I’ve heard that when Michael Keaton was cast as Batman, devotees of the Dark Knight were not exactly supportive of the 1988 Beetlejuice actor as their first choice, does this sound familiar? And to think this was before the days of social media, the internet and DC/Marvel super-worlds defining the recent years of cinema. Incredibly, it’s been 30 years since Tim Burton’s Batman, which turned the entire franchise on its head for the general film public, as it discarded the memory of an excellent, yet dated, fabric-clad Adam West and all that went with that legendary series.
Burton’s Batman updated the character for a late 80s, early 90s audience with an equally darker and more grounded individual. Bob Kane even agreed that it made sense, and he liked that his character continued to stand the test of time and evolve with the world around it. For me, Michael Keaton is one of the definite Batman actors to this day, his Bruce Wayne suited the restrained, refined and yet also somewhat reclusive millionaire. On the flipside of this, his Bat is strong, decisive and intelligently mysterious and somehow Burton and his team gave him all the right implements to make it convincing.
89’s Batman also stars Jack Nicholson as The Joker, in another Batverse-defining role. His Jack Napier has a rich history in the Wayne’s timeline but it’s also the way he takes on the iconic Joker which shines out across the film. Between Bats and Joker, they’re got one of the most iconic relationships in comic-book history and this does not go to waste, in fact, it’s a legendary showdown. Nicholson finds just the right balance of crazy and focused, giving his Joker that perfect laugh but also the psychotic ability to cause chaos, just as he should. Back this up with a Prince-written song accompaniment and Kim Basinger’s Vicki Vale, providing a perfect insight into the balance between the private life of Bruce and his outside exploits, and it’s an absolutely must-watch film to this day, heck even Burton’s beautifully dark, Gothic Gotham won an Academy Award for Best Art Direction.
Three years after this majestic glide into the mainstream consciousness, 1992 saw Batman Returns hit the screen, complete with Keaton as Batman and Burton on Directorial duties. What resulted was one of the finest follow-ups in this franchises’ history – not disregarding Nolan’s trilogy of course. If you thought Nicholson was at the top of his game, then BR ups and ante with Danny DeVito as Oswald Cobblepot/The Penguin, Michelle Pfeiffer and Selina Kyle/Catwoman and Christopher Walken as Max Shreck, how’s about that for a slice of fried gold? From Pfeiffer’s iconic cat suit, and a puurrfect performance, to DeVito’s outstanding Penguin, they got everything right with such an impressive precision you could have watched the characters for hours. It still looks excellent, and especially restored and enhanced.
And, well, now we’re onto those Joel Schumacher films. While Batman Forever definitely wasn’t the worst of these latter two, they were lucky to have Tommy Lee Jones as Harvey Dent/Two-Face, and Jim Carrey as Edward Nygma/The Riddler on board, it definitely suffered from a huge change in style and feeling. After cleverly crafting a grounded world with Burton, Schumacher began an almost impressive dismantling of all that was good with an over-the-top shiny-fest of cringey action and one-liners, which isn’t really helped by Chris O’Donnell as Dick Grayson/Robin who, for me, is a little bit too clichéd. We also saw the introduction of Val Kilmer as Bruce/Batman and while he gave a good performance, it was clear he didn’t quite have the ‘air’ of Keaton, which probably wasn’t helped by a changing format and director. There was even space for Nicole Kidman’s Dr. Chase Meridian, who was solid enough but, again, the entire film simply starts to feel like it’s losing an overall focus.
In truth, I struggle to watch 1997’s Batman & Robin without wanting to stop the pain immediately. Joel Schumacher returns as director and this time George Clooney took up the role of the Dark Knight, completely with Batsuit Nipples, and even though they gathered another collection of huge stars, including Arnold Schwarzenegger as Dr. Victor Fries/Mr. Freeze, Uma Thurman as Dr. Pamela Isley/Poison Ivy, and Alicia Silverstone as Barbara Wilson/Batgirl. While the big names are impressive, this is cheese on another level and without crackers, or flavour. O’Donnell, to his credit, keeps the Robin flag flying but when a film can single-handedly bring down a successful (‘til this point) franchise, while it tells you everything you need to know about the quality.
Moving on quickly, and also let’s all cast our minds back to Burton’s two beauties, these releases also offer up the hugely impressive addition of a higher quality print on both the 4K Ultra High Def and Blu-ray. In particular, the 4K UHD experience highlights the good stuff and makes it look even superior, especially in Batman and Batman Returns.Whilst the small-scale moments with the old-fashioned miniature sets are shown to be less impressive, you kinda forgive it because the story is so well achieved. Each one comes with all the extras you could want as well, it’s well worth watching the featurettes, plus so much good commentary with Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher, the latter talking through his choices.