Tim Burton wasn’t fooling around with Batman Returns. It opens with a prologue where two parents murder their deformed newborn son, by tipping his whicker crib over a bridge into an ice cold river. Not much later, a Santa’s whacked over the head with a sledge (KA-POW!), a circus performer’s been set alight (WHOOMPH!), and a woman’s pushed seemingly to her death through a high-rise window (AARGGH!). But this isn’t the camp 1960s world of Adam West. The success of Batman (1989) turned Burton into a household name, and he turned this to his advantage when making a sequel that was bolder and weirder than what came before.
I was 13 when I saw Batman Returns at the cinema, and loved every abnormal second. 25 years later, I sympathise with reports from the time that parents were concerned by its creepy imagery, fetishistic costuming, and violence. Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) slashes a woman’s face, twice, drawing blood; the Penguin (Danny DeVito) locks his pointed teeth around a man’s nose, causing it to squirt blood everywhere. There are numerous other examples.
It’s fair to say the 1980s were a boom period for kid’s movies thanks to the influence of Steven Spielberg and Amblin Entertainment, but society was adjusting to what was acceptable for younger minds craving edgier material than Mary Poppins. VHS players in the home opened up a new world of entertainment to children of the ‘80s. I think a mainstream shift happened shortly after Batman Returns in the 1990s, so it’s one of the last movies ostensibly aimed at children that gleefully wandered into baroque weirdness. It may not have been easy to sell Happy Meals with Burton’s fingerprints all over this franchise, but my generation thank him for doing something so distinctive.
Mistletoe can be deadly if you eat it.
Batman Returns is a more elaborate affair than its 1989 predecessor, as most sequels tend to be. There’s more screen time given to Batman (Michael Keaton), to the unfortunate detriment of alter-ego Bruce Wayne; there are more than a couple of standout action sequences this time; all the stunts are more elaborate; the effects are a little better, there’s a larger variety of vehicles and gadgets to gawp at; plus we get more than double the villains, if you include cunning businessman Max Schreck (Christopher Walken).
Burton presents us with a more “comic book” sequel than Batman, in the sense it’s more abstracted from reality. It doesn’t even seem to exist in the same city as before, as production designer Anton Furst’s film noir overtones from Batman were replaced by Bo Welch’s wintry Gothic fairy tale. He’d previously worked with Burton on Beetlejuice (1988) and Edward Scissorhands (1990). Returns feels like a living carnival show. It’s sillier and more fanciful, but that’s a compliment because it’s so enjoyable. Burton seemed to take what worked about Batman, or what people talked about the most, and cranked those aspects up to eleven.
As I’ve said, the one noticeable downside is a lack of screen time for Bruce Wayne. It’s a shame, because two of the best moments involve him. I wouldn’t have thought so back in 1992, but Bruce’s date with Selena Kyle (Pfeiffer), when they’re kissing on a sofa and trying to prevent each other from discover scars they were each responsible for the previous night, is tremendous. Likewise the scene where Bruce and Selena dance at a masquerade ball (which they both attend “in costume”, by not), and realising each other’s secret identity after repeating dialogue they shared in recent combat. It’s fantastic.
You’re just jealous, because I’m a genuine freak and you have to wear a mask!
The plot of Batman Returns is pretty slim and things get rushed towards the end, leading to a limp finale that suffers in terms of its reduced scale over the original’s dizzying cathedral set-piece, a very disappointing resolution to the threat of armed penguins, and Burton’s general deficiencies when it comes to directing action and fights.
But it did a decent job spinning two origin stories for its villains, then knitting them together in entertaining ways. The orphaned Penguin emerges from Gotham’s sewers with a dream of becoming Mayor, so he blackmails criminal tycoon Max Schreck into helping him, which would anyway benefit his scheme to illegally monopolise the city’s power supply. The Penguin also yearns to discover his parentage (becoming aware he’s one Oswald Cobblepot¹), and for awhile one could believe he’s just a disfigured “monster” who’s decided to come out of hiding. He doesn’t seem to have a sinister plan, just lofty political ambitions, but goes about achieving it in the worst way possible. I can see why he wanted to make a good first impression on the citizens of Gotham, but by arranging to “rescue” a stolen baby it only confirms he’s a thoroughly untrustworthy person from the start.
