Finally, they've gone and done it. They've made the Batman movie we've all been waiting for. Not that I wasn't a fan of Tim Burton's first two 'Batman' flicks (especially the dark and rather avant garde 'Batman Returns'), but after the dreadful Joel Schumacher era -- remember the day-glo 'Batman Forever' or worse, the nipple-enhanced Batsuit of 'Batman & Robin'? -- I wasn't exactly holding out hope for the future of the franchise. Then, lo and behold, director Christopher ('Memento,' 'Insomnia') Nolan comes along and blows all my expectations out of the water. 'Batman Begins' is a startling return to form for the Bat, and rivals the best comic book movies ever put onscreen, including 'Superman: The Movie,' 'Spider-Man 2,' and 'X2: X-Men United.'
The Schumacher stumbles aside, a Batman movie seems almost impossible to screw up. The character has always been a rather atypical comic book hero: he has no real superpowers, dresses up in a black rubber batsuit and is one seriously troubled obsessive-compulsive. In short, the guy's a freak -- so making an interesting movie out of him shouldn't be too hard. The action is a given (who doesn't love watching a grown man fly around in batwings and kick the shit out of criminals?), and with such a rich inner life, the duplicity of Bruce Wayne/Batman is inherently fascinating. And Nolan does make it seem easy. He nails all the elements perfectly. Along with screenwriter David S. Goyer, he has crafted a realistic, believable backstory for the Bat, picked a couple of cool villains (especially the uber-creepy Scarecrow, played to perfection by Cillian Murphy) and attracted an excellent supporting cast to the film, including Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman and Ken Watanabe. Together, they create what is probably the classiest comic book adaptation yet.
But what really elevates 'Batman Begins' to the level of pop art is the respect with which Nolan treats his story, and the Batman universe. Sure, there is some black humor here -- especially Murphy and Neeson, who relish their bad-guy roles -- but 'Batman Begins' is played straight. Bruce Wayne/Batman is a fully-formed, flesh-and-blood character, not just some cipher in a suit. He fights not only to avenge the death of his parents, but for a truth he believes in, that he must believe in. His interactions with the other characters also have genuine consequences. Unlike, say, the recent James Bond flicks in which everything is fun and games, the fear of death and the finality of death permeate every frame of 'Batman Begins.' Gotham City feels like a living, breathing metropolis, and we care about what happens to the people of this world -- we want to see the good guys win and the bad guys get their just desserts. Like the first couple of 'Superman' flicks and both 'Spider-Man' movies, 'Batman Begins' is a film with real resonance.
And then there is Christian Bale. Though some diehard fans balked when he was chosen as the fourth actor to be cast in the film franchise (but then I guess they balk at everything, don't they?), his performance quickly silenced any critics. Though I am a Michael Keaton fan (sorry, Val and George), Bale may indeed be the best Batman yet. He's the perfect age for a young Bruce Wayne, still filled with childish impudence and impatience, but with an adult sophistication and intelligence. (Think a young Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker, only with better acting chops.) Bale admirably fills out the Batsuit, and I personally look forward to seeing him as the character for many years to come. If nothing else, seeing 'Batman Begins' on Blu-ray only whets my appetite even more for the upcoming 'The Dark Knight.' Batman has, indeed, come home.
Mirroring the previous HD DVD release, Warner again presents 'Batman Begins' in 2.40:1 widescreen and 1080p/VC-1 video. There are surprises here, as this appears to be an identical encode. That ain't a bad thing, however, as I really can't find anything real to fault here.
I've always thought that the dominant color of the Batman cinematic universe has been black, from the black of the Gotham skies to black rubber of Batman's suit to the black chrome of the Batmobile. Even recalling my 'Batman Begins' experience in the theater, I remember it being a rather dour experience. Which makes this Blu-ray such an eye-opening experience. Even if the film remains appropriately dark and even grimy in spots, colors are rich, vivid and free from oversaturation. Right from the beginning, such as in the early flashback scenes of Bruce Wayne as a child, oranges, yellows and greens are quite rich and pure. Even the training scenes early on with the Liam Neeson character, which are shot in overcast exteriors, exhibit flashes of striking color, such as the deep blues of the arctic ice or the subtle shadings on a flower. Hues never bleed or smear, and no chroma noise is apparent. Only fleshtones appear a bit artificial.
The source material has also been kept in pristine shape. Blacks are rock solid and contrast excellent. The image has great "pop" but even the harshest whites don't bloom or obscure detail, and shadow delineation -- essential to a dark and moody Batman flick -- is superior. Even in the darkly-lit lair of the Scarecrow, for example, I could still make out the texture on the burlap sack cover his head, right down to the lines in the rope holding it together. Much sharper than the disappointing DVD version, the sense of depth is consistently top-notch throughout. The encode is likewise strong, with no macroblocking or any type of posterization is present. And though there is some slight film grain present at times, there are no compression problems or resultant noise. 'Batman Begins' may offer nothing new for those who already own or rented the HD DVD, but it still looks great.
Ensuring that 'Batman Begins' sounds as good as it looks, Warner again ports over the English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround track (48kHz/16-bit) from the HD DVD. As impressed as I've been with the past TrueHD tracks on other Warner titles, 'Batman Begins' holds up as a great high-res mix, and easily a disc you can show off as a demo for your friends. (Also included are Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround and subtitle options provided in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Japanese.)
Though there are plenty of sonic moments in 'Batman Begins' that thrill, three sequences in particular stood out for me as reference-quality. The first act "ice pond" fight between Liam Neeson and Christian Bale, the Batmobile chase, and the elevated train destruction scene are all up there with the most exciting sequences I've heard on pre-recorded video. The TrueHD track is simply flawless here. The force of sound emanating from the rear speakers is incredibly robust and intricate, and despite the cacophony of sound, subtle details remain audible, such as the flap of a batwing or the grating of metal train wheels. It is that kind of attention to detail that elevates 'Batman Begins' to that rare experience where it is highly pleasurable to just close your eyes and listen -- even without visuals, 'Batman Begins' wows.
Tech specs are likewise first-rate. Low bass here is some of the deepest I've heard -- the last 30 minutes or so of this film is a total gas when cranked up loud. The quality and depth of mid-range and high-end is mightily impressive, as despite all that is going on here -- dialogue, effects and the fine score by James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer -- nothing seems lost in the din. Balance is pitch perfect, and I never had to adjust my volume control to make out dialogue, which is quite a rarity on action-type soundtracks. I can find nothing to complain about with the audio for 'Batman Begins' -- it still met any expectations I had and, in spots, exceeded them.
Those familiar with the HD DVD and standard DVD versions of 'Batman Begins' will find nothing new here. Unusual for a major release, there was no audio commentary or deleted scenes, or even techy-like material such as storyboard comparisons. Instead, we get what is essentially a two-hour documentary, broken up into a bunch of shorter featurettes. Also a drag is that Warner hasn't really arranged them in any sort of concise order, so just feel to pick 'em at random and watch. (Disappointingly, all of the video-based materials are presented in 480i standard-def video.)
'Batman Begins' is the rare reboot that not only successfully relaunched a franchise but may be even better than any of the films that preceded it. This is also a no-brainer on Blu-ray -- the disc looks and sounds every bit as good as the previous HD DVD release, and the extras are a match, too. With 'The Dark Knight' looming on the horizon, if you don't already own 'Batman Begins' on high-def, you simply have no excuse not to add this disc to your collection.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.