Batman Returns: Legends of the Strangest Batman Movie Ever Made
By John Saavedra
Batman Returns is a decidedly different kind of Bat film because it’s not really one at all. It’s a Tim Burton film that just happens to star the Batman, Catwoman, and Penguin. For his second attempt at a Batflick, Burton decided to make a movie about costumed outcasts that didn’t conform to the usual superhero fare. Batman Returns is an oddity that continues to awe for the simple fact that it’s impossible to understand in today’s quality-controlled superhero blockbuster era how it ever got made.
The answer is simple: Burton was on a roll in the early 90s and Warner Bros. was willing to fund whatever the artist wanted to make — a rare position only a select few directors have ever found themselves in. Just ask any of the filmmakers currently working on Star Wars movies!
From 1988-1990, Burton had produced three of his most beloved hits: Beetlejuice, Batman, and Edward Scissorhands, all of which were successful at the box office and received critical acclaim. When Burton began filming Batman Returns in 1991, the director seemed unstoppable. But getting Burton back to do a sequel to his $400 million blockbuster (an unheard of amount of money at the box office at the time) came with a few caveats. First and foremost was Burton’s wish to make the movie he wanted to make. From the very start, Burton wasn’t interested in making a traditional sequel that would offer the same story beats with a different villain (looking at you, Marvel Studios). He wanted to make a Tim Burton film, which meant things were going to get weird. The WB execs basically followed their wallets when signing off on whatever Burton wanted.
The result was a PR nightmare for WB, who even then was more interested in selling toys and Happy Meals than the actual movie (which is why the Joel Schumacher era was such a 180 from the Burton films). Actually, McDonald’s was at the center of the controversy following the release of Batman Returns. Concerned parents criticized the restaurant franchise for including Batman Returns merchandise in their Happy Meals, despite the fact that the movie was dark as hell and contained tons of moments inappropriate for kids (e.g. Catwoman straddling Batman on a rooftop and licking his face…). McDonald’s explained that their Batman-inspired Happy Meals had NOTHING to do with the new movie and that the restaurant was sorry for the confusion. That was a load of bullshit, of course.
But then again, Burton had promised the studio a “Burton movie,” which should have been enough for the WB execs to know that there would be quite a bit of blood, sex, and death in this latest affair. And boy, Burton did not hold back. From Catwoman running around in a bondage suit to Penguin biting off a dude’s nose, Batman Returns is not afraid to be a bit cringeworthy. I imagine sitting in the theater back in ‘93 (I was two when this movie came out, so I was not in the theater at all) and being as surprised by this movie as Bruce was by the cold soup Alfred served him for dinner.
Batman Returns is an absolute spectacle of the grotesque that captures the true weirdness and darkness of the comics but is not very accessible to general audiences. If the thesis of Burton’s first Batman movie was that the Dark Knight wasn’t all about psychedelia, camp, and the Batusi, then Batman Returns was the director’s magnum Bat opus.
To bring his dark vision to the screen, Burton parted ways with the first movie’s screenwriter, Sam Hamm, who had already delivered two drafts of the script for what was known at the time as “Batman II.” Interestingly enough, Hamm’s story already featured the Penguin and Catwoman, but they weren’t quite the mass murderer and S&M thief of the finished product yet. Instead, Hamm had them team up to find hidden treasure deep inside Wayne Manor. Burton didn’t like the classic comic book caper of Hamm’s script and decided to hire Daniel Waters, the writer of Heathers, a dark teen drama that had really impressed Burton.
Waters did a rewrite that turned Hamm’s decidedly more comic book-y story into a social satire in which the true villain of the movie was a powerful businessman named Max Shreck (named after the actor who originally played Count Orlok in the classic vampire flick Nosferatu). Shreck is unlike any other villain featured in a Batman movie. He doesn’t have superpowers or any special abilities. Shreck doesn’t have henchmen and he doesn’t wear a costume. He’s just very good at manipulating the freaks that run around Gotham. It’s Shreck who transforms Selina into Catwoman after pushing her out of the window of his office building, convinces the Penguin to run for mayor of Gotham, and turns the people of Gotham against Batman. He’s the cruel puppet master who controls the costumed players on strings. No other villain in Batman movie history has ever so cleverly outsmarted the Dark Knight since. (Fun fact: in an early version of the script, Shreck was also going to be revealed as Oswald Cobblepot’s long-lost brother. That would have been insane and perhaps a little TOO much.)
One thing that didn’t make it into the movie was the transformation of Harvey Dent, who would have turned into Two-Face at the end of the movie after Catwoman kissed him with a taser gun. (That actually turned out to be Shreck’s fate in the movie, although he ends up extra crispy and not a villain with multiple personalities.) Hamm had included Dent’s fate in his drafts of the script and Waters had considered it too, but it was ultimately cut from an already packed film. We never got to see the smooth-talking Billy Dee Williams in a Batman movie again.
Also cut from the film was Robin, who was added to the movie by Wesley Strick (Cape Fear), who came in during pre-production to do an uncredited rewrite of the story. Surprisingly, this version of Robin played more like the Jason Todd version of the character than the traditional Dick Grayson. Strick’s rewrite introduced Robin first as a gang leader who eventually teamed up with Batman, but was later changed to a black teenage mechanic.
Marlon Wayans (Scary Movie) was even cast in the movie and was brought in for an initial costume fitting, but the character was later cut because Waters felt that Robin was a useless character that would cramp Batman’s style as a loner. Burton decided to save the character for a third movie. Robin did eventually appear in Batman Forever, although he was not played by Wayans, who still receives royalty checks for Batman Returns even though he didn’t actually appear in the movie.
One more casting story: Sean Young (Blade Runner), who was originally cast as Vicki Vale in the first Batman movie but was unable to appear because of a horse-riding accident, felt that she should have been given the part of Catwoman, which eventually went to the very talented Michelle Pfeiffer (Scarface), who in fact replaced a pregnant Annette Bening. When Young wasn’t offered the part, she showed up at the WB production offices in a homemade Catwoman costume to demand an audition. That’s determination.
Oh, I should mention that Burgess Meredith, who played the Penguin in the 1960s Batman TV series, was asked to cameo as the Penguin’s father in Batman Returns, but the actor was unable to appear do to illness. The role instead went to Paul Reubens, whom Burton has previously worked with on his debut feature film, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. (Danny DeVito was the only actor considered for the Penguin role.)
With the script and the cast in place, Batman Returns began filming in Stage 16 at Warner Bros. and Stage 12 at Universal Studios. The rest, as they say, is history.
While Batman Returns ultimately turned a profit, making $266 million at the worldwide box office, that was just a little over half of what its predecessor had made in 1989. The film was well received by critics, although its darker tone and violence were criticized (not to mention the disgusted parents who protested those Happy Meals). Ultimately, when it came time to make a third Batman movie, WB suggested that Burton work on something else. It’s a real shame because, had everyone loved Batman Returns’ expressionist take on the freaks who stalk the streets of Gotham, Burton would have delivered an even weirder Batman 3.