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December 04, 2021

Saturday Evening Movie Thread - 12/4/2021 [TheJamesMadison]

Tone Across a Franchise

In my long quest to watch every single surviving John Ford film (there are about 80 of them), I've been taking detours in between just to break up the task. I decided, just because I had the films on my shelves and hadn't reviewed them yet, to give both the Batman films and the Robocop films a go, and I came away with some thoughts.

What we think of the Batman movie franchise really began with 1989's Tim Burton film and ended with Joel Schumacher's Batman & Robin in 1997 before going dormant for a few years to be revived by Christopher Nolan with Batman Begins That eight year period from 89 to 97 saw a massive change in how Warner Brothers wanted to portray the titular character on screen. In a similar vein, the first Robocop film was Paul Verhoeven's movie in 1987, and the series only lasted two more movies with 1993's Robocop 3 before becoming completely defunct to be resuscitated poorly in 2014 as another IP for a studio to try and mine for profit once again in the 2010s.

The same thing happened to both of these franchises: They started out aimed at more mature audiences and went kid friendly. Batman was dark and brooding while Robocop was deeply satirical and violent. How did these end up with the glorified toy commercials that ended the franchises? What happened to the tones of the films that the people loved?

The 80s and Sequels

There are a lot of people my generation who hold up the 80s as the greatest decade in film (my personal opinion puts it on the 50s, but that's another matter). It's full of the kinds of classics that dominated my generation's childhood from adventure films like Back to the Future to action films like Lethal Weapon. However, there was something else going on in Hollywood that was becoming increasingly obvious as the decade went on that Hollywood was in the business of properties, not movies.

Sequels and remakes have been a thing in Hollywood since forever. From The Thin Man movies to the Charlie Chan adventures to the Planet of the Apes movies to the Universal Horror cinematic universe (to adopt a modern phrase), Hollywood has always had an eye for finding a movie with some kind of sequel potential and trying to exploit it. However, it was always the understanding that sequels got smaller and made less money. They were generally sops to a series of fan bases that the studios never took too seriously but knew they could make some bank on. They were more interested in finding whatever would make money next, not just relying on established properties to do everything.

What changed in the 80s was the change in attitude towards the properties at the studios disposal. A change in thinking about how the intellectual property of a recognizable brand was actually a huge asset in terms of selling a new movie brought on by the huge success of the Star Wars sequels. "The dopey little space fantasy from that werido George Lucas made money? And the sequel? And he helped make it happen again with Indiana Jones? We can do that too!"

What followed was the ramping up over the decade of studios trying to create their own franchises, opening doors in movies like First Blood for sequels when the source novels had the main character die. Or taking random scripts and plopping existing heroes into them like what happened with the Die Hard franchise. The money train was rolling, and studios were going to make that cash one way or another.


Something interesting happened as time went on, though.

Some of these movies that were successful enough in theaters to get sequels ended up developing fan bases that were decidedly younger than the original fans were aimed at. Like, ta-da, the Batman and Robocop franchises.

This is most pronounced when talking about Robocop, though. The original film was an original script written by Ed Neumier and directed by Paul Verhoeven, a Dutch filmmaker. It was a gory, bloody film of excess satirizing corporate culture of the 80s while reveling in the aforementioned violence as well as its own share of sex. The second film was...well...it's a mess of studio interference with moments to shine, but it doesn't work. By the time the studio got around to making a third film, though, they looked at their marketing research. It had been more than four years since the first film came out, and the kids loved Robocop. They had made toys, video games, and even a Saturday morning cartoon show that aired in 1988. The fan base was leaning very young, for this franchise that began with scenes like the below:

So what to do? Why, make the third film kid-friendly, of course! It's a great plan! It can't fail!

It failed, by the way. Critically, at least. It made $47 million off of a $22 million budget, which might have been enough for a small profit considering Hollywood accounting, but the critical reaction was awful. There has never been any sort of reappraisal of the movie either because it's simply not worth it. It's a terrible movie that largely misses the appeal of the first film (there's one moment that gets it, but really only one) while watering down the feel of the first film to nothing. What people loved about the first Robocop was, in part, its satirical tone, and by the time Robocop is bonding with a little black girl in the projects of Detroit, it's gone.

The more spectacular example is the Batman movies of the 80s and 90s. Tim Burton began with a combination of film noir and comic book that used exaggerated set design and harsh lighting to create a seedy world in which a man in a rubber suit beat up criminals. With the success of the first film, Warner Brothers gave him complete control for the second, and he ended up creating a dark film about duality set during Christmas where Danny DeVito spits black goo out of his mouth as he dies in his grotesque Penguin makeup.

