Long before a new superhero movie came out every quarter, Warner Bros. and Tim Burton redefined the genre forever with 1989’s “Batman.” Three decades after that blockbuster shaped pop culture, WB has released it and its three sequels in 4K Blu-ray form, allowing young viewers a chance to see how superhero movies have changed since the ‘80s and ‘90s, and those who remember this unusual franchise the opportunity to revisit it.
The 4K releases have been controversial in the way some of them, particularly Burton’s first film, have been color timed in a way that arguably doesn’t reflect their original theatrical release. A slight change in hue can really alter any film, but especially one that relies so heavily on dark shades like black and blue. And “Batman” does look a little “off” to me, although it’s been 30 years since I saw it three days in a row as a young teenager on opening weekend. The other three look better, especially “Returns,” and all of them have strong sound mixes.
As for the movies themselves, what’s striking first about “Batman” is how tactile it feels compared to the modern superhero movie. Actual set design, detailed costume/make-up work, and practical effects make it feel less like a cartoon than the CGI-heavy affairs that make millions now. It’s funny that a movie that probably felt like garish overload in 1989 looks downright tame now in how it allows its plot time to breathe, and actors a chance to build characters. What’s most noticeable is how simple it is when compared to modern blockbusters that incorporate dozens of characters, most played by household names. “Batman” is a four-person show: Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger, and Tim Burton (with honorary mentions to Danny Elfman and Robert Wuhl). It feels almost small compared to the MCU and DCEU, allowing Keaton and Nicholson to construct their characters off each other—Keaton’s Batman being the straight man to the insanity of Nicholson’s Joker. On that note, Nicholson is truly inspired here, giving the kind of bonkers performance that's too rarely allowed in blockbusters of any era.
Speaking of bonkers, it is still hard to believe that “Batman Returns” got made. Controversial at the time and relatively unsuccessful, it is now viewed by many as the best of this era of Batman films and one of Burton’s best. But from the very beginning, Burton’s vision feels more daring and confident than in the first film, and he gets more than he could have dreamed of getting out of Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman and Danny DeVito as The Penguin. Watching it now reminds one how few auteur-driven films we get in the modern superhero era. This is undeniably a Tim Burton movie, full of his influences and vision in every frame. With the occasional exception (“Black Panther,” “Wonder Woman”), superhero movies today feel like the product of a committee more than an artist. What scared people about “Batman Returns” in 1992 is what makes it so revelatory today. It’s one of the best and strangest movies of its kind ever made.
But "Batman Returns" earned $100 million less than the film that came before, and so there was upheaval. Everyone was replaced, including Burton and Keaton, although the former does get a producer credit on 1995’s “Batman Forever,” a movie that was designed to bring fun back into the Bat-verse. Val Kilmer replaced Keaton, Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey filled the villain roles of Two-Face and The Riddler, and Nicole Kidman was the love interest. What could go wrong?
Watching it today, it seems obvious that new director Joel Schumacher was trying to do something that felt like Burton’s films (at least the first one) but he didn't have the vision or passion to do it. “Batman Forever” starts promisingly enough—the casting is strong and early scenes with Jones and Carrey are effective—but it gets weaker as it goes along. If the Burton Batman films shows us something we miss in today’s movies about men in tights, the Schumacher ones show us how far we’ve come. This is a hollow, clunky film.
Although it’s masterful compared to “Batman and Robin,” one of the truly worst blockbusters ever made. Everything that’s wrong about “Forever” is amplified in “Robin,” a movie that's shockingly incompetent at times. It’s crystal clear that Schumacher and everyone else behind the camera was just taking a job for the money. That’s what happened over the course of these films—a passion project became a cash grab. Everyone who makes a superhero movie should consider on which side of that spectrum history will place them.