Holy comeback, Batman!


It's enough to make one want to invest in Spike Jones records, Nehru jackets and pet rocks.

How many years did the character "Batman" lay dormant, another relic of long-lost childhoods, a bat slumbering through a generation of daylight, before Warner Bros. dusted off the comic book hero three years ago for a hit movie that reached $100 million in revenue faster than any other in history.

"Batman Returns" opens in theaters across the land Friday and early reviews portend even greater movie and merchandise revenues for the sequel.

Get ready for the summer of "Batman." This season, he will be everywhere. Bat wings on your McDonald's french fry containers. Batman and his nemesis, Catwoman, selling Coca-Cola. The diabolical Penguin in a commercial for a hotel chain. Retailers are fortified with Batman clothing, toys, books. Ralston-Purina has turned its "Batman" brand kids' cereal into a serial; it's introducing an updated sugary concoction to capitalize on the new movie. Corn tortilla "Bat Chips," in the shape of the caped crusader, are also being produced.

Merchandising revenues tied to the 1989 Warner Bros. release were $1 billion worldwide, more than double the worldwide gross profits of the film itself. Admitting it was caught off-guard the first go-round, Warner Bros. hoarded rights for tie-ins even more cautiously this time, which may in the end sharpen the marketing, induce better quality products and generate even more Bat-wealth.

No one capitalized on the character to this extent when Batman, born in a comic book in 1939, had his own popular television series in the 1960s. Adam West portrayed a fine gentlemanly Batman on the tube, but with noodle biceps and belly protruding over his belt, his physique reflected a more comfortable, contented, low-key America. Rambo was but a babe in swaddling fatigues.

The movie version brings us Michael Keaton wearing rock-ribbed body armor and a menacing visage. The cast also boasts Danny DeVito as The Penguin and Michelle Pfeffier as slinky Catwoman, who is seen in an ad trailer for the movie guzzling a half-gallon of milk from her fridge like some deranged feline-person. In fact, the foes in the film, if not our hero himself, seem much more psychotic than their counterparts in the television version of Sixties, when Americans rarely questioned why criminals would dress in costume and call themselves silly names.

The sound effects have come a long way too. The TV version filled the screen with "Pow," "Bam," "Zowie." The movie sounds more like this: "Cer-ching," "cer-ching, "cer-ching."

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