McDonald's was not pleased.

Why were they not pleased? Because how do you sell toys of the grotesqueries on display to children? Did Warner Brothers not know that Batman was for kids? Sure, the first film may have been dark and scary, but that doesn't matter. Make this behemoth of a franchise more kid-friendly! With Batman Returns making less money than the first one as well, it became an easy decision to simply not invite Tim Burton back for a third film.

They brought on Joel Schumacher, director of The Lost Boys, and when Michael Keaton, star of the first two movies, dropped out as well, replaced by Val Kilmer, Schumacher felt free to break as fully from the Burton films as he could. That wasn't just about changing the visual look of the film (the production design of Gotham City became much more fantastical), it extended to tone as well.< br>
Burton's films, the ones that were so successful that they relaunched the superhero genre completely on their own after the diminishment of the Superman films, were dark and brooding affairs that used heavy shadows visually and tried to take the characters seriously. Schumacher's films did just about none of those things.

What Schumacher ended up doing was making "comic books" as he called them. Not comic book movies, but comic books. He had this idea of garish colors, silly antagonists, and then some level of seriousness around the protagonists that he could never follow through on fully because the movies around them were so inherently silly. There was a massive clash of tone within the films, but they also deviated wildly from the tones of the films that had preceded them. The antagonists were heightened in more comic ways, the visual palate was brighter, and generally the material was simply taken less seriously. Was that why people had started showing up to the theaters in 1989?

No Rules

These sorts of changes can work, of course. The James Bond series has evolved through the years to affect different cultural and cinematic trends, starting with Connery's grounded tales, evolving into Moore's campy displays of gadgets and babes, turning into the grim determination of Dalton that touched on real world stuff ever so slightly, morphing into the more fantastical Brosnan adventures, and finally becoming the interconnected mega-budgets action films of the Craig era. What the Broccoli family has done over the decades with Bond, though, is chasing trends. The Bond movies are not trend setters in the action movie world, they're followers, adapting existing intellectual property to changing mores to try and keep it fresh.

That's not what the producers on the Robocop and Batman films were doing, though. They were devolving a franchise into merchandizing potential over any kind of storytelling. It's less that they were abandoning the things that made the originals appealing (though that's definitely part of it), but that they were sidestepping any kind of storytelling concerns in order to maximize profits in synergistic ways. It's turning a storytelling medium into one part of a product line, robbing the creatives of any way to explore the characters in interesting directions. Could Joel Schumacher have made something good with Batman? Maybe, I'm not his biggest fan, but I don't think it's impossible. Could there have been more great stories to tell about Delta City for Robocop to navigate? Probably.

But other concerns took over.

Movies of Today

Opening in Theaters:


Movies I Saw This Fortnight:

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (Rating 4/4) Full Review "I love this film. It really is one of the best depictions of Batman on screen, and I'm really glad I finally revisited it." [Personal Collection]

The Informer (Rating 4/4) Full Review "The Informer is a brilliant film. A great work from a practiced hand, using an extremely strong script by Dudley Nichols and great performances from everyone involved, John Ford made a small masterpiece." [Library]

Stagecoach (Rating 4/4) Full Review "It's also a bit of a crowd pleaser with high quality action and likeable, not just interesting, characters. There's a reason it helped kick off the Golden Age of the Western in Hollywood." [Personal Collection]

The Plough and the Stars (Rating 3/4) Full Review "Anchored mostly by Stanwyck, this is a good little film that really deserves some reappraisal." [Library]

Wee Willie Winkie (Rating 2.5/4) Full Review "The overtly naive ending as well feels nice in the moment but ultimately feels kind of unrealistic upon reflection, but that's not what Shirley Temple movies were really for. They were for light entertainment starring a precocious and talented child." [Library]

Submarine Patrol (Rating 4/4) Full Review "I absolutely love this movie. It's a bit of a travesty that it seems to have been completely forgotten." [YouTube]

Steamboat Round the Bend (Rating 3/4) Full Review "It really could have used a rewrite in its middle section, a section that dragged the film down a good bit, but that ending is really something else, a madcap race with real stakes and cut quickly for an all around good time. It really won me over by the end." [Library]

Mary of Scotland (Rating 2/4) Full Review "It's handsome and fairly dull. Never digging deeply enough into characters or events to elicit much interest, led by a woman who seems to feel like acting is beneath her. This is far from John Ford's finest work in the 30s, but it's ultimately passable. Barely, though." [YouTube]


Email any suggestions or questions to thejamesmadison.aos at symbol gmail dot com.
I've also archived all the old posts here, by request. I'll add new posts a week after they originally post at the HQ.

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