Screen Studies - Burton’s Batmans: Myth, Marketing, and Merchandising
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The Films of Tim Burton
The Films of Tim Burton

Alison McMahan

Alison McMahan is an award-winning screenwriter, author, and filmmaker. She is the president of Homunculus Productions, LLC. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Bloomsbury Academic, 2006

Subjects

Content Type:

Book chapter

Genres, Movements and Styles:

Animation, Avant Garde/Experimental, New Hollywood

People:

Burton, Tim

Related Content

Burton’s Batmans: Myth, Marketing, and Merchandising

DOI: 10.5040/9781628929089.ch-004
Page Range: 121–156

First came the posters, hats, and T-shirts, then the number one Prince single and the bats shaved onto teenagers’ skulls. By the time Batman swooped into theaters three summers ago, it was less a movie than a corporate behemoth, and nobody was warier or wearier of the hype than Tim Burton. The only problem was that Burton was the movie’s director.

“It was so weird,” he says today. “To be working on something—it’s your baby, you get very emotional about it, and then you keep hearing about it. You go, ‘God, enough about this damn thing!’ ”

He tried to escape to the desert, only to run into people wearing Batman merchandise.

David Handelman[1]

Movies like Planet of the Apes are basically businesses, and they involve words like franchise and saturation that make my skin crawl. This one will be heavily merchandised, but that’s not something that I have any control over. They ask my opinion, of course, but sometimes I feel like the film gets in the way of the merchandising. There were people over in Taiwan making Planet of the Apes swords before we’d even shot the thing, and the film is being aggressively presold. Personally, I don’t want to know too much about a movie before I go to see it.

Tim Burton[2]

The two extracts above, from interviews with Tim Burton as he promoted his films Batman Returns (1992) and Planet of the Apes (2001), respectively, illustrate issues that frequently emerge when discussing blockbuster films:

  1. The high-concept (and frequently myth-based) structure of the blockbuster film

  2. Vertical integration, synergy, and ancillary markets

  3. Total merchandising and how it interrelates with the high-concept blockbuster and vertical integration

In this chapter we will examine each of these issues in turn, focusing on Burton’s blockbuster film Batman (1989).

The High-Concept Blockbuster Film

The most commonly accepted definition of the term high concept is Justin Wyatt’s, from his book on the subject:

[a] striking, easily reducible narrative, which also offers a high degree of marketability. This marketability might be based upon stars, the match between a star and a premise, or a subject matter which is fashionable. In practice, the locus of this marketability and concept in the contemporary industry is the “pitch.” … [According to] Steven Spielberg: “If a person can tell me the idea in 25 words or less, it’s going to make a pretty good movie. I like ideas, especially movie ideas that you can hold in your hand.”[3]

Wyatt credits Barry Diller, a programming executive at ABC, with inventing the concept (though Diller did not use the term) in the early 1970s. Diller helped bolster his network’s poor ratings by introducing the made-for-television movie format. He then promoted these television movies using thirty-second promotional spots. To sell a movie in thirty seconds, he had to be able to summarize it in one sentence. As a result, he tended to approve those projects that could be sold in a single sentence. This sentence would then appear in advertising spots and TV listings.

Wyatt also notes that Jeffrey Katzenberg[4] credited Michael Eisner, a creative executive at Paramount at the time, with coining the term high concept to describe a unique idea whose originality could be conveyed briefly. Columbia Pictures entertainment president Peter Guber defined high concept in narrative terms. Rather than stressing the uniqueness of the idea, Guber said that high concept could be understood as a narrative that is very straightforward and easily communicated and comprehended. Just as Diller worried about marketing a TV movie in a thirty-second spot, Katzenberg, Eisner, and Guber were concerned with selling the idea for a project in an initial short pitch to get it made, then pitching the finished film to the public. The initial one-sentence pitch is seen as equivalent to the logline, or one-sentence ad, that appears in campaign posters. Put another way, a film concept that cannot be summarized in one sentence will be difficult to market. As Dawn Steel[5] has pointed out, high-concept films are easily marketed, especially to youth audiences, and are critic-proof.

High concept is not related to the terms high culture and low culture; indeed, it means the opposite. High culture refers to cultural artifacts, such as classic opera, that require a certain degree of sophistication to comprehend; low culture refers to popular culture that does not require much intellectual sophistication to comprehend and enjoy. When scholars like Wyatt and film executives like Diller, Eisner, and Steel use the term high concept, they are referring to the high marketability of a film. The hook can be as simple as basing the film on an already well-known franchise, such as a popular book (think of the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter franchises), comic book series, or television show.

There is often more to a high-concept pitch than brevity and narrative simplicity. Adding star power improves a film’s marketability, as long as the star’s persona is directly linked to the genre of the project under consideration. Wyatt gives the example of Clint Eastwood in a cop film: this is high concept, because we already know Eastwood in that role. However, a star working against his or her image can also turn out to be high concept, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger as a tooth fairy.

High concept can also imply “trendy,” which generates cycles of similar films. Sometimes this trendiness can work against a film if it is released after the subject has been exhausted in other media. High-concept films rely heavily on the replication and combination of previously successful film plots, such as “Robocop = Terminator meets Dirty Harry,” or revitalizing past successes by a shift in emphasis: Guber was sure Flashdance (1983), for example, would do well because it was a Rocky for women.[6]

Wyatt identifies certain stylistic elements that make up a high-concept film. He claims that such films with a particular look and packaging (the hook, the look, and the book) represent one clear postclassical trend in Hollywood cinema. The aesthetic and economic characteristics are entwined. Although I will examine each aspect in turn, we must not forget that they are inseparable forces.

Stylistic Elements of the High-Concept Film

Wyatt lists five major stylistic elements of the high-concept film, each of which is driven by the film’s marketing: the look, stars, music, character, and genre. He defines the look as

[a] set of production techniques composed of extreme backlighting, a minimal (often almost black-and-white) color scheme, a predominance of reflected images, and a tendency toward setting of high technology and industrial design. At times these techniques combine to freeze the narrative, creating an excess within the film. …[7]

Some of these stylistic elements, separately or in combination, can therefore create moments of excess that lift the viewer out of the film’s fictional world.

An actor’s appearance constitutes an important part of the look of the high-concept film, whose narrative and character development tend to be oversimplified. This means the spectator has to rely more on the actor’s appearance than on exposition or character development for understanding. As a result, the character’s fashion sense becomes extremely important. In turn, fashionable images from the film are lifted out as print ads to promote the film.

This reliance on visual style is emphasized by a strong match between the image and music soundtrack, either at key moments in music video–like sequences, which fragment the narrative even further, or throughout the film. Wyatt uses Jack Nicholson’s character (The Joker, also known as Jack Napier) in Batman as an example:

Nicholson’s star persona is the iconoclast, the nonconformist whose energy and mischievousness are infectious and appealing. … By the 1980s this image had become so established that Nicholson could offer self-parodies in supporting roles in such films as The Witches of Eastwick (1987). The Shining (1980) can be considered as a transition in Nicholson’s career in which the tendency towards self-parody begins to undermine a coherent, naturalistic leading performance.[8]

Wyatt suggests that casting Nicholson as The Joker was designed to match Nicholson’s parodies of his own star persona to the character. This casting made it easier to presell the film, as this match between the star’s persona and the character was easy for spectators to grasp. Once spectators actually went to see the film, the casting invited them to read it in multiple ways.

The same is true for musical devices. Again, Wyatt uses Batman as an example: in addition to the score by Danny Elfman, Prince composed an album of nine songs for the film, of which two actually appeared in it. One of these was “Party Man,” in which The Joker destroys museum art. (This scene was intended to function as a standalone music video, but in the end Prince made a separate video using the song.) The other songs are sung from the perspective of various characters and tend to focus more on their sexuality and less on the narrative.[9]

Finally, high-concept films rely heavily on the spectators’ familiarity with genre. This partly results in “the placement of generic icons in altered contexts offering burlesque” and “characters and other icons [being] telegraphed with broader and broader brush strokes.”[10]

Yet this combination of a generic, oversimplified narrative and an excessive visual and musical style does not always guarantee success at the box office: Dick Tracy (1990) and Cocktail (1988) are two examples of box office duds.

Wyatt dates the advent of high-concept films to 1975. His sample list starts with Jaws (1975) and ends with Batman Returns (Wyatt’s book was published in 1994). Now that we have an additional ten years’ perspective on blockbuster films in general and high-concept films in particular, it is useful to reexamine the high-concept film, designed to be a blockbuster, especially how the narration works. Also, it is still useful to use Burton’s Batman films for this examination because those films started or cemented several industry trends, such as reinterpreting a comic book franchise (which actually started with the Superman films but became an industry trend after Batman) and advances in soundscape design.

