at one point Alfred the butler (Michael Gough) brings a bowl of vichyssoise to Bruce Wayne as he works in front of his computer screen, he reacts more like an American teenager interrupted during a video game - he complains that the soup is cold - than as the millionaire socialite he theoretically is.

The characters in Daniel Waters's screenplay, heroes and villains alike, are scrupulously presented as divided beings. Even the wicked industrialist Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) is willing to sacrifice himself for his worthless son, and the Penguin (Danny DeVito) is briefly sincere in his desire to rejoin human society, rather than punish it for rejecting him.

The heroes of Tim Burton's films, though, have always had dual identities without it being an existential problem. Pee-Wee Herman, in Burton's first film, was both child and adult. The hero and heroine of Beetlejuice were both dead and alive. Edward Scissorhands even had two sets of dual identities, being both child and man, machine and human being. Burton relishes this straddling of categories, which may be why his films - since from their maker's point of view nothing needs resolving - often end disappointingly.

Away from the Batman movie, Burton's style mixes in different proportions the expressionist and the childlike. There will be elements of the Gothic - dark clothes, dramatic lighting, exaggerated architecture, organ music on the soundtrack - but there will also be pastels or bright colours, suburban or small town life, and the magical tinkling of music boxes. In the Batman films, he cuts down artificially on the element of the childlike, which is elsewhere the realm of his most satisfying effects. For all its brilliance of design, Batman Returns, is as deep, dark and meaningful as a wellington boot.

The childlike imagery in the film - candy stripes, clowns and circus performers - is made sinister and attached exclusively to the Penguin. Danny DeVito has spent virtually his whole career playing slimeballs, and the part of the Penguin, chin ever wet with some foul juice or other, doesn't bring anything new out of him. He doesn't run away with the movie, as Jack Nicholson's shameless Joker did with its predecessor.

Strangely, it is Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman who makes the greatest impact. She seems, alone in the film, to be having fun. In her fetishistic self-possession she rivals Mrs Peel in The Avengers. Catwoman starts out as a mousy secretary, Selina, timid and myopic, until she survives a murder attempt by the evil Shreck. Falling from a high window, she is cured of both shyness and short sight. In a shot that more or less sums up Tim Burton's aesthetic, she defaces the interior of her beloved doll's house with an aerosol of black paint. Then she cuts up an old plastic coat, and sews it into a slinky costume.

Selina the secretary was pretty but unphysical; Catwoman acts out her sexuality even with characters like the Penguin whom, as he says, she wouldn't even want to scratch. This is only a variation on an oppressive cliche of womanhood, but it does produce at last one unnerving scene, where Catwoman saves a woman from being mugged only to taunt the victim for her feebleness - the film's strangest attempt to lend virtue the glamour of perversion, to make doing good look like a kink.

It turns out that Catwoman's amorality is only a pose - she cares about what happens to innocent bystanders and even birds in cages - but she must pay the price for expressing her sexuality. In the meantime her shiny PVC makes Batman's matt rubber look respectable, and her willingness to take the law into her own hands allows Batman to reconstitute himself, after all, as a dutiful citizen. 'Don't be nice,' she cries near the end of the film, 'the law doesn't apply to people like him, or like us.' 'Wrong on both counts,' replies Batman, sounding for a moment depressingly like that old softie the Man of Steel.

See facing page for cinema details.

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment


film review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'