This is the twenty-second installment in a series of articles tracing the complete history of superheroes in film and television, from the first superhero serial all the way to the current Marvel and DC cinematic universes. For the previous installment click here, for the first installment click here.
In 1979, Indiana University professor and comic book historian Michael Uslan and his business partner Benjamin Melniker purchased the feature film rights – including animation, but excluding television – rights to the DC Comics character Batman. It was Uslan’s desire to produce the definitive Dark Knight version of Batman, something that had never been quite done justice in live action.
With no contractual obligation to develop the property at Warner Bros. – parent company of DC Comics and copyright owners of Batman – so they decided to shop the idea around. Bond alums Richard Maibaum and Guy Hamilton were approached to write and direct respectively, but both turned the project down. Columbia Pictures and United Artists both rejected the property, they wanted something more like the Adam West television series and didn’t understand Uslan’s dark and gritty take on the character.
To better help studios understand exactly where he wanted to go with the character, Uslan wrote a script called “Return of the Batman.” Uslan would later compare his script with Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns,” even though Uslan’s pre-dated Miller’s by several years. By the end of 1979 produces Peter Gruber and Jon Peters had joined the project.
The four producers agreed that the best way to approach a Batman film would be to mirror what had been done with Superman in 1978. To that end, Uslan hired Tom Mankiewicz – who had been instrumental in bringing Richard Donner’s Superman to life – to pen the screenplay. They also pitched the project to Universal, who promptly rejected it. In the summer of 1980, still with no studio on board, “Batman” was officially announced at the New York Comic Art Convention for a 1985 release date and with a $15 million budget. After this announcement, Warner Bros. decided to accept “Batman” under its own banner.
By 1983 Tom Mankiewicz completed his script for “The Batman.” Mankiewicz’ screenplay focused on the origins of Batman and Dick Grayson and featured Rupert Thorne and the Joker as heavies. The Mankiewicz script was mostly inspired by the Steve Englehart miniseries “Batman: Strange Apparitions.” Originally, William Holden and David Niven were attached as Commissioner Gordon and Alfred Pennyworth respectively, but Holden died in 1981 and Niven followed in 1983. Mankiewicz had also wanted Peter O’Toole – who would go on to appear in “Supergirl” in 1984 – to play the Penguin. The Penguin was to be portrayed as a gangster with very low tolerance for heat, due to a lowered body temperature.
Directors approached included Ivan Reitman and Joe Dante. It was around this time that rumors began to circulate that Bill Murray would be playing Batman with Eddie Murphy as Robin. Those were, in fact, Reitman’s picks for the film. Thankfully, Ivan Reitman didn’t end up directing the movie.
In 1985 former Disney Studios animator and first-time director Tim Burton made a splash with “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure,” starring Paul Reubens and based on a character he had created for several stage shows. Shortly thereafter, Warner Bros. hired Burton to direct “Batman.”
Warner Bros. also hired comic book writer Steve Englehart, who had written the comic books that Tom Mankiewicz had based his original script on, to perform a rewrite of the screenplay. Englehart’s script also borrowed heavily from his own “Strange Apparitions” miniseries and retained the characters from Mankiewicz’ script. While Warner Bros. was impressed, Englehart felt there were too many characters, so his second draft wrote the characters of Penguin and Dick Grayson out entirely. Englehart submitted his second draft in May of 1986.
In 1986 and 1987, shortly after Burton was hired to direct the feature film, a writer/artist who had previously made a name for himself with Marvel Comics’ Daredevil – Frank Miller – once again redefined the Batman character with “The Dark Knight Returns” and “Year One.” Those, as well as Alan Moore’s “The Killing Joke” in 1988, would help define the direction in which Burton was going to take the motion picture.
Burton approached screenwriter Sam Hamm, who had written the screenplay for “Never Cry Wolf” in 1983 and who was also a huge comic book fan, to work on a new version of the script. Hamm decided to do away with the idea of telling Batman’s origin story in the film. He felt that it would have a much better impact, and better serve to keep the character of Batman mysterious, if his origin were told in flashbacks.
After the success of Tim Burton’s “Beetlejuice” in 1988, “Batman” was officially greenlit for pre-production and Burton quickly set to work on casting. As with Superman, every Hollywood A-lister close to the appropriate age was approached. Mel Gibson, Kevin Costner, Charlie Sheen, Tom Selleck, Bill Murray, Harrison Ford and Dennis Quaid were all considered. Warner Bros. was adamant that Burton cast a big action star for Batman and Burton offered the role to Pierce Brosnan, who declined stating that he didn’t want to play a comic book superhero.
Burton had also approached relative unknown Ray Liotta about meeting to talk about Batman, but Liotta wasn’t interested. He has since come to regret not at least talking with Burton about it. It was producer Jon Peters who finally suggested Michael Keaton, and having worked with Keaton on “Beetlejuice” Burton agreed.