Many critics, including Wyatt, assume that high-concept blockbuster films are characterized by an oversimplified narrative and flat characters. But this is true only for spectators who see a film in isolation and are completely unaware of the other types of media and other cultural production working on (or with) the same story, or sequence of stories. Most high-concept films are based on a myth cycle, and their sources of meaning, and hence the spectators’ ability to dialogue with a particular film, extend well beyond the film itself in both space and time. In addition, these films mean in a new way, an intertextual or even a hypertextual way: they are meant to be read as one part of a larger discourse involving multiple types of texts, both past and present, from comic books to visual art, to novels, theater, and television, to print media and other films. Of these three characteristics of high-concept blockbusters—the linear narrative with little in the way of subplot, the myth-based foundation, and the interstitial references—the last two are shared with pataphysical films. Let as look in turn at each of these aspects of meaning.

The Mythic Basis of High-Concept Films

Burton cast Michael Keaton as Batman and Jack Nicholson as the Joker because he envisioned a psychological drama about split personalities, but the producer wanted an action movie; it ended up neither. Batman scored thanks to scattered shards of Burton’s trademark comic-opera visuals and whacked out humor, but actually, once you got past the hype and Anton Furst’s Oscar-winning production design, the movie was mostly a big snooze. Burton himself … told the LA Times: “I liked parts of it. But parts of it are boring to me. … It’s OK. But I think it was much more a cultural phenomenon than a great movie.”[11]

What are the ingredients of a cultural phenomenon? This is exactly what the discipline of film studies is about: to examine how films are rooted in their culture and what they can tell us about ourselves and that culture.

One school of thought says that for a film to become a real cultural phenomenon, it has to be myth-based. Joseph Campbell is credited with initially defining the elements of myth stories and outlining the key myth stories of Western culture, in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces.[12] In Hollywood, people like John Truby and Robert McKee[13] applied Campbell’s principles to screenwriting, although the best book on this subject is Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters.[14] The main message of these teachers is this: almost all Hollywood movies are genre films, and genre structures are myth-based.

What is a myth-based structure? Generally, the hero of a myth-based story is someone who was meant to lead his (these heroes are usually male, although there are some females) society through a time of crisis. Usually the hero resists being given this messianic role when first asked, but eventually he comes around. This leads to the beginning of the heroic journey: leaving (or being thrown out of) home, then having a series of episodic encounters with archetypal figures, including guides or mentor types, and people who test the hero in either battles of strength or battles of wit.

But the real test comes from the internal confrontation. The hero’s greatest struggle is not with his enemies, but with himself. In a well-written myth-based movie, the hero has some kind of internal flaw, sometimes called the tragic flaw, in a nod to Aristotle, and his flaw is somehow connected to the tangible challenge he has to overcome. (What this means in terms of production design is that the context of the film is a visible reflection of the hero’s inner torment or problem.)

From the beginning of his film career, Burton drew parallels between his main characters and the world they live in, but never so much as in his first Batman film. “I like it when the set [is] a character and not just a set,” Burton said during the filming of Batman.[15] Designer Anton Furst’s sets for Gotham immediately received a lot of attention and were often credited with catapulting the film into the box office stratosphere by setting a new tone and look for Batman’s world on screen: more like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and less like the pop-art look of the 1960s television series; more like Frank Miller’s comic book vision of Batman from the ’80s and less like the original comic book incarnation from the ’40s and ’50s. The look of Batman still defines Burton’s approach to design for most audiences.

Now, in Batman Returns, Burton has created a film that composer and regular Burton collaborator Danny Elfman describes as “almost operatic in tone” by borrowing visual themes from several of his previous films. Enlarging on the German Expressionism of Batman, Burton has incorporated some of the hyperrealism of Edward Scissorhands and the Felliniesque anarchy of Beetlejuice into the film to create disparate worlds inhabited by the three protagonists—Batman [Michael Keaton], Catwoman [Michelle Pfeiffer] and the Penguin [Danny DeVito].[16]

This means that once the hero has acknowledged his own character flaw and made an attempt to overcome it (if he ever does), then the environment of the film has to change along with him.

Figure 4.1. Anton Furst’s set for Batman inspired the design of many subsequent films.


To say a film is based on a myth usually means it is based on a well-known epic tale; since most of us grow up with these stories, we recognize them, even if only subconsciously. For example, Star Wars is based on the Iliad: a group of soldiers band together to rescue a princess. Many writers begin by choosing a myth or fairy tale when they get a writing assignment. The most popular epic narrative is the life of Christ, in which an underdog takes on the establishment and wins, even if he himself is sacrificed in the process. Some films, such as Hook (1991), are quite clear about the story they are imitating, either in the film itself or in its marketing.

However, a film does not have to be taken from a story in Bullfinch’s Mythology in order to be myth-based. Every culture creates its own myths; Urban Legend (Jamie Blanks, 1998) is a perfect example of a modern film based on modern myths. In this particular case, the myths are very specific to the United States, so the film is not intelligible on the same level to people from other cultures. This is one reason why warrior myths keep getting recycled in the form of action films: at the global market level they are the most accessible.

The Batman cycle is another example of a modern myth. Batman and the stories of other superheroes who are closely associated with him, such as Superman, were born out of mid-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century culture. Most of the inspiration came from comics and other films. Let’s look at Batman’s history.

Batman, the Myth

Beginnings

In February 1936, Harry Donenfeld, the future publisher of DC Comics, published an issue of Spicy Mystery Stories called The Batman. This story was about a man who believed his brain had been transferred to that of a bat, and as a bat he terrorized women (who were, inevitably, half naked). This tale had nothing to do with Batman as we came to know him, but it was the first use of the name.[17]

Comics were just making the transition from short newspaper strips to comic book form in 1938, when Superman debuted in Action Comics. Editor Vin Sullivan asked artist Bob Kane to come up with a similar concept for Detective Comics (both titles would eventually be united as DC Comics). Kane worked with writer Bill Finger to come up with an idea. Kane started by drawing a figure similar to Superman’s, muscle bound, wearing tights and a cape, then drawing over these elements with tracing paper to test out variations. His inspiration for the scalloped cape came from Leonardo da Vinci’s sketches of a flying machine; the wings greatly resembled those of a bat. Kane was further inspired by two films. One was The Bat Whispers (1930), a talkie remake of The Bat (1926), both directed by Roland West, and both adaptations of Mary Roberts Rinehart’s novel The Circular Staircase (1908), which inspired innumerable stories about fiends in animal disguise.[18] In addition to the figure of a detective who is also a killer known as The Bat, the silent film may have inspired the Bat signal, as one of the more memorable images in the film was of a moth trapped in an automobile headlight, its shadow magnified on the wall, looking like a giant bat. The film also featured a secret passage to a hidden room and a character wearing an eyepiece mask.

The 1926 version of the film centered on three women who have to solve the mystery of The Bat (the 1959 version, directed by Crane Wilbur, starring Vincent Price and Agnes Moorehead, followed the same plot), but when Roland West remade his version as a sound film in 1930,[19] he shifted emphasis to the male characters, who solve the mystery. West’s “camera movements have a fluidity remarkable in a sound film of that era, achieved partly through the use of a gigantic scaffold 300 feet long and 30 feet high from which the suspended camera could zoom vertiginously through space, imitating the Bat’s movements.”[20]

Kane’s other source of inspiration was The Mark of Zorro (Fred Niblo, 1920), starring Douglas Fairbanks Sr. Details such as entering a hidden room through an old grandfather clock, as well as the premise of a hero who pretends to be a wealthy fop but wears a mask and cape at night to bring justice to the oppressed, were inspired by Zorro.[21] Kane then turned to Bill Finger, who added the ears to the Bat mask to match the scalloped edge of the cape, a triangular motif that is recognizable to millions today.

Inspired by The Phantom (introduced in 1936), Finger suggested that Batman’s eyes be glowing white spots behind the cowl and that the tights be gray (originally the colors we now associate with Robin were going to be Batman’s colors), and instead of wings to have a flowing cape with scalloped edges that would look like wings when he moved.

This image was presented to Vin Sullivan and was immediately approved. Now the two artists needed to find a story. Finger was inspired by Alexandre Dumas’ swashbuckler from The Three Musketeers (1844) and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective Sherlock Holmes, who first appeared in 1887.

Finger was also inspired by pulp fiction, in which characters like Zorro and Tarzan had received their start, as well as The Shadow, which continued to be an inspiration, especially in its radio version. The Shadow was a wealthy playboy who had the ability to “cloud men’s minds” so that they couldn’t see him. Other pulp inspirations were The Spider (not the same as Spider-Man), and the Phantom Detective. Most of these in turn were inspired by The Bat of stage and screen (Superman was also inspired by Fairbanks in Zorro, especially his characteristic posture of arms on hips), so we can see here that a lot of cross-breeding of similar iconography was going on in the 1930s and ’40s.

