As part of our pseudo-mini-Batman-tribute this week, let’s take a look at how the Caped Crusader stacked up against the box office competition in the last year of the ’80s.
You know, people complain these days that every movie is either a superhero movie, sequel or reboot, and sometimes all three. Well, 1989 makes 2014 look like 1975 (that makes total sense).
Let’s take a look at the top 10 highest-grossing films that year:
- Batman: $251,188,924
- Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: $197,171,806
- Lethal Weapon 2: $147,253,986
- Look Who’s Talking: $140,088,813
- Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: $130,724,172
- Back to the Future Part II: $118,450,002
- Ghostbusters II: $112,494,738
- Driving Miss Daisy: $106,593,296
- Parenthood: $100,047,830
- Dead Poets Society: $95,860,116
Clearly, Batman batblasted the competition that year, beating Indiana Jones pretty handily and making over $100 million more than distant-third place Lethal Weapon 2, which is the one where Joe Pesci was introduced to form a love triangle with Riggs and Murtaugh. But back to Batman and its own love triangle of Bruce Wayne, Alfred, and Bob, Batman was the biggest hit since Return of the Jedi in 1983 (freaking Rain Man was the highest grosser in ’88), and really ushered in a new era of blockbusters making huge money, followed by the likes of Terminator 2, Aladdin, Jurassic Park, Forrest Gump, Independence Day, and on and on. It was as if studios finally figured out, “Oh, it seems that people like these big, colorful event-type movies. Maybe we should make more of those?” Which somehow they hadn’t really grasped the concept of outside of Spielberg and Star Wars. Of course, for some reason or another, the superhero movie didn’t really gain full traction until more than a decade later when X-Men surprised people and Spider-Man blew its webbing everywhere. In between, we had three Batman movies, and Batman Returns and Batman Forever did ok, but they weren’t the mega-hits that Batman was. Then, of course, Batman & Robin came along and splashed acid in the faces of moviegoers everywhere. But it’s really odd that besides Batman, there were literally no other big-budget, big-name superheroes even attempted in the ’90s. Superman IV had basically destroyed Superman, and no one realized what a reboot was at the time. X-Men and Spider-Man basically spent the entire decade in development hell (likely because everyone was scared shitless of Marvel properties after the 1990 Captain America), but that worked out for them in the long run. But Batman remains this lone superhero megahit in those years, earning the equivalent of $501,118,800, a bit behind The Dark Knight but well ahead of Batman Begins and the laughably bad The Dark Knight Rises.
So in addition to that little superhero movie, you may have noticed the many sequels present in that top 10. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was a great film that did great ($393,355,300 in today’s money), and should be fondly remembered as the final film in the Indiana Jones trilogy, with no further sequels ever being produced. Lethal Weapon 2 was expected to do well and it did, because we were all Gibson and Glover crazy back then, and everybody viewed Mel Gibson as a super nice, funny guy who would never say a mean word about anyone. Back to the Future Part II, possibly the greatest Part II of all time, underperformed a bit considering the blockbuster success of the original in 1985, which made $210 million. Same goes for Ghostbusters II, which made less than half of what the original did five years earlier ($229 million). Probably because Ghostbusters II is uncomfortably awful.
There were a lot of other sequels in 1989 that… didn’t perform so well. My theory, as a professor of box officeology, is that they didn’t make much money because they all sucked moose taint:
- Star Trek V: The Final Frontier ($52,210,049), which is universally acknowledged as the very bottom of the barrel of Star Trek movies, likely because it was directed by William Shatner, who is a maniac. Although it did make more money in 1989 than the also-terrible Star Trek: Nemesis did in 2002 ($43,254,409).
- The Karate Kid Part III ($38,956,288), widely considered to be the third-worst collaboration between Pat Morita and Martin Kove.
- License to Kill ($34,667,015), which is actually a pretty good movie, but audiences seemed to be over James Bond, and no one gave Timothy Dalton a fair chance, so much so that it performed much lower than the previous Dalton outing, The Living Daylights ($51,185,897) in 1987. Audiences had Batman, Indiana Jones, and Martin Riggs that summer, so the played out Bond just didn’t entice anyone. So they shelved it for eight years until Pierce Brosnan hit puberty.
