'Batman Returns' was called 'too dark' 30 years ago — now it's the best Batman movie

Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman and Michael Keaton as Batman in 'Batman Returns' (Photo: Warner Bros./Courtesy Everett Collection)
Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman and Michael Keaton as Batman in 1992's Batman Returns. (Photo: Warner Bros./Courtesy Everett Collection)

Sure, The Dark Knight boasts Heath Ledger's Oscar-winning turn as the Clown Prince of Crime, but does it have a penguin soldier marching into battle with its very own rocket launcher? That's a sight that's only on display in Batman Returns, Tim Burton's 1992 Bat-sequel that's spent the past 30 years overcoming reports of behind-the-scenes creative disputes and mixed critical and fan response to emerge as one of — if not the — best live action incarnations of Gotham City's Caped Crusader.

You can take a closer look at one of those rocket launching penguins, created by the F/X wizards at Stan Winston Studio, with Yahoo Entertainment's exclusive virtual experience.

Explore a Penguin Soldier in 3D and learn fun behind the scenes facts from Batman Returns

Transforming a tuxedoed bird beloved by children into a waddling weapon is just one of the delightfully perverse elements of Batman Returns that irked a large segment of moviegoers three decades ago. Frequently criticized as "too dark" in the run-up and immediate aftermath of its June 19, 1992 release, the film's reception spurred Warner Bros. to shake up the Bat-franchise for the third installment, Batman Forever.

That 1995 hit saw Joel Schumacher taking over directing duties from Burton with the express instruction to lighten the mood. Of course, Forever famously had its own production difficulties, and spawned a sequel that achieved what the Joker couldn't: Kill Batman ... for a few years anyway. (Fortunately, Michael Keaton's Bruce Wayne is rising again in two upcoming DC Extended Universe films, The Flash and Batgirl.)

Three decades later, concerns about the "darkness" of Batman Returns seem positively quaint, particularly in light of the grim and gritty realism that successive directors like Christopher Nolan, Zack Snyder and Matt Reeves have sought to bring to Gotham since — with varying degrees of success. And Burton himself has noted the discrepancy between his version of "dark" and, say, The Batman's version of "dark." Speaking with Empire magazine recently, the director said: "It is funny to see this now, because all these memories come back of, 'It’s too dark.' So, it makes me laugh a little bit."

Batman Returns began as a victory lap for Burton, who had successfully stage managed the 1989 original into a pop culture force after years of never-were attempts by the likes of Ivan Reitman and Bill Murray. That first Batman was also the product of many authors, including producers Peter Guber and Jon Peters, production designer Anton Furst, star Jack Nicholson — who tailored the Joker to fit his skill set — and screenwriter Sam Hamm, who inherited and extensively rewrote a 1983 script penned by Superman: The Movie scribe, Tom Mankiewicz.

"The idea was just to be constantly fighting whatever the audience’s expectations might be," Hamm told Yahoo Entertainment in 2019. "For me, that was the big fun of writing the screenplay, trying not to do it by the numbers."

In contrast to its predecessor, Batman Returns was — and still is — a distinctly Tim Burton picture all the way. Granted almost complete creative freedom by Warner Bros., the director made a conscious break with the franchise's origins. "He didn’t want Batman Returns to have anything to do with the first Batman," screenwriter Daniel Waters confirmed to Vulture earlier this year. "We did absolutely our own thing."

Danny DeVito as the Penguin in Batman Returns. (Photo: Warner Bros./courtesy Everett Collection)
Danny DeVito as the Penguin in Batman Returns. (Photo: Warner Bros./courtesy Everett Collection)

Working with Waters, Burton crafted what the writer calls a "strange film of strange people interacting in a city." Adding to the strangeness, the movie doesn't even begin with Batman returning. Instead, we're greeted with a Yuletide prologue about Oswald Cobblepot, the deformed son of a prominent Gotham couple who is abandoned at birth and raised by an army of penguins to become ... the Penguin (played by Danny DeVito).

With their shared backstories as wealthy orphans and subsequent turn towards crime and crimefighting respectively, Oswald and Bruce are obviously on a collision course. But there's another force in the mix: Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer), a mousy secretary who transforms herself into an assertive Catwoman after she's violently "fired" by her boss, and the movie's ultimately villain, Max Schreck (Christopher Walken).

Pfeiffer won the role after a public campaign by Sean Young, who was previously replaced by Kim Basinger in the first Batman. The Blade Runner star famously wore a homemade Catwoman costume to confront Burton on the studio lot. "He ducked me — he ran,” she later recounted on The Joan Rivers Show. "Later on, my agent told me that he was going to hire bodyguards because I was a dangerous, lethal person." Burton told his side of the story in the 1995 book, Burton on Burton, claiming that he was never on the lot that day and calling Young's accusations of unfair casting practices "absurd."

Pfeiffer was the first actress to play Catwoman on the big screen since Lee Meriwether in the feature film spin-off of the ’60s Batman TV show, and she set the tone for all of the performers who followed her — including Anne Hathaway and, most recently, Zoë Kravitz, whose feline ensemble in The Batman pays homage to Batman Returns. Unlike gloomy Bruce and traumatized Oswald, Selina finds liberation in her costumed identity, making her the most dynamic character onscreen. "There are definite strong feminist elements to the character," Pfeiffer observed in a 1992 interview. "I think she's more than that, though. She's more complicated than that — she's really lashing out against injustice, if that happens to be a woman or if that happens to be a man."

