Welcome to the second part in our look at the history of superheroes at the box office. Last time around Superman was the main topic, having raised and almost killed the superhero genre in just 5 years on the big screen. With the Man of Steel in the ground, Hollywood had to find another property to replace him, a more human hero, relatable to the mass audiences. It was Warner Bros again and, well, by now you know we’re talking about Batman here.
But wait, I got carried away for a second and forgot that before Batman, there was another Superman movie in 1987. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, a low budget last attempt at saving the series by trying to go back to the roots. By roots I mean getting Gene Hackman back to play Lex Luther (absent in Superman III) and setting Superman up to fight a super villain with similar powers in the form of Nuclear Man (like General Zod and his gang in Superman II). The movie was ultimately panned by everyone and is best left forgotten. It made only $15.6 million in North America and considering that just 6 years before, Superman II opened with $14.1 million, it was clear that this hero had to be buried for good, at least until following century.
Back when Superman still meant something on the big screen, Warner started working on another DC Comics superhero, Batman. Bringing the Dark Knight to the big screen had a lot of ups and downs and at one point Bill Murray was set to star as Bruce Wayne/Batman and Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters) was to direct. From the initial stages of development Batman was set to be an origin story and the Joker was supposed to be the villain. In 1987 Warner started pursuing Tim Burton for the director chair while Sam Hamm was hired to write a new script. Come 1988 everything was in place, Tim Burton was to direct, Jack Nicholson would play the Joker while Michael Keaton would become Batman. A storm of fan backlash starts after hearing Keaton was cast as Batman, going as far as to petition Warner Bros. to recast the role. In October 1988 filming started at Pinewood studios, UK. In January 1989 the first trailer for Batman is released in theaters to fantastic reception and the Michael Keaton backlash was put to rest. The hype meter started going into overdrive in anticipation of the June 23 1989 release of what was the most highly anticipated movie of that year (a year that also had Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade). Batman was finally here and it blew expectations out of the water with the highest opening weekend of that time, $40.4 million. It went on to make $251.1 million in North America or what would be almost $500 million today adjusted for inflation. Worldwide it grossed $411.3 million and Warner were already talking about Batman II. This was huge and they were given a second chance after screwing the cash cow that was Superman.
But Warner were not the only ones making superhero movies, after years of going back and forth, New Line finally released Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in March 1990. The beloved comic book characters took the box office by storm after opening with $25.3 million (second highest that year) and going on to make $135.2 million in North America and $201.9 million worldwide, all on a $13.5 million budget. With such a new strong property on their hands, New Line rushed a sequel for release just a year later.
In August 1990, Universal tried its hand at another superhero (after the disappointment that was Flash Gordon), this time on a much lower budget ($16 million), playing it as safe as possible. Darkman came out to good reviews and with a worldwide box office of $48 million, it managed to turn a decent profit for the studio. Universal had plans for a sequel but because it was ultimately considered too expensive to release on the big screen again, Darkman only got two direct-to-video sequels in 1995 and 1996..
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II came out in March 1991 to a $20 million opening and a $78.6 million total. While it made a lot less and cost a lot more ($25 million), this was still considered a success and plans for part 3 were underway.
For every Superman or Batman, there is a lesser known superhero out there, one of such being The Rocketeer, brought to theaters in the summer of 1991 by Disney. This $35 million flick opened with $9.6 million and went on to gross $46.7 million in North America. This was nothing to write home about and plans for a sequel were abandoned because of the poor box office performance.
In Part 3 we’ll see how Warner Bros. slowly starts to fall into the same trappings as before with their Batman franchise.