It’s hard to imagine in today’s movie market, but there was a time when superhero movies didn’t dominate the box office. At the time I’m writing this, the three highest grossing movies of the year to date are all superhero movies, with another recently released film (Incredibles 2) poised to make it the top four. And we’re not even halfway through the year. Last year, five of the ten highest grossing movies were superhero films. Back in 1992, only a single superhero movie was released, and while it certainly made money, it wasn’t the mega blockbuster that its predecessor was, and it was considered a mild disappointment both critically and commercially by most people.
But here on this blog, I’m not so much interested in discussing box office numbers and critical reception. I cover weird, esoteric cult and horror movies for the most part. Superhero movies are therefore unlikely to ever be written about here. But surely if there were ever a superhero movie that could be appreciated on the terms of this blog, it’s that “disappointment” from 1992 that, I would argue, barely even qualifies as a superhero movie by the standards of the genre that is currently the prime box office attraction worldwide. I don’t want to overstate it, but I fully expect that there will never be another movie like Batman Returns, and I want to take a few moments to pay tribute to this movie that, on the surface, would appear to be the polar opposite of everything this blog represents, but at its cold, black heart, is actually one of the great examples of the spirit of a cult film permeating through a big-budget Hollywood movie (and totally alienating the majority of its supposed target audience, it should be noted).
Now, when I say “supposed target audience,” let me clarify that I mean the audience that Warner Bros. surely had in mind. It’s crucial to note that, watching the movie and reading about its production, that audience was very clearly not the audience that Tim Burton had in mind. Burton hit the jackpot with his 1989 Batman, which single-handedly revitalized the superhero genre that was by that point in time already thought to be dead after the abysmal third and fourth entries in the Superman series, the only previously successful superhero franchise. Batman was a bit of a gamble itself, as Burton’s only two previous features were the idiosyncratic comedies Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice, neither of which would seem to indicate he could helm a big-budget action blockbuster based on the most popular superhero of all time (don’t argue with that assertion, by the way; Batman has had his ups and downs, but he is obviously the most popular superhero throughout the history of comics). By several accounts, the movie was only able to be made as it was because of the involvement of Jack Nicholson, who was considered a guaranteed box office draw, which quelled most other concerns the studio might have otherwise not been willing to take such a risk on.
The ’89 Batman is also atypical of the superhero genre as we’ve come to know it, but not so much that you’d question its status as a true superhero movie. Despite its quirks (the visual style based on German expressionism, the Prince soundtrack, etc.), there was not much in the movie to scare off the aforementioned Warner Bros. target audience, and what do you know? The massive advertising campaign the movie received paid off, and it was the highest grossing movie of 1989. It was such a huge success, in fact, that when adjusted for inflation, it falls just short of remaining one of the fifty highest grossing movies of all time to this day, with The Dark Knight being the only subsequent Batman movie that has topped its success.
The reason I’m still dwelling on the box office success of the first movie even though I previously stated I wasn’t interested in discussing such things is because it’s the primary reason why Batman Returns was allowed to be the movie it ended up being. See, there was no cinematic universe, crossover continuity, or anything like that to adhere to back then, so what did Warner Bros. do to get Tim Burton back onboard for a sequel in the hopes that he’d recreate the mega success of the original? They gave him a whole lot more creative control over the movie than they did for the first one. Burton’s touches are present throughout Batman, but in Batman Returns it’s not that his touches can be found in the movie; the whole movie is his vision. If Batman was a Batman movie that just happened to be directed by Tim Burton, then Batman Returns is a Tim Burton movie that just happens to feature Batman characters.
I understand that’s exactly why a lot of people don’t like it. There’s absolutely no disputing the fact that this movie is not a faithful representation of Batman. Like, at all. Burton has admitted that he’d never even read a comic book before being offered the director’s chair for Batman, and he openly had no interest in making a faithful Batman movie. The first one took its share of liberties with Batman lore (most controversially that they actually gave Joker a name and an origin story, which had him being the killer of Bruce Wayne’s parents), but Batman Returns is what happens when you give the keys of the proverbial Batmobile to someone who is less interested in Batman than he is in, say, classic monster movies and gothic horror. Tim Burton loosely borrowed the mythology and setting of Batman to use as a playground for his own imagination, which is definitely not the way to do things if you’re trying to ensure future franchising opportunities and appease the strict demands of a rabid fanbase, but it was 1992. We were in uncharted territory when it came to superhero movies being successful. The risks they took on the first movie had paid off, so why not go all-out with the sequel?
