`Batman Returns' Bathed in Surrealist Glow

Director Tim Burton's darkly ingenious sequel elicits as many squirms as laughs, and malice and violence abound

ADVANCE word on "Batman Returns" was varied. "I hear it's more like a sculpture than a movie," a film-industry reporter told me, indicating a stress on style rather than story. "Superior in several respects," raved a show-business trade paper comparing it with the original "Batman," which is the sixth-highest grossing film in history.

That sounded promising. On the other hand, Warner Bros. didn't seem eager to unveil the picture, delaying previews for the daily press until just a couple of days before its premiere - a tactic that usually means a studio has little optimism about how critics will react.

One can hardly blame Warner Bros. for not catering to critics in this case, since "Batman Returns" is obviously a presold commodity that doesn't have to worry about respectful reviews. Step by step, the studio built an eager audience well before the movie's release, using advertising hype and clever marketing strategies. Anything promoted this heavily is sure to sell mountains of tickets, at least in its first few days and weeks, regardless of what critics think.

What happens after the early box-office rush is another story, however, and it will be interesting to see how "Batman Returns" fares once initial curiosity has worn off. It's so unusual in its ideas and so extreme in its methods (including its violence, for a PG-13 picture) that word-of-mouth may not work in its favor. I find it the most adventurous and imaginative American film I've seen this year - and also the weirdest.

Even though "Batman Returns" reportedly boasts a bigger budget than "Batman" had, it lacks its predecessor's most memorable ingredient, Jack Nicholson, whose manic Joker was vastly more interesting than the superhero himself.

To replace him, the "Batman" think tank has come up with two classic villains: the Penguin, played by Danny DeVito with great gusto, and Catwoman, played by Michelle Pfeiffer with a mixture of slinkiness, sophistication, and sheer malice.

They get much more screen time than the title character, reflecting the accurate insight - amply proved by the earlier film - that moviegoers don't care very much about Batman, or about Michael Keaton, who plays him. What everyone wants to see is bizarre bad guys with wacky outfits and lots of nasty, havoc-wreaking gimmicks.

All of which are amply, aggressively present in the "Batman" sequel, wherein our hero divides his time between chasing the Penguin through cold, sleazy sewers and deciding whether to capture the Catwoman or strike up a steamy romance with her.

Also on hand is Christopher Walken as evil capitalist Max Shreck, named after the actor who starred in the first "Dracula" movie, and determined (in a hilarious political subplot) to get the Penguin elected mayor of Gotham City!

More striking than either the hero or the villains, however, is the amazing look of the movie. Tim Burton, who directed it, is more a visual stylist than a storyteller, and in "Batman Returns" he allows his talents to run even more freely and wildly than they did in "Beetlejuice" or "Edward Scissorhands," which were pretty offbeat themselves. Everything in Gotham City, from the Christmas tree-lighting ceremony at the beginning to the watery funeral at the end, is bathed in a surrealist glow that flares i nto full-fledged nightmare every chance it gets.

This will delight moviegoers who feel most Hollywood movies are stuck in familar ruts. But if you're in the mood for a straightforward comic-book romp, take warning.

And be prepared for the movie's startlingly dark overtones. For a fantasy that's geared for laughs, the picture turns violent and even nasty with surprising regularity, and some of its grim witticisms are aimed at targets most movies wisely steer clear of, from physical handicaps to the abandoning of an unwanted baby.

In its caustic view of just about everything in today's urban world, "Batman Returns" is as bitter as it is biting. Ingenious though it is, it makes you squirm as often as it makes you laugh.

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