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BATMAN/BATMAN RETURNS

 

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, May 3, 2019

EDITOR’S NOTE: Fathom Events is bringing Tim Burton’s two ‘Batman’ movies, both starring Michael Keaton, to the big screen for one-day showings. ‘Batman’ will be screened at select local Cinemark and Megaplex theaters on Saturday, May 4, and ‘Batman Returns’ will play on Monday, May 6. Below are my reviews for both films, published in the Deseret News respectively on June 23, 1989, and June 19, 1992.

     

BATMAN: How seriously does "Batman" mean to be taken? That's the question.

Not very, I suspect. But it wasn't until late in the film that I realized just how broad it was meant to be.

Oh, Jack Nicholson is a psychotic's psychotic as The Joker. And Jack Palance seems to be doing a characterization of himself as a mob boss in early scenes.

But that could have just been Nicholson and Palance, after all.

Toward the climax, however, there is a quick set-piece that gives it all away: As Batman in his bat-plane is buzzing Gotham City he takes a moment to veer the plane upward, swooping into the circle of a full moon against a black sky, and the combination of the moon and the outline of the bat-plane creates the "Batman" logo for a few seconds.

Who said this new version of "Batman" would eschew camp?

But I'm not complaining, you understand. After all, how seriously can the audience take a guy who runs around in a black, bulletproof bat-suit and has all kinds of, as the Joker puts it, "wonderful toys"?

The story begins with Batman (Michael Keaton), a mysterious character known only to criminals and police, trying to help thwart a crime wave in Gotham City, which seems to be in a strange time warp combining the future with the 1930s.

As the film progresses we learn that Batman is the crime-fighting disguise adapted by millionaire Bruce Wayne, who was traumatized as a child and seeks revenge on the criminal element as a result.

Eventually he will be responsible for hood Jack Napier (Nicholson) falling into a vat of acid, which will shape his face into a hideous smile, turn his skin white and his hair green, prompting him to adopt the name "The Joker" as he intensifies crime in Gotham.

The result is Batman vs. Joker in a battle to the death. Or to the sequel, if the film makes money.

Some of the plotting is in questionable taste — product tampering is the main source of mayhem to the public and the Joker gleefully defaces great art. But the movie is loaded with flash and flourish, and boasts a hair-raising climax.

As for the performances, Nicholson does indeed blow everybody else off the screen. Sometimes it seems this movie should be called "Joker" instead of "Batman." He's scary, funny and fills the big screen with his demented personality. (A friend suggested Nicholson's "The Shining" character would be frightened by the Joker.)

     

    Michael Keaton, left, Jack Nicholson, 'Batman'

But Keaton holds his own, playing Wayne/Batman perfectly as the opposite end of the good-evil spectrum. Bruce Wayne's a psychotic also, after all — he just holds it in most of the time. And Keaton plays him, and his alter ego, in a perfectly controlled manner, very low-key. I must admit that Keaton wouldn't have been on my list of possible "Batman" casting contenders but he's surprisingly good. (Along with last year's "Clean and Sober" this should firmly etch Keaton in the minds of moviegoers as an actor rather than only a comic.)

Others in the cast who deserve mention are Kim Basinger as Vicki Vale, the sexy object of both Wayne and the Joker's desire, and Michael Gough, who is wonderful as Wayne's butler and only friend.

The much-publicized Prince songs are terrible and rather intrusive but Danny Elfman's score is as flamboyant and huge as the movie, perfectly complementing the action. And the sets and technical credits are fascinating from beginning to end.

As mentioned earlier, "Batman" doesn't avoid campiness — it's just another brand of camp than was proffered by the old TV series. Here, instead of brightly colored deadpan humor, we have a very dark but equally hokey approach that is just as superficial, though it leans more toward thrills than laughs.

What perhaps will be most surprising to followers of director Tim Burton is that he seems to have been so overwhelmed by the proceedings that much of the off-center charm he brought to "Pee-wee's Big Adventure" and "Beetlejuice" is absent. There are moments of offbeat humor (such as the gags with the TV anchors) that are decidedly his, but too often a reverence takes hold that seems oddly aloof and detracts from character development.

The script is very weak, scratching the surface of the implications brought into play but never really exploring the characters, which would have made it 10 times better. (One element that seems a very strange omission is when Vicki Vale learns Batman and Bruce Wayne are one and the same, which happens between scenes — off-camera!)

On the whole, however, there's enough excitement, thrills and laughs to please fans of the genre — and Nicholson just gives it all an added boost.

"Batman" is rated PG-13 for violence, along with a few profanities, a couple of vulgar jokes and implied sex.

     

BATMAN RETURNS: Consider the rumors confirmed — "Batman Returns" is darker, more brooding and weirder than the first "Batman." It's also funnier and layered with more texture.

Of course, you shouldn't go in expecting a deep character study. But it's surprising how much is actually going on here, and on how many levels.

