In the late 1980’s Batman was in trouble. No, he wasn’t tied to a table saw by The Joker. Catwoman didn’t have her claws on him. It was the camp residue of the 1960’s television series. The idea of a Batman film was clamored after by fans, but the studios couldn’t get the Adam West series out of their minds. And, while the success of Superman might have awaken the studio bosses to the appeal of comic book films, there was surprisingly very little interest in a Batman film. Since DC Comics had become a part of the Warner Empire, it seemed only logical that they would want to do the film. But even Warner resisted for several years as a team tried to get the Caped Crusader back on the movie screen.
The Dark Knight was the brainchild of a young comic artist named Bob Kane. He was actually inspired by a Leonardo DaVinci drawing and quote. He was looking at the bat-like wings DaVinci designed for human flight and immediately set to work on creating the follow up to Superman. Unlike Superman, Batman had no superpowers. His parents had been killed in front of his eyes, gunned down on their way home from the theater. The young millionaire’s son grew morose and dark. When he matured, he used the vast resources of his wealth to design weapons, armor, vehicles, and gadgets all around the theme of the bat. With the help of the family butler, who raised the young lad after the death of his parents, Bruce Wayne became the night avenger, Batman. The comic was an almost overnight success. Now there was a superhero who didn’t rely on supernatural powers. This hero relied on his own intelligence and resourcefulness to fight the criminals of Gotham City. The comics would lead to movie serial reels and animated adventures. In the 1960’s Batman would explode on to television screens in a campy, not-so-serious incarnation. Graphic novels in the 1980’s would bring the comic book out of the shadows of guilty pleasures for adults and bring these conventions to the mainstream world of literature. Artists like Frank Miller would bring the Dark Knight back to its roots and expose the world, once again, to Batman. By 1989, the time was right to bring Batman back to life — live action, that is. And who better to capture the dark and psychologically disturbed world of Batman than Tim Burton.
And so began what is now called the 1990’s cycle of Batman films. With the box office record numbers of the more recent hero films, can there be a better time to revisit the original films for the first time in ultra high definition? Warner brings the four films out as separate titles and an upcoming collection akin to the Blu-ray Anthology set.
Here’s a breakdown of the films in the collection:
“It can truly be said that I have a bat in my belfry.”
It’s hard to imagine it today, but Tim Burton was an unproven risk when he was first asked to take the reigns of the new Batman franchise. Burton might have started out with Pee Wee Herman, but it is in this first Batman film that we are introduced to the dark world that we’ve come to identify with the somewhat twisted director. It was a risk, but it paid off for everyone involved.
The first troubles started to creep up when Burton cast Michael Keaton as Batman/Bruce Wayne. I was one of those early naysayers, who felt that we were merely going to revisit the 1960’s show all over again. Don’t get me wrong. I loved that series. That’s not what I was looking for in a major summer tent-pole film, however. The same could be said for Warner Brothers, who shared some of these same concerns. Things changed when Jack Nicholson was cast and surprisingly accepted the role of The Joker. Looking back on it today, it was one of the most genius examples of fortunate casting in film history. As soon as Nicholson signed up, the brass was able to breathe easier. It also helped to attract a pretty good supporting cast that included Pat Hinkle as Commissioner Gordon and Michael Gough as Alfred, the only two actors who would continue their parts in all four 90’s films. The first film’s cast also included Jack Palance, Billy Dee Williams, and Robert Wuhl. Sean Young was cast as the Bruce Wayne/Batman love interest, reporter Vicki Vale, but a horse accident just days before filming began took her out of the production. Kim Basinger came in at the last minute and made everyone forget about Sean Young.
Everything about The Caped Crusader was redesigned for the film. The Batmobile might have had some touches that reminded us of the previous car, but this was more like a James Bond vehicle, fully loaded for combat and defense. The Batsuit was considerably different. Gone were the tights and pullover cowl. This was a heavy-duty rubber suit that took the actor hours to get into. Gotham City itself was the most fascinating character in the film. Today you would instantly recognize the Burtonesque qualities. The buildings reflected an almost 40’s style and grandeur, but retained an ultramodern functionality. Large statues and figures dominate the cityscape as if from a Fritz Lang production. The result is a film that isn’t locked into a specific time, much like Batman himself. More important was the decision to bring Batman to his roots. This was a sulking, vengeful Bat. Also, like the beginning, there was no Robin.
When you watch the film, you discover that it didn’t really matter who played Batman. Keaton was fine, as it turned out. It didn’t matter, because Nicholson chewed up the scenery with every second he was on the screen. The man just let go, and he gave us one of the best villains in any comic book movie to date. Of course, today there’s a lot of talk about Heath Ledger. They were really different parts, just sharing the name. My vote goes to Jack. None of the villains, at least in the 90’s cycle, came close. Easily the best film in the set, Batman is worth revisiting, now in high-definition Blu-ray. It’s like seeing it again, for the first time. “It’s very liberating. You should think of it as, uh… therapy.”
Batman Returns (1992):
“I think the word you’re looking for is AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!”
It wasn’t Batman’s return that made this film what it was, as much as it was Tim Burton’s. Now he was a proven commodity. Now Burton was given the chance to completely turn his vision loose on the franchise. Some say he went too far, that this was an unnecessarily dark and gory story. Sorry to disagree, but this ain’t no children’s story. Burton came into his own in this film, and all that came after was given birth on the two Batman films he directed. This is also a Christmas film, and we all know how Burton can put a dark spin on Christmas.
