In 2017 one can certainly have difficulty remembering a time when Batman wasn’t relevant. But I can without needing to really rattle my brain. Sure, super heroes were very dormant in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Marvel and DC were undergoing major changes in the publishing front, looking to reel in younger audiences as their readers were beginning to skewer older. Children were in love with the Ninja Turtles, He-Man, and the Ghostbusters. The era of the comic book hero wasn’t dead. They were just awaiting their time to become culturally relevant again. And if not for former animator Tim Burton, we wouldn’t have 1989’s Batman to thank for the starting the revolution.
Batman only started to gain steam after the against-type Michael Keaton donned the cape and cowl against Jack Nicholson’s iconic Joker in 1989. Fans were torn but, as time passed, many grew warm and developed a fondness for how, well, comic book and somewhat serious a movie Burton actually put together. This was before Bruce Timm and Alan Burnett would dazzle audiences with their animated series in the fall of 1992. In fact, I even remember a time when there were no comic book shows on television at all. The landscape was barren of superheroes trying to save their cities from villains hellbent on attaining power. And though the time was nearing for the revolution to begin all over – with Batman and The X-Men on the horizon ready to blow the lid on the hero uprising – there was one movie that was destined to changed the game for sequels. And that would be Batman Returns, a movie starkly different from the original but with the right amount of crazed characters, old-school Hollywood technical care, and a flair for charm and standing apart from a crowd, the movie was a wild success.
So you know what I’ll be doing this evening? I’ll be retrieving my Blu-ray disc from my massive movie collection, plopping myself on the couch, and indulging in what my stark opinion is one of my favorite Batman movies. Ladies and gents, I want to take a few moments to remember a classic from my childhood – Tim Burton’s 1992 delight Batman Returns – on its 25th anniversary!
Batman Returns marked the first time in my life that my obsession with pop culture really began to manifest itself from the depths of my soul. Sure, I was very much a child of the 1980’s. I had grown up sitting on the floor in the living room every Saturday morning, legs crossed and plastic yellow dinner tray kicked open in front of me. I bounced around the different networks to watch all of my Saturday morning specials. Granted, I watched virtually every cartoon that CBS, Fox, and ABC had to offer. How I watched them all is a miracle in itself – well, actually, that’s because the networks ran episodes on weekday afternoons too. In the spring of 1991 my plate was all over the place with cartoons. Bobby’s World, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, Garfield and Friends, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Real Ghostbusters, Tom and Jerry Kids, Taz-Mania, Darkwing Duck, Tail-Spin, The Looney Tunes Show…God, I’m going bonkers recalling them all.
But this was an era before super heroes really dominated the small screen, just a year before the hysteria really began to take shape on broadcast networks. I was years away from following movie productions on a daily basis. But I discovered Tim Burton’s Batman after the film released on home video. I was rabid about watching Beetlejuice on a loop, the adult jokes totally lost on the innocence of my youth. Hell, let’s not overlook that Batman wasn’t exactly a family-friendly movie. The film was abound with murder and mayhem, but Bob Kane be praised, Burton’s movie sowed the seeds of heroism in my heart. I absolutely adored Batman – and I couldn’t get enough.
First grade came and went pretty fast, the second time that I was with my classmates. I had shared kindergarten with many of them the previous year, and we were all attentive in our classes. I was a daydreamer, staring outside the window when the sun was shining or the rainy slammed against the windows. Being an only child had let me to create adventures in my mind, wild trips into the unknown with the adventures I watched after school and on a weekend morning, a bowl of warm Spaghettio’s wafting steam and a cheese sandwich on a plate, with Ecto-Cooler as my drink. But as the spring months marched onward, commercials began airing for Batman Returns. A movie with a plot central to Christmastime coming out in the summer months? Who cared. Batman was back, he had two foes to stop this time, and I was too dull to understand the sex appeal of stitched leather on Catwoman. All I knew is that I was sold. I had to see it.
Everyone has a different grocer chain where they reside. In southeastern Pennsylvania the biggest chain was Redner’s Warehouse Markets, a unique style of market that actually was fashioned like a warehouse, with dramatically reduced prices centered around wild promotions that many modern-day couponers would implode upon seeing. Once a week my mom and I would go to the local Redner’s by our house, just a few miles from our house in the suburbs. Sure, many localities were wowed by the new Walmart that had opened the previous year just a half mile away. Still, while we occasionally dopped around the House Sam Built, we still purchased our groceries at the local supermarket. We entered the market by produce and actually walked up and down each aisle, my mom marking items off handwritten list. We were always on a routine, getting the essentials needed to make three square meals a day plus snacks.
On one such trip, on a chilly April afternoon, we made our usual Saturday afternoon jaunt to the store. The shopping cart was full with food, yet my stomach wasn’t rumbling to be satisfied. Rather, as we were walking past the magazine rack, something caught my eye. There was a four-sided spinner planted just off the aisle, different novels screaming to be bought and read leisurely. My eye caught the image of Michael Keaton dressed as Batman. It was the novelization for the forthcoming Tim Burton sequel.
“I want that,” I said to my mom, stopping in my tracks and pointing at the cover. “Mom, I want that book.”
I remember she looked down at me (I was just seven years old and still short enough to rise to below my mom’s shoulders) and grimaced. “Jerrold, you can’t read that.”
Like any disciplined seven year old would do in that day – unlike now, where most kids would exhume a temper tantrum of Hulk-like proportions – my lips contorted in a way my lower lip bust outwards, lips still sealed, letting my body language do the talking. I was already an avid reader in my young age, but the novelization was wholly different than anything I had skimmed before.