The early plots of Batman comics, and the first villain, Dr. Death, were inspired by many themes from the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, such as

“The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” 1841 (the hideous, inhuman culprit)

“The Mystery of Marie Roget,” 1842 (scientific analysis of clues)

“The Gold Bug,” 1843 (the deciphering of hints ingeniously left by a criminal)

“The Black Cat,” 1843 (The Insane Killer)

“Thou Art the Man,” 1844 (the apparently supernatural intimidation of the guilty party)

“The Purloined Letter,” 1845 (the hero’s admiring assistant)

According to Les Daniels, Poe’s detective, C. Auguste Dupin, also served as inspiration for Sherlock Holmes and Dick Tracy. However, Batman is probably the most famous character.[22] In turn, Batman was influenced by Dick Tracy: the style of line drawing in the comics, the gadgets, and the spectacular array of bizarre villains.

The most often-cited source of inspiration for The Joker is the joker playing card. Bob Kane even designed a new card, which showed up in the first Joker story. Bill Finger provided photos of Conrad Veidt in the German Expressionist film The Man Who Laughs (Fritz Lang, 1928, based on the novel by Victor Hugo). Finger’s son said his father was also influenced by George C. Tilyou’s Coney Island attraction, the Steeplechase (a roller-coaster ride), which for decades featured a billboard of a man with a gigantic grin. Others said that The Joker looked like Bob Kane himself.[23]

Batman made his first official appearance in the May 1939 issue of Detective Comics (DC). Robin first appeared in April 1940; Batman’s own series began in April–May 1940. The first film adaptation was the Columbia film serial The Batman, released in 1943.[24] Another serial, Batman and Robin, with thirty-one episodes, was released in 1948.[25] Batman did not return to the screen until the airing of the television series starring Adam West, from 1966 to 1968,[26] and a movie, also starring Adam West, in 1966.[27] Tim Burton’s film Batman appeared in 1989, and his sequel, Batman Returns, in 1992. Burton produced the next sequel, Batman Forever, directed by Joel Schumacher in 1995. The series continued without Burton with Batman and Robin (1997), also directed by Schumacher.

The success of these films spawned two animated series and several animated films: Batman: The Animated Series (1992–1993), a TV series directed by Kevin Altieri et al.; Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993), directed by Eric Radomski and Bruce W. Timm; Adventures of Batman and Robin (1994), directed by Kevin Altieri et al.; Batman and Mr. Freeze: SubZero (1998), directed by Boyd Kirkland; Batman/Superman (1998) and Batman Beyond (1999–2000), TV series, which spawned a movie, Batman Beyond: The Return of the Joker (2000).

The Warner Bros. Batman film series continued with Catwoman (2004), produced by Denise Di Novi, Burton’s longtime associate, and starring Halle Berry. Basically, this Catwoman is not a sequel for the Selina Kyle character from Burton’s Batman Returns but rather a new telling of the story. The character is named Patience Philips (Halle Berry), and the plot is the Batman creation story, except in Catwoman Patience learns that the cosmetic company she works for is selling an addictive poison in the form of face cream. To prevent her from revealing this to authorities, she is murdered by the company’s directors (played by Lambert Wilson and Sharon Stone) but brought back to life by feral cats. Her main goal once she is reborn is to punish and expose the company, but she also has time for some romance with Detective Tom Lone (Benjamin Bratt). In spite of a plot that adheres too closely to the overall Batman story (and also owes something to The Crow, 1994), the film holds interest because of its role reversal: Bratt’s detective plays the role usually assigned to female love interests, which leads to one of the best, and most erotic, scenes in the film, in which the detective fights Catwoman without realizing she is the same woman he just spent the night with. Like The Scorpion King (2002), which brought a myth told until then (illogically so, given that it is set in Egypt) using all white characters, Catwoman expands the world of the Batman myth to include people of color, a long overdue step. It’s a pity that Berry (and the scriptwriters, and the director, Pitof (Jean-Christophe Comar), who otherwise provide a stunning visual storyworld) could not communicate the character’s deep rage, a rage that made Michelle Pfeiffer’s Selina Kyle so powerful.

In spite of Catwoman’s poor performance at the box office, Warner Bros. is continuing the Batman franchise with Batman Begins (2005), directed by Christopher Nolan and starring Christian Bale as Batman. This version is based on the Batman: Year One comic series and shows how the boy Bruce Wayne turns himself into Batman. (Another iteration of the film, to be directed by Darren Aronofsky and scripted by Frank Miller and entitled Batman: Year One, was scrapped.)

One of the most amazing things about the Batman myth is how fixed the character of Batman himself has been despite the proliferation of Batman texts. Batman is always a one-man crime fighter who dresses in an iconographically specific costume (cape, cowl, and logo). He has great physical abilities enhanced by numerous incredible devices of his own invention. He maintains a secret identity. In his real life he is Bruce Wayne, a successful business tycoon and playboy who lives in Wayne Manor in Gotham. Although his creation story (the story that justifies his philosophical approach to life) wasn’t written right away, once it was written it has never been altered: he chose to fight crime because his parents were killed when he was young. He has a supporting cast of costumed allies, principally Robin, but also Batwoman and Batgirl, as well as his butler, who in a sense is also costumed, because he never deviates from his role or his costume. He has a cast of costumed and fantastical enemies, indlucing The Joker, Catwoman, Penguin, Two-face, Mr. Freeze, and The Riddler. In spite of this fixity, the character has been unfailingly popular, a lightning rod for a host of cultural meanings and discourses.

It should be clear by now that Batman is a myth, with its origins not in ancient Western culture but in modern mystery stories, pulp fiction, comic books, and other films. We have seen that the characters in Batman are archetypes, flatter than the well-rounded characters we expect in drama, for example, and that Batman’s adventures are episodic, with a focus on action, although sleuthing is also a part of it. His opponents are even less rounded than he is and equally colorful. Unlike Zorro in many of his permutations, the Batman saga does not recommend a change in how our society is structured. Batman does not use his wealth and intellect and political connections in Gotham to organize for change; rather, he works as a vigilante, taking on street thugs and organized crime on a one-on-one basis. This is part of Batman’s appeal: his political philosophy does not require social systemic change; he is essentially a moral and compassionate hero, just one with a sinister side, and it is precisely this that appeals to us (whereas Superman comes across as too righteous, a problem the producers of the current television series Small-ville have to deal with constantly). According to Les Daniels, ever since the attack on Pearl Harbor, Batman’s fans have realized that the world is a very dangerous place: “For these millions [of fans], there is a certain satisfaction in imagining what it might be like to be Batman, to be alone in the dark and not afraid, because everyone else out there in the dark is even more afraid of you.”[28]

Will Brooker, author of Batman Unmasked: Analyzing a Cultural Icon, believes that part of Batman’s popularity is the result of the character’s functioning as a “rigid and consistent template, which specifies not just the character’s appearance but his location, associates, motivation and attributes.” Yet this fixed template also functions as a “yielding, malleable figure of a man in a bat-mask”: “[T]he character seems to become merely a name and logo adopted by a multitude of different ‘Batmen,’ each representing a different facet of a specific cultural moment and taking on the concerns of a period or the tastes of an audience.”[29]

Brooker divides Batman’s history into four periods, each with a focus on a particular set of cultural meanings. The first is the period of Batman’s origin in World War II, in which his loner-vigilante character was established. According to Brooker, during this period Batman resisted being adapted to wartime propaganda use, unlike other superheroes such as Superman. In the 1950s Batman was given a “gay reading” by psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, a reading Brooker argues is supported as well as resisted by the texts, a reading to which Brooker himself is partial. The Batman of the 1960s, especially as manifested in the TV series, alternated between fully embracing and reviling the campiness always present in the original comic books.

Finally, there is the Batman of Tim Burton’s films. Brooker doesn’t analyze the film itself; rather, he gives us a historical overview of fan response to the films, using a methodology established by ethnographers Camille Bacon-Smith and Tyrone Yarbrough.[30]

Because Batman has had so many incarnations, Bacon-Smith and Yarbrough are able to divide the fan base into four groups:

  1. Long-term fans of the comic books, who added the graphic novels, novelizations, and other forms of presentation to their repertoire as they appeared, and who judged not only the movie but also the mass media hype and promotional clips based on prior knowledge of the characters

  2. Short-term fans with less direct experience with the primary sources (the comic books, graphic novels, etc.), who relied on word of mouth and references in the metaliterature, such as Comics Journal and Comic Buyer’s Guide, and some promotional material to fill out the understanding of the Batman characters they bring to viewing the movie

  3. Fans of the television series, who filled out their understanding of the Batman characters with promotional pieces on screen and in the press

  4. Audiences who were not fans of Batman in any sense, but who attended because the movie was touted as an event, and who derive all of their information about the characters from word of mouth and promotional materials[31]

