Batman Reunion

19 June, 2012 at 7:54 pm (batman)

Batman Returns came out 20 years ago today.

1989 Warner Brothers Batman BrochureI’m 36, and I had just finished my seventh grade year when Batman came storming into the theatres in 1989. I had seen the trailer for it a month earlier in front of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and I spent that summer suffused with Batmania. I repeatedly poured over a flyer of Warner Brothers Batman merchandise that I’d acquired at a screening of UHF, not just wishing that I had the cash for the garish, sideshow denim jackets, but also scanning the photographs for details about the costume, which I drew and redrew, trying to deconstruct and understand every gadget and widget of the costume. At age 13, I’d had enough experience trying to make Halloween costumes that I understood that a dress pattern from JoAnne Fabrics looked like one thing on the paper packet and a completely different, disappointing thing on one’s body. The 1981 Superman Movie Book had showed me that even Kirk Alyn had “baggy tights” in the original Superman movie serial, and despite desperately trying to catch reruns of Batman, I was always disappointed with Adam West’s barrel chest. But this new armored costume, while a departure from the lean ideal of Neal Adams and Jose Garcia-Lopez’s iconic work for the DC Comics Style Guide, caught my fancy with its attempts at real-world practicality.

While I was too young and too broke to do anything beside dream about those gaudy Batman baubles, Batman made a reputed $500 million in merchandising in addition to the $285 million worldwide gross in ticket sales. So when the sequel was announced, the marketeers jumped on board. Choice Hotels, Diet Coke, and McDonalds all featured ad tie-ins, and when the film came out, they were rebuked for marketing to children who were younger than the PG-13 content suited. The script was primarily by Daniel Waters, of Heathers notoriety, and it belied the “POW! BAM! ZOOM! Comics are for kids!” mentality that seems forever associated with superheroics. The 1989 film may seem laughably corny by today’s standards, but I remember the grim, unrelenting confrontation between Jack Napier and Jack Palance and being thoroughly creeped out by it. It took me three or four times to watch the Joker crispy-fry his dubious crime syndicate colleague with his joy-buzzer without peeking at it through protectively splayed fingers. That sort of nastiness only works on the very young, and the young turned out in droves to see it. A Concord Monitor article by Emily Laber has quotes from children as young as five years of age going to see it. And yet, the popular perception according to the previously linked AP article seems to be that Batman was too dark, and Batman Returns would alleviate that problem. Marketeers certainly believed that line, despite a crop of subsequent parental protest by those irate that PG-13 might actually mean what it stood for.

I remember attending the high school graduation of my senior friends when I was a sophomore and being surprised at the number of people excited about the imminent release of Batman Returns. People older than I, cooler than I, were eager to talk to me about my anticipation of Returns because they could be unabashedly thrilled by the prospect of more Bat-action. And since I was an odd comic nerd, inexplicable but harmless, letting their anhedonic defenses down in front of me would have no social repercussions. It didn’t last, of course. One of my best friends walked out of the film because her boyfriend found the Catwoman psychotic break scene too tedious and maudlin to be borne. The ironic humor and the lack of cleanly executed action scenes didn’t quite appeal to the masses. I mean, the film topped a year that made almost $5 billion based on ticket sales that had risen to a whopping $5, and one in five tickets sold that year was for a Warner Brothers film. So it didn’t do badly by most standards, but when it was announced that Burton wasn’t directing the third film, and that Keaton wouldn’t be starring, there weren’t many people I spoke to at the time who seemed very put out.


Because of this general dissatisfaction with the script, I was interested in its origins. I have been able to locate three drafts: the original proposal by Sam “Christ almighty, it’s the goddamned Watchmen!” Hamm, a draft by Waters, and an additional draft by Waters that reportedly had been touched-up by Wesley Strick in order to “normalize” the dialogue. (These had originally been provided via the invaluable MyPDFScripts site, until Warners asked them to be removed.) What I wanted to know was how far the film had come from its origins. The first film was a coup for all involved, convincing skeptics and battering back negative speculation that had plagued pre-production. The second film was therefore anointed as a commercial successor, and led instead to creative reassignment and reinvention. How much of that could be traced to Burton placing his imprimatur on the proceedings and how much could be laid at the feet of a writer who had given the world a transformative counter-culture, anti-popularity tract?

