This is one of three pieces that delve into something that has frankly puzzled me over the years. In brief, we've seen occasions where a massively, seemingly influential blockbuster that completely failed to spawn successful imitators. Yet some years later, another somewhat similar film would end up unleashing a wave of proverbial copycats. What is it about the second successful at-bat that spurred the studios (and of course paying audiences) in a way the first time did not? The first of these three pieces will deal with the comic book film in the aftermath of Batman. Remember all of those smash-hit comic book adaptations brought on by the success of Tim Burton's Batman back in June of 1989? Oh right, there weren't any. Yes, I will always argue that Batman changed the movie industry and basically kick-started the whole idea of shaping various non-traditional properties for big-screen adaptations (something I'll touch upon yet again in a later essay), but it did not usher in a new golden age of comic book films.
The first major comic book film, released a mere nine months later (which means it was in pre-production by the time Batman was released in theaters), was New Line Cinema's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. That film was of course a massive hit, grossing $130 million in the US off a huge $25 million opening weekend (a figure that was in the top ten debuts of all time, if not the top five). But after that and the disappointment-in relation-to cost Dick Tracy (which opened to $21 million and slowly crawled to $100 million in June 1990), pretty much every other major comic book adaptation aside from the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sequel ($88 million in 1991) and the various Batman sequels all tanked.
The only real smash comic book adaptation post TMNT was Men In Black, which was sold on its concept and the star power of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones rather than its origins as a cult comic book that no one had heard of. That was July 1997 and the next big would-be comic book hit was Blade in August 1998. While the film was surely the first time a Marvel Comics film hit it big, and it was arguably the start of the current modern-day comic book film sub-genre, it was arguably sold simply as a 'watch Wesley Snipes fight vampires' action thriller as opposed to, again, an adaptation of a comic book that most general audiences hadn't heard of. The film that truly kicked off the comic book movie trend, eleven years after Batman, was of course Bryan Singer's X-Men. In its footsteps followed Spider-Man, Batman Begins, Iron Man and the less impressive but still profitable likes of Fantastic Four and Ghost Rider.
Of course, the failure of Batman to bring about a wave of new Spider-Man or Green Lantern movies isn't just a case of perhaps the technology not quite being there or legal rights being tangled up in proverbial webs. If you go back and watch Tim Burton's Batman, you'll notice something very interesting about it. It's basically a 1940's period piece. Oh sure there are bits and pieces of 'modern technology', most of it possessed by Bruce Wayne himself. But the color scheme, the costume designs (trench coats and fedoras), the weapons (pistols and Tommy-guns), plus the hard-boiled narrative all point to an old-school film noir that just happens to have a man in a giant bat suit and a mobster who gets turned into a homicidal clown. Yes, especially in its first third, Batman basically plays like a 1930s/1940s Warner Bros. gangster picture. It arguably gets more modern as it progresses (Carl Grissom's henchmen go from wearing suits and trench coats to wearing leather jackets when working for The Joker), but the film has a sensibility that doesn't so much render it timeless (save for the three Prince songs that play during the film) but a rather authentic adaptation of the first three years or so of the original Bob Kane/Bill Finger 'The Bat-Man" comic book stories.
Why this is important is that it explains the kind of comic book/superhero films that we did see after Batman. With the noted exception of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, pretty much every would-be 'next Batman' was a 1930s or 1940s-set period adventure film. Dick Tracy, The Rocketeer, The Shadow, and The Phantom all followed in Burton's footsteps, and all were financially disappointing, if not outright bombs. The other comic book adaptations we saw were explicitly futuristic and/or post-apocalyptic in nature, but they too (Judge Dredd, Tank Girl, Barbed Wire, etc.) also met unfortunate box office ends. Ironically one of the first bursts of light in the genre came from Spawn, which was among the rare post-Batman comic book adaptations which depended on fans of the source material which also actually took place in the relative present-tense. It was also one of the first major post-Batman comic book films that actually had fans of the source material actually clamoring for a movie version. If you clearly look at the films that followed Batman and the films that followed Blade and X-Men, you see a quite literal shift in time.
Following the second and much more successful run of comic book films from 2000 up to the present, so consistent was the whole time period issue that it was a genuine shock when we had two period piece comic book adaptations not just being released but being released over the same summer (2011, with X-Men: First Class and Captain America). Even the eventual Batman reboot was based firmly in the present day, which was arguably a big part of its appeal. What you also saw were film adaptations of comic books that audiences actually had token knowledge of. It took us over a decade, but we spent the 2000's and beyond finally getting the big-budget film versions of the comic books we actually cared about (Spider-Man, X-Men, Superman, Green Lantern, etc.). Batman led to a wave of minor-league characters (or long-forgotten icons) getting the big-screen treatment while the few attempts at A-level characters went straight-to-VHS (The Punisher, Captain America) or to episodic television (CBS's The Flash). Eleven years after Batman, X-Men led the charge of seeing comic book movies for the major leagues, the ones that audiences actually wanted to see in movie-form.
Other than merely acknowledging this oddity, I have to wonder just what happened. Was it merely a case of certain characters being tied up in legal rights issues? Was it the subliminal suggestion that audiences who flocked to Batman wanted more superhero movies that look and felt like they took places in the 1930's or 1940's, film versions of the characters that their parents and grandparents grew up on as opposed to big-budget versions of the modern day comic legends? I don't know and I don't want to speculate too much. But it is indeed an oddity that Batman didn't usher in a golden age of comic book cinema despite its record-breaking box office success. The legacy of Tim Burton's Batman is a strange and complicated one, but it is merely one example of a massive box office success that did not inspire the kind of successful imitation that one might expect in its wake.