Love him or hate him, Tim Burton does know how to leave an impression on people with his movies. By 1992, his weird style was still too much for mainstream audiences. It’s probably why most of the fanbase for Nightmare Before Christmas came years later on the home video and cable market, even though Burton didn’t direct it nor write the script. Henry Selick directed and Caroline Thompson wrote. Yet, both seem to go with Burton like peas and carrots.
Burton had left his mark in the 1980s with movies like Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice and of course, Batman. The 1989 superhero adaptation was a massive success. That summer was the “Summer of the Batrman.” It was everywhere. So, Burton had clout to do his pet project, Edward Scissorhands, but Warner Bros., would come calling for a sequel to their movie that made over $400 million worldwide. That would be almost a billion dollars in today’s market. It wasn’t peanuts.
So, Burton returned as director and Michael Keaton again donned the batcape, even though he doesn’t appear until about 15 minutes in. No, audiences went in expecting to see Batman battle The Penguin and Catwoman. What they got was a strange, dark brooding movie about a deformed madman and a story about a timid woman who turns into a BDSM zombie meant on ending the patriarchy. No wonder people freaked out and even McDonald’s changed its marketing tie-in.
The movie begins in the late 1960s with a wealthy couple who live in a freaking castle becoming so horrified at the birth of their child, whose deformed and malevolent, that they get rid of him. They keep him in a cage and then he murders the family cat. This is the first few minutes. At this point, you can guess some parents are already gathering the kids to get out of the theater. The parents are Tucker and Esther Cobblepot (Paul Reubens and Diane Salinger). They take their child out for a stroll in the snow covered park and toss the bassinet he’s in down in the river water.
The child survives and is raised by penguins, which surprisingly live around Gotham City. Since the city was a stand-in for either New York City or Chicago, it’s surpising penguins have been able to live in the climate undetected. Cut to 33 years later and Gotham is celebrating its Christmas season with a tree lighting ceremony in town square. A ruthless industrialist, Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) is trying to get the mayor (Michael Murphy) and city officials to approve his power plant project, which is actually a sham.
Shreck’s new secretary, Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer), is shy and absent-minded. She notices Shreck left his speech he was supposed to deliver at the ceremony in the conference room. She takes it down to the square when a bunch of hoodlums who call themselves The Red Triangle Gang, create mayhem during the ceremony. The batsignal is sent and Bruce Wayne, sitting alone in a dark room in his mansion, answers the call. He busts us most of the gang even by setting one on fire because Burton’s Batman is a sadistic killer in Burton’s world. Later in the movie, he attaches a bomb on a goon who explodes into a million pieces off-screen of course.
Batman saves Selina from a clown hood who was going to use a taser on her, but Shreck manages to get away only to find himself in the underground lair of The Penguin (Danny DeVito) when he steps on a trap door in a back alley. The Penguin is the leader of the gang which includes circus freaks and performers and they all live down in the Artic exhibit at the derelict Gotham zoo. The Penguin blackmails Shreck saying that not only can they link him to shady deals resulting in gallons of toxic waste and dangerous buildings that aren’t up to code, but he has always had a business partner murdered and chopped into pieces. And The Penguin shows him the partner’s hand. So, this is the only first half hour of a PG-13 movie that has the death of an animal, the abandonment of a child, the gory murder of a character as well as a superhero non-chalantly setting someone on fire that will surely kill them either by third and fourth degree burns or the flames literally frying their lungs.
So, it probably wasn’t just the quarter pounders making the execs at McDonald’s shit. Batman Returns was being marketed as a family-friendly movie, but only if that was the Manson Family. The plot gets even more darker when Selina finds herself working in the office late one night after coming home to leave herself an answering machine telling her that she forgot to do something. Shreck comes into the office after making a deal with The Penguin to help support him when he makes his presence known. However, Selina has discovered the power plant will actually be pulling power and storing it from existing customers more or less requiring them to pay more thus making him richer. In anger, Shreck pushes her out the office window where she falls many stories to her death.
But many alley cats hover around her body and begin to gnaw on her flesh. Somehow this revives her and she goes back home in a daze before turning into Charles Foster Kane and destroying her apartment. She then decides to make a leather cat suit so she can plot her revenge on all the sick, twisted men of Gotham. This includes using the sharp claws on her gloves to play tic-tac-toe with an attempted rapist’s face. She also uses a whip to vandalize one of Shreck’s businesses before blowing it sky high.
But The Penguin has staged a kidnapping of the mayor’s infant son to make himself out to be a hero as the tabloids have been reported of him in the sewers. Announcing in front of TV cameras, he’s searching for his parents as he was abandoned as a child due to his deformities, he becomes popular with the public. However, Bruce/Batman feels something isn’t right as The Penguin researches the Hall of Records. Later, The Penguin announces that his real name is Oswald Cobblepot and his parents are both dead, but he forgives him.
Now, Penguin/Cobblepot is popular with the public which causes Shreck to use him to run for mayor. Shreck explains they can organize a recount by having the Red Triangle Gang wreck havoc all over Gotham. Using the new popularity, Cobblepot can become mayor and Shreck can get his power plant project off the ground. It’s a more detailed story than the original where The Joker just wanted to obtain control of Gotham City.
As for violence, I would argue both movies are equally violent. The first movie had The Joker playfully shooting a pistol at a crime boss who had pleaded for his life, then using a high-charge handbuzzer to literally burn another crime boss alive. He also stabs yet another crime boss in the neck. There was also the way there were several people gassed and died. Yet, the first Batman was more cartoonish in his style. It’s one thing to shoot someone and another to slash someone’s face open. When Cobblepot is insulted for his looks, he tries to bite almost bites a man’s nose off causing him to bleed.
