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

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

    Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
    HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
    Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

    'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

    Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
    Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

    The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

    Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen
    RuPaul interview: The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head

    RuPaul interview

    The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head
    Secrets of comedy couples: What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?

    Secrets of comedy couples

    What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?
    Satya Nadella: As Windows 10 is launched can he return Microsoft to its former glory?

    Satya Nadella: The man to clean up for Windows?

    While Microsoft's founders spend their billions, the once-invincible tech company's new boss is trying to save it
    The best swimwear for men: From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer

    The best swimwear for men

    From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer
    Mark Hix recipes: Our chef tries his hand at a spot of summer foraging

    Mark Hix goes summer foraging

     A dinner party doesn't have to mean a trip to the supermarket
    Ashes 2015: With an audacious flourish, home hero Ian Bell ends all debate

    With an audacious flourish, the home hero ends all debate

    Ian Bell advances to Trent Bridge next week almost as undroppable as Alastair Cook and Joe Root, a cornerstone of England's new thinking, says Kevin Garside
    Aaron Ramsey interview: Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season

    Aaron Ramsey interview

    Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season
    Community Shield: Arsene Wenger needs to strike first blow in rivalry with Jose Mourinho

    Community Shield gives Wenger chance to strike first blow in rivalry with Mourinho

    As long as the Arsenal manager's run of games without a win over his Chelsea counterpart continues it will continue to dominate the narrative around the two men
    The unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth - and what it says about English life

    Unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth

    Bournemouth’s elevation to football’s top tier is one of the most improbable of recent times. But it’s illustrative of deeper and wider changes in English life
    A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

    A Very British Coup, part two

    New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
    Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

    Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

    Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms