Regardless of how you feel about Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, it’s virtually impossible to be on the Internet without hearing about it. Superhero movies have become a standalone industry, with Marvel and DC fanboys lining up on opposite sides for elaborate street fights like the Jets and Sharks, or so I’m told. Long before anyone had actually seen it, the conventional wisdom was that BvS was going to be gritty and desaturated, to contrast Marvel’s sitcom-lit Joss Whedon-y one-liner fests.
Whichever approach you prefer, the point is that nowadays, there are approaches. There’s not only an instruction manual for superhero movies, there are competing manuals. In that context, 1992, when Batman Returns was released, seems an interesting time by comparison. It was a transitional period: Big budget superhero movies were already a thing, but there was far less consensus on how to make them. Everyone kind of had to take Tim Burton’s word for it. Superman had already flamed out (the awful Superman IV came out in 1987, and grossed just $15 million domestically). Then Batman came along two years later and made more than $400 million worldwide, not counting merchandising. And it was a radically different kind of superhero movie. The black rubber suit, the casting of the physically unimposing dude from Johnny Dangerously as Batman — it couldn’t have made sense to many people. But it worked. Burton and company clearly knew something most people didn’t, and so they had to trust him.
Which probably goes some of the way towards explaining how we got Batman Returns, far and away the strangest mainstream superhero ever made, before or since. To call Batman Returns “before its time” isn’t quite right: It’s decidedly of its time, to the point where it could probably only have been released when it was. It has a script written by Dan Waters from Heathers, with a rewrite by the guy from Cape Fear (Wesley Strick), for God’s sake. (These facts are neither here nor there, but Sean Young wanted to be Catwoman so bad that she staged publicity stunts dressed in a homemade costume, while Marlon Wayans was originally slated to play Robin, and still gets paid residuals for it.)
In Batman Returns, which is more a goth S&M romance and dominatrix origin story than a superhero movie, you can see both a hint of the lucrative adult-skewing superhero movies of the future (the R-rated Deadpool is the highest-grossing movie of 2016 so far, earning $731.869 million as of this writing), and some of the odd anachronisms that at least indirectly helped kill the Batman franchise in the late ’90s (more on that later). It manages to exist as anomalous and a harbinger at the same. But probably the main reason it was so fun to watch is that Burton seemed to have carte blanche to let his freak flag fly. And by God, he did.