After not releasing a film in 2015, Tim Burton has a busy 2016 ahead of him. Alice Through the Looking Glass comes out in May, and although he’s only listed as an executive producer, Burton’s whimsical goth aesthetic has been passed on from the original to James Bobin. Then, in September, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, which he directed, will delight fans of Ransom Riggs’ adored book of the same name. Or maybe horribly disappoint them. (The trailer is more tiring than charming, but the film’s stars, Eva Green and Samuel L. Jackson, are always watchable.) Burton is also possibly, but probably not working on Beetlejuice 2, and a live-action remake of Dumbo.
But even if Burton took 2016 off, too, he’d still be its most influential director thanks to a pair of much-imitated films, one from this decade and one from the 1980s. With Batman, he introduced a take on superheroes that set a standard still followed today. And with Alice in Wonderland, he showed Disney it could mine its back catalog of animated classics. And in 2016, both have inspired some of the year’s biggest films and look to inspire even more in the years to come.
Hollywood has had an interest in superheroes almost as long there have been superheroes. In the 1940s, moviegoers were delighted by serials featuring the adventures of Batman, the Shadow, Captain Marvel, and the Green Hornet, as well as some wonderful animated shorts from Fleischer Studios. But the first big-budget superhero movie wasn’t made until 1978, when Richard Donner changed the game with Superman. It was the most expensive film, superhero-starring or otherwise, in history up to that point, and was nominated for three Academy Awards. It’s also, like the Man of Steel himself, kind of lame and, to quote famed critic Pauline Kael, “cheesy-looking.”
Still, it was successful enough for Superman II (which star Christopher Reeve called “the best of the series”) to be rushed into production following a complicated arrangement that began with an attempt to shoot both the original and sequel at once. Donner’s Superman also convinced Warner Bros. the world was eventually ready for an Adam West-less Batman movie. And who was the right man for the gig? A guy with only two credits to his name, one of which was the camp classic Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. Even Colin Trevorrow made a science-fiction movie before getting Jurassic World.
All these years later, it’s still remarkable Warner Bros. gave the keys to the Batmobile to Burton. But the risky decision paid off, both commercially (over $400 million at the box office) if not critically. In a mixed two-star review, Roger Ebert called Batman “a triumph of design over story, style over substance — a great-looking movie with a plot you can’t care much about.” Where Superman was all-American spectacle, Batman was dark and gritty; it owes much to then-recent Batman comics, particularly Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Thanks to Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren’s violent screenplay and Burton’s direction, it also changed the public perception of Batman, and superheroes in general. They weren’t guys (and very occasionally, girls) in colored spandex — they were tortured souls with tragic backstories. And in Batman’s case, he didn’t wear “tights and underwear [on] the outside,” according to Burton, “but a complete operatic costume to overstate the image Batman has of himself.” The suit is as much a character as New York in every romantic-comedy.
Sound familiar? That essentially describes every superhero movie released in the past 15 years, including, most recently, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the second-highest-grossing film of the year so far. In terms of influence, Burton’s Batman far supersedes Donner’s Superman. (Zack Snyder just forgot to include the memorable depictions of famous characters, and enjoyably wicked villains, and Prince. Dawn of Justice could have used a lot more Prince, and a lot less Martha.) Even Marvel’s movies, a lighter bunch than DC’s releases, owe Batman a debt. The Iron Man films are as much about Tony Stark’s tortured, damaged psyche as high-flying rescues.
The other superhero movie in the 2016 worldwide top 10, Deadpool, should tip its hat Burton’s way, too. It has a consistent (juvenile, dick-swinging) tone; it’s pure West, er, pure Deadpool, the same way 1989 Batman is unmistakably Burton. Burton depicts Gotham as a city full of prostitutes and pimps, where violence lurks just around the corner. It’s not Metropolis. You never know when you’ll run into a charred corpse, or see your parents get shot. Batman made adult themes in superhero movies palatable for mainstream audiences, and Deadpool, with its pegging and hyper-realistic violence, took it to the next level, like a punk raised on classic rock.
“I was lucky when I made Batman,” Burton once said, “because, at the time, it felt like new territory. We went back to the traditions of the comic and they were usually light and cartoony. It was exciting.” Also “light and cartoony”: Disney’s 1967 animated The Jungle Book movie. Mowgli is a defense-less “man cub” in a jungle surrounded by hypnotic snakes, hungry buzzards, and vengeful tigers, but the danger never feels real. That’s in contrast to Jon Favreau’s live-action remake (already number six in the box office top-10 for 2016), which is “shockingly good” and surprisingly terrifying. It’s the latest hand-drawn-animation-turned-CGI-heavy remake, and probably the best. Not that it has much competition — the Lily James-starring Cinderella is stuffy, Glenn Close’s 101 Dalmatians is too slapstick-heavy, and Maleficent is an okay film with a magnetic performance — but it’s about to. Pete’s Dragon is out soon, with Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, Dumbo, Mulan, Pinocchio, The Sword in the Stone, Tink, Cruella, and probably Jungle Book 2 to follow.
And that’s all thanks to Alice in Wonderland.
The first movie Disney released in the 2010s is also one of its most successful. Alice made over $1 billion at the box office, despite the fact that it’s, well, terrible. Alice is based on a story literally everyone knows, yet both the scripts and visuals are a mess. I won’t fault Burton for the screenplay, but I will for Alice‘s look, which is murky and exhausting, like looking at a Day-Glo poster in Spencer’s for too long. It’s as if Burton learned to direct from the Star Wars prequels. Every frame is filled with something, but none of it leaves an impression. Alice certainly left an impression on the millions of people who paid to see it and Disney, who were smart to realize that Burton’s inherent weirdness, matched with his visual flair, was a perfect match for Lewis Carroll’s “curiouser and curiouser” text. (This, I imagine, is one of the reasons why the movie was so popular — adults were curious how the remake matched to the beloved original, and children were drawn to Alice’s outsider status, all in a candy-colored package.) The company’s new strategy, besides churning out Marvel and Star Wars movies, seems to be taking a known animated property from the storied Vault, particularly if it’s about an outcast (Mowgli, Alice, Belle — this is a Burton staple; no wonder he was drawn to Batman), and making it dark and “real.” If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and with the billion dollars Alice in Wonderland made them, Disney ain’t broke.
It’s been too long since Tim Burton made a movie that can be positively compared to his early classics (Corpse Bride, maybe?), but his presence is still felt throughout Hollywood. Batman launched what we now think of as a “superhero movie,” from The Dark Knight to Iron Man, and Alice in Wonderland spearheaded Disney’s current enthusiasm for live-action remakes. Those are the defining blockbuster archetypes of the decade. Burton is the most important and influential director of 2016, and he hasn’t released a movie yet. Unless he was behind the camera for Johnny Depp’s hostage video.
At this point, it wouldn’t surprise me, because even when you don’t see his name, Burton’s hard to avoid these days.