Mood Changes in Blockbuster Sequels

Films become blockbusters in part because they are firmly grounded in the prevailing zeitgeist. Highly popular motion pictures lend themselves to franchises. Studios are eager to make sequels of movies that demonstrate broad box office appeal. Major changes in sequels from the original production can reveal variations in the climate of social mood.


Based on the DC comic book character, the Batman franchise has been highly successful and lucrative. From the 1960’s to the present, the mood of the Batman series and the mood of the stock market have been in synchrony.

The Batman television series began at the peak of stock market Cycle wave III after a long period of powerful stock market expansion. Airing from January, 1966 to March, 1968, the series was humorous and campy, with “boy wonder” sidekick Robin offering exclamations like “Holy circus clowns, Batman!” The shows were bright and colorful in design, with upbeat music. Words like POW! BAM! KERPLOW! splattered the screen in screaming pop art style. Actors and guest celebrities were allowed to overact and ham it up.

The series was extraordinarily popular and spawned numerous cultural references. The show aired twice a week in prime time for a total of 120 episodes. It was a cheerful Batman series conceived in a happy time.

Aside from a campy 1966 movie starring TV’s Adam West and Burt Ward at the end of the first television season, there have been seven Batman movies from 1989 to 2012. Script writing for the 1989 Batman was ongoing during the 1987 market crash and continued for a year afterward. The thematic tone and physical design of this Tim Burton-directed movie, and of his Batman Returns which was written during and shortly after the 20 percent decline of the 1990 bear market, were much darker than the bull market-era TV series. Both films featured a tormented Batman and reflected the short-lived downturn in social mood.

Right on cue during the resumption of the bull market in the mid-1990’s, the film’s mood lightened and camp and comedy returned to the next two movies in the franchise: 1995’s Batman Forever (said Batman about the Batmobile, “Chicks love the car”) with villains Riddler (comedian Jim Carrey) and Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones), and Batman and Robin (1997) with antagonist Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger).

In the giddy atmosphere of the late 1990s booming stock market, the producer of Batman and Robin said, "We were on a high," and described the movie as "very bubbly, not too serious" (YouTube video, The Making of Batman and Robin). Director Joel Schumacher  noted his feeling that "the sky is the limit" and said he made "a gentler, kinder, not as depressed, not as tortured Batman."

It was not until after the major 2002-2003 market low that bear market themes kicked in with a vengeance. Screenwiter David Goyer and director Christopher Nolan began work on Batman Begins in early 2003, right after the devastating bear market that punctured the technology stock bubble and crushed the Nasdaq Composite Index by 78 percent. They aimed for a darker and more serious depiction.

This was consistent with the original dark conception of Batman by his comic book creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger. They envisioned him in 1939, during the despair of the Great Depression, as a grim avenger of the night, stalking criminals in the shadows.

Reviewers such as Brian Orndorf noted that Batman Begins, starring Christian Bale, “isn’t even close to the light fare that Joel Schumacher brought the series back in the mid-1990’s, which was layered with camp and one-liners." Batman Begins centers around revenge motifs and Batman’s psychological trauma and emotional torment as he seeks to avenge the shooting murder of his parents that he witnessed as a child.

New York Times critic Manohla Dargis described the movie as tense and serious, Batman with “a jolt of menace…American Psycho redux, this time in tights.” Consistent with the anxious social mood of a bear market, critics noted a major theme of the movie was fear, from Batman’s struggle with his inner demons as well as his confrontation by external threats.

The musical score of Batman Begins “oddly eschews traditional heroic themes," wrote Brian Orndorf. This is actually not so odd when one realizes that traditional heroes are characteristic of bull markets, not bear markets. Robert Prechter noted that anti-heroes and complex role models emerge during bear market periods.

The Dark Knight of the harsh 2008 bear market drew the second-biggest domestic box office in movie history. True to its title, it had the gloomiest atmosphere, themes, and characters of the entire franchise. A sinister aura pervades the film, with a sense of hopelessness in a weak Gotham City confronted by the Joker’s anarchic intentions and the threat of chaos.

