Tim Burton Kicked Off Batman Returns By Demanding A Full Rewrite Of The Script

Few Hollywood directors have managed to combine a distinctive artistic vision with tremendous commercial clout as successfully as Tim Burton. You can say what you want about his more recent output (I checked out after the heinous "Alice in Wonderland"), but there is no denying that the guy knows how to make a hit movie. In a career spanning almost 40 years and 19 films as a director, few of his movies have lost money, save for the likes of "Ed Wood." And even then, "Ed Wood" flopping felt like an appropriate tribute to its subject matter, the so-called worst director of all time who never found fame or made any money during his life.

Before the failure of his affectionate biopic of the man behind "Plan 9 From Outer Space," Burton had hit the ground running with a string of hits that showcased his left-field sensibilities while drawing in the crowds. "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure" and "Beetlejuice" both made significant profits at the box office, earning him the right to direct "Batman," the film that reinvented the Caped Crusader for a new generation, became a defining pop culture moment of the '80s, and was also one of the biggest hits of the decade. Burton proved that he could control his whimsical tendencies while at the helm of a big-budget production and deliver a blockbuster. He celebrated by making one of his most personal films to date, "Edward Scissorhands," which was also a financial success.

After the staggering success of "Batman," a sequel was inevitable. The only snag for Warner Bros. was that Burton would need some persuading. Their eagerness to secure his services resulted in the director receiving a level of creative freedom that seems unthinkable today (when directors sucked into superhero cinematic universes get hammered into the bland house style). The first thing Burton wanted to change was the screenplay.

Tim Burton wasted no time getting the screenplay changed

Early in his career, Tim Burton stated his general dislike for sequels:

"Sequels are only worthwhile if they give you the opportunity to do something new and interesting. It has to go beyond that, really, because you do the first for the thrill of the unknown. The sequel wipes all that out, so you must explore the next level. I don't rule out anything if the challenge is exciting."

Screenwriter Sam Hamm, who co-wrote "Batman," had developed a screenplay simply titled "Batman 2." It very much carried on from the events of the first film, following the flourishing romance between Bruce Wayne and reporter Vicki Vale while he also tackled two classic Batman supervillains, Penguin and Catwoman. Hamm originally wanted to chart the downfall of Harvey Dent as he became the fiendish Two-Face, but the studio considered Penguin to be Batman's biggest foe after Joker.

While Hamm's script was consistent with the darker tone of the original, it still worked towards a happy ending for the Dark Knight. It concluded with Bruce's marriage proposal to Vicki and also gave him some company at Wayne Manor in the form of Dick Grayson, in readiness to become Batman's youthful sidekick Robin.

It hardly sounds like the "next level" Burton spoke about. To appease him, Warner Bros. agreed to bring in screenwriter Daniel Waters, whose work on "Heathers" Burton admired. He was tasked with completely re-writing the script to satisfy a more Burtonesque vision, and he made significant changes to Hamm's original concept (who still received story credit). He kept Penguin and Catwoman as the chief baddies but scrapped Vicki Vale and created an original character, tycoon Max Shreck, to replace Two-Face. He kept Grayson, but poor Robin was later cut due to the escalating budget.

How Batman Returns became fully Burtonesque

Another major change to the "Batman Returns" screenplay was the tone. Daniel Waters pushed the darker elements even further, giving Penguin and Catwoman tragic backstories that added an extra dimension to their extroverted supervillain activities. Tim Burton was particularly keen on finding more depth for Penguin (via Den of Geek):

"You could find the psychological profile of Batman, Catwoman, Joker, but the Penguin was just this guy with a cigarette and a top hat. What is he?!"

Waters turned Penguin into an animalistic and pitiable creature. Like Bruce Wayne, he was born into wealth and lost his parents; not due to tragedy, but by them abandoning him as a baby. Waters also developed a psychosexual side for Selena Kyle and Catwoman, transforming her from a meek and lovelorn secretary into a fierce character who fully owns her sexuality.

Although Waters produced a screenplay more along Tim Burton's line of thinking, he also ended up leaving the project after he fell out with the director over the script. This led to a third writer, Wesley Strick, coming in to tidy up dialogue and concoct a masterplan for Penguin, a scheme to murder the firstborn sons of Gotham in revenge for his own abandonment as a baby. In keeping with the outlandish film we received, that plan involved lots of penguins with rockets strapped to their backs.

The screenplay wasn't the only thing that changed drastically as Burton imposed his unique aesthetic on the film. Warner Bros had maintained Anton Furst's Oscar-winning sets from "Batman" at Pinewood Studios in the UK with a view to using them for sequels, but the director was having none of that, either. He wanted Gotham City built again from the ground up on U.S. soil, becoming an even more fantastical metropolis overseen by production designer Bo Welch.

Did Tim Burton's dark vision affect the box office performance of Batman Returns?

It's hard to think of another Hollywood blockbuster as strange as "Batman Returns," the work of an offbeat auteur who was handed the keys to the kingdom. Despite the sensational production design and colorful performances from Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfieffer, and Christopher Walken as the villains, it's far more warped and downbeat than the original, leaning into the director's affinity for weirdos and outsiders. It is certainly a purer distillation of Tim Burton's style, more in keeping tonally and thematically with "Beetlejuice" and "Edward Scissorhands" than its no-nonsense predecessor.

"Batman Returns" was another big hit, making just under $267 million from its $80 million budget and topping the chart for domestic gross while coming in sixth worldwide. Despite its financial success, it wasn't quite the mega-hit predicted compared to Burton's original film, which racked up $411.6 million worldwide versus its smaller $35 million budget. This was seen as a result of the darker, kinkier material. Wesley Strick said:

"Warners wasn't thrilled with The Penguin's plot to kidnap and kill the firstborn sons of Gotham City — which was the master plan I'd come up with. The toy companies and fast-food franchises with licensing deals were even less thrilled. [...] Yet somehow we got away with all this stuff, though the darkness and edginess were blamed by the studio for the fall-off in box office from Tim's first 'Batman' film."

The studio could hardly blame Burton; he wanted more creative control before he agreed to make the sequel, and Warner Bros. was eager to give it to him. Now that we've reached a point of Marvel and DC Comics saturation, "Batman Returns" looks even more remarkable, standing out as something unique in the genre: a truly auteur-led superhero movie with its creator's peculiar fingerprints all over it.