What if Tim Burton returned to direct a third ‘Batman’ film?

This week HitFix is revisiting some of the key turning points in recent entertainment history and considering what would have happened if history had turned a bit differently. What if…?

After the first “Batman” film became a pop culture touchstone, Warner Bros. handed the keys of the franchise over completely to Tim Burton who followed up with a much darker “Batman Returns” in 1992. That film featured stunning production design and an awards worthy Michelle Pfeiffer as the best Catwoman ever (don’t even try to argue anyone else). Unfortunately, Burton went overboard in his vision of the classic Batman villain the Penguin. Danny DeVito was great casting, but the character was plain gross, scared children and dragged the entire film down whenever he appeared on screen.  Happily, “Returns” was still a hit, but Warner Bros. was so concerned about the reaction that they insisted the third film be lighter and more commercially friendly (if not kid friendly).  That meant Burton was out and he was relegated to an “executive producer” title as he moved on to other projects.  Eventually Michael Keaton left the third film as well after director Joel Schumacher came on board and the role was recast with…blonde Val Kilmer. But, what if Warner Bros. and Burton came to an agreement on the proper tone for the third picture?  History would have been much different as we ask:

What if Tim Burton directed the third ‘Batman’ film?

Three things that might not have happened:

1. Joel Schumacher directs any Batman movie. Let’s take a step back. In 1993, when Schumacher was hired, his resume and reputation was a lot better than it was before both “Batman Forever” and “Batman and Robin.” But, his choices after “Batman and Robin” started to show his true colors.  “8 MM,” “Flawless,” “Bad Company” and “The Number 23” were all down the road. Granted, if Schumacher hadn’t gotten a crack at “Forever” he still might have helmed “A Time To Kill” (arguably his “best” film), but by the time Batman would have rebooted? Say, 2002 or 2004?  The cat would have been out of the bag and no studio would let him near a franchise as valuable as this one.

2. Tim Burton directs “Mars Attacks!” If Warner Bros. decision to bring him back snapped Burton into realizing his bigger budget films should be a tad less “out there,” he might have been convinced not to make “Mars.” The film had been in development for a number of years with an insane initial budget (a reported $260 million). If Burton made a third “Batman” film, a process which would keep him busy for another two to three years, “Mars Attacks” would have been either been put in turnaround or given to a different director. Considering it was always a Burton pet project to begin with another director is out of the question. Our guess it goes into turnaround, Disney picks it up for producer Jerry Bruckheimer and, well, you can figure out the rest…

3. Christopher Nolan directs “Batman Begins.”  Nolan still has his breakthrough with “Memento” and makes his Warner Bros. connection helming “Insomnia,” but if Burton sticks with “Batman” the fourth Schumacher film would have never happened.  Our guess is this “Batman” cinematic world keeps going on for at least five or six films. Jumping on that train would not have appealed to Nolan.  Instead, the Broccoli’s take a chance and let him help reboot another franchise with a little picture titled “Casino Royale” in 2006.

Three things we predict would have happened:

1. Michael Keaton’s career as an A-list movie star would have lasted much longer. If Burton returned for a third “Batman” so would Keaton. That means he likely wouldn’t have had time for the bombs “The Paper”  and “Mutiplicity” (yes, “My Life” probably still would have happened).  It also means he could have continued with a fourth “Batman” film and wouldn’t have been, um, desperate to take “Desperate Measures” (another bomb). Keaton’s quirky style probably would have still pushed him to supporting roles, but not as quickly as it happened in the late ’90s after he said goodbye to The Dark Knight.

2. The long rumored ‘Catwoman’ (Michelle Pfeiffer) spin-off movie would actually have happened. 
If Burton was back in the fold there was no way a solo “Catwoman” movie would have died in development. “Catwoman” would have hit theaters in 1996, a year after “Batman 3.” It isn’t a smash on the level of the “Batman” films, but it’s still makes back to back blockbusters for Pfeiffer after “Dangerous Minds” the year before. It also means she has to turn down “Up Close & Personal” (whew) and extends her A-list status to the end of the Century.  Sadly, we can’t predict a reboot featuring Halle Berry doesn’t end up happening with the following decade (revisionist history isn’t always that rosy).

3. A new “Superman” film would have hit theaters by the year 2000. Burton was supposed to direct Kevin Smith’s “Superman Lives” script in 1998.  That didn’t happen for numerous reasons, but if Burton was back in the fold for “Batman 3” it would have opened the door for another director to come on board Smith’s script. Perhaps (gasp) Joel Schumacher? In any event, “Superman Lives” mostly died because Burton wanted to change so much of the script Warner Bros. had signed off on. Another director, such as Schumacher, may have just gone with the flow. Especially with hand-on producer Jon Peters fiddling with the project. Granted, “Superman Lives” may have made a horrible movie, but it would have gotten the Man of Steel back in theaters much sooner than Bryan Singer’s 2007 “Superman Returns.”

Did history work out for the best?
Aside from the potential train wreck of a “Superman Lives” movie and missing out on Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy, absolutely not. You can argue not one of the major players in “Batman Returns” benefited from Burton not coming back for the third film. Burton himself had the successful “Sleepy Hollow,” but hasn’t made a good movie outside of the stop-motion animated “Corpse Bride” in 2006.  Michael Keaton career tanked after he followed Burton out the door, Michelle Pfeiffer had two real hits (“Dangerous Minds,” “What Lies Beneath”) over 15 years until a supporting role in 2007’s hit “Hairspray” and you could argue Joel Schumacher dug his own grave following studio guidelines with “Batman Forever” and the insanely horrible “Batman and Robin.” So, yes, fans lost out as well. Plus, George Clooney would have also skipped over “Batman and Robin” (the worst decision of his illustrious career).  Burton’s third “Batman” movie may not have been as blatantly commercial as what Schumacher delivered, but at least it would have had a vision behind it. The only person you can say truly benefited from Burton leaving the franchise was Seal. He had the biggest hit of his career with “Kiss From A Rose” off the “Forever” soundtrack. If Burton was on board? Probably wouldn’t have even made the album.

Do you think history would have turned out better if Burton returned to “Batman”? Share your thoughts below.