It’s 1990 and Tim Burton is the hottest director in the world. He’s the hottest director in Hollywood and Hollywood is the show biz capitol of the world. That’s my math on that one. Tim Burton, however, doesn’t seem comfortable with the idea. In fact, it appears to make him squirm.
It had been a fast rise for the Goth-attired, Burbank native. After attending Cal Arts, he scored a gig at Disney as an animator. While there, he made a clever, black-and-white comedy short called Frankenweenie. Based on the strength of Frankenweenie, Burton found himself directing a major motion picture for Warner Brothers.
Well, sort of.
Motion picture? Yes. Major? Not so much. Warner Brothers had big plans for the summer of 1985, kicking off June with the Steven Spielberg-produced The Goonies and Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider. July had Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome and the sequel to National Lampoon’s Vacation. Burton’s movie was scheduled for August, when studios release the films that they’re not, shall we say, brimming with confidence over. In fact, Warner Brothers released Sesame Street Presents|: Follow That Bird and then, finally, got around to Burton’s film. Maybe they thought it was a kid’s movie too. It certainly sounded like one. The film was called Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.
Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, starring Pee Wee Herman, was a surprise hit. It was, if nothing else, a celebration of outsider culture. The films was written by three guys with no major credits, made by a first-time director and starred a parody of an entertainer best known for scattered appearances on very late night television. But it surprised everyone, and upon its release, it was embraced by a generation.
Burton followed up Pee Wee’s with Beetlejuice, another film that shouldn’t have worked but somehow did, and then blew the doors off the joint with Batman. Batman wasn’t a hit. It was a super power double-A-plus blockbuster. It dominated the summer of 1989. And the fall. And the winter.
Burton was now in the rare position of being able to do anything he wanted. He chose to make a thinly veiled, autobiographical fairy tale called Edward Scissorhands, a movie about a dude with scissors for hands. Again, it didn’t look like a hit, but by now Hollywood’s power brokers ceded to Burton his connection with his ever-growing audience.
Burton’s movies, from Pee-Wee to Scissorhands, were celebrations of the outsider, the misfit, the geek. It was a role that Burton clearly identified with. His audience felt the same way, and connected to Burton like few directors before or since. But Burton was also Mr. Blockbuster, and the two roles did not mesh. You can’t be King Of The Outsiders and King Of Hollywood at the same time. Burton was aware of the contradiction. In December of 1990, the LA Weekly did a cover story on Burton with the intimidating headline, “Is This Man The New Spielberg?” The sub-header was telling. “Edward Scissorhands says yes. Tim Burton says no.”
As if to hammer his rejection of the throne home, Burton’s next film, the sequel to Batman, would be, if anything, an anti-blockbuster. In an interview published in the book Burton On Burton, the director said, “I like Batman, I like Catwoman, I like the Penguin… I like their duality. And the thing that I really liked about Batman as a comic book property was that they’re all fucked up characters… Unlike other comics, they’re just all fucked.”
Hmmmm. Interesting dilemma.
Like Alfred Hitchcock, who made Vertigo as a big studio thriller when it was, in reality, a personal meditation on the director’s own obsessions, Batman Returns was also something of a Trojan horse. A summer, superhero tent pole mega-release used to smuggle an art house, German Expressionist black comedy about a group of misfits struggling with their inconsistent duality. In one scene, Batman tells Catwoman, “We’re the same. Split. Right down the middle.” Catwoman’s alter ego tells Bruce Wayne, “I guess I’m tired of wearing masks,” to which he instantly responds, “Me too.”
The movie itself doesn’t want to be what it is, and in my opinion, chooses in the end not to be. I think it’s a great movie, but I don’t think it a great Batman movie. In fact, I don’t think it is a Batman movie at all. It’s a Mel Brooksian send-up of German Expressionist horror movies that happens to have Batman in it. The sets evoke Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, it’s ostensibly in color even though black, white and grey dominate the frame, and there’s even a character named Max Shrek, the actor who played Count Orlock in F.W. Murnau’s 1922, Nosferatu.
Unfortunately, the movie is called Batman Returns, not Max Shrek Arrives, and audiences were left understandably confused. Especially little kids and the parents who took them. Daniel Waters, who wrote the screenplay, commented on observing audiences following early screenings. “The lights coming up after Batman Returns and there’s, like, kids crying, people acting like they’d been punched in the stomach, like they’ve been mugged.”
Okey doke! Batman Returns did make small fortune, though smaller then the original, and Burton seemed pleased with the result. The press reaction was not so kind, and the backlash from angry parents was, in the media at least, not insignificant. At the end of the day, Burton and Warner Brothers mutually agreed that another trip to Gotham City was probably not the best idea.
With the Batman Returns behind him, Burton seemed to come to terms with his own duality. His next film was an unmitigated celebration of misfits and outsiders, Ed Wood. The film was a black and white biography of schlock film director Edward D. Wood, Jr., the so-called “worst director of all time.” It didn’t cost much and it didn’t make much, but it’s a masterpiece.
In closing, might I suggest you give Batman Returns another look? If possible, don’t think of it as a Batman movie. You may find that certain elements that once seemed puzzling now shine as beautifully ludicrous. One of my favorite examples? In one of the film’s few splashes of color, The Penguin tools around Gotham City’s inexplicably penguin-filled sewers in, what else, a giant yellow rubber duck. And don’t get me started on the giant penguin pallbearers….
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