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– by David Kozlowski

Superhero films are obviously commonplace in theaters these days, outpacing just about every other genre in terms of revenue. Whether it’s DC or Marvel these movies make money hand-over-fist — sometimes regardless of quality — but way back in 1989 things were different. A lot different.

By the latter half of the 80s Marvel was careening towards bankruptcy (they filed Chapter 11 in 1996) and DC’s Superman films were creatively out of juice (see: Superman III and IV). Enter former Disney animator Tim Burton and screenwriter Sam Hamm, who together reignited the genre with their seminal Batman film, starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson.

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After a series of animated shorts and two feature films (Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice), Burton had established himself as an innovative visual artist with a wry sense of humor — providing Warner Brothers with a unique (and cheap) talent to attach to their Batman movie. The WB producers and execs called most of the shots on that film, but Burton walked away with most of the notoriety. When the follow-up was greenlit, Burton took control and established his vision. But what kind of movie did he imagine?

According to YouTube’s LowRes Wünderbred, Burton’s Batman Returns eventually became less of a follow-up to the first film, and more of a personal statement by it’s newly empowered director.

In 1986 writer-illustrator Frank Miller created The Dark Knight Returns, a comic book mini-series that reinvented the character as older and much more violent. Miller’s work was as shocking to the comic book industry as Burton’s first Batman film was to the movie industry. Burton and Hamm were inspired by Miller’s Batman, and borrowed elements of that story in their new screenplay. Despite the Miller influences, their initial Batman Returns script was a typical, relatively safe Hollywood action picture. WB and Burton hated it.

The script included an ethnic, streetwise Dick Grayson (rather than his long-established circus performer origin). Catwoman and The Penguin were the villains, but they lacked the manic depiction of Nicholson’s Joker. In retrospect, this might have been the better path to follow. Instead, WB hired Daniel Waters (Heathers) to craft a re-write with Burton, resulting in the surreal version that we ultimately saw in theaters.

The revised script’s casting is where things get really interesting. Marlon Wayans was brought on as Grayson (and later cut), Danny DeVito as Penguin, Annette Bening as Catwoman (she dropped out due to a pregnancy) and re-cast with Michelle Pfieffer, and Billy Dee Williams — who had signed a multi-picture deal — as D.A. Harvey Dent, was also cut (replaced by Christopher Walken’s oddball businessman, Max Shreck). It was a helluva cast, but it lacked Nicholson’s mainstream appeal.

WB’s potentially safe Batman sequel had become Burton’s personal art house picture, and either no one at WB was bothered by this or they simply had no idea. The new script was grim, bloody and totally bananas. Unfortunately, for all involved, it was a little too out there for the mass audience. Batman Returns had a budget more than twice that of the previous film, but made about $145 million less at the box office. Ouch.

This video provides some really interesting insights into Batman Returns, a movie that I really like, but could never quite reconcile with the first film — beyond Burton, Keaton, and a few minor roles, the two movies had little in-common.

Are you surprised by any of these Batman Returns insights? Let us know in the comments down below!

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SOURCE: LowRes Wünderbred

David Kozlowski is a writer, podcaster, and visual artist. A U.S. Army veteran, David worked 20 years in the videogame industry and is a graduate of Arizona State University's Film and Media Studies.