#ThrowbackThursday – Batman Returns

Original US release date: June 19, 1992
Production budget: $80,000,000
Worldwide gross: $266,822,354

Following the successful reinvention of the Batman character by Frank Miller in DC Comics’ The Dark Knight Returns series, director Tim Burton achieved the same result in the world of live-action entertainment when he released Batman in 1989 to massive audience enthusiasm and a record-breaking box office performance (find that #ThrowbackThursday column here).  But the dark, gritty content wasn’t without its detractors.  So, being Tim Burton, he released this follow-up, Batman Returns, three years later and pushed the envelope even farther with stark sexual undertones and an elevated level of violence that surpassed its predecessor (which, in and of itself, many thought went too far, considering the perceived target audience).  What resulted from this experimental sequel was an overwhelming creative success that was met with relative box office disappointment, ultimately leading to the collapse of the entire franchise.

I won’t go into the storyline for Batman Returns; most of you have seen it and, for the few who haven’t, all you need to know is that Batman (Michael Keaton) is dealing with the one-two punch of the Penguin (Danny DeVito) and Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer).  This expanded cast is part of what eventually led to a problem for Warner Brothers.  More stars and more super-villains leads to bigger paychecks and bolder action sequences.  The budget for Batman Returns was approximately $80 million versus the original film’s estimated $35 million cost.  Upon the sequel’s release, all seemed well, as it broke the then-opening weekend record by earning $45.6 million in its first three days of release, but business took a slight downturn after that.  When it was all said and done, the movie earned just under $287 million worldwide – enough for a profit, but not an overwhelmingly large one.  And it didn’t come close to matching the first film’s haul of over $400 million, even with a budget that more than doubled that of the original installment.

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This might not have been as big of a deal for Warner Brothers had Burton not demanded more creative control over this project than he had for Batman.  Warner Brothers had originally planned for Batman Returns to hew more closely to Batman than the eventual final product ended up doing.  Billy Dee Williams was slated to reprise his small role from the first film as Harvey Dent, with his character arc leading him to becoming Two-Face at the end, positioning him as the main villain for the third film.  Nicholson’s Joker was also rumored to have at least more of a lasting impression than he has here (which is not at all, since he isn’t mentioned, though one of Pfeiffer’s lines offers up a callback to him).  And Kim Basinger’s Vicki Vale was initially part of the plan, as well.

But Burton didn’t want any of this, as he strongly dislikes sequels.  So, as an added condition of his return (Burton Returns?), he demanded that he be allowed to rework the script to his liking and make it more of a standalone story that takes place in the same universe as the original.  Vicki Vale was cut.  The Joker was forgotten.  And Dent was replaced by Christopher Walken’s Max Schreck, leaving Williams without a character.  (He never got to play Two-Face . . . until this film, right here.)

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For what it’s worth, as great as all of those jettisoned ideas sound, Burton’s final film stacks up as an all-time classic and is probably still my favorite Batman film.  There are more iconic moments, lines, and visuals in this film than one can keep track of (choosing the stills to include in this column has been painful.  “Oh, what a great one!  Oh, look at that one!  Oh, and that one, too!”).  Burton aims to find a proper balance between making the film and its characters accessible while also not treating the source material and all of its kookiness as something that’s beneath him.

For me, Michael Keaton remains the best live-action Batman and nobody else even comes close.  My personal favorite live-action Batman moment happens in this film, near the beginning when the Caped Crusader saves a pre-Catwoman Selina Kyle.  She then tries to thank him and engage in conversation but he says nothing and just . . . walks away.  That is Batman, folks.  DeVito was a dream as Penguin, not just due to his diminutive physical stature but more so because he naturally and comfortably (perhaps too comfortably?) eases into the sleaze that embodies a corrupt politician.  Ahh, the days when getting caught saying horrible things ended ones political aspirations.

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And Michelle Pfeiffer goes above and beyond as Catwoman (beating out virtually every other working actress for the role . . . except for Annette Bening, who was actually cast but had to drop out when she became pregnant).  Anne Hathaway eventually provided a slightly better incarnation, in my opinion, but that has more to do with the writing and presentation of the individual versions of the character than the performances.  Pfeiffer steals scenes at every turn and leaves audiences with one memorable moment after another.  She was permanently enshrined as a geek icon following her performance in this film and it was well-deserved.  (I’d also like to add that Michael Gough’s Alfred Pennyworth is the only live-action version of the character that I’ve ever truly loved, and though his screen-time is relatively brief, he’s a joy to watch, here.)

As strong as Christopher Nolan’s Batman films were, I generally still prefer these first two films by Burton – this one, especially.  While both series have their pluses and minuses, the overall aesthetic that Burton uses stands tall above any other version of the Batman world.  The set designs that give us Gotham City are striking, gorgeous, and appropriately . . . well . . . Gothic.  The characters are classic and Burton always chose to go with the household names that audiences wanted to see (I don’t want a DC Extended Universe Batman film where Deathstroke is the villain when we haven’t seen DCEU versions of Penguin, the Riddler, Mister Freeze, Poison Ivy, Two-Face, and so many other Batman villains).  The cinematography is glorious and, hey, I even appreciate the touch of having this film set at Christmastime.  (I remember loving the Batman Returns Super Nintendo game and the fact that it snowed in the game, as inclement weather wasn’t typical in video games and it really added a touch of novelty to it all.)  To me, this is about as fun as Batman and comic book movies get.

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It’s too bad that so many parents disagreed.  Burton pushed the boundaries with some sexual dialogue and blood-squirting noses which was just too much for some in 1992.  So, the fallout of the diminishing financial returns was for Warner Brothers to take creative control back from Burton for the third film.  Burton balked at the direction they wanted to go in and so he bowed out of the project.  When Burton left, Keaton left and that led to . . . the Joel Schumacher era.  The details of that will be saved for another column, but it ultimately led to the Batman franchise being shelved for eight full years until Nolan came aboard and reinvented it all with his more grounded approach.

But the fun of this film largely lies in the fact that it isn’t grounded.  It’s kitschy, silly, exciting, atmospheric, resonant, edgy, and a whole lot of fun.  The action is frequent and reeks as much of character as choreography.  And this was done before the time when everyone suddenly started to think that Batman is unbeatable, so there isn’t the stink of Foregone Conclusion Syndrome every time Batman steps up to the plate.  I thoroughly enjoyed my re-watch for this column and am glad that it held up so well for me.  I might have even enjoyed it more than I did, the last time I watched it.  This is everything I want from this character and this property.  Michael Keaton wasn’t kidding during his recent Kent State commencement speech: he is Batman!

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