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Batman Returns

(1992) *** 1/2 Pg-13
126 min. Warner Brothers. Director: Tim Burton. Cast: Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Michael Gough.

Tim Burton's 1992 follow-up to his 1989 blockbuster Batman set a bad precedent for the films that followed. Batman was commonly criticized for the overshadowing of its hero by its villain, Jack Nicholson's Joker. Blockbuster sequels operate on the assumption that people will demand bigger, better, more. Instead of one villain, then, Batman Returns proffers two: the Penguin and Catwoman. As such, Batman Returns brims with wonderful weirdness: the dread menace of DeVito's Penguin and the hyper-sultry sex appeal of Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman. That Michael Keaton's Batman/Bruce Wayne remains a supporting player is an unfortunate side effect.

Arguably, Burton and his team of artists are the real stars of the film. Batman's troubled production designer Anton Furst succumbed to substance abuse and depression; after enduring a series of disappointments, including a bad breakup and an inability to reprise his Batman work, Furst leapt to his death. Batman Returns showcases a Gotham newly designed by Bo Welch, now one of Hollywood's most sought-after production designers. As in the film at large, bigger is better: two concrete titans of industry loom over Gotham Square, and the skyscraper of evil magnate Max Shreck sports a giant, cartoony cat head. Cinematographer Stefan Czapsky (Edward Scissorhands) oversees the film's wintry and more colorful look. As always, Batman's gadgets get play, with showcase sequences for the Batmobile and modular Batwing.

It is a cold time in the old town this time around, with the Penguin hiding out in the "Arctic World" of the abandoned Gotham Zoo. In the film's prologue, Burton lays out his version of the Penguin's origin: literally sent down the river by his aghast parents (holy Moses!), a deformed child grows up in the sewers, apparently raised by AWOL penguins. When he reemerges with raging parent issues, he claims he'll spend the winter of his discontent rooting out his own identity (as in the comics, the real name of this bird and umbrella fancier is Oswald Cobblepot). In fact, he's bent on grasping the reins of Gotham, by blackmailing Shreck (Christopher Walken, pricelessly weird). "You flush it," he growls, "I flaunt it."

Meanwhile, Shreck murders his sorely underestimated secretary for her cat-like curiosity. Her name's Selina Kyle, and like the comics' Kyle, she develops a feline alter ego: Catwoman. In one of the great trashing scenes, Pfeiffer takes apart her apartment—the symbol of her failed single life—and remakes her life; the neon sign which once chipperly announced "HELLO THERE" ends up reading, more accurately, "HELL HERE." As Catwoman, Kyle adopts fearless feminism, always landing on her feet, living her nine lives to the hilt, and purring, "I am Catwoman: hear me roar."

The ensuing Wayne-Kyle, Batman-Catwoman heat works like gangbusters, whether Catwoman's licking herself or Batman. In this relationship, screenwriter Daniel Waters capitalizes on the exploration of duality grazed by the first film; skittish daters Wayne and Kyle share a tricky comic make-out session in which each tries to hide the war wounds they've inflicted on each other in their masked guises. Keaton applies his inmitable delivery to lines like "You—you got kind of a—kind of a dark side, don't you?", while Pfeiffer's rolling waves of sexy alto caress her punchlines ("Life's a bitch; now so am I").

As for Burton, his staging is expert, and his character conceptions are distinctive and gratifying. It's to the credit of both Waters and Burton (and returning composer Danny Elfman) that DeVito's vile, bile-spewing lecher, Pfeiffer's murderous "bitch," and even Walken's evil bastard are each, at times, partly sympathetic. The warped storybook quality of Batman Returns emulates the nightmare wit of Roald Dahl, and the sinister Biblical undertones (the Penguin targets the first-born sons of Gotham City) contribute to the film's unsettling psychoses. Waters brings invaluable energy and imagination to the sequel; his electric dialogue is consistently clever (Batman scripter Sam Hamm gets half of the credit for the story, which is, admirably, a bit more complicated).

Burton's humor is, again, pronounced, in both visual and verbal terms. The Penguin rides a giant yellow duck around, and his relationship with the penguins encompasses familial gestures (check out their final moment together) and militaristic ones (a Patton-like speech to his penguin army). In one fit of pique, he yells, "I am not a man. I am an animal!" His circus gang is a nice spin on the themed henchman of the campier days of Batman; here, sad-eyed Vincent Schiavelli cuts a striking figure. Kyle and Wayne meet up at a costume party (pointedly, neither wears one); the band plays "Super Freak." Paul "Pee Wee Herman" Reubens and Jan Hooks put in memorable cameo appearances. Shreck's name is a move in-joke: Max Schreck (whose German surname means "terror") played vampire Count Orlock in F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu.

