The talents of Warner Bros., Tim Burton, and Michelle Pfeiffer couldn't help ''Batman Returns'' succeed
We’ve done it again! That was the giddy gist of the news winging its way faster than a Batarang among Warner Bros. executives on Monday, June 22, the day it was reported that Batman Returns had raked in the biggest first-weekend gross in movie history, $46 million. At that point, there was every reason to expect the roll to continue. After all, dozens of critics liked the sequel better than the original Batman. Millions of toddlers clutching millions of McDonald’s Happy Meal containers were clamoring, Mom, Dad, take me now! And breathless buzz about Michelle Pfeiffer’s superslinky performance as Catwoman permeated daytime talk shows, evening newscasts, and watercooler chitchat across the nation.
So how is it that a mere month later, the Batgeist seems to have all but flapped itself out? Between Batman and Batman Returns, something other than the fish the Penguin gobbles went rotten in the city-state of Gotham. Yes, the movie-related merchandising machine is still chugging along nicely, especially sales of Catwoman knickknacks (though by comparison, Penguin paraphernalia are dead in the water). But many parents of young children are angry over scenes of violence and kinky innuendo, older kids aren’t hooked on repeat viewings, and more than a few adults say they are turned off by the kiddie-flick tone of tie-in promotions. Most tellingly, the movie’s box office performance has slumped by an alarming rate of over 40 percent each week. By the weekend of July 17, Batman Returns had slipped to an ignominious sixth place in the standings, earning a relative trickle of $4.3 million. How come?
”Batman opened wider than any movie has before,” says Variety analyst A.D. Murphy. ”When more people go to see a movie at the beginning, more are bad-mouthing it if they don’t like it, and it falls off faster.” A top Warner exec concedes, ”Obviously, word of mouth is not positive.”
Make no mistake: With domestic box office expected to total $160 million, Batman Returns is still a huge hit. But in the ultra-high-stakes arena of home-run smashes like the original Batman ($251 million), Terminator 2 ($204 million), and Home Alone ($285 million), that figure looks almost anemic, even accepting that sequels generally earn less than their originals.
The film’s high cost doesn’t help. Some insiders say that Batman Returns‘ tab for production, star salaries, prints, and advertising was easily $100 million, far more than originally reported. According to a traditional rule of thumb, a film needs to earn at least double its budget to be considered a healthy hit. Still, nobody will go broke over Batman Returns. There’s a lot more money to be mined from product licensing, the video release, and the international rollout (though early reports indicate the film’s overseas performance is following a pattern much like that in the U.S).
Privately, Warner execs are distressed that the movie is so grim, so offputting. ”It’s too dark. It’s not a lot of fun,” says one. But the chief of a rival studio says Warner got just what it asked for. ”If you bring back (director Tim) Burton and (star Michael) Keaton,” he says, ”you’re stuck with their vision. You can’t expect Honey, I Shrunk the Batman.”
To the Warner honchos entrusted with the care and feeding of the Batman ”franchise” — who have hoped that a string of hit sequels could ultimately earn billions for the company — the backlash against Batman Returns is perturbing news. For these long-range Batplanners, the current, insidious question is, Have we seriously damaged the franchise?
Theater operators certainly seem to think so. Having agreed to fork over an unusually high percentage of Batman Returns‘ ticket sales, exhibitors are feeling stung by what Variety has dubbed the movie’s ”good news/bad news” performance. David Davis, an analyst at the media-research firm Paul Kagan Associates, estimates that Warner will wind up skimming a whopping 65 percent of each theater’s take (the studio cut is typically 50 percent). The owners had assumed that a smaller piece of the enormous Batman Returns pie would still be a hefty portion. Nobody expected that pie to shrink to crumbs so rapidly.
<p An informal Entertainment Weekly survey of multiplex lobbies around the country shows why it did. Praise for Tim Burton’s stunning visuals was a constant refrain, and so was enthusiasm for Pfeiffer’s knockout Catwoman turn. But many attached qualifiers. ”The story made no sense,” says Jay Klausenstock, a 33-year-old radio-ad-sales manager in San Fransisco. ”In fact, nothing made sense. I’ll never see a Batman movie again.” Renee Greene of Chicago says, ”I’m sick of all the ads. It’s hard for parents whose kids drive them nuts wanting to go to McDonald’s to get all the stupid cups.” Some younger kids were frightened by the subplot involving kidnapped babies and grossed out by Danny DeVito’s bile-spewing Penguin. ”It made me sort of sick,” says Greene’s 9-year-old son, Michael. A CinemaScore poll of moviegoers turned up similar results: Viewers gave the film a decidedly lackluster overall grade of B.
Left to his own devices, Tim Burton might never have made a Batman sequel. But after two years of cajoling by the studio, he agreed to give it a try. With that battle over, the executives moved on to other worries, namely the Burton’s ability to tell a coherent story. Ever since Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985), Burton has shown a cheery disdain for logical plotting, and he had no intention of changing his style. ”If they had asked somebody else to direct, like a really proficient action director, they may have gotten exactly what they wanted,” Burton himself said shortly before Batman Returns opened. ”But if I was going to do it, I had to do what I do. What I had to offer was to make it feel fresh.”
”I was going to be the first screenwriter to give Tim Burton a great story — three acts, bam-bam-bam,” says screenwriter Dan Waters (Heathers, Hudson Hawk). ”But after the first couple of weeks with Tim, you realize it’s not going to happen. He just doesn’t think that way. He operates on this abstract, associative level. It’s like, ‘Put the helmet away, Luke, and use the Force!”’
