Market Overview

Holy Cash Cow, Batman! Looking Back at The Dark Knight's Box-Office History

It is not an exaggeration to say that Batman is one of the most popular, if not the most popular, comic book superheroes. Almost since his debut in 1939, the character has been a staple of popular culture both in America and around the world.

Until the release of Disney's (NYSE: DIS) The Avengers earlier this year, Hollywood had seen more success with Batman than any other comic book character. The Caped Crusader has appeared in a total of seven theatrically-released movies to date, which have earned an unadjusted total of $1,449,683,452* in North America alone, making it one of the most successful film series of all time. With the latest film - The Dark Knight Rises - debuting on Friday, it is a good time to look back on the box-office history of Batman.

Batman (1989) Starting in the early 1980s, Warner Bros. (NYSE: TWX) began developing a live-action Batman film, with producers Michael Uslan and Benjamin Melniker wanting a dark, serious take on the character. After the financial success of Pee-wee's Big Adventure (1985), Tim Burton was hired to direct. The film starred Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Pat Hingle, Billy Dee Williams, Michael Gough, Jack Palance, and William Hootkins. Famously, Nicholson only accepted the role of the Joker under strict conditions, including a high salary, a percentage of the box office profits, and a set shooting schedule; his final salary is reported to have been as high as $50 million. In the run-up to the film's release, Warner Bros. carried out what was, at the time, the largest marketing and merchandising campaign in film history. Batman opened in theaters on June 23, 1989, alongside Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. The movie received generally favorable reviews from critics, although some complained that Batman himself was overshadowed by the Joker and that the film was an exercise in style over substance. But while the critics didn't necessarily love the film, audiences did, and it went on to be the second highest-grossing film of the year worldwide. Compared to its production budget of $35 million, Batman went on to make a domestic total gross of $251,188,924* (equal to $498,600,600 today) and a worldwide total gross of $411,348,924*. The success of this film forever changed Hollywood, ushering in the era of PG-13 summer blockbusters based on pre-existing properties and backed by massive promotional campaigns, which continues to this day.

Batman Returns (1992) After the success of Batman, Warner Bros. was eager to start work on a sequel. Tim Burton was initially hesitant about returning to direct, but was convinced to come back by the studio granting him more creative control and a new script by Daniel Waters, the writer of Heathers (1989). Michael Keaton, Michael Gough, and Pat Hingle reprised their roles, while new additions to the cast included Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Christopher Walken. Batman Returns opened in theaters on June 19, 1992, the only major release that weekend.

Upon release, critics gave the film overall better reviews than its predecessor. However, there was a backlash from parents' groups that the movie's violence and sexual references made it unsuitable for children; in response to this controversy, McDonald's shut down their Happy Meal tie-in with the film. The movie was still successful at the box office, but not as much as the previous film. On a production budget of $80 million, Batman Returns earned a domestic total gross of $162,831,698* (equivalent to $310,753,500 in today's dollars) and a worldwide total gross of $266,822,354*. While the film made its money back, it was less successful than Warner Bros. had hoped, so the studio decided to go in a more mainstream, family-friendly direction for the next live-action Batman movie.

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993) After the successful first season of Batman: The Animated Series, development began on this spin-off feature film. The original plan was for the film to be direct-to-video, but Warner Bros. decided to release it in theaters, ultimately giving the production team less than a year to complete the film (most animated features take over two years to go from a finished story to the final product). Kevin Conroy, Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., Mark Hamill, Bob Hastings, and Robert Costanzo reprised their roles from the television series, while new additions to the voice cast included Dana Delany, Hart Bochner, Stacy Keach, and Abe Vigoda.

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm opened in domestic theaters on December 25, 1993, the same day as Tombstone, Grumpy Old Men, and Philadelphia. The film received much acclaim from critics, but was not successful at the box office, which the filmmakers blamed on a lack of marketing and the decision to release the film in theaters on such short notice. Compared to its production budget of $6 million, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm only pulled in a domestic total gross of $5,617,391* (equal to $10,698,100 in today's dollars). The film did eventually make its money back through its various VHS and DVD releases, and is still well-regarded by fans.

Batman Forever (1995) With Warner Bros.' plan for a new approach to the next Batman film, a largely new creative team was brought onto the project. Joel Schumacher, whose credits included The Lost Boys (1987), Flatliners (1990), and Falling Down (1993) took over the director's chair, while Tim Burton remained on as a producer. However, Michael Keaton was unhappy with the new direction the film series was heading in and decided not to reprise his role, thus, Val Kilmer took over the part of Batman. Michael Gough and Pat Hingle did reprise their roles, and were joined by Tommy Lee Jones, Jim Carrey, Nicole Kidman, Chris O'Donnell, and Drew Barrymore.

