Batman Returns revisited: the most anti-franchise franchise movie ever made

“Who let Vicki Vale into the Batcave? I’m sitting there working and I turn around, there she is. ‘Oh hi, Vick, come on in.’” This bit of dialogue between Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) and Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Gough) in 1992’s Batman Returns pokes fun at one of the most infamous plot points in the franchise’s previous movie. In the 1989 Batman, Alfred reveals Batman’s true identity and secret hideout to Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger), all so Bruce can finally get a second date. It’s the kind of puzzling narrative choice that’s meant to streamline a film’s emotional arc, even if it makes no sense. Now she knows his secret and we can move on! Glad to get that out of the way!

Script elements like these, with blunt, popcorn-y plot lines, led Tim Burton to all but disown Batman following the film’s release. He found the movie “boring,” a far cry from his passionate, disheveled embrace of his other films. His disappointment over Warner Bros’ control of the film, complete with behind-the-scenes drama about the decisions made behind his back, threatened to swallow any passion he had for the Dark Knight.

Burton initially didn’t want to revisit Gotham City. He only returned for a sequel after he was guaranteed more creative freedom (“What if the second movie is really just a Tim Burton movie?” Warner execs allegedly asked him.) Burton’s best films, especially early ones like Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands, combine fairy-tale logic with satire and gruesomeness. They reveal the playfully rebellious spirit of a creator who identifies with the lonely freaks and obsessed outcasts he puts on screen. With Batman Returns, he was given the license to do even more of that with a character known around the world.

But can Batman Returns even be called a sequel to Burton’s Batman? Burton certainly operated under the idea that he wanted nothing to do with the original. In his hands, Batman Returns evolved into perhaps the most anti-franchise franchise film of all time, a rebuttal to the idea that giant superhero series and other films of their scale need to follow a fan-friendly formula for expansion.

No return to the norm

Image: Warner Bros.

Burton distances Batman Returns from its predecessor so often that it becomes a motif. He and screenwriter Daniel Waters (with Wesley Strick on punch-ups and doctoring) obviously feel unshackled to everything the first film set up. This wasn’t great news for Sam Hamm, the screenwriter of the original, who took a preliminary stab at Returns’ script with a story that showed a lot more loyalty to Batman and the comics’ version of Catwoman and Penguin. The original, discarded Batman Returns script picked up where the 1989 Batman left off, an approach we expect as an inherent staple in today’s superhero blockbusters.

Penguin (Danny DeVito) and Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) were always meant to be the film’s villains. Warner Bros. made this immovable decision early on, running down Batman’s rogues’ gallery and picking the names they considered most popular after Joker. Hamm also introduced Robin in his script, continued Bruce’s romance with Vicki Vale (with Bruce eventually proposing to her), and brought back comic-relief reporter Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl). Commissioner Gordon (Pat Hingle) would have been joined by his longtime fan-favorite lieutenant, Harvey Bullock. Burton wound up nixing all of this that he could. He wanted a new direction, and Hamm was out.

The script Burton and Waters wrote to replace Hamm’s version overhauled Batman’s universe and refuted the comics’ version of his world. In this movie, Penguin isn’t a deformed mobster — he’s the orphan prince of the sewers. Catwoman isn’t a slick thief, she’s a lowly secretary turned femme fatale after being pushed out a window by her misogynistic boss and then mystically revived by stray cats.

Robin was eventually cut (for the second time, after having his debut cut from the first film as well), and Bruce Wayne’s circle dwindled instead of expanding. While the first film shows Bruce trying to play aloof socialite in his mansion parties, Returns renders him as even moodier and more withdrawn. He broods in his empty office. His method of getting to the Batcave involves getting into an iron maiden. And when Gordon tries to discuss recent crimes with him, Batman all but ignores him.

While the commonly accepted arc for Batman movies sees him leaving the shadows and learning the basic benefits of teamwork, Returns seems like a step back from the traditions of his story’s progression. Batman movies aren’t the only superhero films that follow this template for sequels; wider discovery by the outside world and acceptance by loved ones is a common theme, starting with the Richard Donner Superman films, which build to Lois Lane finding out Clark Kent’s secret and loving him regardless.

