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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)