Merch revealed ahead of The Batman’s release has highlighted the problem Matt Reeves’ Dark Knight reboot shares with Tim Burton’s Batman Returns. The Batman movies are linked by their inappropriateness for younger audiences, by design, and with positive narrative justification: because how do you market a movie with a grotesque penguin man spitting green bile or a hyper-violent vigilante wrestling with his demons and grief to kids?
Both The Batman and Batman Returns were not made for young audiences by their respective filmmakers but come with the challenge of appealing to a broader demographic thanks to brand recognition. Batman, though a gothic, macabre story of a literal personification of fear and vengeance, has an army of fans across a spectrum of demographics, so there’s a built-in challenge in trying to pause that excitement for inconvenient things like age-appropriate content and the MPAA’s recommendations. The answer for any studio with even half an idea about making money is to ignore the issues with content and seek the merchandising opportunities, which, for Tim Burton's Batman Returns, spelled disaster.
Infamously, Burton’s dark vision for Batman Returns led to problems for brand partners including McDonald's, whose Happy Meals were saddled with toys based on nightmarish characters from a terrifying, twisted world. It was Burton's vision that ultimately turned Warner Bros off him as the man to steer Batman's adventures, a mistake too far in the studio's eyes. That led to a major swerve in Warner Bros’ creative approach and the soft reboot of Batman Forever with Joel Schumacher in Burton’s place. But the reveal of The Batman’s children’s costumes suggests that WB has softened their concerns about appropriate opportunities for brand partners. After all, if you’re letting children dress as Pattinson’s darker, more brutal Batman for fun cosplay and roleplay, there’s probably not the same concerns about upsetting parental or religious groups as Batman Returns inspired.
The Batman, fundamentally, is not a family film. It may not have been branded with a limiting R rating, but The Batman's PG-13 rating is basically an invitation to keep younger kids away, particularly with the warning of extreme violence. This isn’t an Adam West caper or a Schumacher day-glo delight; it’s a no-holds-barred look into the psychology of revenge, trauma, and moral corruption. From the marketing, it would appear Matt Reeves’ The Batman is a Heart of Darkness-like journey into the abyss as Bruce Wayne wrestles with his demons. Aside from putting out a Batman figure and a new Batmobile, how do you present that to kids symbolically with the film’s actual content? The answer, as Batman Returns’ brand partners found, is simply to not.
But there has been no moral panic at the sight of children dressing as Robert Pattinson’s new Dark Knight. There have been no threats of rescinding deals or religious groups banging on doors because the market has changed and there is more of an expectation of what Batman really is. He’s not an appropriate superhero for kids, which is arguably why he’s so cool to them, and it’s no longer the case that you aim Batman movies at a broad family audience to mop up the merchandising dollars. And while The Batman’s dress-up costumes are a little odd, there’s a separation there that suggests kids may not actually be going to see the film that inspired their cosplay in the cinema at all. Or at the very least, there’s no concern about it from Warner Bros and that can only be a good thing for Reeves’ grand vision in the long run.
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