Find out why Tim Burton’s divisive vision deserves a rewatch…
There’s too many superhero films. We all know this. We’re still going to consume them en masse with zero regrets, but the genre’s definitely reached a level of oversaturation that’s becoming tiring. I had to plead with people to go see Into The Spider-Verse, saying “I know it’s a fourth cinematic Spider-Man iteration in less than a decade, but this one is worth your time, trust me”. Everyone who I eventually cajoled into watching it came back open-mouthed, bright-eyed, and couldn’t stop talking about how incredible it was. Spider-Verse demonstrated that you can make the age-old story of ‘uncle dies, learn responsibility, swing around city beating up animal-men’ fresh again by adopting a new visual style and perspective.
Back in 1992, Tim Burton made a similarly bold creative move with Batman Returns, but was far less successful. His take on the Batman cinematic mythos had already pushed things fairly far with 1989’s Batman, with a darker, grittier world usually only seen in the weirder Frank Miller-type comic book iterations, and a far cry from the Adam West era. Batman Returns dove headfirst down the rabbit hole of its director’s mind, resulting in one of the most Tim Burton-esque Tim Burton movies ever made.
Quirky social outcasts mope around painted with white skin and dark eyeshadow, dressed in jet black and pinstripes. The Penguin is reinterpreted not as a Napoleon-complex with a thing for umbrellas, but as a horny mutant penguin-man played by Danny DeVito, acting out a reverse Moses plot where he’s abandoned by his parents so he decides to kill all the first-born children of Gotham. Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman is less a normal burglar with a unique costume, and instead a crazy woman magically resurrected by cats who cartwheels around licking people. Christopher Walken’s there as well for some reason, doing his whole Christopher Walken thing.
Personally, I think this movie is great, for the same reason I think most Tim Burton movies are great. It’s strange, visually striking, hilarious, and surprisingly touching. He’s one of those directors that had a creative team perfectly in sync, with people like Johnny Depp and Danny Elfman executing a truly singular vision. Sure, history has led to Burton’s style being more mocked as Hot Topic angst, but on their own merits his films hold up as slices of intense, immersive nostalgia. But I’m not here to talk about whether I think the movie is good – that’s going to mostly depend on whether or not you like Tim Burton. I’m here to talk about how incredible it is that it exists at all, and why that’s important.
Batman Returns was so darn weird and dark that Warner Bros. panicked that it was going to alienate kids and families, so they made a sharp left turn into the cartoonish, Adam West-y Batman Forever, this time helmed by Joel Schumacher. It sucked, but a lot of people enjoyed the ridiculous amount of energy Jim Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones brought to the screen. When Batman & Robin tanked on account of it being truly awful, it took until 2005 for Christopher Nolan to bring back the franchise’s success with a more realistic tone.
The Dark Knight films are now some of the most successful movies of all time – they are indisputably technically excellent – and Nolan may have been a strange choice at the time given his past work on mind-bending indie films Memento and Insomnia. The problem that stemmed from their success is the ubiquity of their tone. Following The Dark Knight, every superhero film started to be gritty and realistic, with naturalistic cinematography and taking everything very seriously. Then the MCU came along and churned out the same movie 10 times in a row. I think a lot of the joy that stemmed from watching these films were lost when directors stopped being given free reign.
Don’t get me wrong, sometimes this fails – Ang Lee was hired on for 2003’s Hulk, after a career in Hollywood mainly defined by period-piece Sense and Sensibility, and martial arts opus Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. The natural, perfect choice for a superhero film. Hulk was somehow both insane and boring at the same time, but there’s still a distinct visual style to the film with its comic-style panelling dividing the frame and weird focus on fungi throughout, and time has had me thinking about Hulk far more often than I think about the safe, forgettable, MCU Incredible Hulk.
But for every Hulk, there’s the potential for a Thor: Ragnarok. After the first Thor was deemed to be cheesy and cliché but fine, and Thor: The Dark World was similarly fine but now only stands out because it’s the worst MCU movie, Marvel needed to change gear. So they got quirky Kiwi comedian Taika Waititi to lead the film, made Thor deliberately funny, and added a healthy dose of neon and synth. It was a risk, and it paid off – many people count it as their favourite MCU, and it made Thor a far more compelling character for however many more Phases we’re going to get.
Not everyone has the leisure to make this happen – Marvel have more money than God, and I’m fairly certain people would turn up to watch Chris Hemsworth read the dictionary as long as his frankly resplendent arms were bare. Oftentimes studios or creators can’t afford to take such a gamble, especially in this climate where cinema profits are steadily declining, and reliable, familiar franchises are the only things keeping studios alive. Guillermo Del Toro tragically had to abandon work on The Hobbit because MGM couldn’t get their finances worked out, and Edgar Wright left Ant-Man due to the ol’ “creative differences”. But it does happen – we got the Scorsese-inspired Joker last year and it won literally all of the things.
Just imagine a world where studios have the means and balls to take creative risks in franchises, where any director could be paired with any franchise, to justify making sequel after sequel, reboot after reboot. Imagine a world where David Lynch has a crack at a Captain America movie. Imagine Wes Anderson’s Transformers, or Quentin Tarantino’s Minions, and tell me honestly that you wouldn’t be more than happy to pay to go see that.
But you don’t have to imagine the batshit crazy world where Tim Burton directed a Batman film because, thankfully, it actually happened.
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