Batman Forever opened in theaters on June 16, 1995, with no other big movies releasing that day. The film received mixed reviews from critics, but was a success at the box office, becoming the sixth highest-grossing film of the year in terms of worldwide earnings. On a production budget of $100 million, Batman Forever made a domestic total gross of $184,031,112* (equivalent to $335,063,500 in 2012) and a worldwide total gross of $336,529,144*.

Batman & Robin (1997) With the box office success of Batman Forever, Warner Bros. immediately greenlit a sequel. Joel Schumacher and Akiva Goldsman were brought back to again direct and write. Because of the difficulties he'd had working with Schumacher and scheduling conflicts with The Saint (1997), Val Kilmer chose not to return as Batman, and was replaced by George Clooney. Chris O'Donnell, Michael Gough, and Pat Hingle reprised their roles, while other new additions to the cast included Arnold Schwarzenegger, Uma Thurman, Alicia Silverstone, John Glover, Elle Macpherson, and Robert “Jeep” Swenson. Batman & Robin opened in theaters on June 20, 1997, opposite My Best Friend's Wedding. Upon release, the film received extremely negative reviews, with many criticizing its overly-campy tone and the sense that Warner Bros. was more interested in selling toys and other merchandise than making a good movie. The response from audiences was similarly underwhelming, and Batman & Robin became the first live-action Batman film to not earn back its budget in domestic markets.

Compared to its production budget of $125 million, the film only earned a domestic total gross of $107,325,195* (equal to $185,188,600 today) and a worldwide total gross of $238,207,122*, making it the least commercially-successful live-action Batman film ever. The movie went on to receive eleven nominations at the Golden Raspberry Awards, although its only “win” was Alicia Silverstone for Worst Supporting Actress, and it is frequently ranked among the worst superhero films of all time.

Batman Begins (2005) After the critical failure and financial disappointment of Batman & Robin, Warner Bros. decided to put the planned fifth film, Batman Triumphant, on hold. As time passed, a number of proposed new Batman films, including an adaptation of Frank Miller's Batman: Year One and a “Batman vs. Superman” project, were considered but failed to get off the ground. That changed in early 2003, when director Christopher Nolan and writer David S. Goyer signed on to create a new Batman film that would reboot the series.

Their intention was to depict the origin of the character and set the film in a grounded, realistic world. The film starred Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Cillian Murphy, Tom Wilkinson, Katie Holmes, Gary Oldman, and Morgan Freeman. Batman Begins opened in theaters on June 15, 2005, the same weekend as Mr. & Mrs. Smith, The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D, and The Honeymooners. On release, the film received largely positive reviews from critics, and many applauded the new, more grounded approach. On a production budget of $150 million, Batman Begins pulled in a domestic total gross of $205,343,774* (equivalent of $253,716,500 in 2012 dollars) and a worldwide total gross of $372,710,015*. The success of the film help launch a trend of darker genre films, and popularized the idea of reboots in Hollywood.

The Dark Knight (2008) In July 2006, Warner Bros. officially announced the beginning of production on the sequel to Batman Begins. Christopher Nolan returned as director, and brought on his brother Jonathan Nolan, the two having previously worked together on Memento (2000) and The Prestige (2006), to help him write the film with David Goyer. Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, and Morgan Freeman reprised their roles, while new members of the cast included Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Eric Roberts. In January 2008, a few months after he completed his part of filming, Heath Ledger died from an accidental overdose of prescription drugs; this brought greatly increased attention from both the media and the public, and caused Warner Bros. to refocus its marketing campaign on elements of the film besides Ledger as the Joker.

The Dark Knight opened in theaters on July 18, 2008, alongside Mamma Mia! and Space Chimps. The film received very positive reviews from critics, with many praising Ledger's performance as the Clown Prince of Crime. It was also a smash hit at the box office, becoming the most financially successful film of the year in both domestic and worldwide markets. Compared to its production budget of $185 million, The Dark Knight made a domestic total gross of $533,345,358* (equal to $588,314,100 today) and a worldwide total gross of $1,001,921,825*. The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, ultimately winning two: Best Sound Editing and a posthumous Best Supporting Actor for Heath Ledger.

The Dark Knight Rises (2012) Christopher Nolan is once again back in the director's chair, working from a story by himself and David Goyer and a screenplay he co-wrote with his brother Jonathan. Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, and Morgan Freeman are again reprising their roles, and new additions to the cast include Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Marion Cotillard, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

The Dark Knight Rises will open in theaters this Friday, July 20, and is the only major release this weekend. With a reported production budget of $250 million, it is by far the most expensive Batman film to date. Anticipation for the new movie among filmgoers is high, and it is poised to be very successful for Warner Bros., although it is not expected to break the record $207.4-million domestic opening weekend that The Avengers achieved.

Yet, no matter how the new film turns out and how much money it makes, it's safe to say that we haven't seen the last of Batman on our movie screens.

Update: According to, The Dark Knight Rises should pass $260 million in box office receipts after its second weekend theaters.

* Indicates data source via

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