How Dick Tracy went bigger than Burton’s Batman and came up short

30 years ago, a visually distinctive adaptation of an iconic crimefighting detective arrived in theatres. Chances are, right now you’re thinking of Tim Burton’s Batman– but I’m actually talking about Dick Tracy, the 1990 adaptation of Chester Gould’s classic comic strip directed by Warren Beatty (who also played the lead role).

It’s hardly surprising that a discussion of Dick Tracy should start with its similarities to Batman, though. Released a year earlier, Burton’s film – with its pulp-inspired hero, striking production design, and garish villain – more or less established the template that Beatty (and studio executives eager to replicate Batman’s stellar box office performance) would expand upon.

And yet, despite Dick Tracy taking the Batman playbook to a whole new level, the film was critically and commercially far less successful. So, what went wrong? How did Dick Tracy go bigger than Burton’s Batman and still come up short?

Dialling the Batman formula up to 11

Before we try to answer that question, let’s take a quick moment to tick off all the ways that Dick Tracy one-upped Batman.

For starters, there are its villains. Burton signed Oscar winners Jack Nicholson and Jack Palance to star as Batman’s main and supporting baddies, grinning psychopath the Joker and ruthless crime boss Carl Grissom, then filled the minor antagonist roles with unknowns. On the other hand, Beatty – pre-empting the Bat-franchise’s subsequent fixation on hiring multiple Hollywood heavyweights to pull villain duty – stacked his entire rogue’s gallery with big name thespians like Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, and James Caan.

What’s more, whereas only Nicholson was forced to endure hours in the make-up chair on Batman, everybody in Dick Tracy from Pacino on down was plastered in grotesque prosthetics to bring outlandish crooks like “Big Boy” Caprice, Flattop, and Pruneface to life.

“These are not the kind of colours the audience is used to seeing. These are much more dramatic in strength, in saturation. Comic strip art is usually done with very simple and primitive ideas and emotions.”

Vittorio Storaro on Dick Tracy’s stylised colour palette

This ties in neatly to the next area where Dick Tracy raises the bar set by Batman: its visuals. Overseen by production designer Anton Furst, Batman’s heightened gothic aesthetic remains stunning to this day – but it’s arguably less ambitious than the work by Richard Sylbert’s art department on Dick Tracy. Guided by Beatty (who was eager to replicate the limited palette of the film’s source material), Sylbert’s team and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro created a live-action comic strip world featuring only seven vibrant colours, resulting in a unique look unlike anything before or since.

Then there’s Dick Tracy’s soundtrack, which is a production aspect where Beatty followed the Batman blueprint most closely. Not only did he straight-up hire the same composer, Danny Elfman, to handle the orchestral score, Beatty drafted in Madonna to belt out Dick Tracy’s musical numbers, mirroring Prince’s involvement in Batman. But he upped the ante here as well, casting the Queen of Pop in the actual movie itself – she plays femme fatale love interest Breathless Mahoney – and the jazz-infused songs she performs on screen were written by Broadway titan Stephen Sondheim.

Yet perhaps the most obvious way that Dick Tracy both emulated and outdid Batman was in its aggressive marketing campaign. As I alluded to earlier, Disney (which released the film through its Touchstone Pictures label) hoped to equal or even better the record-breaking box office haul of Batman, so understandably built on Warner Bros. Pictures’ promotional strategy for that film when it came time to advertise Dick Tracy.

This meant sinking millions of dollars into everything from McDonald’s tie-in meals to an extensive array of merchandise – not to mention an onslaught of TV commercials. By the time Madonna started performing tracks from Dick Tracy’s soundtrack as part of her Blonde Ambition World Tour, for better or worse, everybody knew that the flick was about to drop, and that they should probably go see it.

But that didn’t mean they were necessarily going to like it…

Why didn’t Dick Tracy top Batman?

See, while Dick Tracy raked in more than $22 million over its opening weekend in the United States (at the time, Disney’s biggest ever opening), lukewarm reviews and mixed word of mouth hurt its longer-term financial performance. Sure, it still wound up the ninth highest-grossing flick of 1990 in America, but its high production and marketing costs meant it was a disappointment for the top brass at Disney, who were expecting the kind of astronomical ticket sales enjoyed by Batman.

