Welcome to Debate Club, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, tackle the greatest arguments in pop culture.
Tim Burton was an up-and-coming talent in the 1980s until Batman cemented his status as a major commercial filmmaker. From there, he developed his signature aesthetic… for better and worse. By the turn of the century, we might have grown tired of Burton’s shtick, but it was still exciting in the '90s.
Here's a look at the five best post-'80s Burton movies, before it all turned. There’s even a 2000s movie in here.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)
Burton's only live-action musical is grisly and dark and weird and might be the last film on which he truly took a big swing. Johnny Depp gets to haul out his rock-star moves, and it's got a terrific supporting cast, particularly Sacha Baron Cohen, who meets his demise in a particularly inventive way. Sweeney Todd isn't perfect, but it’s nice to see Burton going for it in a way he doesn't anymore.
Mars Attacks! (1996)
Mars Attacks! bombed spectacularly when it opened in December 1996... and, honestly, was anyone surprised? A sci-fi alien-invasion movie in which the aliens are way smarter than the Earthlings? A dark comedy that essentially argues that the human race ought to be destroyed? What kind of blockbuster is this?
Tim Burton indulges every misanthropic urge, giving us a dark, spiteful comedy that's the cinematic equivalent of that kid in the back of your grade-school class flipping the bird at the popular kids. Funny how, in recent years, Burton has stopped being the outcast and turned into the studio insider. That kid in the back of the classroom would be shocked.
Batman Returns (1992)
This, more than any other film, feels like Burton trying to get away with something, lathering on every whim and notion he can imagine in a massive big-budget Hollywood superhero movie. It's remarkable how today, in an age of huge superhero movies everywhere, Batman Returns feels like an ancient artifact as Burton takes the story of one of the most well-known fictional characters on Earth and turns him into an outcast weirdo like him. Not everything works, but it's just as bizarre and fascinating as it was when it first came out.
Edward Scissorhands (1990)
Inspired by Burton's childhood in the suburban strangeness of Burbank, California, Edward Scissorhands is the filmmaker's most potent fairy tale, giving us an unlikely love story between a Pinocchio-like creation (Johnny Depp) and a real human woman (Winona Ryder), who sees in him something that's lacking in all the boys in her high school. Depp worked his blue-eyed soul to perfection as Edward, and Edward Scissorhands smartly mixes comedy, romance, and drama. Burton's anti-'burbs rancor may have lost some of its freshness over time, but the film's melancholy heart still beats strongly.
Ed Wood (1994)
Tim Burton came not to bury the super-schlocky director of Plan 9 From Outer Space but to praise him. As the filmmaker always insisted, he felt a kinship to Ed Wood: "When you're making a film it's like doing a painting: You have this weird sense of power and energy, and you feel — and you should feel — like you're making the best movie ever made." Indeed, while Edward D. Wood, Jr.'s movies are terrible, his enthusiasm for what he’s making is joyous and pure. Johnny Depp plays Wood as the eternal optimist, and Martin Landau won an Oscar giving us a Bela Lugosi who's both vain and poignant. Burton has always loved misfits, and Ed Wood is his warmest valentine to the oddballs who populate his films.