Fans of the TV series were initially disappointed that Adam West, the star of the ’60s hit, was not recast to play Batman in the first Burton film, and many were disappointed when they found out it was not to be a comedy. Neither Bacon-Smith and Yarbrough nor Brooker really characterizes Burton’s Batman, except to note that the film diverged in certain “key” ways from the comic books: in Burton’s take, Batman is not muscular and athletic (the casting of Michael Keaton caused much outrage, especially in comic book circles); The Joker is not tall and thin; Batman and Vicki Vale actually have sex, whereas Batman in the comics is generally depicted as celibate; and The Joker is identified as the murderer of Batman’s parents. Brooker says these changes are as major as if director Baz Luhrmann had had Romeo and Juliet survive at the end of his 1996 version of Shakespeare’s tragedy, or Ang Lee had decided that the heroines of Sense and Sensibility (1995) should have a lesbian affair.[32] Although Brooker tells us what the Batman of the Warner Bros. films is not, he doesn’t go as far as to tell us what this new Batman is. Perhaps that is a task best left to Burton himself:

“There’s tension and insanity,” says Burton. “We’re trying to say this guy is obviously nuts, but in the most appealing way possible. I go back to what I thought comic books gave people. People love the idea that once they dress up, they can become someone else. And here you have a human being in what I would consider the most absurd costume ever created. The villain is the Joker, the coolest of all. And also the flip side of Batman. Here you [have] a guy [Batman] who is rich, and something bad happened to him, and instead of getting therapy, he fights crime. But it’s still kinda schizophrenic—it’s something he questions in his own mind. And the Joker, something happened to him too, but he’ll do or say ANYTHING, which is another fantasy all of us have—it’s total freedom. So you’ve got two freaks. It’s so great.”

The split is pure Burton: one unhappy character dresses up to express something but still feels hopelessly out of place in the real world; another, an extremist, creates his or her own demented reality. Burton clearly identifies with the former, but the latter—Pee-wee, Betelgeuse, the Joker—charges him up, inspires him too [emphasis mine].[33]

Burton’s description of his two key characters was part of a publicity campaign to prepare audiences for a Batman quite different in tone from the TV shows and the original comic book series. His comments, and those of others involved in the film, were also preparing audiences for a shift from the pataphysical films he had made until then (the films so often characterized as “children’s movie[s] made for grownups”), with characters that are flatter in order to enable us to project ourselves onto them instead of the other away around. Says Burton:

Figure 4.2. Some fans of the Batman franchise complained about the casting of Michael Keaton as Batman, but no one complained once they saw his performance.


“I just love characters that are symbols for things. I used to read those old folktales of lizard boy and snake girl. They were symbols. That’s the great thing about the Batman story. No one is really evil; they’re a mix of psychological problems.[34]

We can see this approach reflected even in a bare-bones outline of the plot of Burton’s first Batman film.

Plot Summary of Batman (1989)

Act I

We first see Batman through the eyes of two petty criminals, who have robbed a couple in the same place (as we will discover later) that Batman’s parents were killed many years ago. The criminals associate Batman with vampire characteristics, such as bloodsucking. Batman apprehends them and commands them to tell everyone about him.

We meet the mayor, the district attorney, and the police commissioner of Gotham City, who are overwhelmed by Carl Grissom’s criminal mob, which is responsible for the city’s economic decline. The mayor is trying to organize a 200th anniversary festival to help revive the city’s flagging economy.

We meet mob boss Grissom and his second-in-command, Jack Napier. Grissom is worried that the police will connect him to illegal activities at Axis Chemicals. Napier suggests staging a robbery at the plant to destory the incriminating evidence. Grissom reluctantly puts Napier in charge of the operation. Napier is also having an affair with Grissom’s moll, Alicia.

The police (rather belatedly, it seems) arrest the muggers that Batman had delivered to them. One of them, Lieutenant Eckhardt, is also working for Grissom. Napier arranges with Eckhardt the details of the Axis plant “robbery,” but Grissom separately instructs Eckhardt to kill Napier during the break-in. We meet Elliot Knox, a reporter who is obsessed with getting the Batman story despite the ridicule of his colleagues. His cause gets a boost when Vicki Vale, a beautiful, elegant, and renowned photojournalist, pairs up with him.

Act II

Knox and Vale’s first step in getting the Batman exclusive is to accost the police commissioner at a fundraiser held at Wayne Manor, home of Bruce Wayne (Batman’s real identity). We meet Alfred, Wayne’s butler, and Wayne for the first time. Before Knox can get any information out of him, the commissioner is called away to handle the robbery at Axis Chemicals. Alfred alerts Wayne, who has to leave Vicki just when they are getting acquainted.

At the plant, Napier finds the key evidence gone and realizes that he has been set up. He manages to kill Eckhardt before Batman catches him and escapes temporarily, only to fall into a vat of acid, where he and is left for dead.

Wayne invites Vale to dinner at the manor. Conversation is difficult at first, but Alfred saves the day, and the two end up in bed. However, Wayne can’t sleep unless he is hanging upside down from a perch. In the morning, when Vale tries to make another date, Wayne puts her off.

Napier has plastic surgery and emerges as the Joker. His first official act is to kill Grissom and to establish himself as the new mob boss, with Alicia as his moll. He kills one mobster who dares to stand up to him, then lets the others go.

Vale finds out from Alfred that Wayne has been avoiding her and doesn’t really have to go out of town, so she follows him to an alley (the scene of his parents’ murder), where he lays red roses. She catches up to him on the steps of city hall just as one of the mobsters comes out, having laid claim to Grissom’s business. As the mobster gives a press conference, the Joker and his men kill him and his gang. Wayne recognizes that the Joker is Napier and rushes home before Vale can speak to him.

Figure 4.3. Another issue for fans of the Batman franchise was that Burton’s has sex. Again, no one complained about this after they after they saw the film.


The Joker plants poisoned cosmetics throughout the city and takes credit for the ensuing deaths in a series of bizarre commercials and broadcast messages. Batman works in his lab to figure out the source of the poison and ignores calls from Vale. Plans for the festival proceed. The Joker sees a picture of Vale and decides that she will be his next moll. He tricks her into meeting him at a museum by posing as Wayne, then makes a grand entrance by gassing everyone except Vale and defacing the artwork. He shows her Alicia’s now ruined face, but before he can spritz Vale with acid, Batman rescues her. They make a grand escape in the Batmobile, with a chase through the city. Their way is blocked by the Joker’s henchmen, and Batman fights them off. Vale takes pictures of the fight, but Batman takes the film from her after he brings her to the Batcave and gives her information about the source of the poisoned cosmetics. Alfred convinces Wayne to reveal his secret identity to Vail. Wayne goes to her apartment but finds himself tongue-tied. At that moment the Joker comes in, and there is a standoff. The Joker shoots Wayne, saying, “Did you ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?”—the same thing that had been said to Wayne’s parents by their attacker. Wayne realizes that Napier aka the Joker is the killer of his parents. The Joker leaves Wayne for dead. When Vale regains consciousness, she realizes Wayne is gone.

Act III

In a broadcast message the Joker tells the citizens of Gotham not to cancel the festival because he will rain $20 million on the people and promises a showdown between Batman and himself. Vale and Knox learn about the murder of Wayne’s parents. Vale puts two and two together and shows up at Wayne Manor to confront Wayne with the truth, and Alfred leads her to the Batcave. Vale and Batman are both relieved to have the truth out in the open, but Batman has to keep fighting the Joker and can’t savor the moment. He drives the Batmobile to Axis Chemicals, where the Joker makes his poisoned gas, and blows up the plant. Meanwhile, the festival has started, and the Joker has unleashed a parade of gas-filled balloons there, killing onlookers. Vale and Knox survive by getting into a car. Batman flies down in the Batwing and takes the remaining balloons away, preventing further deaths. He then drives back to the festival in the Batmobile, but the Joker forces him to crash. Vale tries to rescue him, but the Joker takes her hostage and drags her into the cathedral. Batman follows and fights with the Joker. Each accuses the other of being responsible for what they have become. Finally, Batman pushes the Joker over a ledge, but he lands on the ledge below. He then attacks Batman and Vale, pulling them over the ledge. A helicopter approaches to rescue the Joker. Just as it seems that the Joker will get away, Batman connects a cable from a gargoyle to one of the Joker’s ankles. The weight of the gargoyle causes the Joker to fall to his death. Batman and Vale fall too, but Batman uses a cable to interrupt their fall. An epilogue establishes that the city’s leaders now see Batman as an ally and show the Bat-signal for the first time; Alfred takes Vale to meet Bruce Wayne, who will be “a little late.” The last shot is of Batman on the rooftop admiring the Bat-signal.

Batman as a Pataphysical Film

Films like Batman are postmodern texts, with a heavy emphasis on inter-textual references, linear plots, and slightly drawn characters, as well as special effects, high-level production design, and sound design.