So, what exactly went wrong? Quite a lot, as it turns out.

For one thing, the screenplay by Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr. is painfully pedestrian. Dick Tracy’s overall narrative may be clearer than Batman’s – which suffers from the murky plotting that often plagues Burton’s work – but it’s kinda, well…boring. What the film gains in clarity over its rival, it sacrifices in pacing; it might not always be clear what the Joker’s main objective is in Batman, but watching him go head-to-head with the Dark Knight is still far more fun than seeing Tracy’s war against Big Boy unfold.

“We made demands on our time, talent and treasury that, upon reflection, may not have been worth it.”

Former Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg reflects on Dick Tracy

Part of this probably has to do with the dearth of quality set pieces in Dick Tracy. I’m not saying that the action in the movie needed to be on a grander scale; that wouldn’t make sense given the story’s “cops and gangsters” milieu. But there’s a frustrating lack of panache to Dick Tracy’s derring-do, as if the mere sight of a blazing tommy gun is enough to compensate for uninventive staging and choreography.

Dick Tracy’s more sensitive side doesn’t fare much better, either. To put it bluntly, the Dick Tracy/Tess Trueheart romantic pairing stinks, especially compared to the smouldering dynamic between Batman/Vicki Vale. Admittedly, Tracy and Breathless Mahoney have at least some chemistry – which is hardly surprising, considering that Beatty and Madonna would embark on a short-lived romance during principal photography – but the scenes between the director and his co-star Glenne Headly lack the spark Michael Keaton and Kim Basinger brought to Batman.

“[Dick Tracy] sticks to its eye-poppingly brilliant surface. Though the film is a visual knockout, it’s emotionally impoverished.”

Film critic Peter Travers, in Rolling Stone

Not that there’s much time for romance, with everything else going on. Indeed, Dick Tracy’s well-intentioned attempt to include nearly all its source material’s wide stable of characters results in a movie that’s fatally overstuffed. With so many players coming and going, it’s impossible to get know any of them properly – so they never develop beyond their archetypal roots, remaining as thin as the paper Gould drew his strips on.

Ultimately, this is what sinks Dick Tracy: we simply don’t care about Dick, Tess, or their surrogate son, The Kid. And since it’s impossible for us to forge a genuine emotional connection with them, why should we give a damn what happens to them?

Does Dick Tracy do anything better than Batman?

Clearly, Dick Tracy gets plenty wrong. But did it do anything right? And was there anything it did better than Batman?

Certainly, it deserves full marks for its make-up effects and production design, both of which notched up well-deserved Oscar wins. The prosthetics devised by John Caglione Jr. and Doug Drexler to realise Chester Gould’s disfigured gangsters push the envelope further than Nick Dudman’s fine work on Batman, while the vibrant visuals achieved by Sylbert, Storaro, and costume designer Milena Canonero (and their respective teams) are at least as memorable as anything in Burton’s flick.

Of course, looks aren’t everything in a motion picture: there’s also the soundtrack to consider, and here, Dick Tracy and Batman break even. Although Elfman’s Dick Tracy score isn’t in the same league as his iconic efforts on Batman, when it comes to declaring an overall winner, it really comes down to whether you prefer the music of Prince or Madonna, and what your mileage is when it comes to Stephen Sondheim’s theatrical stylings (for what it’s worth, Sondheim walked away with Best Original Song for “Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)”).

Finally, Dick Tracy is markedly more faithful to Chester Gould’s original strips than Batman is to the comic books of Bob Kane and Bill Finger, and those who followed them. This isn’t always a good thing when adapting an existing property for film, but there’s still something to be said for the fact that all the characters in Beatty’s movie (with the notable exception of “Big Boy” Caprice) look and act exactly like their four-colour counterparts.

Final thoughts

Ultimately, though, what really stands out when you revisit Dick Tracy isn’t the ways in which it does or doesn’t live up to Batman.

Rather, what comes across is just how much of a labour of love the movie was; everybody from Beatty on down clearly poured their heart into the movie and tried their best to make something special – and nearly pulled it off.

So taken on those terms, maybe Dick Tracy doesn’t come up so short after all…

One thought on “How Dick Tracy went bigger than Burton’s Batman and came up short

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