With Batman not only a success but the dominant force in popular culture in the summer of 1989, a sequel went into development almost immediately. Tim Burton was reluctant to make a sequel that was just a rehash of the first, and went to work on Edward Scissorhands while Sam Hamm wrote a few initial drafts. When Burton returned, having negotiated terms that included almost complete creative control—benefits of a monster success—he immediately fired Hamm and brought in Daniel Waters, the writer of the cult classic Heathers.
Burton was mildly dissatisfied with the first movie and sought to make the sequel darker and less conventionally comic-book-y. Waters, working toward this end, crafted a script rife with political intrigue, critique of the rich and powerful, and revenge. Waters’s script is more ambitious than the first movie’s, by far, but it loses a degree of focus on Batman, and Bruce Wayne. The villains Oswald Cobblepot/The Penguin, Selina Kyle/Catwoman, and industrialist Max Shreck (named after actor Max Schreck, who played the title vampire in Nosferatu) are so rich, so much more interesting than Bruce Wayne, that it’s almost a shame that the movie is called Batman Returns. Does he have to? It’d be a dark sort of fun to see these three villains run amok unimpeded for two hours.
Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne is less of the problem this time around, in part because he has a better script, in part because he’s settling into the character a bit more, but mainly because he doesn’t have to act opposite Jack Nicholson this time. Danny De Vito is excellent as a vividly drawn Grand Guignol Penguin, born deformed with webbed fingers and toes, cast away by his family, which fuels his desire to get revenge against the entire world. De Vito’s performance occupies less space and does not throw the movie as off-kilter as Nicholson’s, making it simultaneously less iconic and yet more of an asset to the movie.
Christopher Walken, as Max Shreck, turns in one of his more controlled performances, which is not to say that it is dull, by any means. When Christopher Walken is playing the villain with a remotely competent writer supplying him incentive to stay on text, you are in good hands. The fact that he, in many ways, is an even worse person than the Penguin and Catwoman only adds to the richness of his evil.
Catwoman leads into one of the slightly problematic aspects of Batman Returns. The character of Catwoman is written almost more as an antihero here than a flat-out villain; Waters and Burton planned to spin Catwoman off for her own starring vehicle, a plan that was sunk when Warner Bros decided to take the Batman franchise in a lighter, more family-friendly direction (and, after a long and extremely boring and destructive development history, leading to the unfortunate Halle Berry vehicle). The writer and director’s desire to give her her own movie is part of why Catwoman seems incomplete in Batman Returns, though Michelle Pfeiffer is a great deal of fun in the role, cutting loose in a wonderfully broad fashion, and her Catwoman costume is indeed a sight to behold.
But again, the problem is Batman. He should not be the least interesting character in a movie that not only bears his name, but heralds his return. Michael Keaton’s best moment in the whole picture is when he addresses a problematic scene in the first movie where Kim Basinger’s vacant Vicki Vale wanders emotionally into the Batcave by pointedly reminding Alfred of his mistake in doing so. Even this is less Keaton’s moment than it is Daniel Waters poking fun at Sam Hamm. Especially in two Batman movies that take such pains to go back in one important regard to Batman’s origins as an existential loner, the fact that Batman is so uninteresting is highly disappointing.
Keaton should not shoulder all the blame for this, though. Tim Burton displayed less interest in Batman as a character in either movie than as a visual symbol. This is why, while both movies are quite entertaining, there is that small bit of wonder at just how good they would have been with a better Bruce Wayne. This, of course, an unanswerable question, and in the meantime, Batman Returns is a fine bit of entertainment, and perhaps a truer expression of Burton’s vision than the first.
As for vision, Batman Returns is every bit as visually delicious as the first picture, if not more. The visual ideas introduced in Batman, with the totalitarian architecture an even better symbol of Gotham’s institutions, and of Max Shreck’s insidious power over them all. Tim Burton’s patented Gothic nightmare imagery is on fuller display, a reflection perhaps of his greater control over the movie at large.
Unlike the occasional awkwardness when auteur directors come into contact with big-budget franchises with extensive, established mythologies (Alfonso Cuaron’s divisive take on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, for instance) Tim Burton’s distinct style serves Batman as a character. The design of Gotham City, while carried to a greater extreme, nonetheless is quite close to the comics of the early 40s. Batman’s co-creator Bob Kane frequently endorsed Burton’s movies as being a close representation of his own vision, which definitely counts for something.
That last is another reason why it was unfortunate that Batman Returns was regarded as a bit of a disappointment on its first release. The two most cited reasons—that it was “too dark” and that there was no Jack Nicholson—are a bit confusing to me, as the shot I remember most in the picture is a daytime shot of Gotham City covered in snow that was actually quite bright, and lovely (and as much as I love Jack, he is a bit of an attention magnet, and not always to the benefit of the given picture). These complaints were reflected in considerably lower box-office receipts: Batman Returns cost almost twice as much as its predecessor, and grossed half as much.
This perceived failure led Warner Bros to change directions, and steer the franchise in a lighter, more family-friendly direction. More discussion on the repercussions of that decision when we continue with Batman Forever.