Numerous intertextual references are readily visible in the film. To name only a few cinematic references, the stairwell climb at the end of the film is an homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). Having Napier kill one of his fellow mobsters while they are seated around a table is right out of Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987), as was Grissom’s fear of being arrested because of a paper trail of evidence. The Batmobile’s drive through the woods reminds us of Jack’s trek through the woods in The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Although Batman is a comic book character, the plot of Tim Burton’s Batman does not have the episodic feel of a comic book narrative. This is because, although myth-based and with certain fairy-tale qualities (especially in the character of Batman himself), in the multiple mix of genres that make up this particular blockbuster, the action genre is the anchor. This means that certain characteristics of the action genre will be prioritized over other genres—fantasy, horror, thriller—that are combined with it. Although the other characteristics of the high-concept blockbuster—the densely designed visual world, thinly drawn characters, and heavy reliance on visible special effects—are the same as in a pataphysical film, Batman is not pataphysical. For starters, Batman, like any good myth-movie, takes itself very seriously, with only Jack Nicholson’s Joker providing a bit of black humor.

Batman Returns (1992) is a different story. Here we have a trio of characters, in outrageous outfits, with amazing gadgets, extraordinary ambition, bizarre creation stories, and deeply troubled psyches— Batman himself (Michael Keaton), the Penguin (Danny DeVito), and Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer). Adding to the complication, like Batman, Catwoman has a double persona that is in conflict with itself, with Batman/Bruce Wayne often at the center of that conflict. With the proliferation of leading roles there is also a multiplicity of stories, and the plot is multiheaded. Many fans count this as their favorite film in the series, in spite of the multitude of plots, probably because of the sophisticated layer of nondiegetic humor that was missing from the first instalment. On a narrative continuum with blurred boundaries, this film comes as close to being pataphysical as any other in the series, primarily because Batman and Catwoman have dual identities, each with a whole life, and their dual identities interact with each other. Most films with a complex narrative have multiple characters relating to each other at the same time, but this film has just two characters relating to each other with separate alter egos, in separate plots (which eventually come together), and simultaneously, at different levels of narration. It is this last characteristic that is the main source of the humor.

Batman Forever (1995), directed by Joel Schumacher and produced by Tim Burton, tried to replicate what was successful about Batman Returns by giving Batman (Val Kilmer) two enemies—Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones) and the Riddler (Jim Carrey)—and two allies—Robin (Chris O’Donnell) and a new love interest, a psychiatrist (Nicole Kidman) who helps him understand his enemies’ psyches as well as progress in his own self-healing. Although Two-Face is wonderfully conceived and created, the humor, the double entendres, and the hopping back and forth between different levels of narration seen in Batman are almost entirely gone in this film.

Burton did not participate in the next installment, Batman and Robin (1997), also directed by Schumacher. Now Batman (George Clooney) has three enemies: Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger), Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman), and Bane (Jeep Swenson). He also has two allies— Robin (Chris O’Donnell) and Batgirl (Alicia Silverstone). The loyal Alfred is now dying of a mysterious illness, and Mr. Freeze holds the key to the cure. With so many characters, no one is very rounded off, and the subplot between Robin and Batgirl and the backstories for Mr. Freeze and Poison Ivy make the narrative clunky and hard to follow. A layer of campy humor has crept back in (nipples on the Batsuit, anyone?), but it doesn’t save a film that is widely acknowledged as a flop.

The genre of films I label pataphysical often lambaste established systems of knowledge, especially academic and scientific systems. These films follow an alternative narrative logic, closer to the logic of animation. They prioritize the graphic over the photographic (also a characteristic of animation), which leads to an emphasis on production design, costume, and special effects used in a blatant and visible way (as compared to “invisible” effects, which are meant to be read as live-action events). As I discussed in Chapter 1, pataphysical films have been made since the beginning of film history. With the separation of live-action cinema and animation into artificially isolated categories, pataphysical films faded from view, though they could be found in cartoons and avant-garde films and even the 1950s sci-fi films featuring giant insects. With the advent of postclassical Hollywood cinema and the digitization of movies, the artificial separation between animation and live-action films has come to an end. Many more recent pataphysical films, such as Van Helsing, are almost completely digital.

Pataphysical filmmakers are aware of this digitization process and the role that animation plays in it. They therefore make films that reflect this awareness. Burton’s Batman Returns belongs to a specific trend or strand of pataphysical films—those based on comic books. In addition to the comic book films of the last fifteen years or so, such as Spider-Man (2002), X-Men (2000), The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003), Daredevil (2003), Hellboy (2004), and The Hulk (2003), and their sequels, pataphysical films have been made by directors such as Joe Dante, Richard Donner, Henry Selick, Barry Sonnenfeld, Luc Bresson, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Guillermo del Toro, Roland Emmerich, Stephen Sommers, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and Marc Caro. (Some of these films will be examined in greater depth in Chapter 7.) This doesn’t mean that all comic book films are pataphysical. What makes a film pataphysical is not the source of the narrative, but how the story is told. A pataphysical film will make the audience conscious of the various levels of narration. A myth-based film will make the audience aware of the story’s interstitial nature as a way of reminding spectators of its cultural importance. To put it another way, myth-based films work more like hypertexts and less like nonlinear narratives.

Films can work as hypertexts (texts that have a modular structure, where the individual modules, or lexia, can be read, or navigated, in almost any order), except that each lexia of the hypertext is actually a different media form. For the cycle started by Burton’s Batman we find relationships, derivations, comments on, homages to, expansions of, and a variety of other texts: from the original comic books, to the films that inspired the original comic books, such as The Mark of Zorro and The Man Who Laughed, to later films such as Metropolis (1927), to radio shows such as The Shadow, to other comic book superheroes such as Superman, to Gothic horror films such as The Bat Whispers and the play that the film was based on, The Circular Staircase, to the serial film versions of Batman, to the 1960s television series of Batman, to the Frank Miller darker comic books of the 1980s, to the Prince music videos, and a miscellany of other media, trading cards, amusement rides, and so on. There is also the relationship to the ongoing cultural discourse on homosexuality and feminism.[35] Although they may not know the exact source of the reference, younger audiences especially watch films like Batman from a hypertextual perspective, that is, as one piece of many pieces that together form a myth cycle with almost endless permutations.

Evidence of the audience’s hypertextual reading habits permeates Bacon-Smith and Yarbrough’s ethnographic study:

[T]he “raw” response of the audience with mixed expectations and no guidance [from film reviews] was very different from the response of later audiences. … Audience responses were primarily of two types: shock and intertextual recognition, with the latter being the most common.[36]

According to these researchers, audiences depended on intertextual guidance in order to know if the film was a comedy or a drama, if the Joker was frightening or humorous, the exact nature of the attraction between Batman and Vicki Vale, and even when the film ended. After reviews appeared, audiences were much less confused.[37] Comic book fans noted graphic matches between different poses adopted by Jack Nicholson’s Joker and drawings of the Joker in comic books.[38] They also noted purloining from other comic books, such as Batman’s straight-backed stance at the end of the film, more reminiscent of Superman than Batman’s traditional gargoyle-like crouch.

Bacon-Smith and Yarbrough note that some of this intertextual reading is an aspect of “rehabilitation”:

Fans, because they are fans, want to like the products that feature their interest. When the product falls short of fulfilling the fans’ needs, viewers make use of an extreme form of traditional fill-in-the-blanks interpretation. Rather than fill in the action with what the movie has led them to assume would be there, fans substitute plot twists that change the meaning of the on-screen evidence.[39]

But the primary intertext for fans and nonfans alike is the publicity that precedes the viewing of the film, especially if the film is constructed as an event, as most comic book films of the last fifteen years have been. They are events because they are bringing beloved texts to the big screen, thus legitimizing them, promising to extend their textual life, and also threatening to alter them beyond recognition, because the films are almost always blockbusters; and because the films are either myth-based or pataphysical—with all that such films entail, especially the heavy reliance on “cool” special effects and the promise of a philosophical perspective, with its attendant zinging one-liners, that satirizes the status quo. Bacon-Smith and Yarbrough conclude with a very interesting appendix that lists audience’s moment-by-moment intertextual and textual responses to Batman.[40] What their analysis reveals is that intertextual responses dominate the opening third of the film, and that the greatest textual response is elicited by Jack Nicholson’s incarnation of The Joker. It is the fans’ desire to make sure they catch as many of the intertextual references as possible that leads them to watch the film again and again and contribute to the film’s runaway success. The film itself encourages this intertextual reading by gradually revealing its variations on classic Batman elements: we don’t see the Batcave until halfway through Act II, the Batmobile even later than that, and the Batwing last of all. This is in contrast to a typical episode from the 1960s TV series, which trotted out all the gadgets early and often.

With the advent of pataphysical films, it would seems that the unifying idea of a “high-concept film” is eroding. Yes, Batman is high concept—a brooding, almost schizophrenic, Batman keeping watch over a dark, seamy, and corrupt Gotham, unredeemed by love but kept alive by the very devotion from which he distances himself. It has certain elements in common with a pataphysical film, with its emphasis on techno-science and graphics, from the comic book graphic matches to Anton Furst’s set design to Batman’s elaborate costume to the digital effects, and its thin, episodic plot that serves as a series of pointers to other texts. But the plot is linear, the relationships are straightforward, and the levels of narration are not played with; instead, there is an emphasis on hypertextuality, which is the opposite of pataphysical. This emphasis on hypertextuality makes it easier for the film to work as a key cog in a merchandising machine.

