This is probably the first movie I’ve done for this blog series where the production was fairly straight forward. That’s not to say there isn’t anything worth talking about, but there weren’t any significant production troubles, behind the scenes politics, or other sorts of drama. With the success of Tim Burton’s Batman, Warner Bros immediately hoped for a sequel to begin filming in May of 1990. At first, Burton didn’t want to direct another film. Before agreeing to the sequel, he directed Edward Scissorhands, which is still often seen as one of his best movies.
In the meantime, Sam Hamm, who helped write the first movie, began writing the sequel. The original treatment involved Penguin and Catwoman going after a hidden treasure. Bob Kane, one of the co-creators of the Batman character, joined in as a creative consultant. To entice Burton to direct the sequel, Warner Bros gave him a lot more creative control. Dissatisfied with Hamm’s script, he brought in Daniel Waters. Some of Waters’ other works includes Hudson Hawk (a terrible action comedy), Demolition Man (generally considered a very good movie) and 2014’s cinematic adaptation of Vampire Academy (which was so lame it wasn’t even screened for critics). The hidden treasure plot sounded weird enough for a Batman story, but on paper Waters didn’t exactly sound like the best choice for a writer. Originally, Harvey Dent was also supposed to appear, and he’d even turn into two face by the end of the movie, but he was removed in later drafts.
Replacing Harvey Dent is a new character, a corrupt businessman named Max Shreck, played by the one and only Christopher Walken. At first when they added Shreck, he was the “golden boy” of the Cobblepot family, whereas The Penguin was the deformed outsider. They would turn out to be long-lost brothers. That idea was also scrapped, but their plots still directly tie in with each other’s.
Burton eventually hired Wesley Strick to do an uncredited rewrite. Strick described his work with, “When I was hired to write Batman Returns (Batman II at the time), the big problem of the script was the Penguin’s lack of a ‘master plan’.” Warner Bros presented the idea of the Penguin either warming or freezing Gotham City, which would later be used in Batman & Robin with Mr. Freeze. Strick decided to find inspiration in the story of Moses, where the Penguin would plan on killing the firstborn sons of Gotham in an act of revenge for being abandoned by his parents.
Also, apparently Robin appeared in early scripts. They even cast Marlon Wayans for the role, and had him attend a wardrobe fitting, but they instead saved Robin for the third film. Waters hated the idea of adding Robin. He called Robin “the most worthless character in the world, especially with Batman as the loner of loners.” Danny DeVito was the favourite choice for The Penguin from the start. Of the casting, Waters explained, “I kind of knew that DeVito was going to play the Penguin. We didn’t really officially cast it, but for the short nasty little guy, it’s a short list. I ended up writing the character for Danny DeVito.”
Catwoman’s casting was a bit more complicated. Annette Bening was cast at first, after Burton saw her performance in The Grifters, but she dropped out due to pregnancy. A number of actresses contended for the role after Bening’s departure, including Raquel Welch, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Madonna, Ellen Barkin, Cher, Bridget Fonda, Lorraine Bracco, Jennifer Beals and Susan Sarandon. Sean Young, originally cast for Vicki Vale in the previous film, felt she should have got it. She even visited the production office dressed in a homemade Catwoman costume, demanding an audition. In the end Michelle Pfeiffer was chosen. Burton wasn’t familiar with her work, but one meeting was enough to convince him to cast her in the role. To prepare for the role, Pfeiffer took kickboxing lessons and trained with an expert on how to use a whip.
Burgess Meredith, who portrayed The Penguin in the 1960’s show, was originally going to cameo as the Penguin’s father. Sadly, he fell ill and had to pull out. Also, the final shot of the movie, which shows Catwoman looking at the Bat Signal from behind, was shot well after production. They decided it best to keep Catwoman alive and available for future installments, but they used a body double since Pfeiffer was unavailable.
For the production design, Anton Furst couldn’t return due to contractual obligations to Awakenings (which would sadly be his final work before committing suicide – the same day that Freddie Mercury died by the way). Instead, Bo Welch, who worked with Burton on Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands, joined as the production designer. He described his visual style as blending “fascist architecture with World’s fair architecture” for Gotham City. He also studied Russian architecture and German Expressionism.
For the costumes and makeup, more than 60 Catwoman costumes were created, each costing $1,000. It was designed to fit Pfeiffer exactly, and ended up being really tight and laborious to put on. She needed to use talcum powder to squeeze in. She’d only take it off for lunch breaks, which also happened to be the only time she could use the bathroom while filming. As for The Penguin, his makeup took two hours to apply each day. For the liquid oozing out of his mouth, they used a combination of mouthwash and red/green food coloring “to create a grotesque texture of some weird ooze.” Like Michael Keaton (Batman), DeVito found his overall costume to be uncomfortable, but in a way that enhanced his performance.
One last fun fact, Batman Returns was the first movie to use Dolby SR-D Technology for its sound, later known as Dolby Digital.
