From Batman Returns to Batman & Robin: Anniversary Of A Debacle

This week marks the anniversary of two very controversial Batman movies, that are more inextricably linked than is ever discussed. Batman Returns came out 25 years ago on June 19, 1992. Batman & Robin was June 20, 1997, five years later. The anniversary of Batman Forever happened last week, June 16, 1995, but it plays a role in this too. You see, the very reason Batman & Robin exists is that audiences so rejected Batman Returns, demanding a lighter, funnier Batman movie. When Batman Forever was embraced, Warner Brothers decided to give the audience more of that, but two years later it was already too late.

I feel like people remember these separately but not the causality. They remember Batman Returns got criticized for being too dark and gross with Penguin eating fish. Now that we’ve had Chrisopher Nolan’s Two-Face in The Dark Knight and the Bat branding in Batman v Superma, Penguin slobbering raw fish seems quaint.

No one forgets hating Batman & Robin but many critics, from casual Batfans to published authors, seem to analyze it in a vacuum. At most, some look back to Batman Forever as the beginning of the Joel Schumacher period. In their haste to avoid another Batman Returns, the studio ended up making something even less desirable. You don’t have to like Batman & Robin, but it pays to have some compassion for why they thought this was what we wanted.

Batman Returns To A Tough Crowd

No Batman movie would enjoy the success of 1989’s Batman until The Dark Knight in 2008. Only three years after “the movie of the decade” (Erik Preminger, KGO-TV/San Francisco) shattered box records with $251 million gross in the U.S. alone, Batman Returns’s take was only $162 million.

Compounding the box office decline, the audience reaction to Returns was volatile. Parents, in particular, were disgusted and parents control the money, for ticket sales and toys. Reviews backed them up.

Merchandising for Batman earned another $500 million. According to the EW article from 1992 linked above, parents’ disgust at the film cut into the sequel’s merchandise. You don’t buy your kids toys for a movie you find distasteful. Plus, its high profile meant the bad word of mouth was toxic, before there was even an internet to spread it.

Batman Forever Saved The Day Before It Even Opened

But three years later, WB had put together a package that revived Batmania. Tim Burton retained a producer credit but blessed Schumacher directing. The new angle earned Batman Forever a record setting opening weekend of $52.8 million. Even though it’s $184 million total is only a tad more than Batman Returns’, it was considered a much needed course correction.

The important thing, it seemed, was that Batman Forever was okay for kids again. Positive reviews highlighted the lighter tone. The move brought merchandising partners back to the table even before Batman Forever opened. It followed the ’90s model of a soundtrack album with multiple artists, and both Seal’s “Kiss From a Rose” and U2’s “Hold Me Thrill Me Kiss Me Kill Me” topped the charts. 

So why was anyone surprised when the next film was more of the same? Whether bat-nipples were the straw that broke the camel’s back or not, Batman & Robin was nothing more than the response to the success of Batman Forever. Joel Schumacher said he even wanted to parlay that success into a riskier film, but WB, burned by Batman Returns, said, “No, just do more of Batman Forever again.” We could have had Nicolas Cage as Scarecrow!

Batman & Robin, or: You Asked For It

What changed in two years? Well, if kids were 10 when Batman Forever opened, then 12 is older enough to want more mature movies. For any moviegoer over 16 though, were people who hated Batman & Robin pop in the VHS of Batman Forever to relive the glory days when Batman still meant something? Did the acceptance of Robin (Chris O’Donnell) in Batman Forever not mean people wanted to see a whole movie co-starring him?

Movie memory is interesting. Most people don’t keep track of movies they liked or disliked years ago. It behooves studios to be forward thinking to anticipate where the audience will be in two years, rather than chasing its past success. So if you make a sequel in response to fans, there’s a good chance everyone will be in a different mood when the sequel comes out. They took a chance that paid off with Batman Forever. But two years later, audiences moved on. At the time, Cinemascore called Batman & Robin a disaster.

Batman Forever: The Heretic?

Maybe the truth was that Batman Forever had not saved the franchise. Perhaps the condoning of Batman Forever wasn’t as unanimous as I and the industry thought. Batman & Robin’s opening weekend was already down to $42 million. That’s fewer people interested in the follow-up, and it only drops further from opening night. It was also the most overstuffed Batman, with the usual two villains (plus Bane cameo), newly added Robin and now a Batgirl too.

In a 2007 Total Film article, Schumacher confirms Forever was a starting point and & Robin only went more extreme. Schumacher even went so far as making Bruce Wayne “lighten up.” Still, that is to be expected when the darkness of Batman Returns is so rejected and the whimsy of Forever embraced. Perhaps merchandising got too involved, as Schumacher also says on the DVD commentary that he was instructed to include as many gadgets as possible that could be toys.

Merchandise seemed equally prolific on Batman & Robin but there is oddly less documentation on how it sold. Perhaps the writing was on the wall when McDonald’s jumped ship and the fast food tie-in went to Taco Bell. However, EW reported the Taco Bell tie-ins were more successful than the movie itself. The story also reveals that McDonald’s was busy that summer with Hercules and George of the Jungle toys. The Batman & Robin soundtrack was not the hit Batman Forever was. I don’t remember Smashing Pumpkins’ “The End is the Beginning is the End” getting much radio play.

Prominent critics like Kenneth Turan and Washington Post’s Desson Howe (now Thomson) declared the franchise dead, just one film after it was supposedly resuscitated. Not everybody, though. Roger Ebert only maintained his frustration with the previous three films and acknowledged that it was closer to the campy TV series.

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

This also illustrates how great a responsibility voting with our dollars is. We can support the films we like and reject the ones we find distasteful, but it takes Hollywood two or three years to respond because that’s how long it takes to make the next movie. Perhaps we too have to be more forward thinking when we vote with our dollars. We may like something now, but do we want more of this in two years? Or if we hate something now, are we sure we won’t come around?

Perception plays a significant role too. Who allowed Warner Brothers to spin that Batman Forever’s gross was such a resounding validation? It was only $22 million more than the maligned Batman Returns. Perhaps that number only accounted for a curiosity in the new director and the new Batman, Val Kilmer. It’s easy to armchair quarterback in hindsight. Fortunately, the worst thing that happened from misreading the audience was they made a movie people didn’t like.

Perhaps the Forever toy sales were greater, without parents refusing to buy Penguin merch, but the bigger picture is that none of the sequels came close to 1989’s Batman event. Neither did Nolan’s Batman Begins but it dipped its toe in the deep end to make sure people were ready for The Dark Knight. It was the artistic success of Begins that empowered Nolan to develop the masterpiece The Dark Knight.

My position in all this? It hardly matters to me whether Batman & Robin is good or not. I only want people to recognize their role in creating it, for better or worse, and to understand what the studio was thinking. They got it wrong but they learned from it and did better later.

UPDATE: A previous version of this story said Batman Forever was the first Batman movie with a hit soundtrack. It has been amended to acknowledge Prince’s Batman album.

Written by
Fred Topel also known as Franchise Fred has been an entertainment journalist since 1999 and specializes in writing about film, television and video games. Fred has written for several outlets including About.com, CraveOnline, and Rotten Tomatoes among others. His favorite films include Toy Story 2, The Rock, Face/Off, True Lies, Labyrinth, The Big Hit, Michael Moore's The Big One, and Casablanca. We are very lucky and excited to have Fred as part of the We Live Entertainment team. Follow him on Twitter @FranchiseFred and @FredTopel

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