If " Batman" was the darkest, weirdest, most unlikely blockbuster ($410 million worldwide) to slip out of the Hollywood corporate system, wait till you get a load of Batman Returns. This darker, weirder sequel is easy to find fault with--seamless storytelling has never been Tim Burton's thing. But I wouldn't trade 10 minutes of it for "Lethal Weapon 3...... Alien 3" and "Far and Away" put together. Burton couldn't play it safe if he wanted to, and he doesn't want to. Entrusted with one of the most valuable franchises in movie history (the merchandising of " Batman" brought in more than $500 million), he's made a moody, grotesque, perversely funny $50 million art film. But like every other Burton oddity, from " Pee-wee's Big Adventure" to "Beetlejuice" to "Edward Scissorhands," it will probably be a big hit. Something about the filmmaker's eccentric, surreal, childlike images seems to strike a deep chord in the mass psyche: he makes nightmares that taste like candy.
Gotham City is certainly a nightmare town: New York reimagined (by the marvelous production designer Bo Welch) as a half-Gothic, half-Bauhaus three-ring circus of corruption. The ineffectual mayor (Michael Murphy) is a mere figurehead; the real power is in the hands of the avaricious businessman Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), who wants to build a power plant that will suck all the energy out of the city. (This white-haired mogul may be an inside dig at Time Warner boss Steve Ross.) Even more threatening is the half-human crime lord Penguin (Danny DeVito), ruler of a marauding gang of clowns, acrobats and sword swallowers who are terrorizing the city. The Penguin, a bulbous Humpty Dumpty of a figure with flipper hands and a beaklike nose, emerges from his lifelong lair in the sewers, pretending to search for his parents, and is persuaded to run for mayor. ("Our voters like fingers," advises his image consultant, offering to disguise his flippers. Unhousebroken, the candidate chomps down on the nose of his handler.) Only Batman/Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) sees through the Penguin's ruse of respectability and vows to stop him. But another not-entirely-human figure stands in Batman's way-Michelle Pfeiffer's sinuously sexy Catwoman.
This is, more or less, the plot, but Burton and screenwriter Daniel (" Heathers") Waters couldn't be less concerned with moving the narrative in a straight line. Max's power plant gets forgotten about halfway through, and the Penguin's threat to turn the town against the Caped Crusader never amounts to much. There are enough car crashes, shoot-outs and explosions to keep the kids happy, but what really seems to inspire Burton, even more than DeVito's flamboyant villainy and a huge supporting cast of real and artificial penguins, is the slinkily ambiguous Catwoman, Batman's foe, flame and alter ego.
Burton's theme in "Batman Returns" is the masks people wear to hide their divided hearts. He's never seen Batman as a conventional heroic figure, which is why Keaton, with his clamped-down instability, is so right for the part. Now Burton's given this borderline schizoid an equally unsettled love interest: Catwoman also has a double life. Formerly Max Shreck's gawky, lonely secretary, Selina Kyle, she's hurled out a window by her boss when he discovers she's on to his nefarious scheme, and emerges from near death as the whip-cracking, man-hating avenger Catwoman. Waters's script never makes the rules of Selina's back-and-forth switches into Catwoman clear, but what twisted, dirty fun Pfeiffer has with this role! As Selina falls in love with Bruce Wayne, and Catwoman battles Batman, Burton invests his troubling love story with a surprising emotional punch. They're doomed lovers for the age of alienation, turned on by each other's kinkiness.
DeVito can't erase fond memories of Jack Nicholson's Joker, but he's indelible in his own right: with his feral beak and guttural New York bleat, he's like Jimmy Durante reborn as a fat, rabid predator. Walken doesn't need a mask to wear one: oozing inscrutable malevolence, he's internalized his villainy so adeptly even he doesn't seem to know what he may do next. " Batman Returns" shares that volatile unpredictability: you never know where this brooding, satirical, prodigiously imaginative movie may turn. Sure, sometimes the story dead-ends down a dark alley. But just around the corner lurks a visual marvel. This demented toyshop of a movie is a bit of a mess, but it's a visionary mess. Of how many sequels can that be said?
PHOTO: A three-ring circus: (From left) Keaton's Batman, DeVito's Penguin, Pfeiffer's Catwoman
The week before "Batman Returns" opens to daunting expectations, Tim Burton seems frazzled, but in a cheerfully morose sort of way. Coming off a year of high-pressure work is like "coming off a drug." But this particular try wasn't easy, with the success of "Batman" hanging over the set. " I was trying to talk them out of me doing it," he recalls of Warner Bros.' pressure on him to make the sequel. "I tried to warn them. I'm just going to have to treat it as another movie." Burton, 32, wasn't satisfied with "Batman"--and his own narrative skill. " I was trying to tell a real story, but I can't do it." He was determined on "Batman Returns" to focus instead on the characters and certain themes: relationships, politics, masks, sexuality, split personalities. "I love these grand, unintegrated, tragic, weird characters . . . I feel very two-sided myself. Everybody I know has a split."
For him, the phenomenal success of the original was more a cultural fluke than a testament to his moviemaking. "I don't know what makes movies work. It's not an exact science." What bugs Burton that studio execs like to pre tend it is, and all those "experts and authorities" on the set, trying to tell him what ingredients would make another blockbuster, made him crazy. "'Stop torturing me'," he remembers thinking. "'It's only making me tired; it's only getting my anger focused on you people-not on what I need to do'."
At heart, Burton still thinks of himself as an amateur. "I feel like I lucked into filmmaking. I never studied for it. My movies just sort of ended up being representative of the way I am. . . That's the danger of me making bigbudget movies. I just get interested in things that I relate to that don't necessarily have anything to do with anybody else." But Burton is mistaken. His peculiar vision of reality is contagious: he's never had a commercial flop. He may make the suits nervous, but they're happy to count their profits. Burton and Hollywood are bound to drive each other crazy for a long time.