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Batman: The Motion Picture Anthology (Blu-ray)
Warner Home Video / 1989 / 498 Minutes / Rated PG-13
Street Date: March 10, 2009
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Reviewed by High-Def Digest Staff
Thursday, March 05, 2009
This is for all you young readers out there, the ones who think the Batman big-screen adventures started with 2005's reboot 'Batman Begins.' Yes, there really was a Batman before Christian Bale (three of 'em in fact), and Batman movies before 'Batman Begins' and 'The Dark Knight' (four of those, not including 1966's ultra-campy 'Batman: The Movie'). Not that one couldn't be forgiven for forgetting, in the intervening twenty years since 1989's 'Batman,' that it was a huge blockbuster in its day, as well as the comparative success of its three follow-ups. That's because the original four 'Batman' films now feel surprisingly dated, and it's rather shocking what time has done to the Dark Knight's '80s and '90s big-screen output.
I will say that, with the exception of 1997's absolutely dismal 'Batman & Robin,' the remaining three Batman films -- 'Batman,' 'Batman Returns' and 'Batman Forever' -- still have their appealing aspects, and elements that hold up as iconic, cinematic comic book moments. But overall, the Batman films may now be more highly regarded for ushering in the comic book revival in general, rather than for their individual filmic accomplishments. Each movie is certainly a vision of its respective director, and thus intriguing to analyze for their thematic aims and ambitions. But taken as a complete movie quadrilogy? I dunno -- Batman feels a little anemic, and incongruent.
Let's begin with Tim Burton's original, very dark take on the Dark Knight. His choices were quite bold in their day -- Batman is no longer the silly superhero of the TV show, clad in purple spandex and a cheap, dime-store cape. Now he's encased in black rubber (kinda sexy), charged by a childhood obsession to avenge his dead parents (kinda edgy), and updated with all sorts of gadgets and one rad batmobile (kinda cool, still). Burton also pissed off many a fanboy with the casting of Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne/Batman, as well as the use of Prince songs on the soundtrack, and a general lack of reference for anything campy or too humorous.
The result is an interesting blockbuster, but one now strangely inert. Though Burton's Gotham City is certainly large-scale (made before the era of CGI, this is purely a practical, real-sets-and-props construction), the photography is flat and the pacing sluggish. I never found the film to be alive with spark and wit, and Burton almost feels weighed down by the need to please longtime Batman fans at the expense of his own creative interests. Is Burton really intrigued by Bruce Wayne, his wounded child backstory and the more do-gooder interests of the character? It doesn't seem so.
Of course, 'Batman' may now be more remembered for the performance of Jack Nicholson as the Joker rather than Keaton's Batman (or Kim Basinger's Vicki Vale, for that matter, who essays the role competently but with little flair). Though considered a bravura turn at the time, twenty years on -- and stacked against Heath Ledger's now Oscar-winning, masterful portrayal -- Nicholson now seems as campy as one of the villains from the old TV show. He certainly instills 'Batman' with the majority of its fire and wit, but for me, it wasn't enough to alleviate Burton's otherwise leaden take on the material. (Film rating: 3.0/5.0)
Perhaps I'm in the minority, but for my money 'Batman Returns' is easily the best of the four Batmans. Burton is back in the director's chair, and Keaton again dons the batsuit. But as he's publicly stated, Burton set out to make a better film that 'Batman,' and one that more reflected his decidedly twisted sensibilities on the character and the mythology. The result is an art film masquerading as a commercial blockbuster -- which may be why, perfectly respectable grosses aside, 'Batman Returns' disappointed some who expected something a bit more audience-friendly, accessible and... wholesome?
What works about 'Batman Returns' for me is that Burton finally embraces the freakdom of the character. Let's face it -- some rich dude who dresses up in black rubber and attempts to fight crime is likely as fractured as the villains he chases. In 'Batman Returns,' Burton delves deep into the psyche of Bruce Wayne/Batman, and finds two perfect foils for him to play off of. Though her casting would prove just as controversial as Keaton's, Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman is vibrant and alive, a complex characterization of one thoroughly strange woman. Though there may be too much of Danny DeVito's Penguin in the movie, his disturbed childhood is the perfect representation of Batman's own id. All of these Freudian complications -- 'Batman Returns' is surprisingly, sexually charged -- play out in delightfully twisted ways.
