Between 1989 and 1997, Warner Bros. Pictures released four live-action Batman movies: Batman (1989), Batman Returns (1992), Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin (1997). The first two movies were directed by Tim Burton and starred Michael Keaton as the Caped Crusader; while the second two were directed by Joel Schumacher and starred Val Kilmer and George Clooney as the subsequent Batmen.
If you’re familiar with the four films – collectively known as the Batman Anthology – you’ll know that the first two films are stylistically similar (dark, gothic), and the second two films are stylistically similar (lighter, campier). If you were to cut the Batman Anthology in two, there would be a fairly clear line in which to divide the series.
Yet, amongst the four films there is one way in particular in which Batman Returns is very different to all of the other films, however way you cut them. That difference is in what is missing from the story – a visual reference to the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents.
Batman ’89 includes a flashback sequence in which Bruce Wayne remembers the night his parents were killed. Having left a cinema in Gotham City, the Wayne family are approached by two men – one of which is Jack Napier (aka the Joker) – and are subsequently gunned down.
This flashback sequence is picked up again in Batman Forever, with Bruce recalling the scene. The flashback is shorter in Batman Forever than it is in Batman ’89, but it is included in the film as a call back to the events of the first Batman movie.
Batman & Robin does not include this flashback, but it does include a very brief moment in which a young Bruce Wayne is stood next to his parents’ gravestone. It is a short moment on screen, but it is a visual indication of his past trauma.
Batman Returns is the only film in the Batman Anthology which does not include a visual nod to the death of Thomas and Martha Wayne. The closest the movie comes to making reference to the event, is when Bruce passes comment to Alfred, that he hopes the Penguin is able to track down his parents – a subtle indication that Bruce understands what it is like to be an orphan.
Is Batman Returns and better for not including a visual representation of the Wayne deaths? Well, I wouldn’t say it is any better or worse for not including this reference. If anything, with Batman ’89 focusing so heavily on Batman’s origin, Batman Returns did its level best not to spend too much time referencing what had come before.
Instead of repeating the same story, Batman Returns pushed forward, working from the basis that the audience was already familiar with what happened in Batman ’89.
Batman Forever repeated the scene of the Wayne deaths because it wanted audiences to know it was part of the same series. When Joel Schumacher was brought on board to direct the movie, he brought a different aesthetic to the series, so the film had to include a significant visual link to connect the films.
Batman & Robin didn’t need to go over old ground and was envisioned as a more light-hearted tale, so the Wayne deaths were only referenced in a split-second. The graveyard scene was used as a nod to their passing, as well as a way to establish the father/son relationship between Bruce and Alfred.
So, yes, of all four films in the Batman Anthology, Batman Returns stands out as the only entry in this collection not to include a visual reference to the death of Thomas and Martha Wayne.