Revisiting ‘Batman Returns,’ The Weirdest Superhero Movie Ever Made

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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.

The First (And Only?) Production Design-Driven Superhero Movie

While Batman Returns helped make it okay for superhero movies to target adult audiences, thus paving the way for most of the superhero movies and TV shows we have now, it’s not what you’d call “grounded.” It’s about as far from realism as you can get. Batman Returns is set in a strange place in an ambiguous era that I can only describe as “Tim Burton Land,” where Corvettes and compact discs exist alongside corded phones, old-timey flashbulbs, and star-shaped microphones with radio call letters on top. (Also: busty women, an old Burton standby.) When Batman production designer Anton Furst was tied up with other projects (he’d commit suicide the same year), Burton hired Edward Scissorhands production designer Bo Welch, and the Scissorhands parallels are pretty hard to miss.

Batman Returns opens on a classic Burton snowglobe set, accompanied by minor key Danny Elfman music, where Oswald Cobblepot’s rich parents are becoming horrified by the child they’ve brought home. (Because he has scissors, er, flippers, for hands!) Did I mention Cobblepot’s father is played by Paul Reubens? That’s how weird Batman Returns is: The very first character you see is Pee-wee Herman in a monocle. From a plot standpoint, Returns is at least as nonsensical as any bad superhero movie. Evil businessman Max Shreck has plans to build a massive power plant that will actually suck power from Gotham. Meanwhile, a penguin man (Danny DeVito) who rides a giant rubber duck boat through the sewers from his lair in an abandoned zoo controls a massive criminal gang made up of clown acrobats and circus freaks. The Penguin’s gang kidnaps the puppet mayor’s baby, but only so that the Penguin can save the day. When the Penguin, aka Cobblepot, becomes a media sensation (notable dialogue happening off camera: “He’s like a frog, that became a prince!” “No, he’s more like a penguin,”), Shreck tries to get him elected mayor. Batman foils this plan, so the Penguin strips off his political trappings and reverts to his old plan, kidnapping the first-born sons of Gotham’s elite for some reason (vengeance!). This includes Max Shreck’s son, Chip, played by Andrew Bryniarski, who would go on to play steroid freak Steve Lattimer in The Program.

Max Shreck, by the way, is played by Christopher Walken, in one of the all-time underrated classic Christopher Walken performances. He ignores all punctuation, chews scenery, and seems to barely acknowledge other actors he’s in scenes with. Anyone aspiring to do a Walken impression should study Max Shreck. Even better, the fact that Bryniarski plays Shreck’s pompous, preppy son Chip means we get to watch him do a (pretty passable) Christopher Walken impression in all his scenes. It’s magnificent. And the set. The set! Most of the big moments in Batman Returns take place in “Gotham Square,” a sort of film noir Stalinist art deco dystopia, where corrupt politicians in top hats and fedoras make speeches flanked by massive cement statues of workers holding up buildings.

All of which is to say… like no other superhero movie, Batman Returns has the feel of a massively elaborate art project. It’s compelled forward not by us wondering what will happen to the characters, but by what strange image Burton is going throw at us next. By the time it gets to the scene where DeVito (who has unexplained black spittle coming out of his mouth the whole movie, a nice touch) is giving a Hitler speech to an auditorium full of penguins (penguins with missiles? that’s his master plan?), you’re giddy.

Batman Returns is so “what the f*ck” that making you say “what the f*ck” is the whole point. On paper, the scenes where the Penguin’s gang of clown acrobats are backflipping around destroying the city are probably just as silly as Mr. Freeze’s gang of evil hockey men skating around with knives on their sticks in Batman & Robin. But where the latter scene serves as a plot point, in the former, it’s more like an expressionist painting. To watch a Joel Schumacher Batman movie is to see someone take one of Tim Burton’s story outlines and try to make a plot-driven movie out of it. Schumacher wasn’t that kind of director, but the over-the-top weirdness of Burton’s Batman movies probably inspired Schumacher to go big just to stay on-brand. The result was disastrous. Schumacher’s Batman movies are like seeing the notes without hearing the music.

Goth Romance Or Dominatrix Origin Story?

Batman Returns is essentially a story about two hot S&M enthusiasts finding each other. Selina Kyle opens the film as a mousy assistant who’s sacrificed everything for her thankless job, the proverbial cat lady, who comes home to her tiny apartment (it has a Murphy bed!) saying “Honey, I’m home,” as a joke on herself about her inability to find a man. She eventually gets pushed out of a window by her boss — an old money robber-baron who might as well have “patriarchy” tattooed on his forehead — transforming her into a vinyl-clad, whip-wielding dominatrix in spike-heeled knee-highs. Selina Kyle goes from essentially sexless to using sex as her main weapon. She seduces the Penguin, flirts with Batman, and eventually kills Max Shreck with an electrified kiss. It’s hard to see her transition as anything but a sexual awakening (not to mention a power exchange). And in a movie ostensibly aimed at kids!

All of this is rendered in the most on-the-nose, Hot Topic broad strokes. When she wakes up from her fall, Selina Kyle literally spray paints her pink shirts black. She smashes her phone when it tries to sell her perfume, shoves her stuffed animals in the garbage disposal, beheads lady mannequins with a bullwhip, and in my favorite touch, smashes two of the fluorescent letters on her wall (yes, fluorescent letters on the wall – it should be said that Selina Kyle was already making some bold style choices long before she became Catwoman) so that “HELLO THERE” becomes “HELL HERE.” The Catwoman subplot isn’t far from a goth-themed beer commercial, where one sip of Robert Smith ale turns sorority sluts into Bettie Pages. Which isn’t a criticism, because as weird as it gets, Batman Returns is never not comic booky. It’s not about complexity. Tim Burton owns his inner high school goth kid so transparently that you have to respect him for it. Meow.

