Tim Burton recently told Yahoo Screen he was kicked off the Batman franchise after Batman Returns because he had pissed off McDonald’s. Here’s the story behind that.
Once upon a time, Entertainment Weekly had a regular feature called “Parent’s Guide to Entertainment” which was, well, pretty self-explanatory. Here’s what it said about Batman Returns back in the summer of 1992:
What It’s About: The darkest Dark Knight ever saves Gotham City again, this time from the mutated flippers of Penguin and the psycho-erotic claws of Catwoman.
Will Kids Want to Watch It? All those McDonald’s tie-ins aren’t for nothing. But be forewarned: Returns has more unnerving violence and more sophisticated sexuality than its predecessor, so it might be a bit much for most kids under 10 or 11.
Sex/ Nudity: A woman in a ripped cat outfit licks a guy in a rubber bat costume on the face. Now that’s kinky.
Violence/Scariness: This pretty much doubles as a plot synopsis: Skeleton-clown creatures attack Gotham City, two guys catch on fire, a woman stun-guns a bad guy, a severed hand is shown, bad guy Max pushes his secretary out a window, Penguin has the mayor’s baby kidnapped, Catwoman slices up somebody’s face, Penguin bloodily bites a guy’s nose, Batman beats up and blows up some more bad guys, Penguin knocks out a woman who falls to her death, Penguin opens fire on a crowd, Penguin plots to murder children in their sleep on Christmas Eve, Penguin kills a clown, a major electrocution results in one charred body.
Profanity: About three harsh words, plus several lewd sexual innuendos from Penguin.
Mature Themes: Good versus evil — in the same person.
So, the parents of the world – or at least those parents who read Entertainment Weekly – had been warned: Batman Returns was probably not suitable for kids under the age of 10. Ignoring that advice meant exposing little kids to a movie featuring severed hands and a villain whose grand plan is “to murder children in their sleep on Christmas eve.” So, if your kid went full-on Bart Simpson on you afterward, spending their post-Batman Returns nights balled up in a corner of their bed, rocking back and forth while mumbling “Can’t go to sleep, Penguin will kill me” you had only yourself to blame.
I wasn’t a parent back then; I was a 9-year-old whose Friday night ritual consisted of eating a McDonald’s Happy Meal for dinner while sitting in front of the TV to watch ABC’s TGIF line-up, which in 1992 consisted of Family Matters, Step By Step, Perfect Strangers, and the short-lived Look Who’s Talking TV show Baby Talk. I remember it all very vividly, and in the months prior to the release of Batman Returns every single item we bought from McDonald’s came with some kind of Batman picture on it:
Every “Did I do that?” on Family Matters came as I was staring at the back of a box of fries telling me all about Catwoman just as every “Don’t be ridickulas!” on Perfect Strangers became background noise to me playing with my awesome new Batman Happy Meal toys. I had never read a Batman comic book before nor had I ever really seen the Adam West TV Show. Batman: The Animated Series wasn’t on the air yet. The only Batman I knew was the 1989 version, but that was more through the related toys I had from that film. So, my earliest memory of actively wanting to see a Batman film was in the summer of ’92, and a large part of it was because by putting Batman on dang near everything they sold McDonald’s suddenly made Batman the coolest thing in the world to me. I absolutely had to see that freakin’ movie, and I don’t think my parents had any idea what we were really walking into (they’d somehow missed EW‘s warning).
What we didn’t know at the time was that when McDonald’s first started gearing up to promote its fun-for-the-family Batman Returns tie-ins Tim Burton was still haggling with the MPAA over the film’s rating. They were going to give him an R, the kiss of death for a comic book movie’s box office prospects. He narrowly avoided such an unfortunate fate by agreeing to cut bits of violence here and there, such as a “sweeping master shot of a circus-gang member setting Gothamites on fire.”
McDonald’s was completely oblivious because while they were preparing their push of Batman Returns tie-ins they had yet to see an actual rough cut of the film. So, they legitimately didn’t know they were aligning themselves with a movie which was going to follow in the grand tradition of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and inspire some kids to run out of the theater in fear.