'Batman Returns' is also the biggest-looking of the four Batmans. Colorful, but still dark, here Burton found a way to better integrate his own artistic uniqueness with the milieu of Gotham City. The worlds of Catwoman and the Penguin are quite beautiful to behold, and mixed with all those shiny, rubbery black surfaces, gives 'Batman Returns' a wonderful visual elegance. 'Batman Returns' may still not be perfect -- it's overlong, a bit short on action, and sometimes didactic -- but I find it the lone Batman film to prove more rewarding with each viewing. (Film rating: 3.5/5.0)
Here's where things begin to go terribly awry. With Burton out of the director's chair, and Keaton declining to don the rubber suit, the search was on for a new team to helm the second sequel. Unfortunately, the choice of new director was Joel Schumacher, who may have made some good movies, but for me isn't really the best choice for a Batman movie. The initial result, 'Batman Forever,' is a pure reflection of his sensibility. It is a much lighter piece of confection than Burton's Batmans -- garish, over-the-top, and quite silly.
If Burton wrapped darkness around the Dark Knight, Schumacher bathes him in day-glo colors. It's like being in a nightclub version of Gotham City. Even the costumes have been jazzed up (some would say gayed up), including the beginnings of Schumacher's much-derided "Batman with nipples." Schumacher also continues this approach with the characters and casting. Gone are the demented Joker, Penguin, and Catwoman, replaced by Jim Carrey's overtly zany Riddler, and Tommy Lee Jones' scenery-chewing Two-Face. (And, oh yeah, Nicole Kidman is in here somewhere as a love interest, but it's hard to remember she's even in the movie.) Nothing seems weighty or of any real emotional consequence. Between all the razzle-dazzle, voluminous characters, and arch comedy, one hardly cares about Batman's predicament at all.
Which is not good news for Val Kilmer. Between Keaton and Christian Bale, the other actors who've been asked to play Batman have had it rough. Kilmer is easily my least favorite. He comes off as smug, humorless and, at times, condescending to the character. I'm not surprised he wasn't asked back for the fourth sequel. Add to that the fact that Bruce Wayne's role in general is underwritten in the film, and lacking in any sort of complexity or character arc, and in 'Batman Forever,' you have a cipher at the middle of an overbaked, neon-drenched mess. (Film rating: 2.0/5.0)
Batman & Robin
Well, here it is. The nadir of not only the Batman film series, but perhaps all things Batman. The hatred for 'Batman & Robin' amongst fans is now legendary, and in all honesty, with good reason. There is little in 'Batman & Robin' that's easy to swallow, let alone enjoy. It's as if Joel Schumacher pumped up all the worst excesses of 'Batman Forever,' but got rid of any of the good parts, too.
Making fun of 'Batman & Robin' is as easy as shooting fish in a barrel, and about as depressing. Where to start? How about the ridiculous, redesigned Batman and Robin costumes? (Silver accents and big nipples, um, really?) Or casting Alicia Silverstone as the super-annoying Batgirl (does this movie even need yet another character?) How about Arnold Schwarzenegger's awful, awful Iceman quips, which make his Terminator line-readings seem like Proust. And even the best performance in the movie -- Uma Thurman's Poison Ivy -- is only good by comparison to the atrociousness of the rest of the film.
Pity poor George Clooney. He's actually not a bad Batman, and even has moments that match anything Keaton did in the role. But the misfire of a movie that surrounds him -- the dumb comedy, family-friendly tone, and faux-sentimentality (the whole Alfred the Butler subplot feels awfully mawkish and manipulative) torpedoes any hope Clooney had of eking out a good Batman movie. Top it all off with his other, worse half, Chris O'Donnell's wimpy Robin, who I find insufferable, and you have not only a terrible Batman movie, but one of the worst comic book movies of all time. It's no way to end a Batman franchise, but alas, that's what we get. The 'Batman' Anthology ends on a whimper, not a bang. (Film rating: 0.5/5.0)
All four Batman films are presented in remastered 1080p/VC-1 video, framed at 1.85:1. For a series of films dating all the way back to 1989 (whew, I'm old!), I was impressed with the quality of each. The sources have been greatly cleaned up, look just about flawless, and I frequently noticed quite a considerable upgrade over the DVD releases. Warner has done a fine job restoring Batman's visual luster.