These hypertextual links work in both directions: both to media that preceded the film and to media and other objects that come after it. In addition to sequels, the same story or cycle of stories will take on a life in other ancillary markets, such as television, computer games, and theme parks.

Ancillary Marketing, Synergy, Conglomerates, and Total Merchandising in Batman

Twenty years ago it was common that a hit film, or even a moderately successful film, like the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992), led to a successful spin-off TV series. Because Batman was already a well-established myth, we have a TV series that preceded the film (the 1960s TV series starring Adam West) and various animated TV series that followed. Burton’s Batman started the trend of producing movies based on old TV shows.

The ’60s TV series had started out being fairly faithful to the hero of the comic books, but it soon deviated from them and began to take on its own look and rhythm. Probably the most unique thing about the TV show was its pop-art look, with psychedelic colors and dialogue balloons that spelled out sound effects. According to Lorenzo Semple, a writer on the TV series, “We [appealed] on two levels, to kids and grown-ups. On a sophisticated level the appeal [came] from inherent juvenility.”

In his review of the music videos made by Prince for Burton’s Batman, Armond White[41] argues that Burton’s films have lost this subversive and anarchic element, both by dropping the pop-art approach and by being part of a corporate enterprise. White much prefers the Prince music videos, such as the “Partyman” video, in which Prince is the master of revels at The Joker’s party, or Prince’s songs from Batman, each one done in the voice of a different character, with a sampling of dialogue from the film. Though the Prince music videos are part of the film’s ancillary marketing, they also comment on the film from which they are derived.

The success of Batman and its ancillary marketing has led to a new era, not just of ancillary marketing as a by-product of synergy, but of total merchandising on a global basis.

Most of the seismic shifts that shook the industrial landscape during the 1980s can be understood in terms of synergy, a concept that took on enormous importance in Hollywood during this period. Definitions of synergy include “the commercial possibilities of mutually locking commercial ventures,”[42] “tight diversification,”[43] and “a belief that one plus one could equal three.”[44] More specifically, the Harvard Business Review outlined various aspects of synergy as follows: “In business usage, synergy refers to the ability of two or more units or companies to generate greater working value working together than they could working apart.”

Most business synergies take one of six forms:

  1. Shared know-how: sharing knowledge or skills by sharing information, documents, or manuals, or simply by getting together two groups of people with different skills.

  2. Shared tangible resources: sharing physical assets or resources, such as a manufacturing facility or a lab. (Consider, for example, the relationship between George Lucas productions and ILM: companies that have to outsource their special effects cannot compete with Lucas because he gets his at cost.)

  3. Pooled negotiating power: a recent example is the coordinated efforts of the Writers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild—when they proposed to strike together, the industry had to pay attention; when one guild decided not to strike, negotiations with the other was concluded quickly.

  4. Coordinated strategies: having different companies or different parts of companies coordinate their response to shared competitors and so on. This balance is hard to achieve—and hard to distinguish from price setting or monopolistic practices.

  5. Combined business creation: mergers and conglomerates practice this form of synergy. This is especially important in understanding contemporary Hollywood.

  6. Vertical integration: defined as coordinating the flow of products or services from one unit to another.[45]

Point 5, linking synergy and the conglomerates, is crucial in understanding the industrial structure that made Batman and other blockbusters appealing. The conglomerate, a meta-company formed through a large company merging, taking over, and/or acquiring other companies, became a standard form of industrial organization after World War II. Tino Balio defines the conglomerate as “a diversified company with major interests in several unrelated fields of endeavor.”[46] Of course, many media conglomerates now limit their diversification to several related fields of endeavor, especially different distribution channels for their product. Media conglomerates that own a film studio buy up not only theaters to distribute their films (reversing the Paramount Decrees[47] in the laissez-faire political atmosphere of the 1980s), but also cable TV channels, video and DVD distributors, book publishers for novelizations and behind-the-scenes books, and music companies to distribute soundtracks, then make licensing deals with toy companies, fast-food restaurants, computer game manufacturers, and so on.

In 1989, when Batman was released, 414 corporate deals were struck, totaling over $42 billion, the most notable of which were the Time-Warner merger ($14 billion) and Sony’s acquisition of Columbia and CBS Records ($5.4 billion). Six vertically integrated multinational conglomerates engulf what we used to call the Hollywood studios, and the economy has undergone corresponding sets of shifts—from regulatory to deregulatory, liberal to conservative, and national to global capitalism/markets.[48]

The stakes in the film business have also become increasingly global, and with the industrial blueprint implemented during the 1980s, a new period (“post-Hollywood”?) has certainly begun.

In this global market, merchandising tie-ins have become increasingly important. If we want to look at how the total merchandising approach came about, the place to start is Disney. According to a 1962 Newsweek article, Disney hit on the total merchandising approach rather by accident, when the Davy Crockett TV series first aired in 1954. The Crockett phenomenon was relatively unplanned. At first, Disney made only a three-part television series in the fall of 1954, but the success of the series led to a feature movie, another TV series, and one of the most spectacular merchandising campaigns in history. Records, toy rifles, and buckskin jackets blanketed the country. In three short months, for example, the huge demand for coonskin caps pushed the price of coon-skins from 25 cents to $3 each.[49]

After Crockett, total merchandising became Disney’s standard approach to film marketing. Roy Disney, Walt’s brother and financial mentor, noted that “once a decision is made to make a picture, the marketing starts. All of the moves are geared to publicizing the final product, and making money while you do it.”[50] An example of Disney’s early approach to total merchandising was the animated feature The Sword in the Stone, released in 1963. The film took four years to make, cost $4 million, but was expected to bring in returns almost indefinitely. The plan was for the merchandising to begin four months before the release date, when the first comic books and hard-cover books appeared. Then sheet music was printed, records were pressed, and songs from the movie soon were heard on the radio. At the same time, King Features released a comic strip, based on the movie, in one hundred newspapers. It was planned that six national manufacturers would use short scenes from the movie in TV ads for their products. The first signed manufacturer was a maker of Christmas tree lights, whose advertising would reach its peak just before the movie’s premiere.

Disney took a synergistic approach to promoting the film. The plan was as follows: As release time approached, Walt Disney himself would plug the film in the end spot of his weekly Wonderful World of Color show. The afternoon show, The Mickey Mouse Club, aimed solely at children, would also find frequent occasions to refer to the movie. Shortly after the Sword premiere, some feature of the movie would be installed as part of the Disneyland theme parks. Finally, throughout the promotion, some one hundred manufacturers would be hawking merchandise. Arrangements were made for licensing items in fifty-six categories, ranging from masks to Arthurian shoe polish, underwear, and umbrellas. Each feature was designed to promote every other feature.

From the U.S.-based synergistic approach Disney used with The Sword in the Stone in 1963, total merchandising went global. The term total merchandising itself was generally adopted after George Lucas reduced his director’s fee for Star Wars by $500,000 in exchange for the film’s merchandising rights. The press at the time referred to it as “the biggest mistake ever made in Hollywood.” But in the end Star Wars merchandise had grossed $5 billion. The studio executives who cut the deal thought they were in the movie business, but Lucas knew better. He was operating in the global entertainment economy. Star Wars was both a cultural phenomenon and a new business model, spawning T-shirt sales, computer games, and amusement park rides, along with the inevitable sequels.[51]

In a 1999 episode of That’s Entertainment, Jay Carr referred to Star Wars as “one giant infomercial [that] set[s] up on screen all the stuff to be sold—posters, action figures, electronic games.” In the same episode Mark Simpkin noted that the total merchandising return from the Star Wars films was $6.5 billion, twice as much as the series to date had made at the box office. Nancy Hass (a scholar from New York University) noted that entertainment “becomes something that infiltrates every level of your life—the scenery of your life—whether it be billboards or video games or the pencils you buy for your kids.”[52]

Eileen Meehan has explored the role that economics plays in the formation of texts and intertexts in American culture. According to Meehan,

corporate imperatives operate as the primary constraints shaping the narratives and iconography of the text as well as the manufacture and licensing of the intertextual materials necessary for a “mania” to sweep the country. This is not a claim that evil moguls force us to buy Bat-chains … rather, the claim here is that mass-produced culture is a business, governed by corporate drives for profit, market control, and transindustrial integration. … [T]he decision to create a movie is a business decision about the potential profitability of a cinematic product. Further, as film studios have been either acquired by companies outside the industry or have themselves acquired companies in other entertainment/information industries, decisions about movies are increasingly focused on the potential profitability of a wide range of products. The film per se becomes only one component in a product line that extends beyond the theater, even beyond our contact with mass media, to penetrate the markets for toys, bedding, trinkets, cups and the other minutiae comprising one’s everyday life inside a commoditized, consumerized culture.[53]

