Last time I watched “Batman Returns,” I tried an interesting experiment: I wanted to see how much screen time Michael Keaton actually had in the movie. I don’t have a stopwatch, but by watching the digital timer on my DVD player, I was still able to keep a pretty accurate tally.
I came up with approximately 35 minutes. That includes all of Keaton’s scenes, as both Batman and Bruce Wayne. The movie’s total running time is two hours. That means for a full hour and 25 minutes, the “main character” is nowhere to be found.
What started me thinking about “Returns” was the news of the death of Stan Winston. Among his many memorable creations was the look of Danny DeVito’s Penguin — and in my opinion, DeVito gave one of the most interesting, unrecognized and underrated performances of the 1990s.
But the movie clearly has flaws, and I know there has been discussion about the unfolding Christopher Nolan franchise and some fears of excessive self-indulgence, with “The Dark Knight” thought to have a running time of two and a half hours. If we’re talking about Bat-self indulgence, however, surely “Returns” is the poster child here.
At least Nolan’s version (so far) is staying largely true to the character as portrayed in the comics. True, Ra’s al-Ghul did not have his Lazarus Pit in “Batman Begins,” but they seemed to keep the spirit of the character consistent.
But it’s what they do with The Bat that matters most, and in Christian Bale, we have someone who is physically and emotionally believable. Nolan is trying to keep a semblance of reality — as absurd as that sounds given that we’re talking about a man who dresses up as a bat to fight crime and has the apparent endorsement of both a major metropolitan police department and a city district attorney.
I guess it’s no more absurd that the idea that glasses can serve as an effective disguise for Superman (or James Bond, when Blofeld failed to recognize him in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” despite their meeting in the previous film, but that’s another rant entirely).
In “Batman Returns,” Tim Burton was given free reign to indulge his artistic imagination, which has given us many stunning visions over the years. But it was just not the right match for bringing the Caped Crusader to the big screen. The world of “Returns” is so clearly steeped in fantasy (and so obviously filmed on interior sets and soundstages). It was more of a fairy tale than a comic book brought to life.
The whole origin of the Penguin, with an abandoned baby being found and raised by aquatic birds in an underground zoo pen — come on. The marginalizing of the title character in favor of Burton pursuing his own creative agenda in telling another story about outsiders and freaks that don’t fit in.
I’m not saying he isn’t entitled to his vision. But that vision did not really mesh with Batman. He had his own story ideas and tried to force the Batman characters and situations to fit it. Didn’t work. As Roger Ebert said in his original review back in 1992, “I can accept the movie on many levels, but I cannot accept it as Batman.”
So, I’ll take what Nolan is offering us over Burton’s version any day, and I’ll gladly sit through two and a half hours of it, if necessary. I suspect even if that is true, the movie will still fly by as if it were a fraction of that length. Maybe this will be the Batman-Joker tale we should have had back in 1989. Let’s hope so.