I didn’t cry during Batman Returns, and I don’t recall if anyone else in our theater did. I think I was just a hair too old (or had simply seen too many Schwarzenegger films) to be genuinely scared. I was a tad creeped out by just about every single thing related to the Penguin, and I absolutely did not understand any of the sexual imagery or innuendos hovering around Catwoman. I recall being very confused by the logic of an army of alley cats somehow managing to magically revive a very dead Selina Kyle and turn her into Catwoman. However, I thought it was cool when the Penguin briefly remote-controlled the Batmobile, and it was fun seeing Batman get his butt kicked by Catwoman. I laughed then and still laugh now at Max Shreck’s (Christopher Walken) hilarious reaction to seeing Catwoman and Batman unmasked: “Selina? Selina Kyle, you’re fired! And Bruce Wayne, why are you dressed up like Batman?”
I walked away from all of it ultimately looking forward to a sequel featuring more of Batman and Catwoman.
My parents were apparently among the fortunate ones. I was probably too young for them to have taken me to see Batman Returns, but it didn’t give me nightmares or lead to any long nights, although I did find it a little hard to shake the memory of Penguin biting that dude’s nose.
My parents didn’t have to write a letter of protest to McDonald’s or Warner Bros. for marketing a PG-13 film to little kids, not that my parents are the type of people who would actually do that. Even as an adult, I don’t think I would ever do that now, but many people felt differently in 1992. Both McDonald’s and WB were inundated with letters of protest. NBC’s Faith Daniels famously devoted a segment of her talk show A Closer Look With Faith Daniels to the topic, titling it “Parents Against Batman Returns.” She argued, “It’s fine to make Batman Returns an adult film, but don’t market it to kids. It’s rated PG-13, but who’s buying the action toys? Not 13-year-olds.”
McDonald’s couldn’t simply admit, “Don’t yell at us. We are just as pissed as you. We didn’t know what kind of film this was until it was too late.” Oh, they were super pissed. Warner Bros. had actually pledged to match media dollars for Batman Returns with McDonald’s, but reneged on that pledge when parent’s groups started blasting the film in the media. The only thing we had in the form of an official response or explanation was the following statement released by a McDonald’s spokeswoman:
The objective of the (Happy Meal) program was to allow young people to experience the fun of Batman the character. It was not designed to promote attendance at the movie. It was certainly not our intent to confuse parents or disappoint children.
To be fair to McDondal’s, at that time the Happy Meal program was geared exclusively to kids between the ages of 1 and 10. As such, their argument, i.e., the Batman Returns tie-in allowed younger kids to participate in the Batman phenomenon since they wouldn’t get to see the movie, wasn’t just bullshit PR spin. Plus, Batman: The Animated Series was due to premiere 2 months after Batman Returns meaning you could argue McDonalds was simply promoting Batman in general. After all, none of the Happy Meal ads which ran on daytime TV featured any footage from Batman Returns (just a lot of Ronald McDonald).
However, that doesn’t actually jibe with how I remember it. The ads I remember seeing aired at night during TGIF, and featured plenty of footage not just from the film but also commercial-exclusive footage filmed on a special portion of the Batman Returns set with a Gotham City McDonald’s in the background:
There’s nothing about that one which is totally aimed at kids, but the next one with the toys is a little harder to let off the hook:
All of this led those in the industry and, indeed, at Warner Bros. to openly question whether or not Tim Burton had inadvertently killed the Batman franchise. McDonald’s could weather bad publicity, and Batman Returns was certainly going to turn a profit ($162.83 million in the U.S., $268.83 million worldwide against a combined production/marketing budget of $100 million). However, Burton had managed to not only upset a key sponsor (McDonald’s, obviously) but also all of the theater owners who were on the front lines taking endless complaints from parents all the while being stuck under a bad deal with the studio, with WB taking an unheard of 65% cut of Batman Returns ticket sales instead of the standard 50/50 split. After the immense success of Batman in ’89, the owners, as a media-research firm analyst put it, “had assumed that a smaller piece of the enormous Batman Returns pie would still be a hefty portion. Nobody expected that pie to shrink to crumbs so rapidly.”