And his character doesn’t really get any better, just progressively more difficult to sympathise with. In another example of just how crazy Batman Returns becomes, a later plan involves the Penguin ordering his gang of carnival performers to steal Gotham’s firstborn children and bring them back to his lair for slaughter, King Herod style! I sometimes wonder if this portion of the third act was supposed to last longer, because it begins and ends rather abruptly, perhaps the result of Warner Bros. getting cold feet over a summer blockbuster villain attempting mass infanticide. “Quick, hurry, onto the funny penguins with rocket launchers strapped to their backs, nothing to see here, moving on…”
¹ On this latest viewing, I wondered why Penguin didn’t immediately come into some kind of inheritance after discovering his parents were super rich. Maybe they avoided this because he’d have less need for Max’s money during his election campaign.
I am Catwoman, hear me roar.
The storyline with Selena Kyle is a great deal more structured and feeds directly into Bruce’s personal story, which is why I’ve always found it more enjoyable. At first she’s a walking cliche; a shy secretary nobody pays attention to, who can’t get a boyfriend, lives alone with her cat, and picks up answerphone messages from her prying mother. The idea’s dated a fair bit, but I still enjoy the transformation of a “mouse” like Selena into a sexually confident “cat”, after being defenestrated and resuscitated by street cats on the ground below. It’s a strange bit of supernatural tosh, and the character generally works better if you forget the fact Selena is given “nine lives”, newfound athleticism, and prowess with a whip.
What works for me is knowing Selena’s suffering from dissociative identity disorder, so feels compelled to adopt a feminist fantasy as her slinky alter-ego. A “character” she creates out of envy for her promiscuous pet cat “Miss Kitty”, whom she emulated by cutting up a vinyl jacket and stitching it together with thick white thread. She’s play-acting, like Bruce. But whereas his Batman’s a psychotic reaction against the death of his parents, and is ultimately of benefit to Gothamites, Selena’s transformation is a selfish desire to cease being a wallflower and take control of her life. Catwoman is a twisted vision of female empowerment, and it’s no mistake that her first real scene is stopping a woman getting mugged by a man. Later, she laments the fact Penguin killed the city’s Ice Princess, rather than scare her as she was led to believe would happen.
… Bruce Wayne, why are you dressed up like Batman?
Until the acclaimed Dark Knight trilogy began in 2005, Returns was my favourite of the Batman movies. And it still retains a special place in my heart because I was the perfect age when I saw it. It left a big impression on me. I also had a serious crush on Michelle Pfeiffer, so I credit this movie with the reason I became so familiar with her previous work. I still think it’s amongst the best of Tim Burton’s oeuvre, tackling his obsessions with freaks challenged by their status as pariahs. It’s showing its age in terms of the effects, and there are some undeniably weird misjudgements of tone for a summer blockbuster that appeals to kids, but that only makes it more fascinating to watch today.
The Dark Knight movies were even more adult in nature, and not even slightly aimed at children, but Returns had no such excuse. Burton’s brief was told to make a Batman movie to entertain kids and sell toys, but he came back with Danny DeVito drooling green gunk from his mouth as he dies. McDonalds even ended their Happy Meal promotion after seeing the movie. Entertainment Weekly would later described it as “the first blockbuster art film”, which sounds about right.
Does this mean we have to start fighting?
Burton didn’t even want to make a sequel to Batman when the idea was first raised by Warner Bros., but after the success of Edward Scissorhands the studio agreed to his demands it would have to be “something new and exciting”. He was therefore given total creative control over everything, such was the studio’s faith in him after Batman became a phenomenon.
