Monday, June 18, 2012

June 18th, 1992 - Twenty years later, how backlash against Batman Returns changed the blockbuster business.

Three years ago, in celebration of the 20th anniversary of Tim Burton's Batman, I wrote a piece detailing seven ways in which the film changed the movie business.  What was meant to be a celebratory piece turned a bit dark as I realized that the film (which I still love) had far more negative effects than positive effects.  Now we sit on the 20th anniversary of Batman Returns, which is divisive enough as to cause fights over its relative quality.  It's either an overstuffed mess or possibly the best Batman film ever made, you can guess which side of the fence I'm closer to.  The sequel opened on June 18th, 1992 to mixed-positive reviews.  There is no laundry list of the ways the sequel altered the cinematic landscape like its predecessor.  But it did indeed have two massive effects on mainstream movie-going, both of which are quite negative, that still reverberate to this day.  And without further ado, here are three (3) ways Batman Returns changed the industry, one relatively unimportant and two quite unfortunate.

Character posters became an indispensable marketing tool -
It is pretty much status quo today, but Warner Bros. marketing took a simple idea, creating individual character posters of the main participants, and ran with it.  Thus aside from the various teaser posters and theatrical one-sheet, you had individual posters of Batman, The Penguin, and Catwoman.  Now before the online film news era, the purpose of these posters was pretty simple: They allowed for the variation of the film's print ads for greater saturation.  They were so popular that there were widespread reports of various character posters being stolen from bus-stops and off of walls all over America, a trend that would continue with Batman Forever and Batman & Robin. 20th Century Fox revived this idea for the first X-Men picture in 2000, and it's been par for the course ever since... unless you're whomever handled marketing for Disney's John Carter.  In the last twenty years we've seen countless character posters for any number of would-be blockbusters and even for some more small-scale studio releases now and then.  Again, it's a minor thing, but credit goes to the one that did it first.  And unless I'm forgetting something, Batman Returns did it first.

Batman Returns invents the quick-kill blockbuster -I've been whining about this for twenty years.  When Batman Returns opened to $46 million in June 1992, besting Batman's record $40 million debut in 1989, many anlayists and pundits figured that the sequel would surely out-gross the $251 million domestic total for the first Batman and thus become the sixth-highest grossing film of all-time (Batman ended its run at number five, but Home Alone earned $281 million the next year to take the #3 spot behind Star Wars and E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial). But the film dropped what was a then-huge 45% in its second weekend and was basically played out in just six weeks.  With $162 million, the film was still the top-grossing picture of summer 1992 and ended up number three for the year, behind Home Alone 2 ($175 million), and Aladdin ($220 million).  There are reasons for this lightning-fast drop, and I'll get to it in the next portion. Batman Returns was something we had never seen before - a film that was generally disliked by the populace and fell out of the box office top ten in a matter of weeks, but still earned so much money in those initial weekends that it was still a massive hit.  This taught Hollywood an awful lesson, and extension on the 'opening weekend rules!' lesson learned from Batman.  Tim Burton's Batman sequel was mostly dismissed by the masses but it was *still* a blockbuster.  Back in 1992, the film's quick plunge caused pandemonium across the industry.  But three years later, when Batman Forever opened with $52 million (another record) and ended with *just* $184 million in America (number two behind Toy Story's $197 million for the year), no one so much as blinked.

By the time Mission: Impossible opened with $76 million in six days but ended up with just $181 million total (it went from a Fri-Sun opening of $46 million to a second-weekend gross of $22 million, a 53% drop) in 1996, the die was cast. No longer did you actually have to make a well-liked film to score blockbuster grosses (if you recall, audiences found the Brian DePalma's Mission: Impossible too confusing). All you needed was the opening and pre-release anticipation to score a massive opening weekend and the natural progression over the next four weekends would still lead to major profitability. In the many years that followed, there were any number of quick-kill blockbusters. Films like Lara Croft: Tomb Raider ($47 million opening/$131 million domestic finish), Men In Black II ($87 million over the July 4th holiday weekend, $190 million domestic finish), and The Matrix Reloaded ($134 million from Thurs-Sun, $281 million domestic finish) all had relatively spectacular opening weekends after which they sank like proverbial stones. Cut to June 2005, when Batman Begins was considered leggy and the benefactor of good word-of-mouth because it dropped *only* 45% in its second weekend ($48 million in the Fri-Sun portion of a five-day debut, $29 million second weekend). Nowadays, would-be blockbusters are considered leggy if they gross three-times their Fri-Sun opening weekend over their domestic theatrical run. And the film-going experience is generally so front-loaded anyway that surprisingly good summer 2011 entries like Fast Five and Captain America still took massive second-weekend dips. In an environment like that, what exactly is the incentive to make a good movie?