Meanwhile, Batman is kind of the old hand in this sexed-up cosplay world, someone who’s been living the lifestyle for a while. He and Catwoman are clearly intrigued by each other, and yet, they still spend a lot of time fighting, and you’re not entirely sure why. It feels more foreplay than fighting, like they’re always seconds away from f*cking.

There’s a scene where Catwoman is trying to reach under Batman’s suit, and until she scratches his rib cage with her claws, there’s a moment when her hand disappears off camera when you would swear she’s grabbing his cock. My take on why they’re always fighting? They know they’re two peas in a pod, but neither want to give up enough power to let the other be the dom.

This storyline, of course, culminates in the scene at Max Shreck’s Christmas masquerade, where Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle show up separately and end up being the only two guests not wearing masks. Did you get it? It’s because their masked personas are the real them. It’s the clothes and the tasteful preppy stylings and the not breaking the whips out in public that are the act. It’s not exactly subtle. But why be subtle when you can be delicious? My favorite part of Batman Returns is how much time Burton devotes to Batman and Catwoman’s porny erotic love story compared to how little time he spends trying to explain Penguin or Shreck’s evil plans.

The Aftermath

If it’s hard to know what to make of Batman Returns now, you’d be correct in assuming that a good proportion of critics and audiences were baffled by it in ’92. In the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan wrote:

“His dark, melancholy vision is undeniably something to see, but it is a claustrophobic conception, not an expansive one, oppressive rather than exhilarating, and it strangles almost all the enjoyment out of this movie without half trying.”

People called it a “dark, turgid sequel” and ridiculed Danny DeVito for “making no impression,” “so buried is he under makeup and baggy, overstuffed clothing.” (No impression, are you insane?!) Roger Ebert called it “odd and sad,” writing “I wonder if perhaps I cannot fully respond to this film because I was shaped in a kinder, gentler time.”

Still, most critics were at least mildly positive, if only because Batman Returns is undeniably artistic. Commercially, it was a problem. McDonald’s took so much flack for its Batman Returns Happy Meals — including letters from angry parents asking “Has McDonald’s no conscience?” — that they released a public statement claiming that the Happy Meals were “not designed to promote attendance at the movie.”

Had it been a huge hit, all this would probably have been evidence of Tim Burton’s genius, proof his provocativeness had worked. Instead it was a modest hit. It grossed $266.8 million worldwide and $162 million in North America, not a bomb by any stretch, but down from the original’s $411m world/$251m domestic. Not a great sign for a sequel, now or then. The Dark Knight‘s take dwarfed Batman Begins, for instance. And Returns‘ budget was almost three times its predecessor’s. Here’s Entertainment Weekly from around the time:

But many parents of young children are angry over scenes of violence and kinky innuendo, older kids aren’t hooked on repeat viewings, and more than a few adults say they are turned off by the kiddie-flick tone of tie-in promotions.

“The story made no sense,” says Jay Klausenstock, a 33-year-old radio-ad-sales manager in San Francisco. ”In fact, nothing made sense. I’ll never see a Batman movie again.” Renee Greene of Chicago says, ”I’m sick of all the ads. It’s hard for parents whose kids drive them nuts wanting to go to McDonald’s to get all the stupid cups.” Some younger kids were frightened by the subplot involving kidnapped babies and grossed out by Danny DeVito’s bile-spewing Penguin. ”It made me sort of sick,” says Greene’s 9-year-old son, Michael. A CinemaScore poll of moviegoers turned up similar results: Viewers gave the film a decidedly lackluster overall grade of B.

Still, a sequel was a foregone conclusion, and it seems Tim Burton was interested enough. As he says in Shadows of the Bat:

“I remember toying with the idea of doing another one. And I remember going into Warner Bros. and having a meeting. And I’m going, ‘I could do this or we could do that.’ And they go like, ‘Tim, don’t you want to do a smaller movie now? Just something that’s more [you]?’ About half an hour into the meeting, I go, ‘You don’t want me to make another one, do you?’ And they go, ‘Oh, no, no, no, no, no!’ And I just said, ‘No, I know you!’ So, we just stopped it right there.”

Once Burton was gone, Entertainment Weekly had plenty of unnamed sources willing to state the obvious about Burton and Warner:

Warner doesn’t want a repeat of the macabre 1992 sequel, Batman Returns, which frightened small children and angered many parents.

”Warner Bros. didn’t want Tim to direct,” says a source close to the project. ”He’s too dark and odd for them.”

At the time, 1993, those same sources said “Hiring Schumacher to direct the summer-of-‘95 release is seen by insiders as an attempt by Warner Bros. to get the Batman movies back on track.”

Haha, oops. With the benefit of hindsight, we know how that worked out:

Burton inadvertently sowed the seeds that killed the Batman franchise before Nolan revived it, even while making probably the series’ most distinctive movie. He gave Warner Bros. a movie they felt weird about, and the response to it seemed to prove them right. They brought in Joel Schumacher, who had made plenty of odd, good movies prior (he was coming off Falling Down and The Client at the time), but whose work on Batman was pretty much a disaster.

Of course, everything that came after it also helps make Batman Returns so compelling. There are still some good superhero movies now, usually coming from directors trying to break the rules. What makes Batman Returns different is that it feels like it was made by guy who didn’t know there even were rules. He didn’t have to worry about sequels or tie ins, and instead could focus all his energy towards the truly important stuff — like shooting a strangely touching penguin funeral. I can’t imagine we’ll ever see something that strange again.

Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.