Make no mistake, the 1990 Dick Tracy movie was intended to be the next Batman. That’s amusing when you consider how much of a debt Batman comics owed the grotesque rogues’ gallery of Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy comic strips. But from a box-office perspective, this is where things stood as we headed into the summer of 1990. And just as surely as Batman launched a franchise that has continued (in some form or another) for 30 years, so too did Disney have ambitions for Dick Tracy 2.
Just as Bat-merchandise had begun to flood shelves in early spring of 1989, so did Dick Tracy trading cards, bubble gum, a remarkably ugly (but strangely appealing) line of action figures from Playmates (who ruled the world at that moment with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles license), making-of books, and (best of all) new reprints of the original daily and Sunday comic strips. That’s a fairly optimistic program of licensing, and that doesn’t even include the t-shirts, bath towels, and other novelties that followed.
The Batman similarities even extended to the minimalist movie posters, which featured an outline of Warren Beatty in primary-colored profile, or speaking into a two-way wrist radio promising “I’m on my way.” Disney‘s marketing department perhaps overestimated the recognizability and mass market appeal of the character, who hadn’t been seen in live-action since the mid-50s, and who last actually made it to television in any form as part of a poorly-animated (and horrifically racist) Saturday morning cartoon in the ’60s. Batman, on the other hand, was still an indelible pop culture icon, thanks in no small part to the inescapable presence of the Adam West TV series in syndication throughout the decade.
After Tim Burton’s star-studded Batman dominated the summer of 1989 with a $250 million domestic haul (over $400 million worldwide), and since Dick Tracy had similar elements (top drawer celebrities in ridiculous makeup, remarkable set design, the biggest pop star of the era providing a soundtrack), studio expectations were probably stratospheric. Instead, Dick Tracy finished its theatrical run with a far more modest $162 million worldwide. While still a hefty profit over the film’s $47 million budget, those certainly weren’t Batman numbers, and brightly colored Dick Tracy merchandise stayed on shelves well past its Christmas 1990 sell by date.
Batmania, this wasn’t.
It did, however, manage to win three Oscars (two more than Batman), well-deserved ones for makeup and art direction, and a less surefire one for the Stephen Sondheim-penned and Madonna performed “I Always Get My Man.” Even that is less puzzling than the Best Supporting Actor nomination for Al Pacino, whose slide into shouty, slouchy self-parody can perhaps be traced directly to his role as Alphonse “Big Boy” Caprice in this film.
Dick Tracy received a somewhat less enthusiastic critical reception as well, and it’s easy to see why. Despite Richard Sylbert’s eye-popping and perfectly comic strip visuals, the film is remarkably thin on story, full of lifeless characters painted broadly even by blockbuster standards, and makes little use of the world’s most enduring creations, the villains, virtually all of whom end up full of lead or otherwise dispatched by the film’s end.
With all of the above in mind, it’s almost no wonder that Dick Tracy 2 was an impossibility. Setting aside the fact that the novelty of seeing so many of the iconic villains on screen at once (William Forsythe’s Flattop was a particularly memorable creation), trying to duplicate the almost absurd parade of talent on display under the makeup (including Dustin Hoffman as well as gangster movie luminaries James Caan and Paul Sorvino) for a sequel would have been a fool’s errand.
But it’s nothing so simple as story or economics that have kept Dick Tracy in the cooler. After all, Hollywood has mounted franchise attempts no less Quixotic for lesser films, and it’s surprising that there hasn’t been any reboot traction for the property, either. That’s because, as usual, you can blame lawyers.
Warren Beatty first acquired the rights to Dick Tracy from comic strip publishers Tribune Media in 1985. At some point, these rights were supposed to revert to Tribune if no new Tracy projects were forthcoming from Beatty, as long as they requested them via some legal gymnastics and a two-year notification process (that window would allow Warren Beatty enough time to make another Dick Tracy movie before handing the character over).
Tribune tried to make this happen in 2002, but for legal reasons that I’m not qualified to understand let alone write about, their claim was rejected after Beatty filed a suit indicating that the proper procedures weren’t followed, the two-year window wasn’t respected, and he still had plans to make a sequel. The case was resolved in his favor. Since then, Mr. Beatty has retained the rights, presumably with the same two-year window in place to allow him to make another movie should Tribune come knocking.
