Beetlejuice: The butterfly effect from Tim Burton's 1988 classic shaped Hollywood today

Michael Keaton's indelible performance as Beetlejuice would kickstart a chain of events that continue to affect Hollywood to this day

Released in 1988, Tim Burton's Beetlejuice - with Michael Keaton in the lead role - had a long-lasting impact on Hollywood. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Everett Collection)
Released in 1988, Tim Burton's Beetlejuice - with Michael Keaton in the lead role - had a long-lasting impact on Hollywood. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Everett Collection)

Since its release in 1988, Tim Burton’s horror-comedy Beetlejuice has been a spooky favourite during Halloween and beyond.

The breakthrough hit for the director, the film’s legacy includes a hit Broadway show, cartoon, theme park rides, and a place in history being the first film ever sent out on disc by Netflix in 1998. However, despite the many accolades the film has earned over the years, it arguably has an even bigger impact on the movies we watch today if you take into account the ripple effect it had on a number of genres.

Beetlejuice was Burton’s second film, having made his feature debut with 1985’s Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. While that film was a hit, Beetlejuice became a larger success, both in terms of box office but also the cultural impact of the character himself.

Director Tim Burton gives direction to Michael Keaton in costume as Beetlejuice on the set of the 1988 film. (Alamy)
Tim Burton (left) had a breakthrough hit with 1988's Beetlejuice starring Michael Keaton in the title role. (Alamy)

Michael Keaton’s grotesque, wise-cracking demon is summoned by a recently deceased couple (Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin) to scare away the new inhabitants of their house, but causes no end of chaos and won his way into the heart of movie fans worldwide.

It stood out from the top grossing films of 1988, cracking a worldwide box office top 15 that included more mainstream fun like Twins, The Naked Gun, and Big. Beetlejuice was the darker misfit, but still popular with audiences, and established Burton as a filmmaker who could make darker themes entertaining. Studio Warner Bros, who distributed his first two films, saw enough potential in the success of Beetlejuice to trust him with their biggest bet year: 1989’s Batman.

A big budget action movie with millions in promotion, what seemed like a foregone conclusion now was a risky choice three and a half decades ago. While dark Batman stories had existed in the comic books for years, when most people thought of Batman at the time, they imagined the camp 1960s TV show with Adam West in tights, and Cesar Romero’s cackling Joker.

Both Burton and Michael Keaton, the Beetlejuice star chosen to play the title role, were doubted by audiences who were used to a lighter portrayal of the character, or couldn’t draw a parallel between Beetlejuice’s antics and a potentially serious Dark Knight.

Michael Keaton in costume as Batman, Jack Nicholson in costume as Joker, with director Tim Burton, on-set of 1989's Batman. (Alamy)
Tim Burton (right) was entrusted to bring Batman to the big screen in 1989, and brought Beetlejuice star Michael Keaton (left) with him. (Alamy/Everett Collection)

Despite the doubters, Batman was a seismic success. It shaped much of what we understand a blockbuster to be nowadays in terms of promoting an ‘event film’, and it’s clear to see how the dark tones established in Beetlejuice could evolve into Burton’s twisted Gotham.

Just as Beetlejuice mixed the calm, autumnal tones of suburban New England with the neon chaos of the underworld, Burton clashes the 50’s inspired city halls of Gotham with a cartoonish, spray-painted anarchy favoured by Batman’s Arch-Villain The Joker (Jack Nicholson). They may be different stories, but from the leading man to the haunting Danny Elfman soundtrack, the two films share a lot of DNA.

Michael Keaton and Winona Ryder starred in 1988's Beetlejuice. (Alamy)
Michael Keaton and Winona Ryder starred in 1988's Beetlejuice. (Alamy)

There have been many different versions of Batman and many superheroes over the years, but it’s generally held that Burton’s Batman established that a serious superhero could work on the big screen. Christopher Nolan, who went even more dramatic with his Dark Knight trilogy, heralded Burton’s vision as “extraordinary”, and many articles still give him the title of the “Godfather of Superhero Movies”, a lofty claim given the power of franchises like the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Burton himself is philosophical, pointing out that while darker heroes are the norm, it was less common at the time. “I remember Batman getting so much flak and criticism at the time for being too dark” he told Yahoo UK in 2014. “Now 20-30 years later, it now looks like a light-hearted romp, it’s such a strange thing to go through."

Michael Keaton's Batman piloting the Batwing with Ezra Miller's The Flash in the backseat. (Warner Bros.)
Michael Keaton returned as Batman in 2023's The Flash. (Warner Bros.)

Over the years, the director has had a complicated relationship with the character and the genre, most recently having harsh words for the use of his version of Batman in the recent blockbuster The Flash. Nevertheless, the success that started with Beetlejuice created an artistic momentum that can be felt to this day in most comic-book based movies.

While Burton and The Caped Crusader would go their separate ways after 1992’s Batman Returns, the director continued to have one of the most idiosyncratic careers in Hollywood, and maintained a consistent vision with quirky films like Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow, and Charlie and The Chocolate Factory. Twenty years after Warner Bros took a risk with Batman, Disney would take another one by asking Burton to bring his unique style to one of their animated classics.

2010’s Alice In Wonderland was the first in the modern run of live action remakes of Disney’s classic cartoons. It was a bold step, but something about bringing Burton’s wild imagination to Wonderland made sense, as Mia Wasikowska’s title character explored numerous weird and wonderful characters, led by The Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp).

Johnny Depp, in character as the Mad Hatter, taking direction from director Tim Burton (right) on the set of 2010's Alice In Wonderland. (Disney/Alamy)
Tim Burton (right) enlisted recurring collaborator Johnny Depp (left) to play the mad Hatter in 2010's Alice In Wonderland which kickstarted the Disney live action remake trend. (Disney/Alamy)

While Burton insisted he tried to avoid making his version of the story too dark, the aesthetics and tones that started with Beetlejuice carry through: mysterious Otherworlds populated by twisted, baroque characters like Helena Bonham’s Queen of Hearts. Come to think of it, when you look at Depp’s Mad Hatter: wild hair, manic energy, pale makeup… remind you of anyone? The success of Alice In Wonderland led to a wave of live action remakes, meaning that without Burton’s vision there may never have been new takes on The Genie, Mufasa, or Cruella.

To say Beetlejuice may be directly responsible for both the superhero boom and the Disney remake trend is perhaps a stretch. However, the film has an undeniable place in movie history, establishing a director who, to this day, still finds an audience in viewers that weren’t even born when the film came out.

Jenna Ortega's Wednesday Addams playing a stringed instrument in Netflix's Wednesday. (Netflix)
You can draw a dotted line from Beetlejuice's Lydia Deetz to Jenna Ortega's Wednesday Addams in Wednesday. (Netflix)

2022 Netflix smash Wednesday, directed by Burton, features a number of references to the 1988 film, from pinstripes to shrunken heads, and character design that resembles Beetlejuice’s stop-motion snake. Even the series’ most viral moment, Wednesday Addams’ (Jenna Ortega) dance at a school prom, has roots in Beetlejuice, with both her dress and the sequence partly inspired by Winona Ryder’s Lydia Deetz doing something similar.

It's no surprise, then, that after all this time, a sequel to Beetlejuice is in the works with Keaton and Ryder returning, as well as Ortega being cast as Lydia’s daughter.

It marks a full-circle moment for Burton and Beetlejuice, the outsiders that set the tone.

Beetlejuice is available to rent or buy on digital.

Read more: Tim Burton