Jack Nicholson, who had been the producers’ first choice since the earliest stages of the project was cast as the Joker. Robin Williams wanted the part, but was ultimately passed over in favor of Nicholson. Nicholson then convinced the filmmakers to hire one of his own close, personal friends to play the Joker’s main henchman Bob “The Goon.”
The casting of Michael Keaton set off huge negative fan reaction, and would have broken the internet had it existed at the time. Fan reaction to Keaton has become so well known in fan circles that many have pointed to how well that turned out in response to the negative fan reaction over Ben Affleck being cast as Batman for “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Today, Keaton is often considered one of, if not the best Batman of all time.
Batman was criticized for concentrating more on the Joker and Bruce Wayne than on Batman, with Keaton getting very little screen time actually in costume. Keaton felt that Batman should remain mysterious and that he should be seen as little as possible, and kept in the shadows when he was seen. Keaton’s performance also introduced the dark and hoarse “Batman voice,” which has since become so identifiable with the character.
Despite some criticism, “Batman” was a critical and commercial success. It ushered in a second wave of Batmania, and the summer of 1989 was being called the “Summer of Batman.” Warner Bros. had a hit on their hands and wasted no time in approaching Burton about making a sequel, which Burton originally wasn’t interested in. He felt he had said everything he needed to, and there was nothing a sequel had to offer him. To sweeten the pot, Warner Bros. promised Burton complete creative control over the sequel, and he promptly accepted.
With Burton on board for “Batman Returns,” Michael Keaton also agreed to reprise the role of Batman. This time, the film used two of Batman’s main villains from the comics, Penguin and Catwoman. Danny DeVito – the obvious choice at the time – was cast as the Penguin while Michelle Pfeiffer won the role of Catwoman. Sean Young, who was originally cast as Vicki Vale in the first film but was injured before filming began, campaigned for the role of Catwoman. When she showed up at Tim Burton’s office, however, and jumped on his desk meowing and scratching in front of Micheal Keaton, she was dismissed for being a bit too aggressive.
Sam Hamm was once again brought back to write the script, however Burton wasn’t impressed with it and hired Daniel Waters – who had penned the dark comedy “Heathers” – to do a page one rewrite. It was Waters who developed the character of Max Shreck and borrowed the idea of Penguin running for mayor from the 60s television series.
During filming, animal rights groups, objecting to the idea of the film using real penguins with rockets strapped to their backs, protested. In reality, however, the penguins were very well treated on the set. “They were given a refrigerated trailer,” Richard Hill, the penguins’ handler, told Empire Magazine. Hill went on to say the penguins were given “their own swimming pool, half-a-ton of ice each day, and they had fresh fish delivered daily straight from the docks. Even though it was 100 degrees outside, the entire set was refrigerated down to 35 degrees.”
Tim Burton was maybe a little ahead of his time, especially with “Batman Returns.” Many parents groups protested the movie and formed boycotts, mostly because of how Burton portrayed the Penguin. Common criticism was that the film was too dark, the Penguin was grotesque, there was too much emphasis on sexual innuendo, and that the film was all around unsuitable for children. McDonald’s, who had a merchandising license for the film, halted their Happy Meal promotion due to the backlash. Tim Burton has gone on record stating that he thought “Batman Returns” was less dark than the first film.
Despite backlash from parenting groups, “Batman Returns” was almost universally praised by critics and was a financial success. “Batman Returns” opened to the highest grossing opening weekend of any movie up to that point, going on to gross almost $300 million on an $80 million budget.
While Warner Bros. was extremely happy with the performance of “Batman Returns” in the theaters, the parental backlash had them a little worried. They were quite keen on making another sequel, however they were not so keen on having Burton back in the director’s chair.
Bill “Jett” Ramey (November 11, 2005). “An Interview With Michael Uslan – Part 2”. Batman-on-Film.
Nancy Griffin; Kim Masters (1997). “Hit Men”. Hit & Run: How Jon Peters and Peter Guber Took Sony For A Ride In Hollywood. Simon & Schuster. pp. 158–174. ISBN 0-684-80931-1.
Alan Jones (November 1989). “Batman”.Cinefantastique. pp. 55–67.
Busch, Jenna (July 3, 2014). “Interview: Batman Producer Michael Uslan Talks the Legacy of Superhero Cinema”. Superhero Hype!.
“Pierce Brosnan: I turned down Tim Burton’s Batman”. The Guardian. August 21, 2014.
Todd Gilchrist (November 4, 2011). “Ray Liotta Says Tim Burton Wanted To Meet With Him For ‘Batman'”. Indiewire.
Owain Yolland (August 1992). “Two minutes, Mr Penguin”, Empire, pp. 89—90
“Batman Returns (1992)”. Box Office Mojo.
“Batman Returns”. Rotten Tomatoes.
Olly Richards (September 1992). “Trouble in Gotham”, Empire, pp. 21—23