While the posters for Batman Returns teased a grudge match between the Bat, the Cat and the Penguin, the movie itself is much more sympathetic in its portrayal of all three DC Comics mainstays. That speaks directly to Burton's own lifelong celebration of outsiders and outcasts, from Pee-wee Herman and Edward Scissorhands to Jack Skellington and Ed Wood. The filmmaker focuses as much on what unites the trio as what divides them, specifically the power they find behind their assumed identities. The ultimate tragedy of Batman Returns is that the Dark Knight can't save either of his fellow lonely souls. When the credits roll, Bruce is headed back to his solitary existence in the castle-like manor on the edge of the city — a vintage Universal Monster without a Monster Squad.

"I like Batman, I like Catwoman, I like the Penguin ... I like their world," Burton remarked in Burton on Burton. "The thing that I really liked about Batman as a comic book property was that they're all f***ed up characters — that's what's so beautiful about them."

That beauty wasn't immediately apparent to some as Batman Returns made its way to movie theaters, though. An Entertainment Weekly article that hit stands after the movie's release revealed that Warner Bros. was internally concerned about having granted Burton so much creative rope. Additional sources painted a picture of an expensive production that kept threatening to slip out of the director's hands, suggesting that DeVito kept pushing to up the Penguin's gross-out factor, while Burton went back and forth with the MPAA over the level of onscreen violence.

Advanced poster art for Batman Returns teased a three-way grudge match. (Photo: Warner Brothers/ Courtesy Everett Collection)
Advanced poster art for Batman Returns teased a three-way grudge match. (Photo: Warner Brothers/ Courtesy Everett Collection)

"It’s too dark. It’s not a lot of fun," remarked one unnamed executive as the movie crawled its way to $162 million at the box office — making it the second-lowest grossing live action Batman to date. Roger Ebert echoed those complaints in his two-star review, noting how the director's "gloomy" vision didn't square with the comic books he remembered from a "kindler, gentler time."

"I always thought it would be fun to be Batman," Ebert wrote. "The movie believes it is more of a curse — that Batman is not a crime-fighting superhero but a reclusive neurotic who feels he has to prove himself to a society he does not really inhabit." Moviegoers also piled onto the negative takes. "The story made no sense,” one fan complained to Entertainment Weekly. "In fact, nothing made sense. I’ll never see a Batman movie again."

But the reviews that Warner Bros. cared more about came from merchandisers and parents' groups. Looking to get into the Bat-business after the 1989 film became a merch bonanza, McDonald's partnered with the studio on super-sized Batman Returns campaign that included Happy Meal figures and collectible cups. The fast food chain even shot scenes for their commercial spots on the movie's set, and aired them in primetime when families were sure to be watching.

Tim Burton directs Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman on the set of 'Batman Returns' (Photo: Warner Bros./courtesy Everett Collection)
Tim Burton directs Michelle Pfeiffer on the set of Batman Returns. (Photo: Warner Bros./courtesy Everett Collection)

Those families then took their kids to Batman Returns and weren't always pleased with what they saw. One mother of young children penned a scathing opinion piece in The New York Times that complained: "In the course of the violent, sexually suggestive movie, kids are abandoned, kidnapped and threatened with death." Meanwhile, the former head of the advocacy group Action for Children’s Television chastised McDonald's attempts to distance themselves from the finished film in Entertainment Weekly. "They’re not telling kids to go? You can’t get away with that."

Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment in 2014, Burton seemed almost proud of upsetting the Happy Meal cart. "I think I upset McDonalds," he admitted. "[They asked] 'What’s that black stuff coming out of the Penguin’s mouth. We can’t sell Happy Meals with that!' It was a weird reaction to Batman Returns, because half the people thought it was lighter than the first one and half the people thought it was darker. I think the studio just thought it was too weird — they wanted to go with something more child- or family- friendly. In other words, they didn’t want me to do another one."

Sure enough, Burton was "promoted" to executive producer status on Batman Forever, and Keaton departed the film not long after his first meeting with Schumacher. "I knew [the movie] was in trouble when he said, ‘Why does everything have to be so dark?'" the actor told The Hollywood Reporter in 2017. "I was like 'OK, well, he witnessed the death of his parents.' Not only that, physically it had to be brightened up. It became the thing of 'Let’s do bright-colored cameos!'"

Despite ejecting him from the Batcave, Burton's affection for Batman Returns has never wavered, even as a wider audience took its time embracing the film. In his Vulture interview, Waters credits a screenwriter friend with characterizing the film as "a movie for people who hate Batman" — a tacit acknowledgement that he and the director weren't after the kind of comic book fidelity that Nolan, Snyder and Reeves later embraced.

But that description discounts the fact that creating an authentically personal version of Batman is only possible when that creator has genuine affection for character. From Bob Kane and Bill Finger's "weird figure of the dark" to Frank Miller's Dark Knight, Batman's malleability in the hands of distinctive artists is the key to his longevity. In that way, Batman Returns is perhaps the purest translation of Batman to the big screen — in live action anyway — and still offers a wholly unique vision of the Bat, the Cat and the Penguin.

"I feel really fondly about it because of the weird experiment that it felt like," Burton recently told Empire. Now more than ever, let's keep Batman weird.

Explore the Batsuit and Catsuit in 3D and learn fun behind the scenes facts from The Batman

Batman Returns is now available on Digital and also streaming on HBO Max