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.