By the summer of 1992, many years of prayer and magic had finally brought a reluctant director, Tim Burton, back to the sequel to the 1989 megahit, Batman. Warners raised the budget and gave their filmmaker “carte blanche” in the creation of the film, in anticipation of another smash hit. What they got was Batman returns – still safe, but a marked comedown from 1989, and a film despised by parent groups and merchandising partners. The response made Warners so nervous that when Burton simply entertained the idea of making a third Batman, they were quick to deter him from inflicting more harm on the youth of America – and more importantly, their franchise. Screenwriter Daniel Waters was told by a friend Batman returns was “a great movie for people who do not like Batman.” It seems hard to me; if only by chance, then the film reflects elements of the comics through their story. Lots of Batman fans like the movie too. It is perhaps more accurate to say that Batman returns is a great movie for people who do not like blockbusters, or at least have become exhausted and cynical towards them. There have been other thrillers that undermine expectations or make fun of the concept of tent pole films, but Batman returns goes as far as being an anti-blockbuster.
“How?” you may ask. Let’s start with the fact that this was a big summer release at Christmas. In the streaming age, where almost anything can be shown at any time, it may not seem so strange, but for 1992, to march into the summer with a film soaked in new snow, tense in Christmas lights, destined to be ravaged by Red Triangle Circus gangs, went well against the current. The holiday is not central to the history of the film, but it does influence what happens. What other time of year would best exhibit the obscene power of a department store owner who became an industrialist like Max Shreck (Christopher Walken)? Or give such a contrast to the cruelty of the penguin (Danny DeVito) parents when they throw their only child in the sewer? Batman returns was the second of Tim Burton’s loose Christmas trilogy, and it is the most bitter and separated from the spirit of the season. Just what everyone is looking for in their summer popcorn movie, right?
Add to that the fact that all this subversive party atmosphere surrounds a completely different Gotham City from 1989. It was not unusual that Batman returns would not be a direct continuation of Batman; Until recently, many film series made each entrance mostly or completely independent. But James Bond always reported to the same office at MI6 headquarters, Indiana Jones came back to the same university, and successors in the same city would look. Warner Bros. went to great expense to preserve the backlot Gotham set at Pinewood Studios in London after Batman for any successors.
Unfortunately for them, much of Burton’s reluctance was due to not wanting to repeat himself. He insisted on treating Batman returns as a fresh start, even telling Waters: “Can we just pretend the first one doesn’t exist?” That meant having to pick up new designers for a new bid on Gotham. Gone was Anton Fursts deliberately attacking clash between architectural styles in dirty brown colors. Instead, production designer, Bo Welch, created a Gotham of black, blues, and metallic shades of gray with a deliberate caricature of New York’s Rockefeller Square and a more whimsical bid for “generic, fascist, neoclassical architecture,” as art director Tom Duffield put it.
Instead of a location shot in England, Wayne Manor became a collection of sets and miniatures. Batman’s suit was redesigned in an art deco style to better match the new Gotham. All these changes, accentuated by snow and the red and green of Christmas, gave Batman returns at the same time more black and more colors than its predecessor. It’s beautiful to look at, but the only well-known design element that the audience in 1992 would have had to hold on to was the Batmobile.
A transfer from Batman was that the designs reflect the characters. Gotham is so dark somewhere because Batman (Michael Keaton) himself is such a dark guy. Selina Kyle’s washed-out pink apartment, with beams of construction tearing through the walls and ceiling, visualizes her vulnerable life. The penguin’s political headquarters reflect his duality: bright and yuppie-manned on the ground floor, dark and filled with circus freaks upstairs. However, this expressionist tendency went beyond art direction. Batman returns is a funhouse mirror that casts reflections of various aspects of Bruce Wayne’s life back on him.
The penguin represents the orphaned offspring of a wealthy family; Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer), the damaged vigilance responding to a crime committed against them; and Max Shreck, the influential businessman. Burton’s interpretation of Bruce Wayne was that he was “a person who is completely fucked up and does not know what he is doing. He has good impulses, but he is not integrated”; the problem with Bruce’s colleagues is that they, apart from Catwoman on certain occasions, have bad impulses.That Batman’s role in the film is thus “not about a kind of hero who saves the city from blah-blah-blah,” but about reacting to these different facets of himself, sometimes with conflicting emotions, and struggles to keep them under control.The villains that reflect the hero and Batman’s psychological injuries are perennial elements of the character in comics.