Waters produced five drafts of the script. Burton and the studio still weren’t satisfied, and after a year on the movie, Waters found himself out of the belfry. ”It’s not like I had a screaming fight with Tim,” he says. In fact, he now defends Burton’s disjointedness. ”You learn to stop worrying and love Tim’s weird synapses, the way he puts things together.”
Burton quietly brought in Wesley Strick (Cape Fear) as a rewrite man. ”Quietly, yes,” Strick says with a laugh. ”I didn’t receive any screen credit.” By then it was July of 1991, and Strick was faced with reworking one of the year’s biggest projects in two months. Sets were under construction, filming was set to start in August, and the meter was running on the pricey acting talent. ”One can’t really hold up a movie that costs as much as Batman Returns for very long,” says Strick. Warner agreed to push the start of filming back two weeks while he made revisions. Had he demanded more time, he believes, the studio might have pulled the plug entirely.
Strick began by pruning Waters’ script of scenes that he and Burton found too wild, including several self-doubting diatribes from Batman and some of Catwoman’s militant calls to feminist anarchy. It wasn’t long, however, before Strick found himself lopping out chunks of story purely to save time and money. In the second month of shooting, only days remained before Marlon Wayans was to step before the cameras as a sort of punkified Robin. Production was so far behind that the studio ordered Strick to excise the Boy Wonder. ”Dan had written Robin as a gang leader who works for Penguin and eventually turns against him,” says Strick. ”Nobody was sure if the movie could work without him, but it cut so easily I was convinced it never belonged there.”
Not all of Strick’s abridgements went so seamlessly. A lot of explanatory material came out — like a scene showing how Shreck’s Department Store could host a costume ball right after Catwoman blew its ground floor to kingdom come. ”The movie was just so crammed with stuff that I tried to connect as many dots as I could,” Strick says.
Meanwhile, Danny DeVito was making cuts of his own. ”Danny didn’t want to play a villain who was remotely lovable,” Strick says. ”He wanted to approach it in a more authentically vicious spirit.” For every quip taken out, it seemed, in went another gob of disgusting drool. The fish Penguin devours raw in one scene was DeVito’s inspiration. ”That was the second day of shooting,” Strick recalls. ”Tim was still a bit nervous and casting about for a tone, so Danny came up with that bit of improvisation.”
Even Strick concedes that his main contribution, Penguin’s plot to steal ( Gotham’s blue-chip babies, wound up something of a botch. ”Tim was really leery of spending a lot of screen time with kids in jeopardy,” he says, and besides, there was no more time for fine-tuning. ”The production’s resources were stretched pretty thin. The whole thing got telescoped.”
By late spring of ’92, Tim Burton was still dickering with the Motion Picture Association of America over bits of violence too vivid for a PG-13 rating (among other moments, a sweeping master shot of a circus-gang member setting Gothamites on fire had to go). At the same time, without even seeing a rough cut of the movie, McDonald’s was gearing up to promote a pair of fun-for-the-family tie-ins. Company spin controllers insist that Happy Meal ads on daytime TV, which didn’t feature shots from the film itself, were ”not designed to promote attendance to the movie.” But nighttime ads for Batman Returns cups with Frisbee-style lids did show characters from the movie and were shot on the movie’s set.
”They’re not telling kids to go? You can’t get away with that,” says Peggy Charren, former president of the advocacy group Action for Children’s Television. Even The New York Times took note of the controversy in an editorial taking McDonald’s to task. The film’s PG-13 rating, Charren says, should have been a warning to parents ”that if you have any brains, you’ll keep your kids out of the movie till they’re older.” She adds, however, that the confusion may have been inevitable. ”When you start with a comic book character, that gives you a problem, because comic strips are geared for children.”
While the Happy Meal to-do apparently hasn’t dented McDonald’s trade, Warner executives aren’t so sure the Batman franchise got off so easily. Word is they intend to make sure that Batman 3 and its progeny showcase a much less dark Dark Knight — a kind of Batman Lite — possibly without Burton at the helm. Given the almost universal consensus that Michelle Pfeiffer was the best thing in Batman Returns, her willingness to reprise the role would be critical. With her newfound clout, her salary for the follow-up could catapult her into the the ranks of Hollywood’s highest-paid actresses. Pfeiffer has already expressed her interest to the creative team, and her spokeswoman confirms she’d lace up that bodysuit again — if Burton were to direct.
The big question now is, no matter how much the studio compensates next time for this movie’s extravagances, has the Batmachine forever lost its , cachet? The first Batman took off because it had an infectious, fun-but-fearful mood. The sequel has displeased both poles of its audience — the flood of juvenile tie-ins has undermined its appeal to adults, while its kinky weirdness turns off some kids — so that the whole enterprise seems a bit less airborne. Nevertheless, the public’s seemingly insatiable appetite for Gotham-related tchotchkes all but guarantees that Warner will keep spinning out follow-ups through the end of the century. And if the Caped Crusader should wind up more pitchman than superhero, well, gosh, nobody’s perfect. If nothing else, those future sequels will make great commercials.
Additional reporting by: Anne Thompson, with Trip Gabriel, Bronwen Hruska, Cindy Pearlman, and Frank Spotnitz