That three-year period, from when Tribune tried to exercise their claim on the Dick Tracy rights to when the suit was resolved, still doesn’t account for the decade since then. At the time, Mr. Beatty claimed that Tribune’s attempt to get the rights back made progress on his own Dick Tracy sequel “impossible.” But considering that Beatty has never been known as the most prolific filmmaker or actor, moving at a deliberate pace with all of his projects, the fact that Dick Tracy 2 never materialized shouldn’t surprise anyone.
But there always seem to be plans afoot for more…
Periodically, Warren Beatty makes some noises about his intention to make Dick Tracy 2, although I suspect this is posturing to allow him to hold on to the rights. I did reach out to representatives for Mr. Beatty to see if he’d be willing to offer some comment on this, but as of this writing, nobody has responded.
“I’m gonna make another one,” Mr. Beatty told a crowd at the Hero Complex Festival in 2011. “I think it’s dumb talking about movies before you make them. I just don’t do it. It gives you the perfect excuse to avoid making them.” This was probably a self-directed jab at the fact that at the time he hadn’t made a movie since 2001, but as with many things related to this project, I have to wonder if occasionally expressing a public desire to make Dick Tracy 2 is all that stands between Beatty and another battle with Tribune.
In a strange maneuver that was simply a required flexing of creative muscle to satisfy some minimum legal requirement, Beatty even donned the yellow overcoat and fedora in 2011 for the Dick Tracy Special. Beatty appears in character as Dick Tracy to give an interview with film critic Leonard Maltin, where he, as Tracy, refers to Warren Beatty…the actor who played him. “He was no Ralph Byrd or even Morgan Conway,” Beatty/Tracy cracks, referencing two classic live-action Dicks from the ’30s and ’40s, “but I have to admit he looked remarkably like me.”
No, really. See for yourself:
More recently, Mr. Beatty still made some noises about his plans to make Dick Tracy 2. This seems as unlikely now as it did five years ago.
The lawsuit that allowed Mr. Beatty to retain control of the Dick Tracy rights may have also scuttled all plans to revive the character in other media. At one point, none other than Bruce Campbell expressed an interest in developing and starring in a Dick Tracy TV series for ABC, but that was ultimately struck down. In 2005, Transformers producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura, along with Bobby Newmyer and Scott Strauss, struck a deal with Tribune to develop a live-action Dick Tracy TV series, which would have brought the famed detective into the present day. More powerful than tommy guns, a team of lawyers put a stop to that before it got off the ground.
However, for those devoted fans of the movie, there are other ways to immerse yourself in the film’s continuity, all of which can be considered “official” extensions of the story…
In the lead up to the film’s release, three prestige format comics were released, written by John Francis Moore with wonderful art by the always brilliant Kyle Baker. The first two of these (“Big City Blues” and “Dick Tracy vs. The Underworld”) are adventures that take place before the events of the movie, while the third adapts the film. You can usually find the collected edition, Dick Tracy: The Complete True Hearts and Tommy Guns on the cheap at comic conventions and on Amazon.
Dick Tracy: True Hearts and Tommy Guns is absolutely worth your time if you’re a fan of the movie or of the character in general. Kyle Baker’s art is always a treat, but he captures the larger than life flavor of the movie on these pages as well as the horrific nature of the villains in a way that the sometimes rubbery makeup of the film simply didn’t. The over-the-top cartoon violence of the films is a little bloodier and more impactful here, particularly the original tales in the first two chapters.
For that matter, the Dick Tracy movie novelization by Max Allan Collins is also worth tracking down. Collins, an experienced crime fiction writer who also had the distinct honor of writing Dick Tracy’s comic strip adventures for 15 years after creator Chester Gould retired, brought a more authentic voice to the proceedings. Without the over the top visuals of the film, the book feels decidedly more violent (particularly the opening description of the St. Valentine’s Day style massacre that begins the movie), and closer to the character’s crime solving roots than what got put on screen. Warren Beatty was so impressed with Collins’ flourishes that some of the dialogue from the novel was later added to the finished film.
Collins also wrote two novels which can be considered “official” sequels to the films. Dick Tracy Goes to War was published in 1990, within months of the movie’s release, and was followed in 1991 by Dick Tracy Meets his Match. Another prose collection, Dick Tracy: The Secret Files was released to cash in on that year’s Tracymania and was edited by Collins, but doesn’t share any continuity with the film. But in short, if you want some kind of official “Dick Tracy movie universe,” start with True Hearts and Tommy Guns and follow straight through with the Collins novels.
It’ll have to do…because Dick Tracy is most assuredly not on his way.
Mike Cecchini always gets his man…unless it’s Warren Beatty, who wouldn’t return his phone calls. Put out an APB on Twitter.