Batman Returns delivers a fatal blow for adult sensabilities in four-quadrant blockbusters -
So, why exactly did Batman Returns turn off mass audiences in such a 'trail-blazing' fashion?  Well, obviously enough people thought it just wasn't a very good movie,  however I might disagree with that sentiment.  But the film also triggered a public outcry over its content and its tone.  While Batman inspired a token amount of finger-wagging about whether a Batman movie should be PG-13, Batman Returns was seen as pushing the envelope of that PG-13 rating.  The film is filled with often graphic violence, gruesome imagery, explicit sexual innuendos, and rather dark plot turns.  Yes the body count is low, but this was not a generic and/or conventional blockbuster, but a morbid and often grotesque fairy tale that earned its PG-13. It was absolutely intended for kids ten-and-up as opposed to the five-years who flocked to the theaters and didn't like The Penguin's horrifying appearance and/or his often vile behavior (eating raw fish, bleeding black slime, plotting to kidnap and drown babies, etc.) one bit.  Parents were shocked/horrified by both the violence and the rather explicit sexuality on display.  Obviously Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman (which I'd argue should have won her an Oscar that year) was crafted as a sexually confrontational being (the gimmick is that Selina Kyle is a goodie-goodie acting like a stereotypical vixen as a form of emotional release) and The Penguin spends the whole movie leering and offering crude sexual come-ons.

At heart, Batman Returns, with its Grand-Guignol overtones and over-the-top weirdness, is basically an art film about damaged souls dressing up in costumes to avoid dealing with their emotional traumas.  It actually set the template for the superhero sequel, with the hero facing villains who were metaphorical stand-ins for what he could become (the cruel businessman, the freakish and embittered orphan, and the openly murderous vigilante) if he gave into the darker parts of his soul (Iron Man 2 and The Dark Knight both play in the same thematic sandbox).  The public outcry over its (I'd argue) age-appropriate content was as much caused by the film's aggressive marketing to much younger kids (especially the McDonalds Happy Meal tie-in which sparked outcry) and led the way for what would eventually be much stricter marketing rules for R-rated films.  It was a true PG-13 film but everyone was up-in-arms because it didn't play like a glorified PG action film.  Never-mind that the first Batman was incredibly violent, or that the prior summer's Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves also earned outcry over its overwhelming violence, the long-game effect was not a toning down of violent content in PG-13 films but rather a neutering of genuinely adult themes, overt sexuality, and overly complex characters in films deemed to be mass-market blockbusters.

How many times have you seen a PG-13 film theoretically pitched at adults that has the sensibility of a kids' film (Terminator: Salvation comes to mind)?  There has been a meme for as long as I've been alive that mass-market films are aimed towards fourteen-year old boys.  To the extent that it's true today, the aftershocks of a genuinely adult-skewing fantasy like Batman Returns played a big role in terms of the kinds of ideas and content that gets into major tentpole genre films.  How often do mainstream would-be blockbusters have genuinely adult subject matter, adult concepts, or even somewhat subversive adult content?  The heroes are generally square, the girls are pretty much virgin/whore, and the villains are genocidal without being overtly disturbing. Batman Returns, along with Brian DePalma's Mission: Impossible represented the last time would-be blockbusters were actually pitched at an adult audience.   Even pure R-rated studio fare (however rare that is in the first place) like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo  has graphic violence and several rape scenes but still plays in the arena of pure good vs. pure evil. Even clearly-adult skewing thrillers like The Da Vinci Code are drained of sexuality and any potentially controversial ideas that might offend mass audiences.

There *are* exceptions here and there over the last twenty years, be it the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, The Bourne Supremacy, and arguably The Dark Knight.  But the popular and critical reaction to Batman Returns led to a certain homogenization of mainstream blockbuster cinema overall, with PG-13 films that may have been packed with bloodless violence but were mostly devoid of adult sensibilities and truly adult content.  The popularity of young-adult fantasy adaptations which sometimes acknowledge grey morality (Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games) and sometimes play in the darker end of the pool may bode well towards ending this long trend, but we'll cross that bridge if/when. And television has certainly picked up the slack offering a host of morally-complicated dramas and unapologetic anti-heroes in unquestionably adult-targeted narratives.  Seven years after its creation, the PG-13 went from 'R-lite' to 'PG-plus'.  Even as the 2001 FEC marketing guidelines have given us ten years of R-rated films cut to PG-13 ribbons, the mega-movies are still pitched to a somewhat juvenile audience even when they seem intended for adult moviegoers. It's not that the last two decades of blockbusters were bereft of ideas, but rather that that they seemed pitched to a certain conformist morality/philosophy and child's-eye view of the world even while they got more violent and more intense over the decades.

