When it comes to the great missed opportunities of superhero cinema, there aren't many that loom larger than Tim Burton's Batman 3 - the film that never was.
Batman Forever (the eventual third installment in the Bat-franchise) was fun and all - but it was also marked the beginning of a slide into light-hearted camp that culminated in Batman and Robin. Which, compared to the dark, moody, and gothic Burton films was...not quite right.
The big question, then, is why didn't we get to see Burton's Batman 3, in all its gloomy glory?
Well, one man has an answer. A certain...Bat...Man...
The Batman Cometh
Or, rather, Burton's Batman himself, Michael Keaton, who recently revealed to Entertainment Weekly that - despite turning down $15 million dollars to play the part again - he would happily play Batman again:
"If it was Tim Burton directing? In a heartbeat. Tim, in the movies, really invented the whole dark-superhero thing. He started everything, and some of the guys who have done these movies since then don’t say that, and they’re wrong."
The thing is, though, Keaton also suggested that there was a very specific reason why he didn't return for Batman 3...
"I hadn't been stupid about it. I always knew it was a big machine with a big studio and corporation behind it. But the simple answer was, it wasn't any good. I was nice. I said to them, ‘This is a really interesting character with a dual personality.’ I tried to make them understand. But when somebody says to you, ‘Does it have to be so dark?... I thought, are we talking about the same character? So finally I just said no."
Which...makes a whole lot of sense - especially since Keaton took Batman to a whole new level of brooding, matched only by Christian Bale in the 2000's.
The thing is, though, that explains why Keaton wasn't interested in returning for a third movie back then - for the Joel Schumacher-directed, Robin, Riddler and Two-Face filled, toy-selling extravaganza that is Batman Forever - but the cinematic Bat-universe has changed a whole lot since then. Could then, a Burton/Keaton Batman movie still happen now?
Well, there are a few other obstacles that we'd have to get past to make it happen. For one thing...
Tim Burton Didn't Want To Make It
Or, for that matter, Batman Returns. The director described filming the first Bat-flick as "a little boring at times," and reportedly only agreed to make a sequel after substantial courting from the studio. Even then, he set out to make the second movie very much on his own terms, revealing:
"Oftentimes with sequels, they're like the same movie except everything gets jacked up a little. I didn't feel I could do that; I wanted to treat this like it was another Batman movie altogether. But if I was going to do it, I had to do what I do. What I had to offer was to make it feel fresh.''
Which, in the face of substantial studio pressure to make the film merchandising-friendly, seems to have been an uphill struggle, with Burton admitting that:
"I often felt they forgot we were making a movie. It seems like they wished the process of making the film didn’t have to happen and they could cut immediately to the merchandising."
So, it isn't too surprising, then, that after so troubled a production on Batman Returns, Burton would be reluctant to return for a third movie.
Now, though, with his box office credibility as high as it was in the 1980's, and the Bat-franchise getting darker by the year, could he change his mind?
The thing is, though, there was a little more to it than that...
The Merchandising Problems
Now, that merchandising pressure Burton was feeling on Batman Returns wasn't in his head - there was a major push from Warner Bros to merchandise every aspect of the movie possible - right down to the Happy Meal Toy tie-in with McDonald's.
The problem was - that didn't go down so well with some parents groups once they saw how dark the actual movie was - accusing Warner Bros of marketing a serious, adult superhero movie featuring penguins to children.
When those groups began protesting at McDonald's restaurants, the company shut down the tie-in promotion - and presumably gave the film's producers an earful of angry, angry shouting.
Add in a vocal campaign against the movie's use of penguins from PETA, and the whole thing presumably began to feel like more trouble than it was worth to Warner executives.
All of that, though, has long since fallen by the wayside - and would surely not be an obstacle to Burton directing a new, dark take on the Bat-mythos?
The thing is, though, when it came time to greenlight a third Bat-movie...
The Studio Wanted a Way Lighter Sequel
(And, by way lighter, I mean they decided to hire Jim Carrey as The Riddler)
Which prompted what sounds like the world's most awkward meeting. As Burton put it:
"I remember toying with the idea of doing ... one, and I remember going into Warner Brothers, and having a meeting, and going, 'We could do this, we could do that,' and they go, 'Tim, don't you wanna do a smaller movie now? You know, just something that's more..,' and like, about half hour into the meeting, I go, 'You don't want me to make another one, do you?,' and they're like, 'Oh, no, no, no, no, no,' and I just said, 'No, I know you don't,' and so I just stopped it right there."
The cause of that awkwardness? The studio had already decided to move on with the project - but with a different star and director.
As the head of a competing studio reportedly put it:
"'If you bring back Burton and Keaton, you're stuck with their vision. You can't expect 'Honey, I Shrunk the Batman'.''
So, Warner Bros. moved on - and then, after the huge success of Batman Forever (and the notable failure of Batman and Robin) ended up moving right back to the darkness of Burton's original vision with the Christian Bale and Christopher Nolan-led Dark Knight Trilogy a few years later.
Which, in one sense, makes the idea of a new Burton/Keaton Batman movie all the more likely - their sensibility would fit into the modern Bat-verse far more easily than that of the early 1990's.
The big problem?
There's a new, older Batman in Gotham, and his upcoming movie [Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice](movie:711870) is reportedly set to draw heavily from Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns - the only major Bat-story that would be a natural fit for Keaton's age, and Burton's dark sensibility.
So, it seems that when it comes to the Batman 3 we never saw, whether Keaton or Burton were seriously inclined to return or not, the studio made the decision on one basis, and one basis alone: Merchandising.
When it comes to a new, Keaton-starring, Burton-directed Batman movie, though, that's unlikely to be the problem anymore. Instead, it's simply that times have changed - and Zach Snyder (like Christopher Nolan before him) has taken up the dark Bat-mantle that Burton laid down two decades ago, and made it something even more successful.
So, we get the dark, moody Bat-movies we always wanted - but they, in turn, might just have made that awesome-sounding Keaton/Burton reunion impossible...
The final question, though?
Would you still want to see Tim Burton's Batman come back to the screen?