There was never any doubt that after the raging juggernaut of merchandise that was 1989′s Batman, a sequel would not be very far behind it. There can also be no doubt that Tim Burton’s gothic reinvention changed the public perception of Batman forever (excuse the pun). Until 1989 if you said the word “Batman” people would immediately imagine Adam West and the word “POW!” flying across the screen. After 1989 the word of the day was “dark”, and that is how it has remained ever since.
Batman was a major success story on many fronts. To come out on top in a summer in which it was competing against James Bond (Licence to Kill) and Indiana Jones (The Last Crusade) is a major coup for any studio. There was also the symbol itself. Rather than having a poster depicting Batman in an action pose or standing looking moody, a genius in Warner Bros. marketing department decided on just having the Bat symbol on a black poster. They were everywhere and more importantly they worked.
Warner Bros. wanted to get going as soon as possible on the sequel. They spent $250,000 on storing all the sets from Batman and wanted to go with the sequel in 1990. Tim Burton said in 1989 that he would only return for a sequel if it offered “something new and exciting“. He then went off and directed Edward Scissorhands.
Sam Hamm (writer of Batman) delivered two scripts for a possible Batman sequel. His script (entitled Batman II) told the story of Penguin and Catwoman looking for hidden treasure. It also introduced the idea of copycat vigilantes that Nolan toyed with in The Dark Knight. When Burton returned from Scissorhands, he threw out the Sam Hamm script and brought in Daniel Waters (Heathers). Burton was a fan of Waters and had originally wanted him to write a sequel to Beetlejuice. Waters introduced the idea of the sequel being a semi social satire in which the Penguin could run for mayor. On the characterisation of Catwoman, Waters explained “Sam Hamm went back to the way comic books in general treat women, like fetishy sexual fantasy. I wanted to start off just at the lowest point in society, a very beaten down secretary“. In early scripts Max Shreck was the “golden boy” of the Cobblepot family, whereas Penguin was the deformed outsider. It turned out that Shreck would be the Penguin’s long-lost brother. Max Shreck was also a reference to actor Max Schreck, known for his role as Count Orlok in Nosferatu.
Waters delivered five drafts of the script and in the end Burton asked Wesley Strick (Arachnophobia) to perform an unaccredited rewrite. Strick recalled, “When I was hired to write Batman Returns (Batman II at the time), the big problem of the script was Penguin’s lack of a ‘master plan’.” Strick gained inspiration from the story of Moses, having the Penguin abandoned in a river as a baby, and later scheming to kill the firstborn sons of Gotham. Danny DeVito was always in Waters’ mind when he was writing the part of the Penguin. He later said, “I kind of knew that DeVito was going to play The Penguin. We didn’t really officially cast it, but for a short nasty little guy, it’s a short list. I ended up writing the character for Danny DeVito”.
Michael Keaton returned (with a nice $10 million fee) and Annette Benning was cast as Catwoman. Benning then learned that she was pregnant and couldn’t take the part. The hunt was now on for a new Catwoman. Sean Young was an interested party. Young was originally cast as Vicky Vale in Batman, however while rehearsing for a horse riding scene (which was later omitted from the script) she fell off a horse and broke her arm. Feeling that the role was perhaps rightly hers, Young arrived at Tim Burton’s office in a home made Catwoman outfit and demanded the part. There are various stories as to what the reaction was to her visit, my favourite being that Tim Burton was forced to hide from her. In the end Burton cast Michelle Pfeiffer after just one meeting. Pfeiffer attacked the part with real tenacity. She took kick boxing lessons and learned to how to use a bullwhip. She also took Jack Nicholson’s lead from the previous film and took a cut of the box office as part of her deal.
At one point during the many rewrites, Robin appeared in the script. This must have been a serious consideration as Marlon Wayans was cast and even had costume fittings. Wayans was later paid a full fee for actually doing nothing (much like Chris O’Donnell in Batman Forever & Batman & Robin).
Given the massive wave of acclaim and hype that Burton was riding it was inevitable that the studio would give him full creative control on the sequel. This was possibly their first mistake. Burton chose not to return to Pinewood and instead shot the film in Hollywood at Warner Bros. and Universal. With previous production designer Anton Furst tragically committing suicide in 1991, Burton brought in his usual production designer Bo Welch. Welch blended “Fascist architecture with World’s Fair architecture” for Gotham City. He also studied Russian architecture and German Expressionism. As a consequence Gotham becomes smaller and much more like a set. Where as with Batman there was a great deal of set work, the sheer size of it made it feel more natural. With Returns there is a real feeling of a soundstage with little or no outside location filming. The sweeping grandiose feeling of Batman’s Gotham is swapped for a comparatively tiny, at times wobbly (the graveyard set during Cobblepot visiting his parents has wobbly tombstones – watch and laugh) and certainly cheaper looking city.
The shrink doesn’t end with the sets, the cast also gets smaller and this time we seem to have no police force at all (aside from when the Batmobile goes mad). We see one or two officers at the beginning and Commissioner Gordon, after having a sled thrown at him, begs them to turn on the bat signal. I can only assume that we are in the midst of a Robocop style police strike.
The soundtrack is also restricted. It feels like a smaller orchestra and the circus theme soon becomes highly irritating. It feels very much like Elfman (along with Burton) was given carte blanche to do what he liked and had no one to tell him that his score was perhaps approaching territory that was a little too “whacky”.
The end result is a disappointing film which once again has Batman as a bit part player in a film named after him. He is almost an afterthought and does very little in the grand scheme of things. This is a film about The Penguin and Catwoman and it makes no effort to disguise the fact. While Returns has interesting ideas, none are given the room to breathe. When action set pieces do arrive they are poorly conceived and serve only to illustrate that Burton has no flair for action whatsoever (which he has since proved many times over).
The film was still a hit, but not as big a hit as Warner Bros. were expecting. The end result meant that any plans Burton had for a third film were put to one side and he was told he would not be allowed to direct. The studio wanted to take the franchise in a lighter direction and asked Burton to produce. Warner Bros. wanted to hire Joel Schumacher and Burton approved.
It was time for Batman to enter the light, but more about that next time.