In a Newsweek column about the American psyche titled “The Great Foreboding”, written several months after the film was released, columnist Robert Samuelson wrote that Americans are “in a state of collective despair and bewilderment. Americans have lost their sense of mastery over the future…What unsettles people is the vague notion we’re headed into something new, menacing and enduring." Sounds a lot like Gotham City.

These themes were echoed the week following Samuelson’s column, in Barack Obama’s presidential inaugural address: “That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood…amidst gathering clouds and raging storms…no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land—a nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable.”

The most celebrated arch-villain in the Batman franchise is the Joker, appearing in three incarnations: Cesar Romero in the bull market 1960’s, Jack Nicholson in Batman which was written after the 1987 crash, and Heath Ledger in the 2008 bear market The Dark Knight. Each embodied the spirit of their times.

The bull market Joker was a cheerful, colorful, clownish figure whereas the bear market Nicholson was described by director Tim Burton as a “disgusting” outcast and a “freak” disfigured by a fall into a chemical vat and botched surgery. But the biggest bear market had the ugliest and most malicious Joker: Heath Ledger was grungy, shoddily dressed with smeared makeup, unkempt hair, and a face scarred from a childhood knifing by his father. Director Christopher Nolan said that his face evoked decay and corruption; “You can almost imagine what he smells like.”

The bull market Joker laughed often and uproariously, soaked in pleasure as he savored his capers. No laughter issued from Ledger’s bear market Joker, who presented a grim, joyless image of disturbed and sadistic evil. His motivation appeared to spring from deep-seated rage, perhaps embodying the anger of a society mired in a bear market.

Ledger described his Joker as “a psychopathic, mass murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy." The appeal of his portrayal in 2008 was recognized by a posthumous Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

(Figure here of market from 1960s to 2008 with the three Jokers’ faces at 1966, 1989, and 2008)

Consistent with the moral ambiguity and complexity of bear market themes, the District Attorney character in The Dark Knight said that heroes become villains if they live long enough. Christopher Nolan said that Batman’s actions can be seen as heroic or “as vigilantism, a dark force outside the law…He’s always riding a knife edge in moral terms.” Critic Roger Ebert noted that the Joker forces Batman and the authorities to make impossible ethical decisions; “By the end, the whole moral foundation of the Batman legend is threatened.”

Another superhero movie, Watchmen, directed by Zach Snyder, came out in March, 2009 in the same bear market as The Dark Knight. Dave Itzkoff of The New York Times described Watchmen as “a story about heroes who are corrupted by the darkness they cannot expunge from the world…And unlike most of the (superhero) movies whose ending ---good prevails over evil--are never in doubt, Mr. Snyder said, ‘We don’t really adhere to that concept.’”

Critic A. O. Scott described Watchmen as a “grim and grisly excursion into comic-book mythology,” with a “tone of world-weary, self-justifying rage,” portraying “themes of apocalypse and decay,” with heroes who “were violent, ambivalent, treacherous and vain, even though they also seemed to be uniquely capable of saving the world from ultimate catastrophe.” Even superheroes are morally compromised and suspect during the dark mood of bear markets.

The Dark Knight Rises completed director Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy in 2012. Again tapping into the fears of the times, the emphasis was on the sociology of evil, with storylines involving terrorists, Wall Street corruption, social inequality, and government incompetence. Reviewer Robert Dennerstein described the movie creating a sense of dread and dark foreboding "as dense clouds of doom begin forming over Gotham" in an out-of-control society. "A haunting sense of fatalism undergirds Dark Knight Rises...with a forbidding vision in which nothing and no one ever feels truly safe."

A few positive mood elements were present in the film, such as heroic police officer Blake and some modicum of levity delivered by the Catwoman-like character played by Anne Hathaway, who displayed sharp wit and a playful relationship with Batman. Overall, however, the improvement in social mood from 2009 to 2012 was only minimally evident in this movie, perhaps because of Christopher Nolan's desire to keep its tone consistent with the two immediately-preceding Batman films in his trilogy. More importantly, the 2009-2012 stock market rise was a counter-trend rally in a long term-secular bear market of declining social mood.

