One nice thing about the home-video experience: It cuts movies like Batman Returns down to size. Because there are fewer distractions in videoland — no leather-lunged media hype, no opening-weekend grosses — you’re left contemplating what Kant called the old ding an sich — the thing itself. And this opportunity for reassessment is even more illuminating when you watch Returns as the second half of a video double bill with the first Batman. Shorn of their cultural imperative — their exhausting, market-driven need to be Of The Moment — these two juggernauts are clearly after different things. Simply put, if Batman is intent on building the franchise, Batman Returns wants to shoot the T-shirt full of crazy little holes.
Three years after the fuss, the original Batman remains a monumental pop edifice. A little too dreary on the big screen, Batman’s visuals were apparently lightened in the transfer to home video, allowing the viewer to savor all the spooky, crenellated features of Gotham City’s architecture. Some of the elements are already dated — actually, Prince’s songs smelled bad the next day — and the queasy imbalance between an overly fluorescent bad guy (Jack Nicholson’s Joker) and a wispy hero (Michael Keaton’s Batman) seems more noticeable in light of the sequel’s similar problems. But the movie is energetic and focused, rushing viewers down its mock-Wagnerian hallways with urgency. Batman is all of a piece.
And Batman Returns is all pieces. But they’re fascinating ones, as is obvious when you see it minus the big-screen Dolby rumble. (Again, the visuals appear to have been lightened for video.) With all the press about this movie being too kinky for children, a lot of people missed the obvious point: McDonald’s marketing aside, this just isn’t a kids’ film. Director Tim Burton had freer rein this time out, and he delivered a work very much in synch with his 1990 Edward Scissorhands. But instead of a lone misfit in suburbia, Burton is concerned with the misfits that lurk in us all. Mousy secretary Selena Kyle (the superbly inventive Michelle Pfeiffer) finds power and madness as Catwoman; Keaton’s Bruce Wayne is a walking identity crisis — these two were made for each other. And the ballroom scene, in which each realizes who the other really is, packs more emotional whomp than anything in the first film does.
You can extend the metaphor to say that the Penguin (Danny DeVito) represents the grotty id to the smooth superego of Christopher Walken’s Max Shreck, and if that sounds like a stretch, well, that’s how it plays — the two characters feel like sketchy halves of an unfinished whole. Burton still hasn’t figured out how to tell a coherent story: He’s more interested in fashioning pretty beads than in putting them on a string. All the sequel is about, really, is Batman, the Penguin, and Catwoman.
Yet for all the wintry weirdness, there’s more going on under the surface of this movie than in the original. No wonder some people felt burned by Batman Returns: Tim Burton just may have created the first blockbuster art film. Batman: B+ Batman Returns: B+