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Batman (1989) (Blu-ray)
Warner Home Video / 1989 / Rated PG-13
Street Date: May 19, 2009
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Reviewed by High-Def Digest Staff
Thursday, May 07, 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 different actors, 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 were the three follow-ups. That's because the original four 'Batman' films now feel surprisingly dated, and it's rather shocking to see what time has done to the Dark Knight's '80s and '90s big-screen output.
Of course, it all started with Tim Burton's original 1989 opus, a 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 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 cutting-edge). 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 that I find twenty years on to be 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 plays 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.
'Batman' does remain a classic, however, simply because it was such a huge hit, so influential, and launched the first major comic book franchise of the late '80s. It is inarguable that we would not likely have seen the "comic book movie" rise to the level of prominence it holds today, both at the box office and creatively in Hollywood, without it. And it's important to remember just how big of a risk Burton, Warner and DC Comics were taking by re-launching Batman in 'Batman.' Even if the film doesn't hold up very well for me, it has nevertheless earned its place in the pantheon of comic book cinema.
'This 20th anniversary Blu-ray issue of 'Batman' comes a couple of months following the release of the four-movie 'Batman Anthology,' which culled together both this and Tim Burton's 'Batman Returns,' as well as the Joel Schumacher installments in the franchise, 'Batman Forever' and 'Batman & Robin.' In terms of content, there is nothing new here, as we get the same transfer, the same audio, and the same supplements -- it's the same disc from the 'Anthology,' in fact, only with nicer packaging.
That said, this 1080p/VC-1 encode (1.85:1) is pretty good. Ironically, however, the first (and some still say, best) of the Batman films received, comparatively, the weakest transfer. Certainly 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' still doesn't blow me away on Blu-ray, but it undoubtedly looks better than it ever has on video.
Warner has produced a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround track (48kHz/16-bit) upgrade for 'Batman.' Like the video, it's pretty good, it just didn't blow me away.
Aside from the Prince songs on the soundtrack -- which sound pretty spiffy and beefed up, at least compared to the DVD -- there isn't that much in the way of aggressive surrounds. I've always thought of 'Batman' as 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. Dialogue sounds fine, and is well-balanced. All-around, pretty good.
As with the 'Batman Anthology,' 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. Still, this is a pretty informative special edition, especially if this is the first time you are picking up 'Batman' on disc.
- 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 discussing his initial reservations at 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.
- Documentary: "Shadows of the Bat: The Cinematic Saga of the Dark Knight" (SD, 73 minutes) -- The centerpiece of the 'Batman' anthology was an extensive documentary, "Shadows of the Bat," which ran well over two hours. For this stand-alone Blu-ray of 'Batman,' Warner has honed it down to only the segments pertaining directly to the first film. The three sections of "Shadows of the Bat" included here are: "The Road to Gotham City" (18 minutes), "The Gathering Storm" (23 minutes) and "The Legend Reborn" (31 minutes).
A good selection of talent has contributed recent interviews, including Tim Burton, producers Mark Canton, Denise Di Novi, screenwriter Sam Hamm, comic book experts including Paul Dinn, Mike Mignola and filmmaker Kevin Smith, plus actress Kim Basinger (sadly, Jack Nicholson, Michael Keaton, Prince and all other notables appear in archival footage, if at all). Despite the missing cast members, there were really no questions left unanswered, and few punches pulled. We learn how the original 'Batman' came to be, the development of the story and concept between Hamm and Burton, casting, the shoot, and the film's ultimate reception. Add to that some pretty good making-of footage (there is more material than I expected), and you have a very good, very comprehensive doc.
- Galleries: "The Heroes/The Villains" (SD) - This gallery features short vignettes on each of the film's main characters. Each runs about 2 to 3 minutes per, and features the cast member and select crew/comic book folk discussing the character and interpretation in the film. Though there is some good stuff here, it's a bit quick given the short runtime of each clip. 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.)
- Featurette Gallery: "Beyond Batman" (SD, 44 minutes) - Next is this gallery of production featurettes, which delve much more deeply into the production design, art and costume direction, and stunts of each film. The five segments of the gallery 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). 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.
- 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) - Here we get three clips from Prince, including "Batdance," "Trust" and the "Arms of Orion." I found them quite dated, if still pretty enjoyable.
- Theatrical Trailers (SD) - Wrapping it up is the film's original theatrical trailer. Sadly, it's not in HD.
There are no exclusive extras; however, 'Batman' does come in Warner's DigiBook packaging, which comes with a very nice full-color booklet with production notes, an essay and some rare photos. So for that, I'm giving it an extra half-star rating.
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'Batman' was undeniably a blockbuster and franchise-starter, and is now, by default, a classic. I'm just not that fond of it -- it feels dated, with a drab visual style and performances (especially Jack Nicholson's) that are rather hammy. This is a fine stand-alone Blu-ray release, however, with nicely remastered audio and video and informative supplements. It's worth a purchase for fans, and a rental if you're just feeling nostalgic.