After the success of the first Batman film, Warner Bros. was desperate for a sequel. Neither Burton nor Keaton
were interested, however. Both felt that they had accomplished what they had set out to do in the ’89 movie and there wasn’t anything more for them to say creatively (shocking, I know). But when Warner Bros. gave Burton free reign in his second outing, the director understandable changed his tune and signed on. It took some doing to get Keaton back as he couldn’t imagine playing the same role twice but both he and Tim Burton had some ideas that would further their collaboration in a new way.
All that being said, it’s no surprise that Batman Returns is often referred to as a Tim Burton movie first and a Batman movie second. Burton wanted to craft his own versions of the Batman universe starting with two villains; Catwoman and the Penguin. He drastically re-imagined both characters in his own style. The script by Sam Hamm (of 1989′ Batman) was drastically rewritten by Daniel Waters (screenwriter of Heathers), transforming what was initially an adventure story involving two dueling villains on a treasure hunt into a satirical tale. Burton’s flair for the fantastic and morbidly disturbing combined with Waters’ script and created a bastard child that was nothing at all what the studio had in mind. A movie that was about politics, circus freaks, repressed female sexuality and costume fetishes was hardly the right material to sell the mountains of toys and other tie-ins that Warner had ready to roll out.
Additionally, there was the Robin angle. As some readers may know, Robin was originally written into the 1989 movie in a cut scene in which Batman chased after the Joker on horseback through a circus tent. When the horseback sequence was cut, so was the Robin cameo. Interested in creating a modern version of the dynamic duo, Warner Bros. put some gentle pressure on Burton to consider Marlon Wayans as Robin but again the concept was dropped. The only remaining evidence was an inexplicable Robin action figure as part of the Batman Returns toy line with overly high hair. Burton, Keaton, Hamm and Waters all had no use for the Robin character and saw their Batman as a loner.
An unlikely action hero, Michael Keaton was in a great position with Batman Returns. The movie allowed him more room to develop his character add some new angle to his persona…. on paper. In the finished product, Keaton was lost in a flurry of scenes in which Christopher Walken, Michele Pfeiffer and Danny DeVito battled for screen time. It’s not as bad as many seem to remember it being as the four characters play off of each other and work toward fleshing out a cohesive story, but it’s a very crowded picture.
The addition of Catwoman to the Batman sequel opened the door to possibilities that had nearly every actress in Hollywood pounding down Burton’s door. One memorable tale had Sean Young of Blade Runner kick open Burton’s door in a cat suit in a very dramatic manner. She had missed out on starring in the first film due to a horse riding injury and was dead set on being in the sequel. However it was Pfeiffer who won over the production team and delivered one of the most memorable female performances on screen in a comic book movie to date.
I remember seeing the first Batman movie at a matinee and hearing a parent vocally complain about the vulgar language in the film (ironically in very colorful words). Not only was the sequel a satire and full of nightmarish imagery but it also featured much more sexual innuendo and far more violent images than the first. The Penguin was depicted as a sexually ravenous freak who bit the noses off of people who got too close to him and the Catwoman a curvaceous feline who licked herself clean. This was no movie to take the family to, but the incredibly expensive marketing campaign was targeting families that were bound to be offended.
The 1989 Batman movie modernized the Batman myth as seen by Bob Kane, something that he had been anxiously waiting for since the Columbia serials failed to do so back in the day. A movie that largely set the stage for a new genre of comic book movies, the 89 film lacked a number of concepts that kept it from being as good as it could have. I’ve already been lambasted for speaking against the first modern Batman movie so let me restate that of the original four it is my favorite. The musical score is superb (when it’s not Prince) Keaton was perfectly cast and the visual design is far outside what I would have imagined possible. But there are problems; the aforementioned Prince soundtrack, Jack Nicholson’s Joker is far too much a performance that could have been attributed to nearly any Nicholson film and there’s not much for Batman to do. The most brilliant detective and hand-to-hand combatant is hardly challenged and his flying saucer and gatlin gun armed Batmobile seem ti be overkill in the face of the opposition.
The 1992 Batman sequel provided the Red Circle Gang, a crew of circus performers turned to crime that the caped crusader could actually fight in interesting sequences. Catwoman was also an intellectual and physical threat that proved a formidable challenge for Batman… something that the Penguin failed to do.
A large amount of the film is given over to the Penguin, in fact the opening sequence features the character as an infant being thrown into the sewers by his rich parents. Later, it is revealed that the child flourished in his new environment and went on to become an urban legend. When he captures the evil financier Max Shreck (played wonderfully by Walken before he became a one-note actor), it is entirely unexpected that the Penguin is in league with the Red Circle Gang and that he has a plan to regain his family name. Being a shrewd businessman, Shreck decides that he can use the Penguin and maneuvers him into local politics against the current mayor who is blocking his own schemes.
Somewhere along the way, Shreck’s repressed mousy secretary Selina Kyle discovers her boss’ evil scheme and is thrown out a window. Rather than die, she is brought back to life by alleycats and immediately develops a new personality as the Catwoman, the vinyl-clad feline vigilante who strikes back against street thugs. Burton’s Catwoman is very interesting, thanks mainly to the costume design and performance by Pfeiffer. She’s so great in fact that the studio decided to rewrite the ending (at great expense) at the last minute leaving her available for sequels.
The Penguin is painted in broad strokes as a neglected child and frustrated sympathetic villain, despite his hornball dialog and nose-biting. His use of fairground rides mounted on subterranean tracks and spiteful assaults on the upper crust of Gotham are at least interesting but jar with the Catwoman’s attacks on Shreck. The Penguin’s bid for Mayor is at first treated as a joke (hilariously the Penguin is baffled at Shreck’s idea, ‘I had thought that elections were in November. Is this not late December?’), but then it becomes a central part of the plot.
When Batman uses a sample of the Penguin’s own declaration against the people of Gotham by hacking into the public address system during a press conference, it’s hard to know how to accept the idea. Is this meant to be a joke or is it serious? When the penguins appear on screen with missiles attached to them, it’s like the movie’s integrity has gone out the window.
Batman Returns is an oddity. In places it is a stylish masterpiece that one reviewer frustratingly stated should have been presented in black and white. Production values were also a vast improvement on the first film. Anton Furst’s Batsuit was revised, making it part of the Gothic architecture with slatted abdominal muscles and a bluer overall hue. The Batmobile, Batmissile and Batboat are all well designed, if silly at times and that’s my main problem.
The witty dialog that borders on crass and tasteless combined with the absurd moments and cartoonish characters make the film a parody of itself at moments which I am surprised by. Warner Bros. might have been hoping that it would be accepted as a comedy rather than an action drama as the first movie was. The comedic angle seems to be something that Batman mist struggle against again and again. The first film was initially planned as a comedy but was only seen as a dramatic feature after Michael Uslan convinced the studio heads that it was possible. However, it seems that some look at Batman and all they can see is the 1966 Adam West TV show.
Like the first Burton movie, I was very excited about Batman Returns and re-watched it repeatedly through my late teenage years (which is fitting as it feels aimed at that demographic). An angry and lewd film, Batman Returns made Warner Bros. lots of money but the studio was displeased. They wanted a more commercially viable film that could easily be targeted to a wider demographic. When they went back to the drawing board for a third film, Burton was on a creative high and ready for another shot (possibly involving Scarecrow), but the studio had other plans.