The Number One Movie in America: Batman Returns
By Sean Collier
December 19, 2020
It speaks to the immense box-office power of the caped crusader that “Batman Returns,” an undeniable megahit, is near the bottom of the character’s earnings chart.
I’m fudging matters a little bit, there; for one thing, I’m talking about unadjusted dollars, which makes a big difference over 30 years. I’m also discounting some of the animated Batman pictures, which have only received limited releases, and side-character spinoffs such as “Catwoman.”
Still, though, it’s shocking. “Batman Returns” was the #3 film of 1992, earning $162.8 million. It broke the standing record for biggest weekend of all time, pulling in $45.6 million during its opening frame. (That bested a three-year record held by ... “Batman.”) It won three weekends, including one where it fended off debuting hits “A League of Their Own” and “Boomerang” in a photo finish.
And it holds the third-lowest gross for a Batman movie. The only lower totals were the reboot-inducing $107 million earned by “Batman and Robin” in 1997 and, unsurprisingly, the 1966 version with Adam West.
“Batman Forever” made more ($184 million). “Batman Begins,” even after eight years of dormancy, made more ($206 million). “The Dark Knight” ($535 million) and “The Dark Knight Rises” ($448 million) made several times more.
Even “The LEGO Batman Movie” ($175 million) made more.
Is there a reason why Tim Burton’s bizarre yet iconic sequel couldn’t match the box-office take of its followers — or its predecessor, which earned a gargantuan-for-1989 $251 million?
It’s probably all the weird, dark stuff, right? Even a very, very big budget Tim Burton movie is still a Tim Burton movie, after all. The movie’s key antagonist — in the marketing and the share of screen time, if not in the plot — is Danny DeVito’s Penguin, who is deliberately disturbing and off-putting. Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman certainly sold a lot of tickets, but someone tries to murder her about every 15 minutes. The gang attacks, committed by circus folk though and trained penguins though they may be, are brutal and scary.
Oh yeah — and the movie begins with Pee-Wee Herman attempting to murder a baby.
That’s not to say that “Batman Returns” doesn’t work. It’s a fun, memorable, distinctive movie. (It’s an utter mess, story-wise, but it hardly matters.) Of all the bizarre directions Batman has gone on screen (and yes, I’m including LEGO), this is the most uncanny — Gotham as a proto-Halloweentown funhouse of petty crime, cartoonish yet sinister villains and Batman himself not particularly involved for much of the picture.
It’s wild — so wild it works.
And yet so wild that it may have limited the box-office potential. Despite an absolute marketing and toy-making blitz for “Batman Returns,” word was out swiftly that this version was probably too scary for children. (Anecdotally, I can confirm this; I was seven at the time and decidedly not permitted to see it.) Where the 1989 film was a boldly new vision for the then-nascent field of comic-book movies — and, in a component that cannot be underestimated, had Jack Nicholson — the buzz on “Batman Returns” made it clear that this one got more than a bit weird.
It still was a huge hit. But among Batman films, anything less than earth-shattering lands you near the bottom of the franchise depth chart.
“Batman Returns” is the subject of the latest episode of The Number One Movie in America, a look back at past box-office champions. Each episode’s film is drawn at random from a list of every number-one movie since 1977. Please listen and subscribe!
Next time: There's just no way the Wet Bandits would've survived..