Ironically, perhaps, the first (and some still say, best) of the Batman films has, comparatively, the weakest transfer. Certainly, like all four films, the source looks great, with no obvious flaws and a smooth, film-like look. However, I've always found 'Batman' rather drab, and colors here don't ever pop. Black levels, while solid at the low end of the scale, look a bit too bright in the midrange for me, which flattens out depth somewhat. However, the image remains quite detailed and three-dimensional. 'Batman' didn't pop as much as the other three films in the box, but make no mistake, this is still a very fine remaster. (Video rating: 4.0/5.0)
My favorite film of the bunch boasts the best visual look of the bunch, too. I love the ripeness of 'Batman Returns' -- it looks much more colorful, rich and impactful than 'Batman.' Tim Burton lets his visual imagination run full blast in his second and last Batman film, and it shows. Blacks are inky and deep, colors vibrant and smooth, and aside from a slight black crush in the shadows, the image boasts great detail and depth. And like all four Batman films in this set, this is a slick encode, with no major artifacts and delightfully free of edge enhancement. (Video rating: 4.5/5.0)
Here's where things get garish. Joel Schumacher injects the Batman franchise with a healthy dose of Las Vegas glitz, though I can't say that's really a compliment. Certainly, 'Batman Forever' is bright and bold -- the color palette here does look quite eye-popping and free of noise. Blacks retain a richness but contrast is even stronger than the first two Batmans, giving a very nice high-def effect to the presentation. I sometimes found the finest details smothered by blast of color and brightness, but otherwise 'Batman Forever' looks pretty great. (Video rating: 4.5/5.0)
Batman & Robin
Finally, we come to the dreadful 'Batman & Robin.' Okay, so the film sucks, but the transfer is really quite good -- great in spots, even. Colors are the boldest of all the Batman films, and it really is like being in the middle of gay bar for two hours. Yet the palette always remains near-perfectly saturated, with only some of the boldest primaries a tad overblown. Contrast and blacks are nearly pitch perfect, and in only a few instances did shadow delineation seem to falter. It's too bad 'Batman & Robin' is not only a terrible movie, but it's overproduced, too -- this transfer does just about the best possible job imaginable with the material. (Video rating: 4.5/5.0)
Again, like the video, I found this is the weakest of the 'Batman Anthology' bunch. Aside from the Prince songs on the soundtrack -- which sound pretty spiffy and beefed, at least compared to the DVD -- there is not that much in the way of aggressive surrounds. I've always thought of 'Batman' a strange sonic experience, with much bland silence and a lack of active envelopment. Discrete sounds are decently overhauled for TrueHD, with some bursts of fun in the rear channels, but otherwise there isn't much here to revel in. Dynamics are solid, if not incredibly expansive -- the film's 1989 production date shows a bit in comparatively restrained low bass and a lack of truly spacious, full-bodied highs. (Audio rating: 3.5/5.0)
A slight step up from 'Batman,' here surrounds are somewhat more active. Also better is score bleed and ambiance, so there is more general immersiveness to be found in 'Batman Returns.' Low bass still doesn't crank, but it's a tad heftier than in 'Batman.' Dynamics and dialogue are about on par, and occasionally some of the lowest tones were hard to decipher, so I found myself longing to bump up volume at times. Still, some nitpicks aside, this is good stuff. (Audio rating: 3.5/5.0)
Things certainly get torqued-up for 'Batman Forever.' Surrounds are clearly more engaged here than on the Tim Burton Batmans. Rear channels light up in just about every scene, with nice pans between channels and more aggressive score deployment and atmosphere. Low bass is a little kicker, and overall dynamic range feels more vibrant and bright. Dialogue is also stronger, with better balance and loudness. 'Batman Forever' is still not a class-A soundtrack by modern standards, as it just doesn't truly soar like, say, a 'Dark Knight,' but it holds up as top shelf for a '90s catalog Blu-ray release. (Audio rating: 4.0/5.0)
Batman & Robin