I have no proof that Hamm’s script is fairly well derided, but I have a vague feeling that I have been told this. What his script is, to my eyes, is very much a sequel, and one that is effectively imbued with tropes and plot devices that feel very much at home with Batman comics past and present. Vicki Vale is present throughout, and her relationship with Bruce Wayne continues. The “arsenal” that Robert Wuhl’s Knox so casually insulted in 1989 makes a reappearance and is the setting for an action sequence. The Flugenheim Art Museum is the setting for a gala event and the first interaction between Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle, and Egyptian cat-themed artifacts are present. There are odd differences, and not just the presence of a young, guttersnipe Robin character. Much of the action is about the Penguin — named “Boniface” and not Cobblepot — trying to get bird-themed artifacts from the five original families of Gotham, which will combine to reveal a long-hidden treasure. Catwoman is the cat-burglar-slash-dominatrix who helps him steal the artifacts, and it all ends up coming back to connect to the murder of the Wayne parents, much in the way the first film couldn’t leave anything unconnected. And surrounding all this are vigilantes inspired by Batman, reminding one variously of the Guardian Angels, a Mike W. Barr storyline in Legends of the Dark Knight, and the citizen Bat-fans in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.

It’s not terrible. It’s very much “in-continuity” with the first film, which makes it all feel reductive instead of inspired. But while it’s no atrocity, I’m glad it was abandoned. Because, frankly, I’m sick to death of “Thomas Wayne was murdered by a shadowy conspiracy of generational kingmakers”. Surely Batman works best if the crime was random, and not thematic? That his need to confront crime and criminals is based on wanting to protect ordinary people from the harrowing unpredictability of ghastly circumstance? This is why the Waynes are Brahmins, not just so that Bruce has unlimited funds for his “wonderful toys”, but also to show that not even wealth and influence can protect one from random violence. Obviously, most of his rogues gallery are not emblematic of this theme, but the Joker is, when written correctly: completely chaotic and unpredictable, a force of violent disarray forever clawing at the safe aegis of order Batman tries to establish. To then make Bruce’s origin all part of a conspiracy takes away from the bedlam circumstances that could touch anyone… they would only have touched Bruce. Who can relate to that?

Both Hamm’s and Waters’ scripts begin with a Christmas season where Batman merchandise has become omnipresent. You’ll note this isn’t in the final film. It’s impossible for me to say whether Burton or Warners decided such meta-commentary on the omnipresent scope of commercial tie-ins to their cash cow would be a bad thing at which to deliberately point.

Waters’ early draft — and Wikipedia says there were at least five, with an early one also featuring Robin, and I definitely recall a querulous buzz about Burton’s “black Robin” that never materialized — is largely similar to the “final draft” attributed to Waters and Strick, but is talky, talky, talky. Even Batman is chatty, which is strictly forbidden. He starts off as traditionally brusque as is required, but ends up essentially bantering with Catwoman. Sure, one wants to feel the dual-identity sexual chemistry, but a Cary Grant screwball comedy this ain’t, and a grimmer, more stoic Batman in the later draft better fits the bill, especially when contrasted with the idle charm Keaton brought to his Wayne persona. A lot of the early draft wit and wordplay makes it through to the final, highly quotable film, but it’s been simplified. Wikipedia also attributes this to Strick, saying that motivation — and therefore a certain degree of accompanying structure — was what he had been hired to provide. However, what ends up missing from the final film is why Shreck felt the need to kill Selina in the first place, and why the Penguin/Catwoman alliance breaks up. Waters had rather neatly constructed both of these circumstances because Shreck was intentionally collaborating with the Pengiun, instead of having been forced to back his scheme, as we see in the final version. If Shreck had been less of an incidental villain and more of a deliberate crime lord, some scattered character motivations would have clicked together quite nicely.
 

 
Related Links: other Batman Returns retrospectives
Shazamaholic
The Beat
Comics Alliance

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1 Comment

  1. Benjamin Russell said,

    In preparation for this weekend’s release of The Dark Knight Rises, New York magazine’s The Vulture column has a list of 46 things about the background dealings and production decisions behind the previous six films and one that was never made, Batman 5: http://www.vulture.com/2012/07/46-things-you-didnt-know-about-the-batman-films.html

    Of note for this blog entry of anniversary observations are some items about the history of the script production and at what point changes were made to the Hamm draft and when Robin was removed from the proceedings.

    On a different note, and potentially one of accuracy: the list claims that Keaton wanted too much for Batman 3: $15million and a slice of the gross and merchandizing (TIME.com states that Nicholson got $50million due to his back-end contract negotiations, so Warners likely would have been wary to do that again), but Keaton claims in a recent Grantland interview that he was offered $15million but left due to quality concerns with the script and overall production. Source here: http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/8157339/view/full/qa-batman-beetlejuice-star-michael-keaton-mister-rogers-fly-fishing-roles-turned-more

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