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

by Drew Taylor
June 19, 2012 10:58 AM
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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.

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  • pete33 | August 11, 2012 2:25 PMReply

    im in agreement with alot of the comments, Batman Returns is a great batman film, one of the very best. perfectly casted, gotham city looks awsome with the snow, the gothic look, devito was crazy as the penguin! totally demented! the movie is a bit depressive near the end but its a batman movie! it dealt with so many of the problems of duality and darkness that you see in the comic books but without copying the comics word for word. unlike nolan, who's banal films are made strictly for the comics nerd crowd, tim burton actually did his own thing and was original with the material and not trying to please some comic book fanboys, but still kept true to the characters as seen in the comics, just slightly altered to fit a serious live action movie. seriously, the burgess meredith penguin would not work in a big budget serious batman movie. i love how tim burtons character designs have actually influenced the comic books, instead of the other way around. his take on the characters was memorable, mythic and sheer genious, unlike the dull, "realisitic" nolan versions (seriously, nolans scarecrow and catgirl are an absolute bore). i dont hate joel schumachers batman like other people do. batman forever is an awsome movie, just about on par with Returns for me. i loved all the original films. i even have a soft spot for B&R as ai remember going to the theater to see it. it may suck but at least it was FUN. the new movies are just overrated and i fail to see whats so special about them. the new ones have gotten so far away from what batman used to be. being serious is one thing, but taking all the fun elements that made the first 3 batman's so successful to the point that the movies become lifeless and bland no different then any courtroom drama on TV is another. Batman Returns might have got a bad rap back in the day because of its darkness (and yes, it is pretty damn dark, even by todays standards) but looking back in history, today its definetly looked at in a better light. plus, its the movie that spawned the also pretty awsome Animated Series that i grew up watching everyday afterschool.

  • Agent69 | June 21, 2012 9:31 AMReply

    Anyone who grew up in the 90's loved these films.
    I was obsessed by Nicholson's Joker and Pfeiffer's Catwoman. And sine others have mentioned him in the comments, let me say that Nolan doesn't come close to capturing my imagination like Burton did. Too bad Burton seems to have lost his touch as well.

  • [A] | June 21, 2012 12:37 AMReply

    I was gonna say "hey this is more like 5 things you didn't know if.." but no, the words "might not know" are actually in the title. See, that's the way other sites link to you, guys.

  • ChrisGa | June 20, 2012 10:00 PMReply

    I have some appreciation for all the Batman flicks, but Batman Returns in my mind remains the best of the first franchise and either of Nolan's pics(both highly overrated in my book). The real shame was no follow through on the proposed Catwoman spin-off; Michelle Pfeiffer gives possibly the greatest performance(well maybe next to Christopher Reeve) housed in any film based on a comics property.

  • [A] | June 21, 2012 12:39 AM

    Lucky for me, I got to see these movies in the theater -- I don't think I like RETURNS more than the 1st one.. I liked the Penguin and loved Catwoman, but.. I don't know, if wasn't the same thing. Plus, Walken playing Walken.

  • The Bandsaw Vigilante | June 20, 2012 6:36 PMReply

    @ Tim Burthog:

    Actually, the Schumacher films *don't* work precisely because of these exact same reasons you list. One can view the Burton films as arch, demented comedies, and they have moments that are actually really quite funny; coming from an honest, twisted place (even the so-called "campy" moments). The Schumacher films just turn everything into a vaudeville gag, hoping to gain extra-credit points just by winking and being barndoor-broad.

  • The Bandsaw Vigilante | June 20, 2012 6:32 PMReply

    One of my great regrets to this very day is that Tim Burton and Michael Keaton never reteamed to produce one more (perhaps final) Batman film -- a proper trilogy, perhaps covering Two-Face's turn (through Burton's lens) and certain other elements that we'll never get to see, now.

    And although Keaton wasn't fond of the suit, he reportedly turned down something close to $30 million to reprise his role in "Batman Forever" (probably for the best), but one can only imagine what a third picture would've looked like, and where it would've gone. To say nothing of that potential Burton-directed Catwoman movie.

    For myself, the Joel Schumacher movies do not take place in the same universe as the Tim Burton ones -- once Bruce and Alfred drive off in that limo in the winter snow, holding the cat, the universes diverge, and the Burton-verse Batman has entirely-different future adventures than the Schumacher-verse ones.

