Director: Tim Burton

Okay, readers, it's time for a pop quiz. You've directed a blockbuster movie based on one of the most popular characters in comic book history, and you have a reputation of making dark, macabre movies. When the studio presents you with the chance to do a sequel to said blockbuster superhero movie, what do you do? If you're Tim Burton, you'd have said, "By golly, I'm gonna do this sequel and I'm gonna demote the title character from second fiddle to third." And that's exactly what happened. Following the huge box office grosses of Batman (pulling in just over $400,000,000 worldwide), Burton resurrected the Caped Crusader three years later in Batman Returns. But instead of having Batman be the lead character like he should be, he's once again relegated to the role of supporting character to the villain(s).

BATMAN BEGINS (1992)The story opens around Christmas, where the affluent Tucker Cobblepot (Paul Reubens) waits as his wife Esther (Diane Salinger) gives birth to a baby. Unfortunately, something isn't quite right with this particular baby, as he's both hideously disfigured and violent to boot (as evidenced a brief scene where he lashes out at the family pet). The Cobblepots keep baby Oswald locked in a cage, eventually dumping him and his carriage into the sewer. Thirty-three years later, Oswald Cobblepot is now an adult, known as "The Penguin" (Danny DeVito) thanks to his deformities. Living in the sewers beneath an abandoned zoo, Penguin heads a gang of former circus performers. He kidnaps megalomaniacal department store owner Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), and the two set into motion a plan to take over the city via a mayoral recall.

Their plan soon crosses paths with Shreck's secretary Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer), a klutzy woman that strives to please everyone, despite a complete lack of any discernable social skills. You know how Sandra Bullock keeps playing the same characters over and over again? Selina Kyle's like all of those characters rolled into one, only dorkier. But anyway, she accidentally discovers the true (and very illegal) nature of Schrek's idea for a Gotham City power plant, and he finds out. So what does he do? Fire her? No. Give her a stern talking to? No. Throw her out a skyscraper window? Yes!

This doesn't work too well for Schrek in the long run, because Selina inexplicably survives. However, the Selina we knew is long gone. She heads back to her apartment and flips out, trashing the place and covering every bit of color with black spraypaint. She discovers a vinyl coat in her closet, and fashions for herself a skin-tight bodysuit and mask. Dubbing herself Catwoman, she prowls the streets as a vivid definition of the phrase "girl power." Filled with a newfound confidence and viewing herself as a feminist version of Batman, she soon rationalizes that someone needs to bring that cocky Batman down a peg. And how better to do that? Form a partnership with the other villain in town, The Penguin. Duh. Anyway, despite all her wheelings and dealings with Penguin, Selina soon falls for millionaire industrialist by day/Batman by night Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton).

While Bruce and Selina have a budding romance, Penguin and Catwoman kill a local beauty queen with a stolen Batarang, leaving Batman as the sole suspect. As they bond to bring down Batman, the duo has their own solo agendas, both involving revenge and Max Shreck. Penguin is inspired to kidnap and murder the first-born children of Gotham's wealthy elite, including Shreck's adult son Chip (Andrew Brynarski), after Shreck leaves him high and dry following the failed recall; Catwoman plans on getting retribution against Shreck himself for her own near-death. While the gruesome twosome works to bring their plans to fruition, Batman must find a way to not only prove his innocence, but contend with Penguin and Catwoman as well.

Batman Returns is a quite a mixed bag. While the performances, direction, and score are all respectable, the film itself is a big letdown. The screenplay by Daniel Walters is hollow, and like the prior Batman, the title character was pushed into the background while the villains took center stage. Many of the one-liners were just plain stupid, and a lot of scenes were just style over substance. And since when does Batman kill people? He sets one goon on fire with the flames from the Batmobile's afterburner, then smiles as he straps a ticking time bomb to another goon. While the scenes are fun to watch, they're just not Batman. If the Punisher drove the Batmobile, I could see it, but if Batman's anything, a killer he ain't. Way to go, Batman Returns. The whole "Batman gets framed for murder" thing never seemed resolved, either. If it was, I sure don't remember it. It just seemed like an excuse to throw a scantily clad ditz off the roof of a building. If I can't even remember the resolution of a subplot like that, either that's poor storytelling or I just have a bad memory.

However, I did enjoy the chemistry between the cast and the characters they play. All of them were connected somehow, even if it wasn't directly obvious. I was impressed with how well Selina's transformation into Catwoman was handled, and the appearance of her apartment is very indicative of the changes inside her head. Selina begins with a cheery pink apartment with a hot pink neon sign reading "HELLO THERE," but the walls are soon stained with black spraypaint and the sign becomes "HELL HERE." Catwoman also becomes a distorted mirror image of Batman. Selina tries to keep her identity hidden (as does Bruce Wayne with Batman), but unlike Bruce, her Catwoman identity serves only herself. Like the last movie, the cast makes the whole movie, the highlight being Michelle Pfeiffer. Halle Berry only wishes she were half as cool as the Catwoman in Batman Returns, who actually utilized a real bullwhip for the role. No CGI whip here, unlike that other Catwoman. Meanwhile, the Penguin has his own vague similarity to Batman. Both went through life without their parents, yet had different paths in life. Batman lived an affluent lifestyle after having his parents taken from him; Penguin was a circus freak living in the sewer after his parents purposely left him to rot. And while Penguin has his customary tuxedo, top hat, and umbrellas, he's far different from any prior depiction. While he fancies himself as a "gentleman of crime" in the comics and '60s TV show, DeVito's Penguin is a sexually frustrated sociopath with an inferiority complex, abandonment issues, and penchants for biting people on the nose and eating raw fish. Even Christopher Walken's character is a polar opposite of Bruce Wayne. While Bruce is a multimillionaire that's active in charities and other goodwill ventures; Max Shreck is a vile, greedy multimillionaire who has no qualms with killing anyone who opposes him.

Pfeiffer, DeVito, and Walken are all on their A-games here, while Michael Keaton is respectable as Batman. His performance in Returns is a letdown when compared to his prior turn as the Dark Knight, but he still does a fine job with what he's given and cements his spot as my favorite cinematic Batman. Burton once again does a good job as director, though a few notches down from his previous Batman adventure. With cinematographer Stefan Czapsky, he creates a very odd, gloomy atmosphere for the movie. If Batman is "Batman meets Blade Runner," then Batman Returns is "Batman meets The Nightmare Before Christmas." The winter atmosphere and bizarre nature of the Penguin's gang of circus performers are very much Burton's style, and I wouldn't expect anything else. Also great was the penguin effects by Stan Winston's effects crew, which covers not only DeVito's makeup, but the penguins seen throughout the movie. Winston's work has always been superb, and it is here as well. Danny Elfman's score is great as usual (along with his reprisal of the epic theme from the previous movie), but sounds like it's merely ripping off his score from Batman. I don't know if it was intentional or not, but if it was, I don't blame him. I'd have probably done the same thing.

I loved Batman, but Batman Returns is lacking the charm that the first one had. It still has several fun moments and redeeming qualities, but it's just a mediocre sequel. It's barely even subpar. While it's well-made from a technical standpoint and an acting standpoint, it's not so good from a creative standpoint. What's sad is that I actually liked the villains more than the hero. When it comes right down to it, I'm left wondering just where the movie went wrong. Until I can figure that out, I'm giving Batman Returns three stars. No more, no less.

Final Rating: ***