Tim Burton’s 1989 ‘Batman’ Paved the Way for Superhero Franchises

It’s becoming an annual ritual: Each summer at this time, the studios review their box office numbers and assure us, “Don’t worry, next year will be better.”

Hence, while summer 2014 has been blah (down almost 20%), we’re reminded that in 2015, the biggest moviegoing
season of the year will mark a return to sequels heaven with “Jurassic Park IV,” “Ted 2” and “The Avengers 2” to name a few. Hollywood’s hubris will reign again.

But can the sequels parade flourish forever? Will there be a moment during some future summer when the superheroes simply are too geriatric to perform their box office feats?

Here’s the long view: Some film historians argue that the concept of the superhero franchise was born precisely 25 years ago. That’s when Hollywood realized that the newly released “Batman” was not just a hit at the box office, but that it also came with a full array of tentpole tools — merchandising and global marketing and distribution. It was not just about selling a movie, it was about establishing a brand and peddling a full line of corporate paraphernalia (the 25th anniversary Blu-ray edition will be released in the fall).

Indeed, the planning was so diabolically meticulous that everyone quickly forgot “Batman’s” nasty pre-production buzz in 1989, not to mention the negative reviews. Indeed, the “Batman” exercise had its skeptics from the outset. Tim Burton’s vision of Gotham seemed too gloomy, the marketing materials too downbeat. Plus Jack Nicholson’s take on the Joker was over the top and Michael Keaton seemed too lightweight an actor to be believable in the role of the hero brooding in his Batcave.

There had been many blockbusters before “Batman,” of course, but most had been unpremeditated — almost inadvertent. Neither Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas nor Steven Spielberg, for example, had studied the mechanics of tentpoling or tried to master its mass-marketing stratagems when they collectively conceived their mega hits. Coppola devised “The Godfather” as an art picture; Lucas saw “Star Wars” as a personal film, and Spielberg’s “Jaws” was a tight thriller that ran out of control and took on an identity of its own.

In the mid-’80s, Jeffrey Katzenberg manufactured high-concept movies at Paramount, but not high-concept merchandise to accompany them. There were no “Beverly Hills Cop” toy badges or “48 Hrs.” watches.

“Batman,” however, was envisioned by former Warner Bros. toppers Bob Daly and Terry Semel and producer Peter Guber as a tentpole from its inception. And the summer of 1989 seemed primed for innovation. “Batman” had to share the “big picture” limelight with Spielberg’s “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” and Jim Cameron’s “The Abyss.” Grown-up pictures like “Dead Poets Society” and Steven Soderberg’s first feature, “Sex, Lies, and Videotape,” also received strong receptions.  Even the lighter fare, led by “When Harry Met Sally,” resonated with filmgoers and critics.

Hollywood content, in short, was not simply targeted at Russian and Chinese audiences drawn to 3D fare, or at American teens looking for a one-weekend wonder. There were surprises for everyone — much more so than in summer 2014.

That’s one reason why second-week grosses didn’t plummet by 60% to 70%, as they’re doing this season. And why studio chiefs didn’t have to promise, “Next year will be better.” The movies of 1989 were good enough. And those of 2014 are not good enough.

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