And shrink it did. In this era where most big opening weekends are followed by second weekend drops in the 60% or higher range, it seems quaint to realize how stunned everyone was when after its record-setting $45m opening weekend Batman Returns slumped by at least 40% in each subsequent weekend. An informal Entertainment Weekly survey of local movie theater attendees a month after the film’s release revealed some damning quotes:
“The story made no sense,” says Jay Klausenstock, a 33-year-old radio-ad-sales manager in San Fransisco. ”In fact, nothing made sense. I’ll never see a Batman movie again.” Renee Greene of Chicago says, ”I’m sick of all the ads. It’s hard for parents whose kids drive them nuts wanting to go to McDonald’s to get all the stupid cups.” Some younger kids were frightened by the subplot involving kidnapped babies and grossed out by Danny DeVito’s bile-spewing Penguin. ”It made me sort of sick,” says Greene’s 9-year-old son, Michael.”
Important working relationships had been damaged, and parental rage had been heard. However, the damage done didn’t seem irreparable. The ’89 Batman had been a pop culture sensation, but it came about partially through producers Jon Peters and Pete Gruber ruthlessly bending Tim Burton to their will, forcing him into casting, music and script choices he strongly opposed. Batman Returns, on the other hand, was a truly authentic Tim Burton movie, the result of WB enticing him back to the franchise by promising to let him make the movie he wanted. What he produced managed to alienate audiences, upset corporate partners (McDonald’s), and drive a wedge between the people making the movie (Warner Bros.) and the people showing it (the theaters).
It seemed clear what had to be done: Burton had to go.
Not that anyone told him that, though. Not directly. Not at first. Hollywood can be surprisingly passive aggressive when it comes to these kinds of decisions.
In the portion of the Shadows of the Bat documentary featured on the Batman Returns DVD, Burton explains exactly how he figured it out during his first meeting with Warner Bros. to discuss Batman 3, “I’m going, ‘We could do this, we could do that,’ and they go like, ‘Tim, don’t you want to do like a smaller movie now?’…About a half hour into the meeting, I go, ‘You don’t want me to make another one, do you?’…And so we just stopped it right there.”
Burton remained involved as a producer, but that “small film” they told him to go make to recharge his battery ended up being his masterpiece, Ed Wood, which repaired his critical image, though not his financial since it actually bombed. Batman 3, of course, turned into Batman Forever, which grossed nearly $80m more than Batman Returns worldwide and managed to avoid offending any of the big money people. In fact, McDonald’s had learned from their Batman Returns fiasco; they insisted upon being allowed to review the Batman Forever script before production even began. Before long, the toy companies were even dictating which costumes Batman would wear in Batman & Robin, and the whole thing completely fell apart.
That all started because no one seemed to be paying attention to the fact that Tim Burton was daring to make Batman Returns into an honest-to-goodness Tim Burton movie. Returns has since gained a second life as one of the overlook gems of the 90s, with various idiosyncrasies which make it all the more enjoyable when viewed today. Hollywood obviously forgave Tim Burton to the point that he’s now helmed so many distinctly Tim Burton big budget blockbusters that audiences eventually turned on him (again). Back in the early 90s, WB must not have stayed too mad at Burton. After all, he worked with them for years on trying to make a Michelle Pfeiffer Catwoman movie, and his failure to make a Nicholas Cage Superman movie at WB is so epic it now has its own documentary. However, in 1992 he made McDonald’s so mad WB politely showed him the door, creating the exact circumstances which ultimately led to the toy companies ruining the franchise.
What about you? What’s your earliest memory of seeing Batman Returns? Did you cry? Were you an adult when you saw it? If you were AND you cried, um, why? Have you actually never seen it? If so, boy has this likely been a confusing article to read. Let me know in the comments.