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20th Anniversary: 5 Things You Might Not Know About 'Batman Returns'

Photo of Drew Taylor By Drew Taylor | The Playlist June 19, 2012 at 10:58AM

We’re on the eve of a brand new Batman blockbuster, next month’s “The Dark Knight Rises,” which will feature Anne Hathaway as the semi-villainous cat burglar Selina Kyle who prowls the streets at night as Catwoman. While Christopher Nolan and co. have given some real-world explanations for her eccentricities (her night vision goggles prop up on her head like cat’s ears), the hardest task in defining Catwoman for a new generation will be getting out from under the shadow of Michelle Pfeiffer, whose portrayal in Tim Burton’s “Batman Returns” remains one of the towering performances in all of comic book moviedom.
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Batman Returns
4. Danny Elfman Approached The Film Like Scoring An Opera
One of the more amazing elements of “Batman Returns,” especially upon rewatching, is Danny Elfman’s absolutely bonkers, totally go-for-broke score. When the original “Batman” was released, Elfman was an unproven quantity with a rock band background and a handful of esoteric small-scale film scores to his credit. But anyone who heard those initial notes for his “Batman” theme knew that he hadn’t just proven himself, but he had created the first truly identifiable superhero theme since John Williams’ “Superman” score. With “Batman Returns” he took an even more grandiose approach. “I’m trying to tap into some deep dark well and I don’t know how hard it’s going to be to find water,” Elfman describes his creative process. “ ’Batman Returns’ was halfway between writing a film score and doing music for an opera,” Elfman explained in a retrospective documentary. At the time of the film’s release, he described what it was like: “Every scene felt like the curtains were opening up on a theatrical vignette and I’d play the music and the characters would do their stuff and then the curtains would close and the next scene begins.” Orchestrator Steve Bartek, who was in Oingo Boingo with Elfman, said that Burton, “Wanted it to be operatic. So there’s a lot of music in the movie. It’s almost wall-to-wall score.” In fact there was 95 minutes of score, which Elfman says is “about double” the average length of a traditional film score, “and about 80 of those minutes are really big.” (In addition to the score, Elfman co-wrote the Siouxsie and the Banshees song that plays during the masquerade ball.) At the time Elfman described his process with Burton as, “Tim will talk to me in a completely gut-level way. He’ll tell me his feelings about this character or that character.” What’s particularly interesting about this is that it directly preceded a major falling out between the composer and director, the details of which have never been explicitly explained. The fallout would last for several years following “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” “Ed Wood” is Burton’s only feature to not be scored by Elfman, with Cronenberg regular Howard Shore on musical duties, and for “James and the Giant Peach,” a follow-up of sorts to “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” which Burton supervised, he was replaced by Randy Newman. Part of the difficulty of the “Batman Returns” score had to do with the number of characters, who each had “huge, independent thematic pieces of music that follow them around.” One of the big musical moments in the film is when Catwoman transforms, wrecking her apartment, creating her suit, and generally fucking shit up. Elfman said he wanted to score it “like a silent movie,” which made Bartek a little nervous. “It ended up being chilling,” Bartek admitted. And part of what makes “Batman Returns” is its hugeness – between the circusy stuff of the Penguin’s gang to the slinky mournfulness of Catwoman’s various musical incarnations – it’s a sprawling, intricate score and one of Elfman’s best (and most frequently overlooked). Earlier this year a “complete” version of the score was finally released, with 30 minutes of new stuff including previously unheard cues and alternate takes.
 
5. Parents Were Not Happy

Despite its commercial success (worldwide gross: $266 million in 1992 dollars), one group that absolutely loathed the film were parents (and outspoken parents' groups). “Batman Returns” has a decidedly more mature, complicated tone, with horror movie overlays that are more “Freaks” than “Fantastic Four,” and a kind of raw sexuality exemplified by the S&M undertones of the Catwoman/Penguin relationship. (In Sam Hamm’s original draft, this stuff was even more blatant, with Catwoman explicitly wearing a “bondage mask,” operating as a violent sex murderer.) Co-screenwriter Daniel Waters remembers seeing the movie with audiences: “I know I’ve seen the movie with audiences much more than Tim has. It’s always great, the lights coming up after ‘Batman Returns’ and it was like kids crying, people acting like they had been punched in the stomach and mugged. Part of me relished that reaction and part of me, to this day, is like ‘oops.’ ” Given that it was a movie in which a woman wears dominatrix gear throughout, another character bites a man’s nose until it gushes blood, and the opening scenes involve Pee Wee Herman dumping a mutated baby down a sewer, it's not entirely surprising: even for diehard fans of the film, that’s admittedly a little tough. While the film, critically, fared pretty well (Ty Burr in Entertainment Weekly called it “the first blockbuster art film”), it wasn’t lauded as the visionary breakthrough the original was, even though it is just as bold (if not bolder), both visually (Bo Welch’s exaggerated production design still dazzles) and thematically. “I did hear of a backlash,” Burton admitted, in his usually aloof way. “You know, ‘We can’t have black stuff coming out of [the penguin’s] mouth.' ” Original screenwriter Hamm took a stauncher approach: “The movie itself, apart from the marketing and the money generated from toys sales, was never presented as a child-friendly movie. I just think it’s a mistake of perception. The parents who complained just got it wrong. There was no attempt to deceive anyone.” Well, that isn’t exactly true: we remember a glossy prime time television special, hosted by Robert Urich (and included on the special edition DVD) that got our ten-year-old heart beating extra-fast. All that being said, for a movie derided for appealing to children, in the subsequent, brilliant, and hugely influential “Batman: The Animated Series,” that version of The Penguin would take its cues from the Burton appropriation – with a more grotesque, flipper-handed character. (The character would go through one major redesign during the course of the series, reverting him back to the more “classic,” more human variation.) And what’s more, Danny DeVito says kids still come up to him, “They’re still charmed by it. And I feel very lucky to have been a part of it.” Black goo be damned! And while the film has many detractors (eventual-Robin Chris O’Donnell said, “I didn’t like the second one as much, it got really dark”) it has just as many high profile champions, including genius anime director Satoshi Kon (“Paprika,” “Millennium Actress”), who, prior to passing away in 2010, noted it as one of his 100 favorite films.
 

This article is related to: 5 Things You Might Not Know About..., Features, On This Day In Movie History, Tim Burton, Michelle Pfeiffer, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Christopher Walken


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