Finally, we again come to the worst movie of the bunch, which gets the best soundtrack on the bunch (if it's pretty close to being on par with 'Batman Forever'). Surround use is tons of fun -- pans are nice, attention to minor atmosphere impressive and engagement is near-constant. Low bass is strong and supportive, with a very polished sound throughout. Dialogue is likewise well done, though I still had trouble understanding Arnold Schwarzenegger's stupid one-liners. If you can stand to listen to this film at all, doing it in Dolby TrueHD is the way to go. (Audio rating: 4.0/5.0)
Whew... this is another one of those big box sets that has a ton of content. Unfortunately, while there is some good stuff here, there's also a lot of filler, and it lacks the participation of a few key cast members (most notably any fresh interviews with Michael Keaton, Michelle Pfeiffer, Jim Carrey, Nicole Kidman, George Clooney, Arnold Schwarzenegger, or Uma Thurman). All of these extras will also already be familiar to fans who purchased the previous DVD box set from a few years back -- Warner has produced no new content for the year 2009. (Video is likewise not upgraded, with all materials in 480i/MPEG-2 only, and not even formatted for 16:9 screens.)
- Documentary: "Shadows of the Bat: The Cinematic Saga of the Dark Knight" (SD, 159 minutes) -- The centerpiece of the 'Batman' anthology, this extensive documentary runs easily over two hours, and culls together quite an impressive roster of talent. Contributing then-fresh interviews include Tim Burton, Joel Schumacher, producers Mark Canton, Denise Di Novi and Michael E. Uslan, screenwriters Sam Hamm, Akiva Goldsman and Lee & Janet Scott Batchler, comic book experts including Paul Dinn, Mike Mignola and filmmaker Kevin Smith, plus cast members Kim Basinger, Danny DeVito, Val Kilmer, Chris O'Donnell and even a super-nutty Sean Young (whose history with the Bat franchise is quite amusing). Though there is a ton of archival interview footage to make up for the missing cast, this is a very well-edited and thorough doc. There were really no questions left unanswered, and few punches pulled. We learn how the original 'Batman' came to by, why 'Batman Returns' was so dark, the surprising story of how Warner didn't actually want Burton for 'Batman Forever' (opting for the more commercial Schumacher instead) and why 'Batman & Robin' sucked so bad. Add to that some pretty good making-of footage (there is more material on the first two Batmans than I expected), and you have a very good, very comprehensive doc.
(Note: The six sections of "Shadows of the Bat" are spread across the four discs. The first 'Batman' gets three ["The Road to Gotham City," 18 minutes; "The Gathering Storm," 23 minutes; "The Legend Reborn," 31 minutes], and the remaining three movies one per, 'Batman Returns' ["The Dark Side of the Knight," 27 minutes], 'Batman Forever' ["Reinventing a Hero," 28 minutes] and 'Batman & Robin' ["Batman Unbound," 27 minutes]).
- Galleries: "The Heroes/The Villains" (SD) - Also spread over all four discs are short vignettes on each film's respective heroes and villains. The clips run about 2 to 3 minutes per, and featuring the cast member and select crew/comic book folk discussing the character and its interpretation in the film. Though there is some good stuff here, it's a bit quick given the short runtime of each clip. But put together, its a pretty good overview. (I only wish Warner could have somehow made use of Blu-ray's interactive capabilities, and given us a picture-in-picture track for each film -- I really got sick of all the button-pushing after a while.)
- Theatrical Trailers (SD) - Rounding out the disc-consistent features are each film's respective theatrical trailer.
- Audio Commentary - Tim Burton kicks things off with a solo track. I've always liked his commentaries, because he doesn't blow smoke up his own ass and freely admits to his films failings. He does a good job here of discussing his initial reservations on taking on the Dark Knight, his controversial choices in casting, his love of Jack Nicholson (even though he could be "difficult to communicate with") and Prince, and what he sees as the shortcomings of 'Batman.' Burton is also always astute at mixing the story and development angle with the technical -- this track doesn't veer too much to either side. A very solid track.
