Remembering the Batman Returns backlash

Batman Returns
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Batman 2 was expected to repeat the success of the first film – but it took a little longer to come together than planned, and went a bit darker too.

Two things happened when 1989’s Batman became arguably the first blockbuster movie of the modern age. Firstly, Warner Bros wanted a sequel. Secondly, director Tim Burton wanted to do something entirely different. These two different responses would ultimately impact quite what happened next.

For Warner Bros, with Batman grossing over $250m at the American box office alone – at a time when that was far, far from commonplace – it hoped to get a follow-up moving at speed. Had all gone to plan, the sequel would have been shooting in 1990.


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Tim Burton though, for whom Batman was only his third full length feature, had little intention of returning to Gotham City – and certainly not in a hurry. He’d not had a lot of fun making the first film, not least working for producers Jon Peters and Peter Guber. Whilst Michael Keaton was set to return as the Caped Crusader, Burton had no commitment written into his contract to come back. As such, whilst Warner Bros tried to get screenplays moving to jolly Batman 2 along, Burton went off to another studio and do something else.

It was a dramatic change in direction he took, too. Off he went to 20th Century Fox, who ponied up the cash to make Edward Scissorhands. He’d actually tried to set the film up at Warner Bros first, but in spite of delivering the studio three straight hits, it wasn’t sold on Scissorhands, that Fox would release to good box office in 1990.

The release of Edward Scissorhands, as was the norm in the early 1990s, was staggered around the world, and as such we wouldn’t get it in the UK until 1991. Burton accompanied the movie on a European press tour too, which – after making a hugely personal passion project – was when his mind turned back to Batman.

Warner Bros hadn’t made an awful lot of progress in Burton’s absence on its next Caped Crusader outing, save for having some screenplays in place. Sam Hamm had penned a story that’didentified The Penguin and Catwoman as possible foes for the next movie, but the film was clearly taking longer that the studio wanted to come together.

By the time Warner Bros came back to Burton in 1991, the-then young director held the cards. Edward Scissorhands had given him a fourth consecutive hit, but also there was a sense for him of unfinished business with the Batman character. That the 1989 film was the movie of his he’d say in Mark Salisbury’s excellent Burton On Burton book he felt the most “detached” from.

As such, when he got interested again, Warner Bros was very happy to have him. Furthermore, his deal lessened the studio interference that he’d had to suffer first time around, with Guber and Peters shifted to executive producer roles where they’d be a lot less hands on. Also, Burton negotiated that he wouldn’t have to shoot the sequel at Pinewood in the UK – where the 1989 movie had filmed – and instead could make the movie closer to his home in Los Angeles. He’d explain that “it made more sense to do it there”, where it could be more protected from the intense press following that marked the making of the first one.

Burton kept the idea of Catwoman and The Penguin as foes (Michelle Pfeiffer and Danny DeVito ultimately taking the roles on), adding a human villain too in the form of Christopher Walken’s Max Shreck. He hired Daniel Waters to write the screenplay, with a late polish from Wesley Strick, and finally got to make a Batman feature more on his terms that the studio’s.

Not that the studio minded: it finally had its Batman sequel on the move, and it promptly scheduled the film for the summer of 1992. Quite a bumper summer for Warner Bros too, given that Lethal Weapon 3 was set for release a few weeks later.

Burton duly delivered Batman Returns a lot closer to his wont, and he admitted that “I like it better than the first one”.

He was not, though, indicative of all of the audience. Whilst the movie initially got pretty good reviews and smashed box office records, this time there was a drop off in audience attendance, and the gross fell some way short of the original movie. Some 30-40% short. Even in an era where it was felt that sequels did 65% of the business of the original, this was something of a short, sharp shock for studio brass.

The problem? Something of a backlash against the movie. In fact, that’s a bit of an understatement. Whilst the studio had got away with selling the dark-edged 1989 movie to a broad audience, marketing this one particularly to youngsters was going to be problematic. And this was an issue, as Warner Bros had particularly coined it in on the first movie, thanks to hundreds of items of merchandise that felt like they filled stores for months.

The significant example of where that went wrong? Well, one of the highest profile tie-ins, and one that’d have some ramifications, was the inevitable McDonald’s promotion for its Happy Meal. Not content with flogging kids a piss-poor burger, McDonald’s had a quartet of Batman Returns toys that it was offering with its food. Here’s the commercial promoting the tie-in…

It was pretty clear watching the final version of the film in cinemas back in 1992 that kiddie-friendly Batman Returns wasn’t. At one stage, went one rumour, there was a discussion about it being R-rated. Still, McDonald’s did have material from the film to work with before it committed its spend to the movie, and it reasoned that it made sense to be in the Batman business. It must have seen Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman in action. It would have had an idea of what Danny DeVito’s Penguin was going to be like. It still signed up to plaster Batman Returns on its Happy Meals.

In fairness to the calorie purveyors, not many saw the Batman Returns backlash coming. But come it did: parents were outraged and the complaints came flooding in, in particular to McDonald’s. The darkness of Batman Returns and moments like unexplained black stuff coming out of The Penguin’s nose didn’t seem perfect fodder for flogging fast food to kids, and both Warner Bros and McDonald’s took a pasting for it. That said, they were both contractually committed to one another, and the promotions ran their course, even as the film started flagging at the box office.

Not that Burton was particularly bothered. As he recalled in Burton On Burton, “in retrospect I don’t think Warners were very happy with the movie. That’s my feeling. I had put them through a lot, but I was just trying to give them a good movie”.

I’d wager he did just that too, but history tells that Warner Bros opted for a dramatic change of course. Whilst Michael Keaton at one stage was set to pocket some $15m to make Batman 3, Warner Bros hardly fought to keep Tim Burton at the helm of the movie. Instead, in came Joel Schumacher, with the aim of making a far family-friendlier movie. He did just that, with 1995’s Batman Forever recovering the Dark Knight’s box office prowess, even if he wasn’t that dark anymore. When Schumacher signed up, Keaton packed up his batarang, and a new era for the Caped Crusader was soon underway. One that, for one film at least, sold those all important burgers with a lot less controversy…

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