Twenty years after Batman Returns, we are in a movie-going era where studios can get away with explaining that a 55% second-weekend drop isn't *that* bad due to front-loading and where it's perfectly normal for a major film to make 80% of their domestic grosses in the first seventeen days.  Thanks to the precedent set by Batman Returns, blockbusters don't have to be good to reach relative blockbuster grosses, while the fear of losing even a single quadrant has rendered even R-rated films as mostly kid-friendly in terms of subject matter and ideology (think of how many R-rated sex comedies feature almost no explicit sex and end with an overt validation of the monogamist nuclear family).  For better or worse, Batman Returns was an adult-skewing, genuinely subversive art-house fantasy disguised as a four-quadrant blockbuster.  The deception was punished and its effects were lasting.  Twenty years later, we're still living with the aftershocks.

Scott Mendelson              


corysims said...

Excellent essay. I remember seeing it like it was yesterday. I was thirteen when this hit and vividly remembering that this film was unlike Batman and back then, I didn't know how I felt about it,even while wearing out the VHS when it came to home video.

For me, it's the third best Batman film, while also not being totally right to the mythos of Batman. That doesn't change the fact that Burton made a hell of a film with Returns.

Still has the greatest female performance in the history of this genre, bar none.

Let's see what you've got Anne...

Simoncolumb said...

I only recently watched the four-films recently and despite the box-office success and awful toy-campaign, I think this is the strongest of the four. Burton without the producers restraint. Yes, its flawed, but it is more consistent than BATMAN and so much more sinister than BATMAN FOREVER and BATMAN AND ROBIN.

Revgabe said...

I've always loved this movie even for it's flaws but I would be less than honest if I didn't say the most memorable scene was when Walken told Penquin about "unlimited poon tang". I still remember sitting in the theatre thinking "Ummm.....didn't he just say that?"

Ekpookwong93 said...

Though it's been documented that there was backlash from parents which due to the lower than BATMAN '89 numbers led to WB canning Burton I've never bought the line that the populace as a whole detested the film. Maybe because despite your quotes about the opening weekend and huge drop in my mind when a blockbuster bombs (JOHN CARTER) or underperforms in a far more severe fashion (BR was in the top 3 domestically for it's year) that's when you can confidently say the mass moviegoing audience didn't care for said product. Not especially when Michelle P's Catwoman was greeted with the same enthusiasm as Nicholson's Joker was.

Nor do I believe that it led to 'adult sensibilities' being dropped from PG-13 blockbusters. If anything the BATMAN franchise suffered because of parents essentially viewing the source material as kid's stuff. TDK would have gotten the same reaction in '92.

Scott Mendelson said...

The film received a 'B' from Cinemascore in an era when anything under an A- was considered worrisome. Obviously the film was a cost-to-gross smash hit, but the perception in 1992 (I remember it vividly) was that it under-performed compared to (unrealistic?) expectations and that a big part of the drop was due to pissed-off parents and their tearful children. The general consensus was "Catwoman was great, but...". You're right that there was a big difference in how The Dark Knight was marketed, as Warner Bros. basically went out of their way *not* to sell it to younger audiences (something that I incorrectly thought back in May 2008 would cost it a shot at opening weekend records). Perhaps a part of it was that parents still wrote off the franchise as kids-stuff. But I'd argue that the aftermath was a genuine attempt to make sure that all/most would-be blockbusters were appropriate for as young an audience as possible. That is my subjective opinion in what I've witnessed in the twenty years since, but few can deny that the lightning-fast fall of what still ended up being a blockbuster gross for Batman Returns sent shockwaves through the industry and eventually became the key to short-game theatrical releases.

For reference -,,311258,00.html,,311012,00.html

Ekpookwong93 said...

TDK had merchandising tie ins directed towards the younger market.

_ said...

I loved the Burton films as a kid, but generally can't stand them now, and Batman Returns is no exception.

That said...did audiences really not like Mission Impossible? I loved it when I was *checks* 12 years old, and I love it more now. The second Mission Impossible sucks, but the rest of that series is great, great fimmaking, in my opinion!

Scott Mendelson said...

Ironically, few if any kids I knew (I was 16) had any problems understanding the movie, but adults (critics and otherwise) exclaimed about how confusing and complicated it was. It was a big deal back then and Mission: Impossible 2 (which I like more than most) is full of spoon-feeding exposition as a direct result. The major point of confusion is the third act montage where Hunt talks about Kitridge's alleged betrayal as the visuals show that he's really talking about Phelps. I got it, you got it, but quite a few moviegoers did not.


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