It's no coincidence that this movie sounded the death knell for Burton's Batman. Batman Returns is less product-friendly than the first film, though Siouxsie and the Banshees contributes a great song, co-written with Elfman ("Face to Face"). More importantly, the second film is even more violent and sexualized than the first (Penguin's bawdy greeting of Catwoman, "Just the pussy I've been looking for," comes to mind). Some studio execs, displeased parents, and whiny fans didn't know what they had until it was gone. Burton's uninspired replacement, Joel Schumacher, would drive the franchise into the ground.

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Bluray

Aspect ratios: 1.85:1

Number of discs: 5

Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1

Street date: 3/10/2009

Distributor: Warner Home Video

As part of the Blu-ray edition of Batman: The Motion Picture Anthology, Batman Returns makes its hi-def debut. The results are spectacular: the 1992 film looks as sharp as it'll ever look, with deep blacks, vibrant color and no out-of-place visual distractions. Sound gets a bit more punch than the film's had in previous incarnation, thanks to hard-working Dolby True HD and Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes.

The gang of bonus features is all here from the DVD edition, starting with a solid and reasonably frank commentary by director Tim Burton.

"The Bat, The Cat, and the Penguin" (21:54, SD), hosted by Robert Urich, is a vintage network television special promoting the film's release. Along with terrific behind-the-scenes footage, we get interviews with Michael Keaton, Burton, Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer, whip trainer Anthony DeLongis, co-costume designer Mary Vogt, costume designer Bob Ringwood, Batman co-creator Bob Kane, animal trainer Gary Gero, special penguin make-up effects supervisor Stan Winston, and producer Denise Di Novi.

Part four of the ongoing mega-documentary Shadows of the Bat: The Cinematic Saga of the Dark Knight, "Dark Side of the Knight" (30:19, SD) includes great behind-the-scenes footage and outtakes, as well as interviews with Burton, Di Novi, Hamm, screenwriter Daniel Waters, Michael Keaton (vintage), DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer (vintage), casting director Marion Dougherty, producer Mark Canton, co-producer Larry Franco, director of photography Stephan Czapsky, editor Chris Lebenzon,

Batman: The Heroes (7:08 with "Play All" option, SD) profiles Batman and Alfred, while Batman: The Villains (11:22 with "Play All" option, SD) profiles The Penguin, Catwoman, and Max Shreck. Participants include author Kim Newman, writer/producer Paul Dini, artist Alex Ross, Burton (vintage), Keaton (vintage), Waters, DC Comics VP Editorial Dan DiDio, writer/artist Mike Mignola, writer/director Kevin Smith, Michael Gough (vintage and contemporary), DeVito, Uslan, Johns, Kane, producer Bruce Timm, Pfeiffer (vintage), Christopher Walken (vintage), and Dougherty.

This disc has six Beyond Batman selections. "Gotham City Revisited: The Production Design of Batman Returns" (11:27, SD) features interviews with DiNovi, production designer Bo Welch (vintage), Burton, supervising art director Tom Duffield, Franco, and Czapsky. "Sleek, Sexy and Sinister: The Costumes of Batman Returns" (13:31, SD) chats up Di Novi, Burton, costume designer Mary Vogt, costume effects supervisor Vin Burnham, costume designer Bob Ringwood (vintage and contemporary), Batsuit sculptor Steve Wang, costume effects woman Alli Eynon (vintage), Batsuit wrangler Day Murch, DeVito (vintage and contemporary), Keaton (vintage), Pfeiffer (vintage), and costume coordinator Randy Gardell.

"Making-Up the Penguin" (8:15, SD) includes comments by DeVito, Winston, Burton, Penguin make-up designers Mark "Crash" McCreety and Shane Mahan, key make-up artist Ve Neill, and hair supervisor Yolanda Toussieng. "Assembling the Arctic Army" (9:34, SD) rounds up Di Novi, Gero, Emperor penguin trainer Richard Hill, Burton, visual effects supervisor Michael Fink, Winston, make-up artist Brian Penikas, and Boss Film Studios visual fx supervisor John Bruno.

"Bats, Mattes and Dark Nights: The Visual Effects of Batman" (11:37, SD) gathers Fink, Bruno, Matte World Digital visual fx supervisor Craig Barron, and "Inside the Elfman Studio: The Music of Batman Returns" (11:25, SD) includes extensive observations from Danny Elfman (contemporary and vintage) and orchestrator Steve Bartek, including the promised interviews from inside the studio.

Last up are the "Music Video 'Face to Face' by Siouxsie and the Banshees" (4:21, SD) and the film's "Theatrical Trailer" (2:35, SD). Though it would be nice to see at least some of the bonus features in HD, this disc alone offers several compelling reasons to pick up the fantastic Anthology Blu-ray set.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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