'Batman Returns' 25th Anniversary
Tim Burton made exactly the movie he wanted — and exactly the movie Warner Bros. didn't.
When the time came to craft a follow-up to his 1989 mega-hit Batman, Tim Burton made exactly the movie he wanted — and exactly the movie Warner Bros. didn't.
Given how superheroes have taken over cinemas over the last decade or so, it's easy to forget what a gamble that initial Batman had been when it first came out. The only serious take on superheroes before then had been 1978’s Superman, directed by Richard Donner and starring Christopher Reeve, and that franchise didn't take long to peter out: Superman IV: The Quest For Peace (1987) signaled the ignominious end (for nearly twenty years, it would turn out) of the Man of Steel's big-screen career.
But then came Batman (and bat-hype). Arriving in theaters amidst an avalanche of toys, T-shirts, and other tie-ins, the Caped Crusader’s much-ballyhooed big budget revamp shifted the landscape for blockbusters so rapidly that it caught nearly everyone by surprise — except for the kids and comic book fans, who eagerly drank it all up and went to theaters again and again. By the time it finished its theatrical run, Batman (1989) had made more than $400 million worldwide against a $35 mil budget, and birthed a genuine cultural phenomenon in the process.
Given that, it's easy to see why Warner Bros. wanted to get a sequel into theaters as quickly as possible. However, in those innocent days before things like sequel clauses had become standard operating procedure when attaching talent to big-ticket franchises like this, the first thing they needed to do was woo director Burton back into the big chair, and the second was to get star Michael Keaton to don the rubber cape and cowl yet again. Given that the reticent Burton didn't have a particularly good time making the first one, getting him to come aboard for a follow-up wasn’t the easiest ask.
What ultimately got Burton back into the fold was the promise of creative control, with the previous film's hands-on producing duo of Jon Peters & Peter Guber kicked upstairs and given ceremonial executive producer titles. Thus, with Burton now firmly in charge, Keaton quickly signed on (after a significant salary boost), and the director hired screenwriter Daniel Waters (Heathers) to help him shape a very different vision than what the studio likely expected.
For Burton, the chance to sequelize one of the biggest hits of all time was less about repeating himself than it was getting a chance to tell a tragicomic Christmas parable that showcased his particular storytelling proclivities (while largely eschewing faithfulness to the DC Comics mythology). That makes Batman Returns, which hit theaters in summer of 1992, unlike any Batman project to emerge before or since, and perhaps the most daring superhero sequel ever made, especially for how thoroughly it serves as a vehicle for its director's unfettered id.
The story begins with the birth of a monstrously deformed child to the wealthy Cobblepot family of Gotham (Paul Reubens and Diane Salinger), who promptly dump the baby, in his carriage, into the Gotham River. Picking up three decades later, the child has grown into the monstrous Penguin (Danny Devito), who orchestrates a crime wave from his sewer lair and eventually forms an alliance with corrupt businessman Max Schreck (Christopher Walken), who puts the Penguin forward as a mayoral candidate with his backing. Meanwhile, Schreck's secretary Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer) suffers a near-death experience at her employer's hands, but comes back to life thanks to the magical intervention of a coterie of cats. This in turn prompts her to fashion a leather-vinyl costume and take on the identity of Catwoman.
You'll notice, I've barely mentioned Batman and/or Bruce Wayne thus far. Batman Returns is such an overstuffed confection that the titular hero feels like even more of a guest star than in Batman (where he was almost blown off the screen by Jack Nicholson’s bombastic Joker). Burton’s interests are clearly more focused on the sideshow escapees he’s assembled like something out of a German expressionist film (it’s no accident that DeVito’s Oswald Cobblepot, when duded up in topcoat and tails, looks exactly like Werner Krauss’ Caligari from the 1920 silent horror classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari).
Indeed, the entire project feels less rooted in reality than the gothic skyline and cityscapes that production designer Anton Furst created for the previous film in the franchise (Furst passed away in 1991.) For Batman Returns, Burton worked with designer Bo Welch (with whom he’d worked on Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands) to further loosen Gotham City from the tethers of reality, reimagining it as a Grand Guignol dreamscape, a nightmarish fairyland where even the joyful spirit of Christmas is subsumed by a feeling of ominous, encroaching dread.
As such, it’s somehow kind of remarkable how Keaton is able to ground the proceedings and make his mark, all while deepening and enriching his very unique take on millionaire Bruce Wayne and his bat-winged alter ego. The central romance between Wayne and Selina Kyle –both in and out of their black leather ensembles – proves surprisingly poignant, as we watch two characters who are clearly meant to be together yet never can be (“Don't you see,” says Wayne to Selina at the climax, “We're the same. Split down the middle.”)
In addition to playing romance masterfully against Pfeiffer, Keaton also had the opportunity this to show audiences new dimensions ofWayne, letting us see him go “undercover” in the boardroom opposite Walken’s Schreck (who is truly at his most Walken-esque here), plying his playboy persona to uncover new information about the tycoon’s plans. Seeing how confidently Keaton settled back into the role for his sophomore offering can’t help but make you mourn for all the follow-up performances we never got in subsequent Bat-sequels.
The actor was famously loyal to his director, and had made clear in contemporaneous interviews that without Burton at the helm, his interest in any future outings would be substantially dimmed. With that in mind, it’s also easy to see, when viewed holistically, why Batman Returns would end up being Burton’s swan song in the franchise he’d brought into the world. The dark subject matter and even darker (at times) execution, while perfectly in line with Burton’s own sensibilities, would prove a bridge too far for many parents who were pressured to buy Batman Returns-themed backpacks and Happy Meals.
Above and beyond making a successful sequel, Warner Bros. wanted to move merchandise in the same way it had done three years earlier, and that’s hard to do when your flick starts with a child being abandoned into the sewers and the villain’s big scheme is to kidnap and kill every firstborn child in the city. And so, while Batman Returns had a then-record opening weekend of $46 million, audiences soon tapered off.
With a $266 million global haul, it was no doubt a huge success, but it also cost more than the first one and made substantially less, and so the studio couldn’t help but feel they’d left some money on the table. This then prompted a massive, behind-the-scenes “creative reshuffling” for the franchise’s next installment, 1995’s Batman Forever, directed by Joel Schumacher and starred Val Kilmer (this new take on Batman, too, would prove hugely successful...until 1997’s follow-up Batman & Robin, when it suddenly wasn’t).
Time has the ability to add new textures to cinematic experiences that might not be apparent upon initial release, and when viewed with the benefit of a quarter-century’s worth of hindsight, it’s impossible not to appreciate Batman Returns for the fascinating oddity that it is. While the story beats are often incongruous in both narrative and tone, there’s unquestionable artistry in the mad world Burton brought to life and the confidence with which he dropped it right smack into the middle of what should have been mainstream family entertainment.
In 2005, thirteen years after the curtain came down on the Burton wing of the Bat-mythos, director Christopher Nolan took the reins of the property with Batman Begins and its subsequent sequels, imbuing it in the process with a spirit of grounded realism that stands in stark contrast with Burton’s dreamlike, fanciful vision. Rather than one being better or more “right,” this just demonstrates the franchise’s remarkably elastic ability to withstand multiple tonal resets. It also highlights the special place of Batman Returns in the Batman’s history as a character, and as a filmmaker’s very personal statement about love, loss, and loneliness draped in the scalloped leather cape of a summer superhero blockbuster.