One aspect of this economically driven culture is “recycling,” for example, having a music sequence in the film double as a music video. What exactly will be recycled depends on what other kinds of companies make up part of the film conglomerate’s holdings. According to Meehan, Warner Communications Inc. (WCI) acquired Detective Comics in 1971 as a source of licensing revenues and materials. WCI had tested the practice with Superman and its sequels and was ready to give Batman the same treatment, using the director who had already made a success of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice for them. The first step toward the intertextual promotion of Batman was to release The Dark Knight Returns, first in comic book form and then as a book. Dark Knight was aimed at an adult audience, and with its success the process of audience building for a darker Batman continued with Batman: Year One, aimed at a younger audience. In 1988 WCI let readers vote on whether Robin should be killed or not; they voted for his death via a 900 number. Information on the audience was gathered from Marvel Comics, which described the average reader as a twenty-year-old male spending $10 a week on comics. Further advertising was obtained by articles in the press about the casting of key parts, which often elicited fan responses. The use of Prince songs and the attendant music videos was designed to reach middle-class white women, although Prince’s music succeeded in crossing over to a black audience.[54]

Interestingly, despite Batman’s high earnings ($40 million in its first weekend), WCI was not sure that the images from the new film would sell, and so some of the merchandising followed the appearance of the characters in the comics and the ’60s TV series. They needn’t have worried: total merchandising can often bring in profits where a movie itself fails, as pointed out by E! newsreporter Ken Neville:

In this day and age of nonstop commercialization, it was bound to happen: Inch-and-a-half plastic action figures have outperformed the big stars and big effects from the big-screen movie on which they were based.

Recently released toy-industry estimates put the total merchandising take for tie-ins to Batman & Robin to be between $125 million and $160 million by year’s end. Just take the total box office of the film, which petered out at $105 million after a huge opening weekend, add in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s salary and the special-effects budget, and you’re there.

According to the Toy Manufacturers Association, the total take for action figures in ’97 could reach $1.2 billion, a whopping 40 percent increase over last year’s take. And with a new animated series on the WB network this fall, Bat-toy sales stand poised to continue strongly.[55]

What the sale of action figures, even with a lackluster box office, points to, is an increase in audiences’ interactive engagement with myth cycles, even as the type of engagement is market-driven. What inch-and-a-half-tall action figures provide that the films themselves do not is the ability for the spectator to collaborate in the development and outcome of the story; the film now becomes a game. The exposition is provided by the film and ancillary media, such as television (even television ads), comic books, and print (it is now a normal part of marketing procedure for film novelizations, graphic novels, and how-to books on the animation and special effects to be released even before the movie itself comes out). Arcade, console, and computer games are now often produced in tandem with a film in order to satisfy this need. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) released no fewer than four computer games along with the movie, with the following language on the packaging:

LIVE THE SAGA. Take part in the epic events from the STAR WARS: Episode I story—and beyond.[56]

Some critics bemoan the fact that episodes like the pod-racing sequence in Phantom Menace were put there as a product placement for the computer games. And, in the age of total merchandising, it does seem that blockbuster movies are simply one long commercial for ancillary and merchandising product. However, as Janet Murray, one of the first writers to try to articulate the characteristics of interactive narrative, has noted, “Historically, spectacle tends to move toward participatory narrative in order to retain our attention, to lengthen the immersive experience.”[57] Interactive narratives aim to satisfy two spectator desires: the desire for interactivity and the desire for immersiveness. A computer game can satisfy the desire for interactivity, but immersiveness is limited when all you have is the frame on your TV set.

For example, Batman: The Animated Series first aired in 1991. Unlike the earlier series, which had been made on an extremely low budget and was ghettoized in Saturday morning cartoon land, this series was well funded and well animated, and the actors were high-quality, recognizable names. In this series, Batman is now in his eighties, but he is training Robin to take over his role as the Caped Crusader. The series got new life with a computer game available for the Nintendo and Playstation2 consoles, using the same actors for voicing and the same animation look and style as the television show.

Throughout the history of cinema, movies have courted immersiveness in the form of wide screen and 3-D technologies, the most recent being Omnimax. But the most immersive form currently available is the theme park ride. Burton himself is aware of the importance of immersiveness, as part of his deal with super-agent Michael Ovitz when he moved from the William Morris Agency to Creative Arts Agency in 1992 was that he would get to design a theme park ride as well as a line of computer software.[58] Although Burton ended up returning to William Morris, he did design a ride for Disneyland based on The Nightmare Before Christmas, which is overlaid on the Haunted Mansion ride every fall.

Theme park rides don’t offer spectators the kinds of choices and sense of control over the narrative that computer games do, but they do offer an almost complete visual and tactile immersion, an interpenetration of the worlds on and off screen, often achieved by using a combination of haptics (shaking floors, controls for the user to manipulate, etc.), 3-D or large 2-D visuals (the screen completely surrounds you), and live action (live actors play the screen characters and interact with spectators). Spectators in these theme park rides are often included in the narrative in some minimal way, even when they are waiting in line.

These developments have led scholar Thomas Schatz to argue that “the vertical integration of classical Hollywood, which ensured a closed industrial system and a coherent narrative, has given way to ‘horizontal integration’ of the New Hollywood’s tightly diversified media conglomerates, which favours texts strategically ‘open’ to multiple readings and multimedia reiteration.”[59]

Geoff King, one of the analysts of the blockbuster phenomenon, has pointed out that narrative in the blockbuster was always relatively “open,” that is, loosely plotted.[60] As we have seen, Batman was a myth born of our times, with some of the accoutrements of earlier myth stories such as Superman and Zorro, but one that seems to remake himself over and over again to suit different audience needs while keeping his basic attributes intact.

Audiences have always loved to participate in the stories that really mattered to them, whether it was through fan activity, such as online chat rooms, playing with action figures, or simply wearing a Batman T-shirt.

What we have seen with Burton’s Batmans is that high-concept films, especially blockbusters, are no longer stand-alone entities. Their meaning cannot be deduced solely from the text itself; audiences have to be clued in via other media, and in fact, this is part of the pleasure of the text, putting all of the pieces together, even if that requires repeat viewing. The experience does not end with this hypertextual mode of reading: for some portions of the audience, an interactive level of engagement will be added in the form of board games, action figures, computer games, fan-based discourse formats such as chat rooms, and theme park rides. Cinematic narrative seems to be turning in a new direction, a direction that focuses more on a mixture of immersiveness and interactivity. Like the pataphysical format, this is another alternative to classically driven narrative.



[1] David Handelman, “Heart and Darkness: Even as the New, Improved Batman Sequel Continues His Unbroken String of Hits, Tim Burton Insists He’s Not Cut Out to Be a Director,” Vogue, July 1992, pp. 142–194.

[2] Quoted in Kristine McKenna, interview with Tim Burton, Playboy, August 2001, p. 66.

[3] Justin Wyatt, High Concept: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994), p. 13.

[4] Started his Hollywood career as assistant to Barry Diller at Paramount Pictures (1975–1979), became President of Production under Michael Eisner. Followed Eisner to Disney in 1984 where he was CEO. Eisner fired him in 1994, and he then co-founded Dreamworks SKG with Spielberg and Geffen.

[5] Steel is quoted in Justin Wyatt, High Concept: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood (Austin: University of Texas Press), 1994, pp. 9–10.

[12] Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Princeton: Princeton Univesrity Press), 1972.

[13] John Truby (www.truby.com) and Robert McKee (mckeestory.com) are Hollywood’s two hottest screenwriting gurus.

[14] Chris Vogler, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters (Culver City, CA: Michael Weise Film Productions), 1992.

[15] Hillary de Vries, “Ready or Not, It’s Back to Tim Burton’s World,” Los Angeles Times, June 14, 1992.

[17] Les Daniels, Batman: The Complete History (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1999), p. 18.

[18] The first film adaptation of Rinehart’s play was The Bat (1915/Selig Polyscope Co.), 5 reels, BW, silent, also known as The Circular Staircase, directed by Edward J. La Saint and produced by William Selig, starring Eugene Besserer, Stella Razeto, Guy Oliver, and Edith Johnson. Then came Roland West’s version The Bat (1926/Feature Prod./UA) 88 mins., BW, silent, directed by Roland West and produced by Julien Josephson, with a screenplay by Avery Hopwood and Mary Roberts Rinehart. Cinematography by Arthur Edeson; art direction by William Cameron Menzies.

From the novel The Circular Staircase by Mary Roberts Rinehart and the play The Bat, produced by Wagenhals and Kemper.

Cast: Tullio Carminatti, Sojin Kamiyama, Lee Shumway, Louis Fazenda, Emily Fitzroy, Jack Pickford, Charles Herzinger, Andre De Beranger, Jewel Carmen, Eddie Gribbon, Arthur Houseman, Robert McKim.

