James C. Clay // Film Critic
It’s been 30 years since Tim Burton’s BATMAN, and the superhero film landscape has changed completely. This film was the gold standard of how to execute a comic book film… until Sam Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN hit theaters in 2002.
The original series of BATMAN films varied in quality, but each of them, for better or worse, had a singular vision. The original four films — BATMAN (1989), BATMAN RETURNS (1992), BATMAN FOREVER (1995) and BATMAN & ROBIN (1997) — hit 4K Ultra HD this month with slick packaging and debatable artwork. Even for how goofy these films can be, they are a must-own for anybody looking to add, as our editor Preston Barta calls it, “shelf jewelry” to your collection.
BATMAN (1989) – At the time, Burton’s directing style was unlike anything that could be seen in theaters. He brought a campy gothic aesthetic to Batman that didn’t so much tell a psychological story of two polar opposites battling against each other, but rather brought a broader sense of world building and character development to the big screen.
Having an actor with the caliber of Jack Nicholson as the main villain – and as the celebrated Joker, nonetheless – was completely unprecedented. He brought the character to life and even received top billing over The Dark Knight himself, played by Michael Keaton. To be fair, at the time, Keaton was just breaking out of the comedic roles that made him a star during the 1980s.
BATMAN is a film that revealed itself as a film with depth and direction that still holds up to today’s standards. It laid the groundwork for superhero films of the time and brought the genre to a level of prestige that is still celebrated to this day.
BATMAN RETURNS (1992) – This may be the second best Batman film, right behind THE DARK KNIGHT. Legend has it, Burton was done with the series and was more interested in making original films like EDWARD SCISSORHANDS. Luckily, he came back for another outing in Gotham City that proved to be a shaper vision with edges of black comedy mixed with the brooding pathos that made the original a worldwide hit.
The MVP of this film is Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman. She brought a slick and sexy bravado to the film that’s essentially the most sympathetic character in all of the films. Her performance reigns supreme as a note- perfect portrayal of a villainous role. And, of course, Danny Devito as The Penguin is still gross, compelling and utterly delightful.
This film hit a high note when it comes to retro Batman films. It’s an ambitious and, at times, messy vision that took risks that more often than not delivered. This would be the last time Burton and the Bat would meet.
BATMAN FOREVER (1995) – Journeyman director Joel Schumacher picked up the cape and cowl after Burton. Schumacher had directed compelling films at the time that ranged from vampire film THE LOST BOYS to a potent psychological drama with FALLING DOWN . Schumacher’s film has it’s more entertaining moments, despite it being campy and obnoxious. His vision relied more on a film that was attempting to replicate a Saturday morning cartoon… but with psychological elements that fall flat.
Notoriously difficult actor Val Kilmer put on Batsuit (complete with nipples) for this film, which drew mixed results as he’s a much more convincing Bruce Wayne than he was Batman. Keeping in line with RETURNS, our titular hero was pitted against Jim Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones as The Riddler and Two-Face, respectively. Each of these performances will go down in history as strange and awkward, and we will always be wondering WTF was Tommy Lee Jones thinking?
BATMAN & ROBIN (1997) – This movie is a beautiful disaster. There aren’t many films this bad that are still talked about regularly 22 years after release. From the bat nipples to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s endless supply of ice puns, BATMAN & ROBIN is the rare bad film that is a gift that keeps on giving.
Not this was noble cause, but Joel Schumacher came back to direct his second Batman picture, even after Val Kilmer left due to scheduling conflicts and the studio demanded he make the film look more like toys so Warner Brothers could sell more merchandising. George Clooney stepped in to play Batman, and he brings a certain level of charm to the screen but was never fully convincing.
The only saving grace of BATMAN & ROBIN is the fact that Uma Thurman’s portrayal of Poison Ivy was the only member of the cast who knew how to make her role entertaining in the least. This film is an excellent case study of studio meddling. It sunk the franchise until Christopher Nolan resurrected the caped crusader with BATMAN BEGINS in 2005.
The BATMAN quadrilogy, sold separately, is available now on 4K Ultra HD and Digital UHD/HD.