In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this structure is concocted around heroes colliding with and eventually cooperating with various heroes and allies, leading toward the MCU more completely reflecting the world of its comic book sources. Each new film adds another piece to the puzzle, with the end goal looking like those big “library of heroes” posters that have countless characters filling the frame, as if posing for a group photo.

Even Harvey Dent/Two-Face, one of DC Comics’ most notable supporting characters, is nowhere to be found in Batman Returns, even though Batman brought him in as a clear sequel hook. Instead, the shining luminary of Gotham in Returns is Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), a vicious capitalist who wants to bleed the city dry. He doesn’t have any fantastical villain identity or comics history; he’s an unscrupulous robber baron invented for the film, a man whose malice catalyzes Penguin’s fall from grace and Catwoman’s fall from a really high window. He’s the true antagonist of the movie, leading the audience to better sympathize with the perverted Penguin and untamable Catwoman, both rejected by Gotham’s upper class.

A Gotham beyond redemption

Image: Warner Bros.

Christopher Nolan and Matt Reeves’ later incarnations of Batman portray Gotham City as increasingly worth saving, in spite of the trickle-down effect it has regarding villains. Every climax in Nolan’s films, from the Joker’s boat-exploding scheme to Bane’s “return Gotham to the people” diatribe, is based around the manipulation of the poor and a war between classes, a thematic lay-up that Nolan never really puts in the basket. The Batman also contrasts the rich elite with the have-nots they exploit, but concludes with the idea that the city needs hope more than heroes. Batman Returns, with its looming metropolis based on a blend of spooky German Expressionism and fascist architecture, and its city officials ranging from clumsy to absolutely corrupt with nothing in between, seems like it’s asking why Batman even tries.

Burton and his collaborators obviously don’t much believe in the efficacy of Batman’s heroism — a step away from the majestic end of the first film, which has Batman being tacitly deputized via the shining glow of the Bat-Signal. The Batman of Returns always seems to be working through something. His escapades don’t feel like derring-do attempts to rid the city of the evil that stole his parents, nor do they ever unfold in that direction, like we see in The Batman — they’re more like pressure-valve releases for a disturbed individual.

Does Bruce Wayne in Batman Returns actually want to help the people of Gotham, or does he simply like the way a crook’s jaw cracks against his gloved fist? His smirk as he attaches dynamite to a strongman clown and tosses him down a manhole to his death says a lot. Nearly three decades earlier, Adam West’s chaste version of Batman scrambled to rescue people from harm, lamenting, “Some days, you just can’t get rid of a bomb!” In Batman Returns, Keaton’s horny, homicidal Batman found a solution: You just stick it on the closest bad guy.

Burton and company have similarly little faith in Bruce Wayne’s humanity. Talking to Selina Kyle, Bruce reveals that he broke up with Vicki because she couldn’t handle his dual identities: “She had trouble reconciling them because I had trouble reconciling them.” Selina makes fun of Vale’s name (“Ice skater or stewardess?” she laughs), another seeming potshot at the conventions of the comics. They end up passionately making out after Bruce compares himself to a “Norman Bates, Ted Bundy type.”

But even this reveal of a “better” partner for Batman is undone by the end, further dismissing the idea that the main point of a superhero sequel is to see heroes working to solve their problems. “You’re just jealous because I’m a genuine freak, and you have to wear a mask!” Penguin taunts Batman, who admits, “You might be right.” His ambivalence about his own crusade calls into question the potency of Batman’s scene where Bruce fully accepts his role as Gotham’s savior — another case where the sequel undercuts the original in order to focus more fully on Batman as more freak than hero.

There is no happy ending for Batman in this movie, no grand display of strength or inner resolve that tells the audience that he’s grown as a person and will emerge in the next film as a better version of himself. When he tries to offer Selina understanding and a return to normalcy, she rebukes him for his “fairy-tale” fantasy with a swiping claw to the face. When he tries to stop her from killing Shreck and instead promises to take him to jail, Shreck just casually shoots them both. Shortly after, Selina murders Shreck after all, disgusted with Batman’s choices. However, in Returns’ single bit of franchise-forward thinking, Catwoman survives being toasted alive with Shreck (due to a studio note out of Burton’s control, according to the film’s editor; her return isn’t in the shooting script).