Burton swiftly ditched the existing draft screenplays by Sam Hamm (which involved Catwoman and Penguin looking for lost treasure beneath Wayne Manor), and assigned Daniel Waters (Heathers) to bring a satirical edge to the material. The result was a story that commented on the treatment of women as second-class citizens and objects of male fantasy, coupled with an update of a ’60s TV series plot where the Penguin ran for city mayor. Interestingly, the character of Max Schreck was supposed to be Harvey Dent (played by Billy Dee Williams in Batman), who would’ve been turned into Two-Face by Catwoman during the climactic scene where she kisses him with a taser clenched between her teeth. It’s a shame this idea was ditched so early, but I can only assumed the studio thought having three headlining villains was overkill. More of a relief is that one draft involved Robin (Marlon Wayans was even cast and costume-fitted), until the studio decided the movie was too full of characters.
An uncredited rewrite by Wesley Strick (Cape Fear) focused on giving the Penguin a bigger masterplan, and appears to have been the origin of his character’s parallels to Moses — with the killing of firstborns and his abandonment as a baby down a river. Famously, Annette Bening had signed on to play Catwoman until she fell pregnant and had to drop out, resulting in numerous big-name actresses auditioning for the part (Madonna, Ellen Barkin, Bridget Fonda, etc). Sean Young (Blade Runner) even demanded an audition, arriving at the movie’s production offices in a homemade Catwoman costume.
Burton eventually cast Michelle Pfeiffer after just one meeting with The Fabulous Baker Boys actress, agreeing to pay her $3 million (which was $2 more than Bening had negotiated). It was money well spent, given how iconic her performance and costume has become in the genre.
You poor guys. Always confusing your pistols with your privates.
Batman Returns was released in the US on 19 June 1992, to largely positive reviews and a healthy box office gross of $266 million worldwide (from a budget of $80 million). But the taking were noticeably down on Batman’s impressive $411m gross in 1989, which had also only cost $35m to make.
Most critics praised the casting and Burton’s visual style, but there was negativity over the thin storyline and its generally “depressing” tone and twisted sensibilities. It was essentially a tough movie to appropriately market to younger kids, as merchandising may have recouped the loss of revenue with the movie itself.
To nobody’s surprise, Warner Bros. decided to develop Batman Forever with a more lighthearted tone, but Burton had no interest in returning and agreeing to dilute his vision. Keaton bowed out as a consequence (already feeling he’s been overshadowed by his co-stars in both movies), and the plan for Michelle Pfeiffer to return was put on hold because a Catwoman spin-off was announced — that Burton was interested in directing.
Merry Christmas, Alfred. Good will toward men… and women.
In 1995, Daniel Waters’ Catwoman script was delivered the day Batman Forever opened in cinemas, but the two projects were now tonally incompatible. Waters’s screenplay had the same strangeness of Returns, but Forever had become a bigger success (making $336m) by taking things in a more commercial direction. Pfeiffer was still interested in reprising the character, but the project languished in development for so long that her career priorities changed and other actresses were considered as replacements, such as Sharon Stone and Ashley Judd.
Finally, almost 10 years later in 2004, when the studio’s Batman franchise had been killed by the atrocious Batman & Robin (1997), Catwoman was released with Halle Berry in the starring role, which didn’t use Waters’ script. It was an unmitigated disaster, clawing back $82m from a $100m budget, and is often credited as a key reason no major female-led superhero movie were bankrolled until Wonder Woman (2017).
Fortunately for Batman, he would “begin” again with a new approach to the venerable material with Christopher Nolan the very next year…
Cast & Crew
director: Tim Burton
writer: Daniel Waters (story by Daniel Waters & Sam Hamm, based on characters appearing in magazines published by DC Comics and Batman created by Bob Kane).
starring: Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Michael Gough, Pat Hingle & Michael Murphy.