But I think another issue with the movie is the suggested sexual content. You can’t tell me a lot of young boys (and women) weren’t sexually turned on by Pfeiffer in her skin-tight leather costume. In real life, the suits were very dangerous and Pfeiffer reported they had to more or less peel it off like an orange and she would sometimes have problems with her skin getting dehydrated. The production had been moved from England’s Pinewood Studios to Los Angeles Burbank studios due to costs. This also mean all the sets from the previous movie weren’t used.
Pfeiffer, who was 34, at the time the movie came out had already established herself as an A-list actress thanks to roles in Dangerous Liasions and The Fabulous Baker Boys. But she seems to have a naughty side to Catwoman that wasn’t brought to the role before. The first time Penguin/Cobblepot sees her, he remarks, “Just the pussy I’ve been looking for.” She later teases him by licking herself like a cat. And the scenes between Catwoman and Batman are loaded with so much sexual tension, it makes that uncomfortable implied sex between Batman and Batgirl moment in Batman: The Killing Joke look like first base.
In the end, Penguin/Cobblepot, after his mayoral chances have failed, decides to kidnap children from Gotham elites to hold for ransom. He also shoots a goon cold-blooded when this is questioned. And in the end when he falls, Penguin rises out of the water dying with green ooze coming out of his mouth and nose. Can’t you just see that in your Happy Meal? So McDonald’s and Warner Bros. distanced themselves as much as they could even though studio executives said they were careful not to use toys that would resemble anything from the movie. Not of the toys were used in the Happy Meals either. Despite backlash from the Dove Foundation, McDonald’s still marketed the movie with paper sacks and cups into September.
Part of the problem with the movie is it gives Keaton nothing to do while DeVito and Pfeiffer steal the show. DeVito was known for more comical roles so seeing him in a first as a cold-blooded killer is a nice change. DeVito even went as far as eating a real raw fish during a scene. It’s a far cry from the role Burgess Meredith portrayed where the Penguin was more of a distinguished gentleman criminal. And Pfeiffer proves that she was more than just a pretty face. Selina/Catwoman is more of an anti-hero than a supervillain. She proved so well with some of her stunt work that her stunt double was let go.
But like I said, most of the movie is just Batman waiting to show up. They try to build a romance between Bruce and Selina but it feels more forced, which is why it doesn’t end up well. Keaton would reportedly say his disappointment with the character was why he didn’t return for the third movie. It seems that after the first movie, they didn’t really give him much of a character arc. He’s even become more of a recluse in his mansion. Walken does his normal schtick as the badman that he can do in his sleep. It’s a nice addition of a new character. It’s similar to what the comics do. And despite the criticism that Batman is dealing with three villains, he’s often dealing with more in the comics.
A lot can change in three years. When Batman Returns hit theaters, there already was already a lot of controversy. First off, Sean Young so wanted to be cast as Catwoman, she reportedly harassed Burton during 1991 and went on The Joan Rivers Show in costume to more or less berate Burton for casting Pfeiffer. Then, there was issues regarding the script. Daniel Waters, who had penned Heathers, reportedly hated the first movie, which meant he hated the work Sam Hamm had penned. That’s why Hamm only has a “Story by” credit. There also was the introduction of Robin which reportedly got all the way to casting a young Marlon Wayans, who was only 19, but then cutting his role completely at the last minute. Wayans reportedly was paid $100,000 due to a pay or play contract and some sources say he still continues to get residuals 30 years later.
But another issue was over the inclusion of the penguins and their safety. While some of the emperor penguins were dwarves in costumes and puppetry and animatronics were used, animal rights activists targeted the movie. Walken said on talk shows the utmost care was taken for the penguins and amused the audience by saying some penguins were very friendly to the cast and crew. It also didn’t help that the summer of 1992 already was filled with many much-anticipated movies. Lethal Weapon 3 and Alien 3 were already in theaters. Batman Returns was one of 89 movies scheduled for the summer season also including Encino Man, Patriot Games, Sister Act, Far and Away and A League of their Own. There also was an economic recession that summer.
Needless to say, the movie made about $150 million lessworldwide at the box office than its predecessor. That isn’t peanuts either. So, it was no surprise that when Warner Bros. decided to begin work on the third Batman movie, they only wanted Burton attached as a producer. And then Joel Schumacher came in and decided to give Batman and Robin nipples on their suits. Remind me again how there was too much sexual content with this movie?
In the end, public opinion has been divided on the movie. In some ways the more “darker” style Burton brought to Returns makes the movie lighter, it seems to be taken less seriously. While it’s possible to believe a chemical exposure could cause what happens to The Joker and his victims, The Penguin is so grotesque, it’s like he can’t be taken seriously. Burton said neither the first nor second Batman movie was intended for children. In a 2005 documentary, he Burton said: “It was a weird reaction…because half the people thought it was lighter than the first one and half the people thought it was darker. I think the studio just thought it was too weird. They wanted to go with something more child or family-friendly. In other words, they didn’t want me to do another one.”
It was this attitude by the studio that would destroy the franchise. John Glover, who was in Batman & Robin, said Schumacher would say before filming to remember they’re making a cartoon. The purpose of this movie was a commercial to sell toys. And maybe that was the purpose of Batman Returns. But people were clamoring for Burton to make the ill-fated Superman Lives, which is a whole other mess. Still some fans wanted to see Burton return to the do superhero/comic book adaptations.
Sometimes it’s hard to duplicate a movie’s success. The thrill of seeing Keaton as Bruce/Batman in the first one is over in the sequel. Instead, it’s more of an issue on who’s playing the villain. Now, people are wanting him to return as Batman. Marvel would actually use the Batman movies as kind of a way not to make superhero movies as Spider-Man 2 and X2: X-Men United in the 2000s are considered some of the best superhero movies ever.
What do you think? Please comment.