Oh, there are still the expected "toys," the batmobile, a batboat, all kinds of lethal weapons tossed to and fro, and the screen is filled with action from beginning to end, along with amazing sets, costumes and special effects. Yet, in many ways, this sequel is that rare film that surpasses its predecessor.

Of course, in other ways, it falls prey to its own excesses. The violence is quite gruesome in places and there are far too many vulgar, sex-related gags for a movie aimed primarily at young people.

As you might guess from this introduction, I'm as mixed in my feelings about "Batman Returns" as Bruce Wayne is about his own sense of identity. But maybe that's the way director Tim Burton wants us to feel.

It's apparent that with "Batman Returns," Burton felt freer to explore things his way more than he did with the first "Batman." That he didn't feel confined by a work that already had a following, an audience with certain expectations. At the same time, "Batman Returns" somehow seems more faithful to the comic books, filled with a confident sense of irony and humor.

There are both stunning effects and cheap thrills, as well as a real sense of the film's $50 million budget on the screen and an occasional intimacy that lets us into the main characters' thoughts. And, as you might imagine, every bat, cat and penguin pun imaginable.

The film opens around Christmastime in a snow-covered Gotham City with a prologue about the birth and destiny of Oswald Cobblepot, who will eventually become the Penguin (Danny DeVito). Then we leap forward 33 years, where it is again the Christmas season, and find that the deformed child has been raised by penguins in Gotham's sewer (a bizarre take on Romulus and Remus, who were raised by wolves in Roman mythology, or perhaps Rudyard Kipling's "The Jungle Book"). He also leads a band of carnival rejects that do his dirty work for him and has a bevy of lethal umbrellas.

There really isn't a strong storyline here, but what plot there is centers around the Penguin teaming up with an industrial czar named Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), who has a sinister plan involving Gotham's electrical power. The Penguin, however, is interested in more personal vendettas. There is a campaign to elect the Penguin as mayor, but when that is foiled he goes back underground and formulates a plan for his revenge.

     

      Michelle Pfeiffer, Michael Keaton, 'Batman'

Meanwhile, Shreck's mousey secretary, Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer) uncovers information she shouldn't have, and Shreck attempts to kill her. But she bounces back and takes on the after-hours persona of Catwoman, who is as forthright and demanding as her alter ego is a shrinking violet. A complex character, Catwoman is part hero, part villainess and struggles with her various identities.

Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton), of course, has a similar problem with his responsibilities as Batman, and we see his struggle as well, along with some quirky examples of his love for theatrical entrances, florid rescues and nick-of-time exits.

Part of what holds all this together, of course, are the excellent performances by the stellar cast. Michael Keaton is just right as the Dark Knight — so good, in fact, that it's hard to remember he was a controversial choice for the character back in 1989. But it is Michelle Pfeiffer who has the most difficult role, going from comically klutzy secretary to uneasy avenger to athletic super-villainess to sensual romantic interest, and she balances all these elements perfectly.

DeVito, under tons of makeup as the Penguin, is also great, as both a central joke and a terrifying, evil presence. And Walken is very good as a more subtle presence, the token corporate villain, commanding audience attention with a sense of deep-seeded insanity, vivid in his glazed eyes and framed by a wild mane of gray hair. It's also nice to see Michael Gough back as the paternal, ever-patient Alfred the butler.

It's unfortunate that others get lost in the shuffle, chiefly Vincent Shiavelli (best-known as the subway spirit in "Ghost"), as one of Penguin's henchmen; Michael Murphy, as Gotham's mayor; and Pat Hingle, reprising his role as Commissioner Gordon. None of them has much to do. (Look also for brief cameos by Paul Reubens, aka Pee-wee Herman, and Jan Hooks.)

There are lots of in-jokes here (including references to incidents in the first "Batman") and a few gags that require some thought before the laughter follows. The screenplay, by Daniel Waters ("Heathers," "Hudson Hawk"), also has an oddly unexpected Old Testament subtext, from an early shot of the Penguin as an abandoned infant floating down the river in a basket, to his later attempt to kill all the first-born sons of Gotham's residents.

Tim Burton, the director and chief designer of both "Batman" and "Batman Returns," as well as "Beetlejuice," "Edward Scissorhands" and "Pee-wee's Big Adventure," once again proves himself an innovator, not to mention one of the most original talents currently at work in the movies.

When you put this film in context with his other work, it's apparent that Burton has that rare ability to capture an audience's imagination with a highly commercial film, while maintaining an eccentric darkness, a unique, offbeat sense of humor and what is the central theme of all of his movies — the loneliness of society's many misfits.

All of this adds up to a mixed bag, but the bottom line is that action fans won't be bored. Even at its most self-indulgent, "Batman Returns" is highly entertaining.

"Batman Returns" is rated PG-13 for quite a bit of violence and mayhem, too many vulgar jokes and a few profanities.