Let’s not forget how memorable the series villains still are today. While I don’t believe it was quite as good as the first film, it wasn’t a question of style. It was that even the likes of Danny DeVito and Michelle Pfeiffer couldn’t add up to one Jack Nicholson. Not that they didn’t deliver a pretty valiant effort here.
Batman Forever (1995)
“Riddle me this, riddle me that, who’s afraid of the big, black bat?”
This is where things started to go off the rails. Burton moved from the director’s chair to an Executive Producer job, and the entire atmosphere of the films took a hit. If anyone should have been able to improve on the series I would have thought it would be Joel Schumacher, but his take on the material took us back to the camp days, but this time it wasn’t intentional.
One of the failings of hero films is the idea that you have to have more villains for the hero to fight. It killed the first Spider-Man films, and it began to take its toll here. Instead of making a single villain a match for Batman, Schumacher decided to open the floodgates and gave us bad guys that mostly posed a lot and got in each other’s way. At least with Burton’s addition of Catwoman there wasn’t a strict villain quality here, and she was part of a different arc than Penguin was delivering. Tommy Lee Jones is an incredible actor. Time has proven that over dozens of films. This, sadly, wasn’t one of them. His Two-Face was without a real drive, and the character of Harvey Dent had already been played by Billy Dee Williams. When you add Jim Carey, who is just being Jim Carey as The Riddler, you have a pretty solid mess on your hands. Schumacher upped the action but took out much of the film’s heart.
To help complicate a story even more, we have to have a new Bruce Wayne/Batman love interest. This time it’s Nicole Kidman as Dr. Chase Meridian. And what the hey, let’s throw in the introduction of Robin into the mix. Honestly, when NCIS: L.A. hit the television, it took a couple of years for me to take Chris O’Donnell seriously because of this role. And finally, let’s get a new actor in the title role. This time it’s Val Kilmer, who I actually liked a lot, but the film was not exactly the kind of Batman to lead the comic hero into the approaching new millennium.
Batman And Robin (1997)
“This is why Superman works alone.”
Patrick Stewart was slated to play Mr. Freeze, and he dropped out of the film in short order. Why? I suspect he finally got a look at the script. This is the film that pretty much ended this cycle for the character on the big screen. All of the camp is back. It starts pretty much in the beginning of the film where Batman and Robin literally surf on a pair of rocket panels from near-orbit to the ground. The film goes downhill from there.
Once again there are also too many bad guys. Arnold Schwarzenegger takes the Mr. Freeze role. He was a doctor who was trying to cure his wife of a rare disease when an industrial accident turned him into the cold guy. He’s all freeze gun and puns. We also have Uma Thurman going all environmental as Poison Ivy, thanks to her boss, played by John Glover, trying to kill her. They are both wacko, and each has a wacko experiment going on. She’s trying to cross plants with venomous snakes to create a plant that can strike back, and the Doc is creating a super solider he hopes to sell to the highest bidder. The result is a version of Bane that is horrible. He’s dressed up like a Mexican wrestler and is reduced to playing Ivy’s henchman. Tom Hardy played a much more respectful version of the character in The Dark Knight Rises, even if we couldn’t understand a word he said. Again, too many villains spoil the crime.
Meanwhile Alfred is dying, and his niece Barbara shows up. Now we’re going to add Batgirl while we’re at it. The film’s conclusion leads us to believe this team will be back. George Clooney is playing the third Batman in four films, and he’s the absolute worst of the three. This franchise infusion was doomed before it hit the ground. Whoever ended the run here performed a mercy killing and put us all out of our misery.
Each film is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The ultra-high-definition 2160p images are arrived at by an HEVC codec with often impressive average bitrates of 65-70 mbps. There are often jumps over 100, and this will be the hands-down definitive release for these films. They were made on film and are so natively 4K from the 35mm film stock. Batman Returns has the most visible grain retention, and the organic presentation truly fits with the dark Burton material. The fourth film benefits the least from the re-master. The picture was intended to be somewhat manic, and you never get to settle on detail. But the first two films benefit greatly from the 4K and HDR bump in quality. Black levels in Burton’s dark world are wonderfully reproduced. Such shadow definition in a bleak city with so many characters dressed in black rubber or latex. There’s texture to the suits and a wonderful gleam from Catwoman’s homemade catsuit. There’s a lot of atmosphere in these first two films and nice vibrant colors that pop, even if rarely, to provide us a wonderful trip down the 4-color memory lane.
The Atmos track defaults to a pretty solid 7.1 mix. These films were never more immersive. There’s plenty of ear candy in the surrounds, which get a little too crowded in the last two films. Elfman’s scores in the first film are full of haunting life here and set the mood from the very first frames of both films. The subs are best in the second film. For some reason they even lift the theme music to a higher level by building the bottom. Dialog cuts through for the most part. This is certainly an upgrade from the stereo versions many of us recall.
The extras are all on the Blu-ray copies of the films. It’s the exact same stuff we got on the Anthology set.
This is a tale of two very different pairs of movies. The first are standout films that both deserve high marks. The last two barely a mention. These films will still become a huge part of your DC comic collection. Let’s face it. Even with the stink of the last film in particular, you’re going to want them all, because if you’re like me, “Gotham City brings a smile to my face.”