A Not So Happy Meal: How McDonald's Destroyed 'Batman Returns' And Cost Tim Burton His Job
Way back when, when Happy Meals didn't include a fruit bag and an educational toy (possibly an abacus), the McDonald's fun box was a staple of any kid's birthday party.
Way back when, when Happy Meals didn't include a fruit bag and an educational toy (possibly an abacus), the McDonald's fun box was a staple of any kid's birthday party. When tied in with the fad of the time, you could find anything from a Beanie Baby to a Lion King toy lurking under your MSG fries and chicken-mush nuggets. Film fans of a certain age may remember the short-lived line of Batman inspired toys that linked 1992's Batman Returns to the golden arches, but you may not know the tragic tale behind the plastic fantastic nightmare.
We have already heard how Michael Keaton's tenure as Bruce Wayne ended after just two films when he claimed that the third film, Batman Forever, was always going to be a bit sh*t after Joel Schumacher took over from Tim Burton as director. Delving a little deeper, why did Burton exit after just two rounds with the Dark Knight? In a nutshell, the backlash from Returns being too dark was what sealed the deal for Batman No. 3, which would undoubtedly have been affected by a certain run in with Ronald McDonald and his fast food conglomerate. This is how McDonald's and their Happy Meals gave Batman Returns a not-so-happy ending.
Tim Burton Isn't Lovin' It
It is a concept that by today's standards would seem impossible — you don't exactly see Resident Evil-themed toys crawling out of your Happy Meal. The uncompromisingly dark tone of Burton's sequel seems a million miles away from the primary-colored glare of McDonald's' red and yellow. Before Batman Returns was even finished, Burton was already arguing with censors over the film, cutting scenes and violence to reach a more acceptable PG-13 rating than the proposed R-rating. McDonald's only had a rough-cut of the film to go on, and their faith was misjudged when they signed a deal to promote the "family friendly" film. In the run-up to July 1992, every part of McDonald's food came plastered with the cowled visage of Batman.
Ironically, seeing Michelle Pfeiffer shoved out of a skyscraper, Christopher Walken get electrocuted to death, or Danny DeVito bite the tip off someone's nose didn't exactly build up the hunger in the kids of the '90s.
In a retrospective interview, Burton told Yahoo:
"I think I upset McDonald's. [They asked] ‘What’s that black stuff coming out of the Penguin’s mouth. We can’t sell Happy Meals with that!’"
It is strange 1989's Batman was never marketed as a film for kids, I vaguely remember some merchandise surrounding Batman: The Animated Series, but a full-blown merger with Happy Meals may have been a step too far. As Batman Returns opened, there was a slew of angry parents as we all chowed down on our Happy Meals. One angry parent wrote:
Violence-loving adults may enjoy this film. But why on Earth is McDonald’s pushing this exploitative movie through the sales of its so-called ‘Happy Meals?’ Has McDonald’s no conscience?
The backlash snowballed, going so far as Christian-based organization Dove Foundation calling out McDonald's on why they would promote a film so filled with violence. However, despite all this, McDonald's still continued promoting the range for the full-length of its contract until September, so they can't have been that outraged!
With a PR nightmare on their hands, McDonald's and Warner Bros. did whatever they could to distance themselves from the partnership. At the time, the Happy Meal was exclusively marketed to the 1–10 age range, so apart from the odd poor student, the toys were effectively marketing a film that the recipient should be going nowhere near. The dark, but cartoony, tones of Batman: The Animated Series were just months a way, so McDonald's could have been promoting Batman as a man, not just a film. This was at least the excuse that the fast food giant went on to use, while Warner Bros. went one step further to say:
“We were careful not to provide actual toys from the movie.”
Catwoman may not have driven around the film in a purple car with cat face and extendable tail, but did anyone notice that the Batmobile looks just a little similar to the one we saw Keaton zooming around Gotham City in? It must also be one hell of a coincidence that the toys selected directly relate to characters that appeared in the film, and no one can ignore the fact that the tagline for the McDonald's Batman Returns themed cups: “With five Frisbee Bat-disc lids straight from the movie.”
Basically, they were caught out, but just wouldn't admit it. Parents reacted badly to the film, but in fairness, and similarly to the 1989 film, Burton had never marketed Batman Returns as a kids' film. In the 2005 documentary Shadow of the Bat – Part 4: Dark Side of the Knight, Burton says that the audience reaction was too mixed to gauge, but the warning signs were there that he could have overstepped the mark:
"It was a weird reaction to Batman Returns, because half the people thought it was lighter than the first one and half the people thought it was darker. I think the studio just thought it was too weird — they wanted to go with something more child- or family- friendly. In other words, they didn’t want me to do another one."
It was the start of a chain of events that lead to Burton being unceremoniously ditched from the franchise he had come to form, and sent us back to the '60s with campy colorful live-action Batman films. Arnie and Uma were still a way off from running Batman into the ground, but the McDonald's nightmare was the beginning of the end.
Into The Darkness
Prepare to throw your batarangs in hate, as I know there are a lot of Nolan supporters, but for me, 1992's Batman Returns is the pinnacle of the Caped Crusader. There is something about Pfeiffer cartwheeling in PVC, DeVito's wacky waddling Penguin, and Walken's Young Frankenstein-esque Max Shreck that solidifies Tim Burton's final entry in the franchise as its best. There was just the right balance of light and dark that meant that seeing Keaton go up against Catwoman and Penguin was a recipe for success. It is somewhat tragic that we never got to see how Burton would have moved the franchise forward, with plans for Marlon Wayans as Robin, Robin Williams as The Riddler, or even a Pfeiffer-centric spin-off.
It is easy to see how Joel Schumacher's next two installments of Batman went in a more "Happy Meal friendly" direction, swapping out black goo and gnawed-by-cats vibe for bat-nipples and a spandex Jim Carrey. Burton was out, and McDonald's learned from their mistakes. By the time it came to Spielberg's masterpiece Jurassic Park in 1993, McDonald's demanded that he tone down some of the more graphic scenes before they would sign up. Despite the Returns fiasco, they weren't about to let a cash cow like Batman walk out the door. By the time Batman Forever was marketed in 1995, McDonald's had refused to sign any deals until they had at least read the script. However, were they given too much power over films? McDonald's developed the power to go as far as to dictate what costumes would be worn in the film, which may or may not have lead to the purple and leopard tones of Tommy Lee Jones's Two-Face.
Schumacher was always going to take the Dynamic Duo down a camper, more family-friendly route, however, it is shocking how much sway McDonald's held over the films. However, I would say that you could argue that Returns is actually lighter in tone than Batman 1989, and is most certainly more comic than Nolan's The Dark Knight. Given Zack Snyder's notoriously dark take on films, we should expect his Batfleck solo to similarly follow suit. That being said, it is ludicrous to imagine The Dark Knight teaming up with McDonald's to have a Heath Ledger inspired Joker/Ronald McDonald hybrid, I just guess that it was a representation of the time — that weird '90s warp of Fresh Prince and cheese in a can. Ask yourself though, was that 99¢ really worth it to miss out on another Burton bat? I think not!