However, they are not the elements that are typically put in the foreground. Comic book fans, then and now, are far more likely to expect Dark Knight Detective with martial arts skills, not the manic-depressive one that would be better. And most people who go into a superhero movie expect it to be about the hero who saves the day. They expect the hero to have a plot, an arc. Neither does Burton Batman the film offers it. Batman explores who Bruce Wayne is and how he came to be that way, but it’s not the story of him becoming a hero or growing as a character; he is taken as he is. Batman returns makes Bruce a purely reactionary character. The one innovation from the first film is that Bruce ends up in the Vicki Vale situation (Kim Basinger) was in relation to him: attracted to Selina Kyle and longed for a closer bond with someone who was too damaged to offer it.
A common accusation against Burton’s entire view of Batman is that he seemed more interested in the villains. “That’s not true,” Burton said blankly Mark Salisbury for the book Burton on Burton, and noted elsewhere that people who demanded more screen time for the hero, “lacked the point of the Batman character … this guy wants to stay as hidden as possible and in the shadows as possible and revealing about himself as possible.” Waters’ first bid for Batman was to write him as a burnt-out cynic who vocally despised the foolish masses he felt compelled to defend. Burton and Michael Keaton preferred to play him as the well-meaning orphan who staged theater, and Keaton personally took a red pen to the script to bring all his dialogue – especially when he was in the suit – to the absolute minimum. It was a very personal approach to the character that Waters eventually came to. “It gives him more power when he shows up,” the author said of Batman’s limited screen time and dialogue. But how often is respect for a character’s desire for privacy a consideration when deciding when he’s in the shot?
There is no such restraint with Catwoman or Penguin. The latter became, for all intents and purposes, an original character compared to the comic book’s Penguin, a character Burton could never understand. His inclusion was one of Warner Bros.’s only mandates, and with three “animal humans” delivering strong totemic images, Burton and Waters took the penguin in a more wild direction. The result: a deformed baby thrown into the sewer, found by zoo penguins, brought up by a criminal group that fronts like a circus, and determined to take revenge on Gotham by drowning the firstborn sons of a new generation (a plot added by script doctor Wesley Strick). His tragic origins and his manipulation in the hands of Max Shreck require sympathy, but his eternally ugly behavior and disgusting habits and sexual desires are repulsive. Even now that cartoons and action movies are more open to nuanced and likeable villains, the penguin would be out of place if only for the green-black bile he spits out for no reason except that he’s an ugly little guy.
As for Catwoman: She was the reason for taking the job, as far as Dan Waters is concerned. Waters found the incarnation of Catwoman from the 90s unsatisfactory and created her own identity for her, an oppressed woman who loved Gotham when it was pushed too far. While Waters ‘Catwoman still largely filled the character’s original role as a female counterpart to Batman, Waters’ Catwoman was more layered, more disturbed – and more sexual, an aspect that Burton stuck to. “[Burton] saw Catwoman and Batman as basically dominatrix people who dress up and go in costumes and go out in some kinky shit, ”Waters claimed. There is not much action in Batman returns – Another left field choice for what was supposed to be a summer action movies – but a nice part of the fight scenes have been handed over to Bat vs. Cat duels oozing with violent sexual excitement. It is the element, in Waters’ opinion, as the most alienated audience in 1992: “It is not the ‘darkness’, it is the’ pervy ‘that bothers the muggles.”
At the end of the day, Warners was only to blame for getting such a movie; they insisted on bringing Burton back, even when he made it clear that he would not give them an outright successor to Batman. Except maybe Gremlins 2: The New Batch, I do not know of any sequel where a director was allowed to make such a personal and idiosyncratic film that defied all expectations of what a blockbuster should be. No director with such a vision would get that leeway in a big franchise today, and no film so indifferent to genre requirements would be approved. And the big movie landscape is so much the poorer for it.
From one expressionist master to another.
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