Well, this was not what Warner Bros. wanted. Batman Returns is a kinky, gothy, visionary, and often just plain weird movie that has such an unusual balance of silly pulp and unnerving darkness that it’s hard to even fathom at times how what we’re seeing on the screen wasn’t immediately vetoed by some studio executive who was concerned about it not testing well (or, for that matter, how the movie wasn’t re-edited drastically after the audience testing process). I mean, in addition to the visual style of the movie, which is even quirkier and more Burtonesque than its predecessor, consider that the movie’s ostensible villain develops a plan to kidnap all the firstborn babies in Gotham City and drown them — already we’re talking about drowning babies in a supposedly family-oriented superhero movie — but hold on, it gets better: he’s going to do this with an army of mind-controlled penguins. Like, actual penguins. Not henchmen in penguin outfits. Real, actual penguins that sneak around Gotham kidnapping babies from their cribs. That’s pure Saturday morning cartoon fodder…if the cartoon were okay with implying mass infanticide.
The complete revamping of the Penguin character was an issue with fans of the comics, incidentally. In the comics, the Penguin is a suave, sophisticated crime lord whose short stature and pointed nose are the only physical indications of his nickname. Batman Returns begins with a wonderful sequence showing his birth as a deformed monster whose affluent socialite parents are so ashamed by his appearance that they throw him into the river to presumably drown (hey look, it’s a revenge plot all along), except that he ends up being taken in by friendly nearby penguins who raise him as one of their own. You know…that old story. When we soon flash forward to the present day, the adult Penguin doesn’t resemble his comic book appearance so much as it looks like a character that would easily look right at home in the other project Burton was working on at the time, The Nightmare Before Christmas. None of that is in the comics (at least not before the movie was released), and it lets you know right from the opening scene that this, in many ways, isn’t even really a Batman movie.
Then we have Catwoman. While not as much a deviation from her comic book character as the Penguin is, there’s still a lot to unpack here. Awkward, clumsy secretary Selina Kyle is a hopeless loner and one might be tempted to say “crazy cat lady” who is thrown out of a window by her corrupt corporate tycoon boss and then resurrected by a litter of cats who…um…try to eat her? I’m not entirely sure. Her lifeless body is seen in an alleyway being bitten into and bloodied by a bunch of stray cats, and then she comes back to life. There’s no explanation for it. It just happens, and the movie is just offbeat enough that you don’t really question it. Well, let me clarify that: you might question it, but Tim Burton surely doesn’t care if you do or not, because this supernatural gothic monster movie is what he’s actually making even if he had to trick Warner Bros. into thinking he was doing a superhero movie instead in order to get it made. (It also offers a nice parallel to the Penguin in the movie, as they are both literally equated with the animals whose names they bear; the Penguin was raised by actual penguins, and Catwoman was resurrected by actual cats, thus further setting them apart from the norms of human society.)
In her resurrected form, she is no longer the awkward, clumsy outcast that her frizzy-haired, thickly bespectacled former self was. She is a purring sex goddess in a skintight leather suit and a whip fighting off criminals while at the same time berating the people they prey upon for waiting for Batman to save them. She ends up making a pact with the Penguin (who is now running for mayor, by the way, despite literally biting someone’s nose at a campaign event, causing it to gush out blood that continues to drip down Penguin’s chin for the next few minutes), and they proceed to make what I’m pretty certain is the highest amount of vaginal puns ever in a superhero movie. Make no mistake, Catwoman is a heavily sexualized character in this movie, but unlike she tends to be in most other iterations where her sexuality is merely a plot device to tempt Batman and add to his brooding “complexity,” this depiction of Catwoman owes much more to the classic horror film Cat People than it does to any comic arc or graphic novel. Her sexuality isn’t a fetishistic fantasy for the brooding male gaze (although it still works as that just fine, I suppose), but rather a full awakening of her repressed sexual desires. She comes to terms with and seizes control of her own sexuality, and while she certainly does use it as a kind of weapon throughout the film, at no point is there even the hint that she’s a mere object of Batman’s or anyone else’s lust (one could probably even make the argument that the reverse is true). She isn’t sexual for the purpose of Batman having a love interest; she’s sexual because she is Catwoman…hear her roar.