- Featurette Gallery: "Beyond Batman" (SD, 44 minutes) - Beginning with 'Batman,' each Blu-ray gets its own additional gallery of new production featurettes, which delve much more deeply into the production design, art and costume direction, and stunts of each film. Less controversial or surprisingly, they are nevertheless nicely done, and culled from the same batch of new and archival interview material as the "Shadows of the Bat" doc. It's also nice to see Danny Elfman getting some love here, as he really isn't represented anywhere else on this set.
The five segments on 'Batman' are: "Visualizing Gotham: The Production Design of Batman" (12 minutes), "Building the Batmobile" (8 minutes), "Those Wonderful Toys: The Props and Gadgets of Batman" (9 minutes), "Designing the Batsuit" (7 minutes), "From Jack to the Joker" (8 minutes) and "Nocturnal Overtures: The Music of Batman" (8 minutes).
- Featurette: "Legends of the Dark Knight: The History of Batman" (SD, 18 minutes) - Perhaps my favorite featurette here, this is a very informative retrospective on seven decades of Batman. Second only to Superman in terms of sheer history and comic incarnations, I found "Legends" fascinating, if only because I knew so little about the character beyond the movies. A must-watch, I'd say.
- Storyboard Sequence (SD) - Also included is a storyboard sequence, though it comes as a single video clip. Which means if you want to investigate any specific storyboard more closely, your relegated to using your remote's "Pause" button only. A more Blu-ray-friendly, interactive upgrade would have been nice.
- Music Videos (SD) - Finally, we get three clips from Prince, including "Batdance," "Trust" and the "Arms of Orion."
- Audio Commentary - This is may favorite commentary of the bunch, because of course this is my favorite movie of the bunch, too. Burton again goes solo, and again does a very fine job of balancing the creative decision-making process and story and character concerns, with technical information. 'Batman Returns' is definitely more of a "Tim Burton film" than the original 'Batman,' and most interesting is his interest in coming up with freaky characters. For my money, perhaps even more than Christopher Nolan, it is Burton in 'Batman Returns' that realizes what a fractured persona Bruce Wayne is, and realized he needed villains to match. This is a strong commentary, and the only one of the bunch I could really get jazzed about listening to.
- Featurette: "The Bat, the Cat and the Penguin" (SD, 22 minutes) - This is a fairly fluffy promotional featurette made at the time of the film's production. It's where the interviews with Keaton and Pfeiffer came from, though it has some decent behind-the-scenes clips. Otherwise, it's pretty surface, and largely skippable.
- Featurette Gallery: "Beyond Batman " (SD, 42 minutes) - The next batch includes another breakdown of the production, art and costume design. Most fun is Catwoman, whose outfit was so damn tight they had to sew Michelle Pfeiffer into it. Still, pretty darn hot.
The five segments include: " Gotham City Revisited: The Production Design of Batman Returns" (8 minutes), "Sleek, Sexy and Sinister: The Costumes of Batman Returns" (9 minutes), "Making up the Penguin" (8 minutes), "Assembling the Arctic Army" (7 minutes) and "Bats, Mattes and Dark Nights: The Visual Effects of Batman" (12 minutes).
- Music Video (SD) - Rounding out this disc is a music video for Siouxie and the Banshee's "Face to Face." They were always an underrated group, though this is not really one of their best tunes.
- Audio Commentary - Joel Schumacher goes solo here for the first of his two commentaries. It's not a bad track, though I found that for 'Batman Forever' I had to pry my eyes open with toothpicks just to stay awake, and that's only having sampled parts of this track. But Schumacher is likable and engaging guy and -- rare for a Hollywood director -- even humble. He does cop to recasting Batman with Kilmer and how it was greeted, plus his more garish approach to Batman and desire to totally go for a "comic book tone." Alas, "comic book" often degenerates into "campy." In any case, Schumacher gives a good enough commentary that you five 'Batman Forever' fans out there should enjoy it.
- Featurette Gallery: "Beyond Batman" (SD, 44 minutes) - Here's another round of smaller featurettes, all concentrating on the production aspects. Again, this is drier stuff, and though it probably has the best of the behind-the-scenes footage on any of the four discs.
