30 years ago, Tim Burton made the sexiest and most sinister superhero movie

In a superhero media landscape almost entirely devoid of sex, 1992’s Batman Returns brought a level of kink to the adventures of the Caped Crusader never before seen in the DC comics or previous movie and TV iterations. Tim Burton’s second on-screen adaptation of Batman propelled Michael Keaton to sex symbol status alongside Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, and while Batman & Robin might have the infamous bat-nipple montage, Burton’s gothic horniness could make Joel Schumacher blush.

Keaton’s brooding, husky-voiced Batman, who loved his billionaire crime-fighter gadgets just as much as he loved his girls, made such an impact in theaters that both the character and the man in the suit inspired Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Academy Award-winning black dramedy, Birdman (2014), starring Keaton as a washed-up superhero actor.

The influence Keaton’s Batman had on the Dark Knight didn’t stop at Birdman. In fact, Keaton will be returning as The World’s Greatest Detective in the DC Extended Universe’s forthcoming Flash and Batgirl films. But there’s more to Batman Returns than Keaton that makes it a worthy revisit for both fans of superheroes and fans of Tim Burton’s memorable approach to filmmaking.

Tim Burton at his Burton-iest

Tim Burton, one of modern cinema’s most distinctive genre giants, made a name for himself in Hollywood with projects that infused movie magic and dark campiness, and with stories about outcasts that were simultaneously weird and warm. While we saw a bit of Burton’s trademark flair in Batman (1989), the director and co-producer went all-out for his second spin on the character, bringing in collaborators from previous projects to put his stamp on the movie.

Production designer Bo Welch, who worked with Burton on Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands, assisted in making Gotham look like a twisted German Expressionist fairytale, and Edward Scissorhands prosthetics artist Stan Winston transformed Danny DeVito into the film’s memorably disgusting sewer goblin take on the Penguin. Burton also enlisted the aid of The Nightmare Before Christmas and Edward Scissorhands composer Danny Elfman for both of his Batman flicks, which provided audio continuity and recognizability for his burgeoning Burton universe.

It helped that Batman Returns’ characters — Batman, the Penguin, Catwoman, and even Christopher Walken’s wild-haired Max Shreck — all fell under the same character archetype that Burton has always shown interest in exploring. They’re rejects and pariahs, folks who either voluntarily or involuntarily distance themselves from the mainstream fabric of society. Batman Returns was, despite being a franchise film, on brand for the director.

An iconic cast

Batman Returns is ultimately a cautionary tale about what happens when outcasts are tossed out like trash and return with extraordinary abilities. Batman, Catwoman, and the Penguin all crave companionship and romance, but their need to prove their worth and leave a legacy overrides their humanity.

Keaton’s Batman, of course, taps into his childhood trauma and wealthy birthright to right wrongs rather than deal with his issues, while Pfeiffer’s Catwoman and DeVito’s Penguin care little for ethics in their ruthless and determined pursuit of their own schemes. Keaton’s performance as a tormented Batman helped elevate the film from traditional superhero fodder to the grisly, gloomy drama we would come to expect from all Batman content henceforth, but Pfeiffer, DeVito, and Walken are Batman Returns’ biggest scene-stealers, and their magnetism is almost too much villainy for the movie to handle.

Burton, along with casting director Marion Dougherty, made flawless, unforgettable choices by going with actors that weren’t traditional fits for action blockbuster, but who had horror and fantasy genre experience and matched their comic book counterparts. Pfeiffer’s dominatrix appeal, DeVito’s flipper grotesquerie, and Walken’s controlled malevolence in their respective roles were iconic.

It’ll be interesting to see how Keaton’s Batman holds up alone against Ezra Miller’s Flash and Leslie Grace Martínez first go as Barbara Gordon, 30 years after we bid adieu to his version of Bruce Wayne in Batman Returns. Will he look like a relic of the past, or will he add some much-needed sex appeal to a superhero genre that’s been keeping it in its pants for most of the last decade?

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