Like the Penguin, her motivations may ultimately be rooted in revenge, but they extend beyond that, because when you really get to the heart of this movie, it’s not about the heroic Batman saving Gotham from the evil, revenge-fueled Penguin and Catwoman. That would have been the movie Warner Bros. wanted to make. You may notice that I haven’t even discussed the character of Batman as portrayed in this movie yet, and there’s a reason for that. He is not the focus. He’s a cipher. In the early part of his career, Tim Burton was always about siding with the misfits, outcasts, and weirdos, and the misfits he’s interested in telling the stories of in this particular movie are very clearly Catwoman and the Penguin. A quick Google search tells me that Catwoman indeed has more screen time in this film than Batman is given, and the Penguin’s screen time falls just about two minutes short of the attention given to Batman. The movie is over two hours long, and Batman is in less than half an hour of it. And even when he is onscreen, the focus is almost always on either Catwoman or the Penguin. I haven’t tested this out to be able to prove it, but I’m pretty sure that if you were to remove all of the scenes in the movie that featured Batman or Bruce Wayne alone without the Penguin or Catwoman, the overall narrative of the film wouldn’t be affected much, if at all.
So just due to the lack of focus on Batman himself, it could be said that this isn’t really a Batman movie, but when you then throw on top of that the fact that both Catwoman and especially the Penguin are very different characters than their comic book counterparts, the argument becomes stronger still. This is a movie about two social misfits who seize control of their identities and take a stance against the wealthy, the powerful, the patriarchal. Sure, they’re ultimately still depicted as villains, but you can tell that they’re meant to be sympathetic, tragic characters, and the movie’s heart is firmly with them and not anyone else, including Batman. Their story is told using classic horror tropes, a gothic visual style, and the scope of classical tragedy. There are also relatively few action sequences in the movie. This is, I’ll say again, extremely atypical for a superhero movie. Is this even a superhero movie? Or is this yet another of Burton’s idiosyncratic, outcast-celebrating, gothic horror fairytales dressed up in a Batman costume?
I’m not trying to overstate the movie’s outsider status or pretend that this is some ultra-subversive kinkfest that miraculously slipped through the cracks of the Warner Bros. marketing machine. I’m just saying that it’s closer to being that than it is to being the type of superhero movie that reigns supreme at the box office these days. The movie was a hit, but a relatively modest one, and the reactions were split, leaning towards the negative. I remember before it came out, McDonald’s was heavily promoting the movie and released a series of Happy Meal toys of the movie’s characters. In a pretty infamous case of backlash to a “family movie,” once the movie was released, parents voiced their complaints about the movie’s unusually violent and sexually charged content (again, for a “family movie”), and McDonald’s pulled the toys and the promotion almost immediately due to the controversy. Roger Ebert suggested on his show at the time that the movie should have received an R rating despite not having any nudity, extreme violence, or vulgar language just simply based on the overall tone of the movie. That’s something you don’t see every day.
The reaction made it so a movie like this will probably never be financed again. There have definitely been superhero movies since that have pushed the envelope and taken risks in other ways, but like I touched upon earlier, there hasn’t been one that was so fully the vision of its director without much in it to make it feel like a franchise-baiting studio product; it may be the only example within the genre that could deservedly be classified as an auteurist superhero film. Warner Bros. could not come to terms with Burton on a third movie, so they hired Joel Schumacher for the next installment and ended up with the decidedly more lighthearted, traditional summer blockbuster Batman Forever (which also has its strengths, but as a followup to Batman Returns it’s in another universe entirely). (Speaking of summer, I can’t be the only one who thinks Batman Returns should have been released in December instead of June; it’s a Christmas movie!) For all of the shit this movie has gotten from diehard fans of the comic who hate it for its unfaithfulness to the source material, from parents who hate it for its dark, sometimes perverse content and tone, and from other people who just shrugged and wondered the hell this movie was even going for with all of its seemingly disparate elements, it definitely has a loyal following, and I’ve noticed that the people within that base tend to be people who have less conventional tastes. I’m certainly not proclaiming Batman Returns a cult film (it meets almost none of the criteria to truly earn that label), but is it possible that in 1992, Tim Burton somehow managed to make a big-budget Hollywood franchise blockbuster that was secretly intended for people who normally prefer weird, esoteric cult movies?
In my mind, there’s an autobiographical element to the scene in Burton’s subsequent film Ed Wood where Ed storms back onto set after being questioned about his decisions one too many times by the financiers of the movie he’s making and proudly exclaims that he’s going to make this movie according to his vision, and they’ll make their money back if they just shut up and let him do things his way. So yes.