- The Big Three slasher movie franchises all had sequels out in 1989, and nobody gave a crap. A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child, which is possibly the worst one of the franchise, made the most with $22,168,359, followed by Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes a Boat to Vancouver, could only dream of making as much as Nightmare did, with just $14,343,976 (or about a million worse than friggin’ She-Devil). And Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Meyers, did even worse, only making $11,642,254, barely making more than Police Academy 6: City Under Siege ($11,567,217), which only made that much because Michael Winslow was huge at the time.
- Other noteworthy sequels of 1989 include The Fly II ($20,021,322); Fright Night II ($2,983,784); Stepfather 2 ($1,519,796); American Ninja 3: Blood Hunt ($902,152); The Toxic Avenger Part II ($792,966); Eddie and the Cruisers II ($536,508); The Toxic Avenger Part III: The Last Temptation of Toxie ($363,561); The Return of Swamp Thing ($192,816) and K-9 ($43,247,647), although I don’t remember ever seeing the first eight films in the K series.
The rest of the big moneymakers in ’89 are a pretty mixed group. Look Who’s Talking was a pretty big surprise considering it was a talking baby movie that starred a pre-Pulp Fiction John Travolta and Kirstie Alley, but people loved Bruce Willis then. Honey, I Shrunk the Kids was a Disney special effects sugary comedy, so it of course did well. Surprisingly, The Little Mermaid didn’t make nearly as much as you’d think, with just $84,355,863. However, it was the first Disney princess movie since Sleeping Beauty, so maybe folks just weren’t ready to embrace that genre yet. But their kids are gonna love it.
It’s kind of odd now to see adult fare in the top moneymakers of the year list, but Driving Miss Daisy, Parenthood, Dead Poets Society, When Harry Met Sally… ($92,823,546), The War of the Roses ($86,888,546), Steel Magnolias ($83,759,091), Born on the Fourth of July ($70,001,698), and Field of Dreams ($64,431,625), all were big hits and in the top 20 movies that year. And if they all would have had Batman in them in some capacity, they would have done even better.
Let’s close out with a quick look at some other notable pictures of 1989:
- Christmas Vacation did well with $71,319,526, much better than European Vacation ($49,364,621) in 1984. And I’m only mentioning European Vacation because “National Lampoon’s European Vacation German girl boobs” is still our site’s top search term.
- Turner & Hooch $71,079,915 won the battle of cop dog movies against the aforementioned K9, possibly because Tom Hanks is likable and German Shepherds are Nazi dogs. Meanwhile, Hanks’s other ’89 film, The ‘burbs, didn’t have as much bite with $36,601,993.
- The Abyss seems like it should have been a big moneymaker, but it only pulled down $54,222,310, more than $3 million less than Pet Semetary ($57,469,467). I guess it just wasn’t a good year for movies about underwater sea creatures, since Leviathan ($15,704,614) and Deepstar Six ($8,143,225) both drowned.
- Major League hit a triple with $49,797,148, and remains the greatest Corbin Bernsen baseball comedy of all time.
- Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure also seems like it should have been a blockbuster back then, but it just made $40,485,039, performing slightly worse than Three Fugitives ($40,586,886), a movie that makes Patrick Swayze roll in his grave to this day.
- Speaking of the dead, one of the top 5 greatest comedies of all time, Weekend at Bernie’s, didn’t live up to Jonathan Silverman’s lofty standards, earning just $30,218,387.
- Finally, it thrills me to see that My Left Foot ($14,743,391), Kickboxer ($14,697,005) and The Wizard ($14,278,900) all made the same amount of money, meaning putting those three movies together about a kickboxer whose Nintendo is stolen must defeat legions of bad guys using only his left foot. Although it’s very weird that in 1989 a movie about Nintendo made a little less than a movie about a guy who paints with his toes. Maybe that should have told the makers of Super Mario Bros.: The Movie something? Maybe they blamed it all on Fred Savage, and they were right to do so.
Check out Box Office Mojo to see the complete list of 1989 box officers!