James Bond

The James Bond spy film series, based on the Ian Fleming novels about the fictional British Secret Intelligence Service (M16) agent codenamed 007, is one of the most successful and longest ongoing movie franchises in history. It has been in almost continuous production from 1962 to 2012, during which EON Productions produced 23 films and there were also two independent productions. Like the Batman movies, the James Bond sequels changed from upbeat to downbeat, from light to dark, after the bear markets of 1987, 2000-2002 and 2007-2009.

For over two decades the Bond movies had an underlying playful ambience. Double entendres, gee-whiz gadgets and vehicles, and wild special effects were typical features. Although the bad guys provided the menace, it was not of the hard-edged variety but more like a cat-and-mouse game of matching wits.

James Bond was cool, suave and insouciant, played by a sardonic Sean Connery and urbane Roger Moore. A. O. Scott wrote, “The Sean Connery James Bond movies of the 1960’s were smooth, cosmopolitan comedies, which in the Roger Moore era sometimes ascended to the level of farce.”

It was not until 1989’s License to Kill that Bond first showed signs of significant angst, portrayed by Timothy Dalton as a moody, vengeful rogue agent. This film was written after the stock market crash of 1987 and began shooting in July, 1988. Like the movie Batman that came out in the same year, its tone absorbed the temporary downturn in social mood. And also like the Batman movies, it was only after the 2000-2003 major bear market that the darkest versions emerged.

Script writing for Casino Royale began the year after the 2002-2003 bear market bottom. Movie critics described the film as “dark”, “haunting”, with “startlingly violent action”, “serial brutality”, and “a disturbing torture sequence.”

Several critics noted that Daniel Craig’s portrayal was the first to adhere to Ian Fleming’s original characterization of Bond as cold and brutal, although one critic wrote that unlike the Bond of Fleming’s novel, Craig’s Bond seemed almost to relish killing. Time Magazine’s Richard Corliss commented that this movie “hit the reset button on the franchise...Now its kill or be killed. The evils of the world are too daunting to be met with a smirk.”

A. O. Scott described Casino Royale’s Bond as a tragic figure, and critic Claudia Pulg wrote that he was “grittier and more complex than previous 007’s.” This same sense of complexity and moral ambiguity that emerges in bear markets was also seen in the post-2000 Batmen.

The next Bond movie, Quantum of Solace, premiered in late 2008 during the second bruising bear market of the decade. Daniel Craig reprised his role and his “wounded, whispery menace…the mood is if anything even more grim and downcast” than Casino Royale,  according to reviewer A. O. Scott.

National Public Radio’s Madhulika Sikka described this Bond as a “brooding killing machine looking to avenge the death of Lynd (the love of his life)…he still drinks—but this time to drown his sorrows. This movie has no gadgets, no trail of women seduced and discarded…What we have is James Bond—raw.”

As A. O. Scott asked about this Bond, “Is revenge the only possible motive for large-scale movie heroism these days? Does every hero, whether Batman or Jason Bourne, need to be so sad?” Our heroes, like our collective selves, were troubled and angry. Both creators and consumers of movies coalesce around the images and themes that resonate with broader emotional states.

After a major three-year rise in the stock market, Skyfall premiered in 2012 with a new director, Sam Mendes. Unlike the dour and dire Quantum of Solace, this Bond movie was more playful in tone and mirrored the improvement in social mood. It was also opulent and spectacularly high-octane in its energy, characteristics associated with more positive social mood.

Over several decades both the Batman and James Bond series continued with the same movie franchises and the same titular main characters. But dramatic differences were evident at various times in the films’ tone and themes, the main characters’ motivation and psychological state, and the movies’ visual design. It is no coincidence that these major changes paralleled the rise and fall of the stock market and, ultimately therefore, the psychological state of society.