Looking back, it's hard to believe that a director like Tim Burton was allowed within 10 feet of a multimillion dollar superhero franchise.
Before these movies were the box office juggernauts that we know and love today, Warner Brothers took a big risk on the director to helm Batman. Burton's success with Pee-wee's Big Adventure seemed to promise that he could make a fun, family movie do big business.
But in fact it was Burton's dark and edgy touch that made Batman a runaway hit. Along with becoming one of the most profitable films of all time, Batman was a merchandising gold mine. T-shirts, toys and even breakfast cereal with the caped crusader's name on the box made more than $700 million for Warner Brothers.
Still, studio heads weren't convinced that superhero movies were here to stay. By the time Batman Returns hit theaters in 1992, the studio's advertising and publicity head Robert Friedman guessed that there was a "50-50" chance we could see a third movie.
That didn't stop Warner Brothers from spending more than $100 million on marketing Returns, with help from corporate sponsors like McDonald's, Diet Coke and Choice Hotels. But a conflict with one of these companies ended Burton's chance to direct a third Batman movie.
In fact, it almost killed the whole series...
While fans agree that Returns was much darker than the original Batman, Burton actually claims the sequel is "much less dark." But audiences didn't see it that way.
Many parents were shocked by the grotesque appearance of the Penguin, the movie's violence, and even Catwoman's sexually-suggestive outfit. Concerned groups started letter-writing campaigns criticizing Warner Brothers and the companies that had promoted Batman Returns in their commercials.
"Has McDonald's no conscience?" one mother wrote to the LA Times. The restaurant chain had not only created a Happy Meal toy line to promote the movie, but also sold collectible cups. While they insisted the toys were "not designed to promote attendance at the movie," parents weren't convinced.
Over the weeks and months to come, Warner Brothers and McDonald's continued to point fingers, and argued over ad spending when McDonald's refused to pay up. In the end, Warner Brothers executives called Burton in for a confrontational meeting and told him he was out of a job.
“I think I upset McDonald’s," Burton remembered in one interview, "[They asked] ‘What’s that black stuff coming out of the Penguin’s mouth? We can’t sell Happy Meals with that!’”
Of course the Batman series continued with Batman Forever, directed by Joel Schumacher, but only once Warner Brothers executives personally approved the film's script.
Do you think Burton deserved to be fired? Share this story and tell us what you think!
[H/T: New York Times]