The five sections are: "Out of the Shadows: The Production Design of Batman Forever" (11 minutes), "The Many Faces of Gotham City" (9 minutes), "Knight Moves: The Stunts of Batman Forever" (7 minutes), "Imaging Forever: The Visual Effects of Batman Forever" (9 minutes) and "Scoring Forever: The Music of Batman Forever" (8 minutes).
- TV Special (SD, 24 minutes) - "Riddle Me This: Why is Batman Forever?" is a 1995 special hosted by Chris O'Donnell. It's about as fluffy and promotional as you can get, and plays like the glorified commercial it is. However, it does cover all of the then-three Batman films as well as the comic origins, so it at least aims for substance. But I'm just not a big fan of O'Donnell, either so this was punishing.
- Music Video (SD) - We get one clip, for Seal's Grammy-winning "Kiss from a Rose." I know most people love this song but I, for one, can't get into it. Also surprising is that U2's "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me" is not present, due to rights issues. Whatever, Bono...
- Deleted Scenes (SD, 22 minutes) - Perhaps most interesting of all the extras here are these seven deleted scenes (including an alternate ending involving Two-Face). There have long been rumors of a darker 'Batman Forever' director's cut, though that never seemed to come to fruition. Instead, here we have most of that suggested material, which largely involves Kilmer in the Batcave, and flashbacks to his dark past. It certainly would have helped counterbalance the more overt humor in the movie, even if for me, Kilmer is a pretty dire Batman.
Batman & Robin
- Audio Commentary - Strangely, this is the commentary I was most looking forward to, as I really wanted to hear Schumacher's take on this much-maligned third sequel. Turns out he nearly won me over -- he is well aware of the distaste for his film, but passionate and funny about the choices he made. I give him props for admitting the weaknesses, including too many characters and too much of a concession to his garish, toy-line sensibilities. He also calls the Alfred subplot what he's "most proud of" in the film. This may be the best commentary I've ever heard for a film this bad.
- Featurette Gallery: "Beyond Batman" (SD) - Five segments are included, all with titles that are self-explanatory: "Bigger, Bolder, Brighter: The Production Design of Batman & Robin" (10 minutes), "Maximum Overdrive: The Vehicles of Batman & Robin" (10 minutes), "Dressed to Thrill: The Costumes of Batman & Robin" (12 minutes), "Frozen Freaks and Femme Fatales: The Makeup of Batman & Robin" (9 minutes), and "Freeze Frame: The Visual Effects of Batman & Robin" (9 minutes). Unlike the main doc, spread across all four discs, these are more upbeat about the respective accomplishments of the film. I do have to side with Schumacher here, and say that aside from the silver nipples, there is some impressive set design and make-up effects (I hated Schwarzenegger's Mr. Freeze, but his make-up isn't bad).
- Deleted Scene (SD, 1 minute) - There is but one deleted scene included, "Alfred's Lost Love," that runs less than a minute.
- Music Videos (SD) - Finally, we get four clips: "Look into My Eyes" by Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, "Foolish Games" by Jewel, "Gotham City" by R. Kelly and "The End Is the Beginning Is the End" by the Smashing Pumpkins.
Technically, Warner has not added any exclusive new content to the 'Batman' anthology. However, we do get one bonus not found on the original DVD box set...
- Digital Copy - Coming on a bonus fifth disc, is a Digital Copy of the original 'Batman.' It's compatible with PCs, PSP and iTunes. Unfortunately, Warner has not included a Digital Copy of any of the other Batman films.
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This anthology of the four '80s and '90s Batman films is a real mixed bag. I thought Tim Burton kicked things out of the gate OK, then improved with 'Batman Returns.' Unfortunately, Joel Schumacher came along to give us the overbaked 'Batman Forever,' and the truly abysmal 'Batman & Robin.' This Blu-ray set, however, is far more consistent than the films themselves -- video and audio are pretty great, and we get plenty of supplements. Sure, this set will already be familiar to Batman fans -- there's no fresh or exclusive content -- but I bet the high-def upgrade will still make this worth a purchase for them. All others, it's still worth a look.
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