Batman Returns was overall successful, both critically and commercially. It earned $266 million worldwide on a budget somewhere between $65 and $80 million, and was actually the highest domestic earner in 1992. The press criticized the movie for being a bit too dark and violent, but overall gave it positive reviews. The Rolling Stone’s review said “Burton uses the summer’s most explosively entertaining to lead us back into the liberating darkness of dreams.” The Washington Post review said “Director Burton not only re-creates his one-of-a-kind atmosphere, he one-ups it.”
Roger Ebert on the other hand only gave it 2 out of 4 stars. “I give this movie a negative review, and yet I don’t think it’s a bad movie; it’s more misguided, made with great creativity, but denying us what we more or less deserve from a Batman story. He compared The Penguin negatively to The Joker, calling him “a curiously meager and depressing creature; I pitied him, but did not fear him or find him funny.” Batman comic writer/artist Matt Wagner said, “I hated how Batman Returns made Batman little more than just another costumed creep, little better than the villains he’s pursuing.”
The movie also faced a parental backlash, criticizing the movie’s increased violence, it’s sexual references, and its overall dark tone. McDonald’s shut down their Happy Meal promotion for the movie as a result. Speaking of the backlash, Burton said “I liked Batman Returns better than the first one. There was this big backlash that it was too dark, but I found this movie much less dark.”
Personally, I’ve never been entirely sure what to think of this movie. On the plus side, Keaton is still great as Batman/Bruce Wayne, while Pfeiffer is very entertaining as Catwoman. The Max Shreck villain isn’t a bad addition either. He’s a corrupt businessman who is breaking all sorts of rules, and really only props up The Penguin to avoid a public relations disaster, yet he’s still not completely without moral standards. The action does take an overall step up from the previous movie. It’s visually just as compelling as the first Batman movie. While The Penguin is a very strange interpretation of the character, DeVito does a good job with what he’s given. He’s very charismatic, despite playing a physically repulsive freak.
In terms of action, Batman is basically the punisher in this movie. There are several moments where it’s very difficult to interpret it as anything other than Batman straight up killing people. Most notably when he somehow activates an explosive on an evil clown’s gut off-screen, and then walks off as the guy explodes. I personally know people who hate this movie for that very reason, but personally I enjoy it. After all, like I said in my previous post, in the old comics Batman killed people all the time. There is established lore to support this interpretation of Batman.
With that said, this movie is really weird. The Penguin’s henchmen are dressed somewhere between circus performers and figures from a haunted house from dreamland. The architecture in this movie is just as brilliant as the first movie, but the costumed freaks are too much. The Penguin is the worst offender, being a physical freak with divided fins instead of hands, shark-like teeth, and the previously mentioned green slime always oozing from his mouth. Despite living most of his life in the sewers, he appears to be very intelligent and articulate.
The birth of Catwoman in this movie works for the most part. She starts off as a nerdy, unconfident secretary, but after a near-death experience, she loses all of her personal doubts and becomes a bit of a wild creature. There are several ways to interpret what happened, and they’re all interesting interpretations, but I like to think that her fall damaged her brain in ways that completely flipped her personality. That sort of phenomenon does happen in real life sometimes. It’s just that the scene where she’s lying on the ground, with cats licking her, is really weird and never gets explained.
This movie’s biggest fault is that because of all the other strange characters in the movie, it seems to forget that it’s supposed to be about Batman. You spend more time watching The Penguin’s attempt to be the mayor than you do watching Batman’s reaction to these events. You spend more time watching Catwoman go nuts than you spend watching Bruce Wayne interacting with Alfred. Batman isn’t really the main character in this story. He’s just reacting the other freaks. Burton can be a brilliant director when he’s working on his own stories, but when he’s adapting something and you don’t reel him in, he tends to focus on the weird. It feels like to him, Batman is the least interesting freak in a movie full of freaks. The result is a movie that is competently made, but is too weird and unfocused for its own good.
Despite my complaints, I do still like this movie overall. I’m just not sure how much I like it, and I rarely feel like rewatching it. But I also know people who consider this their favourite Batman movie. Regardless of where you stand, the backlash against this movie convinced Warner Bros to move in a completely different direction for the third Batman movie. Burton was still involved, but only as a producer while Joe Schumacher took over the director’s seat. Yet the movie received Academy Award nominations for makeup and visual effects, nominations for the equivalent awards at the BAFTAs, and won the Saturn Award for Best Make-Up along with four other Saturn nominations.
Next up is Batman Forever, which took the Batman movie franchise in a completely different direction, for both better and worse. Next up will be Steel (starring Shaq), Batman & Robin, and Catwoman. Then we get to the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy, Superman Returns, and then we’ll wrap this series up with 2019’s Joker. I haven’t decided if I’ll ever look at the DC Cinematic Universe yet, but before I get there, I’ll probably do a couple theme months, one being a classic musical month.
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