The ‘Dune’ Popcorn Bucket and the Golden Age of Movie Merch

The ‘Dune’ Popcorn Bucket and the Golden Age of Movie Merch

When I first encountered an image of the popcorn bucket that AMC Theaters is selling to promote Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune: Part Two,” I stared at it for a beat trying to process what I was looking at. The item is supposed to represent a giant sandworm, the beasts that slither under the desert planet Arrakis. On top of the normal container sits a lid that depicts the cylindrical body of the creature emerging from the ground. The opening where you are ostensibly supposed to reach in to snatch some kernels is fashioned like the worm’s maw with its many tendril-like teeth, here rendered in plastic. The bucket is intricately designed, but appears, well, especially anatomical — to put it politely — and somewhat difficult to use to actually get treats into your mouth.

The “Dune” popcorn bucket has become a genuine mini phenomenon. The film’s cast and crew have been asked to comment on it, and Villeneuve even told The Times, charmingly, “When I saw it, I went, ‘Hoooooly smokes.’” There was a “Saturday Night Live” sketch that rhymed “bucket” with a phrase that is unprintable here. Yet, the more I followed talk of the bucket, the more I wanted to possess it. (And no, not for the reasons you’re thinking. Get your mind out of the gutter, please.) As a fan of movies and their ephemera, I began to feel as though I needed to have this piece of hilariously suggestive memorabilia in my home.

The bucket, both in its sheer strangeness and in the way it has become a cultural moment, reminded me of an earlier era of collectibles — of tie-ins like those McDonald’s “Batman Forever” mugs with badly drawn versions of Jim Carrey’s Riddler that seemed to be a mainstay in 1990s cupboards. But it also is reminiscent of the too-weird-to-be-true marketing misadventures of yore, things that are so unintentionally off-putting that they are also sort of amazing. See the Jar Jar Binks lollipop in which the Gungan alien’s mouth opens to reveal a candy tongue that you are supposed to suck. Ew, to say the least.

There’s even a history of this with “Dune” itself. When David Lynch’s 1984 version of the Frank Herbert epic was released, you could buy a sandworm action figure that, once again, looked unnervingly phallic. (There’s one on eBay if you’re willing to shell out.)

Not all of my nostalgia is for the unsavory. The recent frenzy reminded me of the things I used to covet when I was a wee fan starting to fixate on film. My main obsession was Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, so when Burger King released a line of light-up goblets with the visages of characters like Aragorn and Arwen etched on their sides, I knew I needed them. (I had other “LOTR”-themed glassware as well, including mugs that revealed the inscription on the Ring of Power when you filled them with hot liquid. Pretty sure those are still in my parents’ house.)

Thinking about the potential legacy of the “Dune” popcorn bucket, I called my friend Griffin Newman, an actor and merchandise obsessive. On his movie podcast “Blank Check With Griffin & David,” he regularly goes on tangents about miscellanea like the Austin Powers Collectible Card Game (featuring cards like Mini Me in Quasi Futuristic Clothes.) He described the “Dune” bucket as “ingenious” because it incentivizes people to go to theaters. “There is the sort of magic alchemy of when you have something where everyone’s perversely fascinated by it,” he added.

The “Dune” bucket follows a series of containers that AMC has released for other blockbusters, among them ones in the shape of the masked heads of Miles Morales and Gwen Stacy for “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” and burn books for the new “Mean Girls.” In December I picked up one pegged to “Top Gun: Maverick,” made to look like the outside of a flight craft, that my local multiplex was giving away for free. It was a little less elaborate, but I liked the movie and thought, Why not? Perhaps the most desirable one was the “Barbie” Corvette. It doesn’t do a great job of holding popcorn, which spills out the sides, but it does uncannily resemble a sleek Barbie car.

The buckets aren’t the only merch circulating these days. There’s an elite side to this, too, thanks to the likes of the distributor A24, which sells $36 hot dog finger gloves in homage to the best picture winner “Everything Everywhere All at Once” and a $400 designer necklace tied to Sofia Coppola’s “Priscilla.” But A24 also at least has an appreciation for the chintzy: Its publishing arm has put out the book “For Promotional Use Only,” a catalog of swag and merch from 1975 to 2005 that features wonderful treasures like a flashlight from Roland Emmerich’s “Godzilla” (1998) with the illumination coming from Godzilla’s mouth. (It also apparently roared.)

It’s easy to be cynical about all of this. After all, the “Dune” popcorn buckets are just a way to upsell you on already expensive snacks, and it’s likely that most of the bulky vessels will eventually end up in landfills when buyers decide they don’t really need a Shai-Hulud depiction that raises eyebrows. But some fans will invariably hold onto these wonderfully bizarre totems of their affection for a genuinely unique cinematic experience. Even Villeneuve acknowledged that the bucket “brought a lot of laughter and joy.” Twenty years from now, when someone says, “Remember those awkward ‘Dune’ popcorn buckets?” we movie freaks will reply, “Yes, we sure do!”

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