[19] The Bat Whispers (1930/Art Cinema/UA), 88 mins., BW.

Credits: written and directed by Roland West; produced by Joseph M. Schenck, Douglas B. Murray, and Roland West; cinematography by Ray June, Robert Planck (65 mm version), and Charles Cline; edited by James Smith; designed by Paul Roe Crawley. Based on The Circular Staircase by Mary Roberts Rinehart and the play The Bat, produced by Wagenhals and Kemper.

Cast: Chester Morris, Una Merkel, Chance Ward, Grace Hampton, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Ben Bard, Maude Eburne, DeWitt Jennings, William Bakewell, Spencer Charters, Richard Tucker, Wilson Benge, Sidney D’Albrook, S. E. Jennings, Hugh Huntley, Charles Bow Clark.

[20] See the Milestone Films Website at www.milestonefilms.com/pdf/batwhispers.pdf.

[21] The Mark of Zorro (1920), 8 reels, B&W, directed by Fred Niblo.

Cast: Douglas Fairbanks Sr., Marguerite De La Motte, Noah Beery, Robert McKim, Charles Hill Mailes, Claire McDowell, George Periolat, Walt Whitman, Sidney De Grey, Tote du Crow, Noah Beery Jr., Charles Belcher, Albert McQuarrie, Charles Stevens, John Winn, Gilbert Clayton. Produced by Douglas Fairbanks Sr. Scenario by Eugene Miller, from an adaptation by Elton Thomas (Douglas Fairbanks Sr.) of the story “The Curse of Capistrano” by Johnston McCulley. Art direction by Edward Langley. Assistant director Theodore Reed. Cinematography by William McGann and Harry Thorpe.

[24] The Batman (1943/Columbia), 30 reels, BW, 15 episodes (re-released in 1966 as An Evening with Batman and Robin).

Credits: directed by Lambert Hillyer; produced by Rudolph C. Flothow; screenplay by Victor McLeod, Leslie Swabacker, and Harry Fraser; director of photography James Brown Jr.; edited by Dwight Caldwell and Earl Turner; music by Lee Zahler.

Based on the comic book character created by Bob Kane.

Cast: Lewis Wilson, Douglas Croft, J. Carrol Naish, William Austin, Shirley Patterson, Eddie Parker, Charles Middleton, Gus Glassmire.

Batman (Wilson), and his assistant, Robin (Croft), battle the evil Dr. Daka (Naish), a Japanese gangster preparing the way for a Japanese invasion of America by using a unique machine that turns people into zombie slaves.

In 1965 this serial was edited as a four-hour feature titled An Evening with Batman and Robin to cash in on the renewed popularity of the Caped Crusader.

[25] Batman and Robin (1948), 31 reels. BW, 15 episodes. Also known as The Return of Batman and Robin, The New Adventures of Batman and Robin.

Credits: directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet; produced by Sam Katzman; screenplay by George H. Plympton, J. F. Poland, and Royal K. Cole; director of photography Ira H. Morgan; edited by Dwight Caldwell and Earl Turner; music by Mischa Bakaleinikoff.

Cast: Robert Lowery, Rick Vallin, Lyle Talbot, Eddie Parker, John Duncan, Leonard Penn, Jane Adams, Ralph Graves, Don Harvey.

Batman (Lowery) and Robin (Duncan) are assigned by Police Commissioner Gordon (Talbot) to battle the Wizard (Penn), who can control cars and planes from a distance with a stolen, top-secret remote control device. The Wizard goes on to steal the Neutraliser, which, when used in conjunction with the remote control device, creates a zone of invisibility that allows him to commit further crimes.

[26] Batman, TV series, directed by Robert Butler et al., ABC, January 1966–March 1968, 120 30-minute episodes shot on color film. Starring Adam West as Bruce Wayne/ Batman, Burt Ward as Dick Grayson/Robin, the Boy Wonder, Madge Blake as Aunt Harriet Cooper (seasons 1–2), Yvonne Craig as Barbara Gordon/Batgirl (season 3), William Dozier as the narrator (also the series producer), Neil Hamilton as Commissioner Gordon, Byron Keith as Mayor Linseed, David Lewis as Warden Crichton, Alan Napier as Alfred Pennyworth, and Stafford Repp as Chief O’Hara.

[27] Batman (1966), 105 min., color, directed by Leslie H. Martinson. Also known as Batman: The Movie (1966). Starring Adam West as Bruce Wayne/Batman; Burt Ward as Dick Grayson/Robin; Lee Meriwether as Catwoman/Comrade Kitanya “Kitka” Irenya Tantanya Karenska Alisof; Cesar Romero as the Joker; Burgess Meredith as the Penguin; Frank Gorshin as the Riddler; Alan Napier as Alfred Pennyworth; Neil Hamilton as Commissioner Gordon; Stafford Repp as Chief O’Hara; Madge Blake as Aunt Harriet Cooper.

[29] Will Brooker, Batman Unmasked: Analyzing a Cultural Icon (London and New York: Continuum, 2000), p. 39.

[30] Camille Bacon-Smith with Tyrone Yarbrough, “Batman: The Ethnography,” in The Many Lives of The Batman: Critical Approaches to a Superhero and His Media, ed. Roberta E. Pearson and William Uricchio (New York: Routledge, 1991), pp. 90–116.

[33] David Edelstein, “Mixing Beetlejuice,” Rolling Stone, June 2, 1988, p. 51.

[35] This way of reading nondiegetic codes is not new. In fact, much feminist analysis has consisted of reading nondiegetic codes—also referred to as moments of excess—in classic Hollywood films. Take, for example, All About Eve (1950), starring Bette Davis, which contains both a story and comments on that story as it is told. See also the discussion on Now Voyager in Stanley Cavell’s Contesting Tears: The Hollywood Melodrama of the Unknown Woman (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

[38] Bacon-Smith and Yarbrough quote comic book artist Martin King: “I kept getting images templated over [Jack Nicholson] of comic book images … ‘That’s a Jim Aparo Joker drawing.’ I shake my head and there’s a Brian Bollan. Nicholson’s amazing, he’s all Jokers in one.” Ibid., p. .

[41] Armond White, “Prince of the City” Film Comment, vol 25:6 November–December 1989.

[43] Thomas Schatz, “The Return of the Hollywood Studio System,” in Conglomerates and the Media, ed. Erik Barnouw et al. (New York: The New Press, 1997), p. 84.

[44] Tino Balio, “‘A Major Presence in All the World’s Important Markets’: The Globalization of Hollywood in the 1990s,” Contemporary Hollywood Cinema, edited by Steven Neale and Murray Smith (London and New York: Routledge), 1998, p. 61.

[45] Michael Goold, Andrew Campbell, “Desperately Seeking Synergy,” Harvard Business Review, September–October 1998, p. 133.

[46] Tim Balio, The American Film Industry, (Chicago: University of Wisconsin Press), 1985, p. 439.

[47] The Paramount Decrees refer to the Paramount anti-trust case decision that took effect in 1948, the result of a Federal directive to all the major studios (not just Paramount) to break up their near-monopoly hold on film exhibition and to stop unfair trade practices such as blind selling, block booking and price fixing.

The aim of the Paramount anti-trust case was to protect small film businesses against the large studios, to allow more free market competition, and increase consumer choice. The case was initiated in 1938, but only became law in 1948. It then took the studios another 10 years to sell off their theatres, spelling the end of the classical Hollywood studio system, because the lack of an automatic exhibition space for films radically altered the industrial organization of filmmaking.

[48] Calvin Sims, “‘Synergy’: The Unspoken Word: New Bidding War Has Old Rationale ‘Synergy’: The Word Left Unspoken in 90’s Bidding War,” New York Times: October 5, 1993, p. Dl.

[49] “All of the Moves Are Geared to Publicizing … and Making Money,” Newsweek, December 1962, pp. 48–51.

[51] That’s Entertainment, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, transcript of March 6, 1999, see http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/stories/s27923.htm.

[53] Eileen R. Meehan, “‘Holy Commodity Fetish, Batman!’ The Political Economy of a Commercial Intertext,” in Person and Vricchio, The Many Lives of The Batman, p. 48.

[55] Ken Neville, “‘Batman’ Toys Outperform Movie,” E! Online News, August 25, 1997. See http://www.eonline.com/News/Items/0,1,1665,00.html.

[56] Geoff King, Spectacular Narratives: Hollywood in the Age of the Blockbuster (London and New York: IB Tauris Publishers, 2000), p. 175.

[57] Janet Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck (New York: The Free Press, 1997), p. 112.

[58] N/A “Art of the Steal” Variety, March 23, 1992.

[59] Thomas Schatz, “The New Hollywood,” Movie Blockbusters, edited by Julian Stringer (New York and London: Routledge, 2003), p. 40. Originally printed in Film Theory Goes to the Movies, edited by Jim Collins, Hilary Radner, and Ava Preacher Collins (New York and London: Routledge, 1993), pp. 8–36.