The fact that Batman gets no final blow against Shreck, the manipulator of all of his misery in the film, denies us the conventional gallant climax. (The last time we see Bruce in costume, he’s simply observing the Penguin’s little funeral procession.) Long before The Batman, Batman Returns commented on Bruce’s hypocritical status among the other wealthy blue bloods. He can angst as much as he wants, but he will always be different from those who rose from Gotham’s sewers or alleys. The end of the film even shows him in those same alleys… being driven around by his loyal butler, instead of standing as Gotham’s aspirational symbol.

A (less) Dark Knight

Image: Warner Bros.

The reviews for Batman Returns were generally better than the ones for the 1989 Batman. Burton’s trademark gothic playfulness was fully on display in the 1992 film, which made for a more freewheeling story. But the public’s reactions were different. Warner Bros., confused about how to market Burton’s radical vision of its biggest property, was disappointed when the film grossed almost $100 million less domestically than its predecessor. McDonald’s, the biggest tie-in licensee for the movie, tried to course-correct after the cultural conversation around Returns turned to “Why is this movie scaring so many children?” Years later, McDonald’s demanded to review the sequel’s script before signing on for any partnerships. The company wanted a heads-up first before it accidentally helped market another movie about a penguin-man making copious sexual innuendos and vomiting on himself.

Batman Returns sent a shockwave through the franchise that is felt to this day. It dictated a more lighthearted direction for the series, one that culminated with Batman & Robin, a film that blends toyetic camp with ultimate marketability. The needle had swung too far in the comic direction, though, and the backlash to Batman & Robin led Warner Bros. to end the Batman series until the 2005 reboot, Batman Begins. That film joined 2002’s Spider-Man in establishing the comic book and sequel-friendly form and focus of most new superhero blockbusters. Since Burton, few other superhero-movie directors have openly discussed not really enjoying comics, or approached the fandom with irreverence. Soon after Keaton left the stage, playing a comic book character became something mythologically important enough to aspire to, rather than a well-paying side gig to a real acting career.

As for Tim Burton, he left the franchise after Batman Returns. He produced the sequel, but also openly decried it: “I always hated those titles like Batman Forever. That sounds like a tattoo that somebody would get when they’re on drugs or something. Or something some kid would write in the yearbook.” Keaton left the series as well, unsatisfied with the sequel’s direction for Batman Forever, reportedly unsatisfied with the money, and telling the press that he didn’t find playing Batman very important to him at the time. He was replaced by Val Kilmer, who ends Batman Forever with a moment of sober self-actualization, telling his foes that he is “both Bruce Wayne and Batman,” and removing any of the gray areas that characterized Batman Returns.

The grand scheme of Batman films is usually divided into the light and dark, the duality of Bruce Wayne and Batman, and the duality of the blockbuster entertainment that adapts him. On the lighter side are the Adam West TV series and movie, the Joel Schumacher films, Lego Batman, and Joss Whedon’s bantery reshoots for Justice League. On the other, you have Tim Burton’s films, Nolan’s trilogy, the animated movie Mask of the Phantasm, and Zack Snyder’s aborted DC universe. In the middle lies Matt Reeves’ The Batman, which eventually treats Batman’s quest with optimism: It ends with Batman comforting a child!

Batman Returns remains an outlier in the entire franchise. Often deemed “too dark” by the media, it was designed to fit into the portfolio of a director who obviously saw these damaged characters with poignant empathy. The film fades to credits on the shining Bat-Signal, just like the other three entries in the original film tetralogy, but rather than treating it like a big ol’ flashlight of hope, it just acknowledges that Batman will be around again, probably as miserable as ever. Burton and his crew took a stab at Batman’s comic book world without the burden of loyal replication, instead seeing the sequel as a permission slip to play around and be free from industry expectations. As the Penguin says, “The liberation of Gotham has begun!”

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