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.)
Batman & Robin
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.