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.
Today marks 20 years since the release of “Batman Returns” on June 19th, 1992, so we thought we’d celebrate by taking some more skeletons out of Bruce Wayne’s very crowded closet, with five things you might not know about the bat-sequel.
1. Robin Was Almost In This One. And Played By Marlon Wayans.
Famously, at least one version of Burton’s original “Batman” script featured an appearance by Robin. Supposedly The Joker even made jokes about how the two superheroes were, er, more than just friends and super-heroic teammates. This element was ultimately removed but that doesn’t mean that they weren’t still trying to get him into the movie. When the sequel rolled around, they tried again. “We, surprisingly, got very little directives from the studio, like, ‘You must have Robin’ — there was none of that, really,” explains co-screenwriter Daniel Waters on a retrospective documentary included on the special edition DVD. “I think we did try it. And Tim was big on not making a big deal about it. We wanted to work in a Robin character but I could tell he was not enthusiastic about it from the get go. But we wanted to do something that would be hinted at and then developed in a later movie.” Waters makes this seem very noncommittal, but discussions got pretty far. “At some point there was a discussion of having Robin in the movie,” Burton says in the same documentary. “But the only way I could see it would be to find a profile that would work. What ended up happening was, at the end of it all, we realized we had too many characters. People even complained without Robin there were too many characters. There was always that ‘If we don’t do it in this one, we’ll do it in the next one’ type deal.” The actor they had their eye on for Robin was none other than Marlon Wayans, as a young kid working as a garage mechanic (Waters: "He’s wearing this old-fashioned garage mechanic uniform and it has an ‘R’ on it”). Wayans, who went through costume fittings, isn’t shy about discussing the experience. As late as 2009, when talking to sci-fi site io9 about his role in “G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra,” Wayans was bringing up his involvement in Batman. “I was cast, I was paid and everything. I still get residual checks. Tim Burton didn’t wind up doing three, Joel Schumacher did it, and he had a different vision for who Robin was. So he hired Chris O’ Donnell.”
2. Annette Bening Was Going To Be Catwoman (Sean Young, Not So Much)
One of the more famous casting swap-outs in recent memory, Annette Bening was originally slated to play the villainous Catwoman. “We had initially cast Annette Bening as Catwoman and did wardrobe things,” Burton said. (One of those wardrobe designs would have had the top half of Bening’s areolas showing. Yes, seriously.) Burton continued: “Really close to shooting, maybe a couple of weeks before, I got a call one morning and there was a long pause on the phone and she said she was pregnant. I’ve never had such a split, mixed feeling – I was extremely happy for her but dropping down a dark abyss at the same time.” Of course once Bening dropped out, the floodgates were opened. “It was kind of a crazy period because every single actress from 20 to 45 on the planet wanted to be Catwoman,” explained producer Denise Di Novi. Indicative of that was the infamous incident involving Sean Young. Casting director Marion Dougherty explained on the DVD: “Sean Young, who had originally been set to play the lead in the first picture, very much wanted to do Catwoman. She appeared in cat costume one day at the studio.” Amazingly, the same documentary team got to get Young to talk about the situation, which seems to (still) be painfully embarrassing for everyone involved. “I thought that it would work to be aggressive in the sense that that is what Catwoman would have done,” Sean Young said, without remorse. “I did a major Catwoman adventure.” “Batman Returns” producer Mark Canton remembers it vividly: “My office door flew open and Michael Keaton and I saw Sean Young dressed as Catwoman leap over my sofa and say, ‘I am Catwoman!’ We looked at each other and went ‘Whoa.’ ” Supposedly, Young got as far as Burton’s office before being escorted out of the building, with Burton, known for his avoidance of any kind of confrontation, hiding underneath his desk and quietly waiting for Young to leave, although he insists he wasn’t there. “I was only told about it,” he said with a mischievous grin. “But the eyewitnesses I believe. I don’t think it was a UFO sighting or a legend of Bigfoot type situation. I think the sources are fairly reliable.”
3. Burton Had Designs For a Third ‘Batman’
By the time “Batman Returns” rolled around, the creative atmosphere had changed. The first film was an experiment to a large degree, to see if the material could be taken seriously and translated for sophisticated modern audiences. While it ended up being a merchandizing bonanza, another iteration was far from a sure thing. “The biggest difference, from the first to the second [movie], was that whole dynamic of the franchise mentality,” Burton explained. “Unlike the first one, before I started the second one, toy companies and T-shirt makers are asking ‘What’s this character going to look like?’ And it’s like ‘Well, we haven’t designed it yet.’ ” Naturally, part of this franchise mentality was prepping for a third film, which at one point Burton had every intention of directing. Burton recalled, laughing: “I remember toying with the idea for another one. And I remember going into Warner Bros. and having a meeting. I was saying, ‘Well, we could do this and we could do that,’ and they said, ‘Tim, don’t you want to do a smaller movie now?’ And about a half hour into the meeting I go, ‘You don’t want me to make another one, do you?’ We just stopped it right there.” While Burton may have bombed out of that studio meeting (he was later retained as a producer, helping choose Joel Schumacher as his successor, as well the writing team of Lee and Janet Scott Batchler for the initial drafts of part three), it’s fairly clear that, once Warner Bros. got a look at the pitch-black direction Burton was steering the Batman franchise in, they wanted out. The biggest evidence of this is the fact that the initial Sam Hamm drafts of the "Batman Returns" script had one of the villains being District Attorney Harvey Dent, who later becomes Two-Face (played, in the first film, by Billy Dee Williams, and in the third film by Tommy Lee Jones), in the place of Christopher Walken‘s Max Schreck. Yet Burton almost returned to the wheelhouse. A year after “Batman Returns”’ release Warner Bros. announced that the Catwoman character would not appear in the fast-developing third film but would rather star in “her own Catwoman film,” with Pfeiffer returning to lead. “Batman Returns” writer Daniel Waters submitted a draft on the day “Batman Forever” opened, which he now admits was a tactical error. “[That] may not have been my best logistical move, in that it’s the celebration of the fun-for-the-whole-family Batman. ‘Catwoman’ is definitely not a fun-for-the-whole-family script," Waters later told Film Review magazine. Waters’ script had Kyle suffering from amnesia and taken in by her mother in Oasisburg, a town in the middle of the desert (in the script Waters describes it as “Emerald City meets Las Vegas”) lorded over by a team of superheroes who supposedly do good but repress the local women, and eventually plan to destroy the town, loot it, and fake their own deaths. So, naturally, Catwoman must reemerge and save the day. Warner Bros. let the property languish, while Burton and Pfieffer moved on to other things, eventually setting Halle Berry as the iconic character (under the direction of French visual effects supervisor Pitof), for the critically and commercially ignored “Catwoman” (released almost a decade after Waters turned in that initial draft). Meow!
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.