My mom removed the book from its socket, flipping to the back cover. “Jerrold, this book is 246 pages. You can’t read this.”
“Yes, I can. I’ll read every word, I swear it.” I looked up and beamed. I meant it.
She looked at me and just shrugged. I recall that she bet (not actually bet mind you) I couldn’t read the entire book in time for the movie’s release in June. Yet, my persistence paid off. She placed the book on the belt and bought it for me. The cover price was $4.99. I had just two months to prove that I wasn’t being a faker and simply wanting the book because Batman, of all people, graced the cover.
In the following weeks. I took bits out of each day to read what author Craig Shaw Gardner had adapted from the screenplay. (Alright, I was too much a novice to know what a movie screenplay was, but I at least know that Tim Burton was directing the sequel.) I read a chapter a day in the evening, sometimes two. The font was the smallest I had ever read up to that point in my childhood, probably a diminutive size 6 font, the words mashed together in intricate vocabulary that made me consult our dictionary frequently. I didn’t struggle, I didn’t quit. I persisted, I maintained my goal. I was going to read that entire book before the movie released.
Batman Returns came out on June 16th, 1992. (How novel is today that, not only is today the 25th anniversary, but literally the same day the movie hit theaters?) I was out of school for the summer, the only goal in my mind to just relax and not have to worry about homework due at 8:30am the very next day. The first item on my to-do list was to go to see Batman Returns in theaters, not because I wanted to with every fiber in my being but because I wanted to show my mom what I had accomplished by finishing the novelization. I didn’t just .
With popcorn and soda in hand, one sunny steamy June afternoon we entered the dark Fox theater (still very much intact to this day, only the seats receiving the real face lift) and took our seats. The lights dimmed and Danny Elfman’s iconic score pumped through the speakers. My eyes widened to see Batman finally take the fight to the Cat and the Penguin. As the movie unfolded, I learned that much of the material in the book wasn’t even in the movie itself, facts that I would learn as I became older and more intrigued by movie-making as I matured into a young adult.
Instead, and to my mom’s bewilderment, I wasn’t just watching the movie. I was quoting the movie verbatim.
Early on, as the movie began, I looked at the screen and tugged on my mom’s shirt. “That’s Chip,” I said as I pointed out the twisted son of Max Shreck.
Seconds later, his name is muttered in the movie. My mom turned her head to me and asked, “How did you know that?”
I looked at her and smile. “I told you, I read the book.”
We left the theater afterwards and my mom was still flabbergasted. Had we made an actual bet if I could actually read that book from front to back effortlessly, I would have easily won and been a little pain in the ass all summer. Instead, I remember walking down the back steps next to the theater grinning like the Joker himself, smug knowing that I had actually achieved my goal. Thus began my journey from cartoon-obsessed child of the summer to full-fledged pop-culture-driven man who has a vast and wild taste in being a walking, talking nerd.
Looking back from those days in 1992, I still find Tim Burton’s sequel to be one of my most favorite Batman movies – yes, even more so than Christopher Nolan’s highly-worshipped trilogy. This was also Batman film that was wildly darker than its predecessor, with its art deco inspiration to the sets and miniatures that brought Gotham City to life and muted bleakness in seedy underbelly popping out from the vibrant Christmas spirit glossed by Gothamites the city over. The script by Daniel Waters was rife with adult situations, his work on Heathers assisting him in crafting the script with Tim Burton and Sam Hamm. Christopher Walken chewed the scenery as nad businessman and department store owner Max Shreck, pretending to be a doting kind-hearted gent but most focused on screwing his fellow man out to line his pockets with cash. Danny DeVito’s Penguin was ghastly, far from the portly squawking criminal from both the comic books and 1960’s ABC television series. There were less action scenes – and those scenes were damn violent, especially with Batman placing the bomb on the strongman early in the movie – but the character development was one of the best for a sequel, and the chemistry between Keaton and Pfeiffer was magnetic. Honestly, if not for the release of Batman Returns, most comic book sequels wouldn’t be what they’re supposed to be.
And the quotes that stem from the movie, many of them remain with me today. Some are deep. Some are throwaway. Many are adult in nature, and I wouldn’t get their nature until I was older. But they were all smartly crafted. Think about it. The most honest quote from that movie still applies to life today – “But a kiss can be deadlier if you mean it.”
Batman Returns would also mark the first time a movie had a blockbuster tie-in with promotions. McDonald’s had the biggest marketing event for the movie, highly unprecedented at the time and wildly copied in the years since. Sure, today everything we see in the stores is a tie in – cereal, frozen pizza, snack cakes, soda. But in 1992 McDonald’s had two marketing ploys that lured me to get a Happy Meal every weekend. I needed the toys. I needed the cups. Before there was Pokemon, McDonald’s had children by their hides with collector’s cups and wind-up toys. Somewhere in my parent’s house – well, really, the toys are in the basement and the cups are in a box in the attic – all of the remains of that massive tie-in remain. And always will. They are a reminder that I was part of something special as a child, something that’s commonplace today but a rarity in the past.
So, you tell us Fan Fest fam – what is your favorite memory of Batman Returns? Is it the shared romance between Michael Keaton and Michelle Pfeiffer? The villainous one-two punch of Oswald Cobblepott and Max Shreck? How about the penguin march on Gotham Square? You tell us! Most importantly, don’t forget to spend two hours at some point this weekend and lose yourself in one of Tim Burton’s finer films too! Until next time, you keep reading them and I’ll keep writing them.