Batman Returns matches up the Caped Crusader with Catwoman. Wait’ll you get a load of Michelle Pfeiffer’s ravishing kitten with a whip. “How could you — I’m a woman,” she says to Batman when he slugs her, meeting his apology with a kick in the groin. Meow, indeed. Though her lusty licking of Batman’s face may arouse kinky thoughts, Catwoman is no bimbo in black leather. Pfeiffer gives this feminist avenger a tough core of intelligence and wit; she’s a classic dazzler.
The follow-up to the blockbuster of summer ’89 is faster and funnier, but that’s not always a plus. To keep this astounding fun house humming with frenzied action, director Tim Burton spends less time investigating the Dark Knight’s dark side. And the sinister visual grandeur of the late Anton Furst has given way to the more whimsical approach of production designer Bo Welch. Still, the gifted Burton hasn’t lost his subversive spirit, and the script, by Daniel Waters (Heathers), puts a sharp edge on the fun. Michael Keaton’s manic-depressive hero remains a remarkably rich creation. And Danny De Vito’s mutant Penguin — a balloon-bellied Richard III with a kingdom of sewer freaks — is as hilariously warped as Jack Nicholson’s Joker and even quicker with the quips.
Still, the movie’s heart resides in two creatures who feel uneasy in their normal skins. Keaton plays Bruce Wayne, Batman’s alter ego, as a moody playboy. And Pfeiffer brings the same discontent to Selina Kyle, the mousy assistant to corrupt Gotham City tycoon Max Shreck (a fiendishly funny Christopher Walken). When Selina learns of Shreck’s unholy alliance with the Penguin, her boss tries to kill her. Revived by cats, Selina vows to use her nine lives as Catwoman to get back at Shreck and society. She entices Penguin into a plot to frame Batman. But she falls for him, just as Selina fell for Bruce. When they rip off their masks and face each other (it’s a knockout scene), they look lost and touchingly human.
To the crashing chords of Danny Elfman’s score, Burton trots out every gimmick, from a Batskiboat to a Penguin umbrella-copter. But the best gimmick is neurosis: Everyone has one. Batman and Catwoman, unable to function without dressing up their psychic wounds in fantasy, are a dysfunctional Romeo and Juliet. Burton uses the summer’s most explosively entertaining movie to lead us back into the liberating darkness of dreams.