    About the only consolation I can take from the Schumacher disasters is that, without them and Joel going so far off the reservation into gay, camp fantasia, we never would've gotten the Christopher Nolan films as a repsonse -- the franchise had gotten *SO* incredibly derailed that the studio needed to regain some measure of grounded credibility by bringing in the director of Insomnia and Memento for a gritty, realistic reboot.

    And I for one couldn't be more thrilled about that end result.

  • zebsdead | June 20, 2012 4:21 PMReply

    All this information including the quotes was lifted from the Batman Returns two disc DVD in the making of feature, in almost the exact order too.

  • [A] | June 21, 2012 12:41 AM

    The only thing missing? Michelle Pfeiffer doing her own whip....what's it called? "whipping"? sorry, not an english speaking person heh

  • jeanrobie | June 20, 2012 12:23 PMReply

    Here's another thing you might not know or remember about this movie: it was accused of borrowing imagery from Nazi depictions of Jews for the Penguin. The producers disputed it at the time, but I don't think Tim Burton really cares who he cops imagery from and if you watch it with this in mind, it's hard to miss--especially the similarities between Moses and the Penguin.

  • Tim Burthog | June 19, 2012 6:46 PMReply

    Strange how this always gets lauded as being poles apart from Schumacher's efforts when the scenes between Penguin and Catwoman, where they're sitting around making bad puns to one another, are just as campy as anything in the later films.

  • peter33 | August 11, 2012 2:38 PM

    seriously, noone used to use the word "campy" when describing tim burtons films until nolan made his ultra-super serious movies. i dont think people know the true meaning of the word. camp was the 60's tv show, something that was obviously not being taken seriously at all. the live action films were half serious, half comic book movie. of course the villians are gonna use quips and clever pun lines. its a COMIC BOOK MOVIE after all, in case people forgot. nothing unusual with a bit humour with the villians. i think it would be weird and strange if there was NO humour at all! thats why i hate the new movies, the lack of humour and fun. the difference was the tone and script. in the burton films, the humour was edgy and sexual, more adult content in the dialogue. the schumacher films, especially B&R, was more for children with the cheesy puns every other word.

  • Mike | June 20, 2012 4:05 PM

    Except everyone involved here knew they were doing something tongue-in-cheek, Schumacher's films... not everyone was on the same page.

  • triguous | June 19, 2012 2:19 PMReply

    I almost forgot how much I hate the deep-voiced trailer narration. So glad it's a thing of the past. Scenes from the film speak for themselves, thank you.

  • vdoun | June 19, 2012 1:57 PMReply

    I find it ironic that Chris O'Donnell didnt like Batman Returns. It was dark, funny, riveting, and very imaginative. Unlike the crap that followed it, oh wait, O'Donnell stared in Batman Forever, hmmm envy much?

  • Chris | June 20, 2012 3:47 PM

    What exactly is "ironic" about that?

  • Christopher Bell | June 19, 2012 1:55 PMReply

    Dope piece, Drew. I think it's time I gave the Burton ones another go through.

  • Hurrah | June 19, 2012 1:07 PMReply

    I adore 'Batman Returns'! Of the original 4 part series it's the only that comes off as a truly great film. I think Nolan's two- now three- efforts are stronger films but 'Returns' is such a nuts, wild crazy flick it still might be my favorite thing Batman.

    P.S. Nice to see when it came to casting Burton wasn't color bind. I'm all for a black Robin. Not to mention they did cast Lando as Harvey Dent.

  • Keith L | June 19, 2012 12:15 PMReply

    I must have watched it over 50 times... I used to watch Batman Returns every other day (rotating with the first Batman) after school when i was 10 or so. Still love the movie!

  • cory everett | June 19, 2012 11:05 AMReply

    One thing to note: I love this movie.

  • The Playlist | June 19, 2012 12:16 PM

    I've never been able to sit through it for more than 10 minutes at a time. Probably have never watched more than 30 minutes of it in total. By the time it came out I had zero interest and I still don't feel bad about this in any way. True story.

  • jimmiescoffee | June 19, 2012 11:04 AMReply

    Michelle Pfeiffer is so hot in this flick. Truly iconic performance.

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