With the success of the first Batman movie in 1989, a sequel was soon planned. Batman Returns had a bigger budget and more hype leading to the release in ’92. The sequel is good, but the overall tone seems like a slightly less serious Batman movie. Part of the problem was that Tim Burton didn’t want to do a sequel. In order to get him on board, Warner Bros. had to offer more creative freedom. His style is usually pretty likeable, but Batman Returns got a bit abstract, sometimes almost cartoonish this time around. Yet, Batman Returns is still miles better than the other 90’s Bat-sequels. Before getting to those, let’s take a closer look at changing trends in the decade.
The early 90s could have been a ripe time for superhero movies. I don’t just say this because I personally become a fan of comic books and really wanted good superhero movies. Comics were extremely popular, in part thanks to the 70s and 80s creating a bigger and more mainstream readership. Dedicated comic book stores were fairly common. Even pharmacies and grocery stores carried comics. New companies, like Image, proved there was room for new heroes on the market. Superheroes were translated into a range of merchandise: video games, trading cards, action figures, etc. TV was also once again becoming a safe home for the heroes.
A live-action Flash show debuted in 1990, though it didn’t last more than a season. The dramatized romance, Lois & Clark, debuted in ’93 and lasted four seasons, though this show didn’t exactly aim for action. More than anything, superheroes began to rebound with cartoons. DC had a highly praised Batman cartoon, and later, an animated Superman. Marvel found immense success with an X-Men cartoon before expanding with several other cartoons over the next years. Part of the interest in comic-book cartoons probably owed some acknowledgement to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and the financial success this former comic-book brought about.
Also in the 90s, movies like Jurassic Park and Terminator 2 made near anything seem possible with special effects. Hollywood had reasons aside from Batman to see the potential with comic books, mainly, Dick Tracy. The Dick Tracy movie came out in 1990 and after, a trend began to turn heroes of yesteryear into movies. The Rocketeer was noir-type, though not necessarily old. The Phantom at least wore a suit, even if a cheesy purple one. The best of the bunch was probably The Shadow. The character at least had superpowers. Still, such movies made me wonder why we could get a guy in purple velour, but no Spider-Man.
One hurdle was in getting licenses to currently popular comic-book characters—older and less popular heroes were usually easier and cheaper for Hollywood producers to obtain. To get around this, producers/directors either came up with something original, or used a character few people had heard of. Movies like Darkman, Judge Dredd, The Crow, were aimed toward mature audiences. Uncommon comic book heroes got adaptations—like Tank Girl, which really tanked, Barb Wire, which drowned without a lifeguard in sight, and Guyver, based on the a Japanese comic, and which the force definitely was not with.
Superhero parodies seemed a waning trend, but they did rear their head. Meteor Man was like a movie with the power of invisibility. Blankman, well…I admit I liked Blankman. A look at the early 90s would not be complete without mention of movies that seemed super-heroic in nature. There was something called Phenomenon and probably a bunch of other crap with John Travolta. There was also Powder. This movie took the idea of superpowers extremely seriously, though the core of the movie seemed to be more about being different than having powers. Still, Powder was a good one. Mall Rats wasn’t a superhero movie, but featured big fans of comic books, and the Kevin Smith comedy probably helped make liking comic books seem cool (so I used to tell myself).
Despite progression toward serious adaptations of superheroes during the 90s, the backbone that seemed to have the most mainstream appeal in the era all came back to Batman. After Batman Returns in ‘92, many of the major problems of Hollywood misrepresenting superheroes emerged even more in the series. For one, people complained about Batman Returns being violent and not child-friendly. This complaint should have had no ground, but the old idea that superheroes were for kids influenced the development of the next Batman movies. Never mind that the original cast and creative team refused to do a third, Warner Bros. went right ahead with Batman Forever.
This time around, director Joel Schumacher wanted full-merchandising of the film, making it family-friendly with an MTV appeal. The movie got a big soundtrack and Schumacher apparently wanted to get back to some of the ’66 roots, adding some ass-slappingly-silly comedy into the mix. The movie was simply about milking the bat (a bat should never be milked either, unless by baby bats). The new creative team made decisions to add things like lots of neon, and bat nipples. The cast wasn’t bad, but apparently there were lots of actor squabbles during production. The movie made decent money, but it seemed less like a comic-book Batman and more like how a bunch of uninspired Hollywood-types perceived Batman. From here, it got worse.
Batman & Robin was released in 1997. A simple look at the some images of the costumes and vehicles is enough to see how ridiculous this movie is. It’s almost like parents wanting to sabotage any chance of their child being popular, so they dress him/her in suspenders and polka dots on the first day of school. Batman 4 gained some interest by casting Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze, and George Clooney as Batman, but the movie was ridiculous. It did nothing to help mainstream audiences and Hollywood take superheroes more seriously. It made money, but with a backlash. People got tired of the Bat-crap. Critics and the majority of audiences criticized Batman & Robin as downright awful. Luckily for superhero fans, this was a good thing. Some people in Hollywood and the comic-book industry took note of how audiences reacted. As a result, finally during the late 90s, balance began to tip back toward presenting superheroes in a more serious light, and the spawn of better things was nigh.
Join me next week, same M.Y.O.P.I.A-time and same M.Y.O.P.I.A.-channel, for the conclusion to the Superhero Slump series.