After the gigantic success of Batman, Tim Burton went on to direct Edward Scissorhands, which although naturally a smaller level of hit, was enormously important to Burton’s career, because it was a very personal project that didn’t seem likely to find a mainstream audience at all, let alone be one of the year’s top 20 movies. Burton appeared to have a piece of the zeitgeist, and when it became time for Warners in 1992 to produce its sequel to Batman, Burton had the clout to make sure it was exactly the picture he wanted to make–no Prince songs this time around. (Among other things, Peter Guber and Jon Peters, who’d been Producers on Batman, where dislodged to the more honorary title of Executive Producers, and Burton and his producing partner took their places.)
As it turned out, in the resulting BATMAN RETURNS, the one aspect of a Batman movie that didn’t particularly interest Tim Burton was the Batman part. Returns is a wildly imaginative mess, often fascinating and even poetic at times, but while there are car chases and things blow up, the picture provides almost none of the thrills or excitement that audiences associate with the superhero genre.
Freakishness–hardly for the first or last time–was what attracted Burton, and Batman was too tame for him. Instead, he introduced 3 villains: The Penguin (Danny DeVito), a human with the beaked face and clawed extremities of the bird, haunted by the fact that his parents deserted and tried to drown him as a baby when they saw his deformities; Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer), a mild-mannered singleton secretary driven mad and feline when her boss threw her out of a window; and that boss, Max Schreck (Christopher Walken, in a role named after the actor who’d played Nosferatu in F.W. Murnau’s classic silent film), who wants to control Gotham City’s electric supply. The problem isn’t that there are too many bad guys (a la Spider-Man 3), but that the script by Daniel Waters and Sam Hamm is formless as a narrative. Only Schreck, of the 3, has an actual evil plan–and even that, after being introduced, is hardly developed at all. The rest is something to do with Schreck sponsoring The Penguin for a run as Gotham City’s mayor, which if it’s meant to be political satire, lacks comic focus; Catwoman has no goal at all. Mostly, The Penguin and Catwoman are just extravagantly, emotionally needy, and the result is an action-adventure with almost no forward momentum.
It’s a waste of some remarkable performances. We haven’t seen Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman yet, but she has a tough act to follow: Pfeiffer is moving and sexy even as she’s doing broad physical comedy and beating people up–as her personas start jumbling together and coming apart, you root for her to figure out how to make her crazy work. DeVito achieves a lyricism of ugliness that’s modulated and–unfortunately for the movie–more sad than scary. As for Walken, it’s amazing that he hasn’t been in more comic book movies, since he’s basically a walking supervillain. All this puts Michael Keaton somewhat in the shade. He’s very good in his Bruce Wayne scenes, especially when he’s with Pfeiffer, but Burton just doesn’t seem to find Batman very interesting, and in his superhero persona Keaton is given no new layers to uncover.
Burton worked with a mostly new design team on Returns, with Stefan Czapsky (who’d done Scissorhands) taking over from Roger Pratt behind the camera, and Bo Welch replacing Anton Furst (who died in 1991) as production designer. The movie is a bit more mobile than the first Batman, and there are reds and greens in the palette (it’s set at Christmas time) rather than the unrelieved gloom of Batman, but the overall look still relies on enormous, stylized sets and backlot streets. Similarly, although Returns features a few digital effects (penguins and bats), the spectacle is mostly done the old-fashioned way, with miniatures, practical effects and matte paintings.
Although Batman Returns was the 3rd biggest hit of 1992 (behind Aladdin and Home Alone 2), it was steeply down (about 40%) from Batman at the boxoffice–this despite having what was then the biggest opening weekend of all time. Audiences found no one to root for, and while the tone of Returns was generally less nasty than that of Batman, Burton may have stepped onto a mainstream 3rd rail when The Penguin decided late in the movie to kill all the first-born children of Gotham in revenge for what had happened to him as a baby (McDonald’s withdrew its tie-in promotional campaign). The scene where Catwoman licked Batman’s face probably didn’t sell a lot of Big Macs, either. Warners panicked at the weakening of its franchise, and dumped Burton. The studio, in fact, went in about as different a direction as one could imagine–and lived to regret it.