His name is Judge Dan Mancini. Learn it well, for it is the chilling sound of your doom.
Our reviews of Batman (published March 8th, 2000), Batman: Special Edition (published October 18th, 2005), Batman: 20th Anniversary Edition (Blu-Ray) (published May 18th, 2009), Batman & Robin: Special Edition (published October 18th, 2005), Batman Forever: Special Edition (published October 18th, 2005), Batman Returns (published March 16th, 2000), and Batman Returns: Special Edition (published October 18th, 2005) are also available.
"Gotham City always brings a smile to my face."—The Joker
Hey, kids. Believe it or not, long before Heath Ledger won a posthumous Oscar for his portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight, way back in the dark ages before the interwebs, when all of America was eagerly awaiting the sequel to Back to the Future, going gaga over a brand new show called The Simpsons (I think my "Eat My Shorts" T-shirt is still around here somewhere), and cabbage patching to "Funky Cold Medina," there was an entirely different Batman movie starring that old crank from The Bucket List as the Clown Prince of Crime. Weird, huh? In fact, those rubes living during the first Bush administration loved that Batman flick so much that an awesome sequel was made, followed by a mediocre third entry, followed by a fourth film that is without a doubt the worst comic book adaptation ever made that's not named V for Vendetta. Less than a decade after the release of Batman, the entire franchise went down in a blaze of Bat-nipples and Arnold Schwarzenegger one-liners. Now it's back, and in high definition no less, with Batman: The Motion Picture Anthology 1989-1997, a boxed set that offers four 50 GB Blu-ray discs stacked with hours and hours of caped crusading.
Facts of the Case
Batman Returns (1992)
Batman Forever (1995)
Batman & Robin (1997)
Since Christopher Nolan rebooted the franchise with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, hurling brickbats at Tim Burton's and Joel Schumacher's Batman flicks has become all the rage. I'm not here to claim that any of the four features from Warner Brothers' previous run at the Batman mythos approaches the quality of Nolan's work, but I will say that they don't deserve the drubbing they've taken of late (well, Batman & Robin does, but we'll get to that a little later). You have to remember that when Burton's 1989 movie hit theaters, audiences still thought of the campy Adam West TV show of the 1960s when they thought of live-action adventures of the Caped Crusader. When the first publicity shots of Michael Keaton in the black rubber muscle suit and scowling cowl made the pages of entertainment magazines, they produced a nationwide nerdgasm. When the trailer hit theaters—a trailer that delivered long looks at the Batmobile and Jack Nicholson in full Joker make-up—people paid full price to get into movies they didn't even want to see in order to check out a couple minutes of Batman. Compared with the old television series, Burton's vision of Gotham's protector seemed relentlessly dark, gothic, and uncompromising.
A couple decades down the line, Batman isn't quite as impressive as it seemed when it stormed the box office in the summer of 1989. Taken on its own terms, though, it's still a rousing two-hour adventure. Sam Hamm's screenplay monkeys with the mythos in ways that irked fans of the comic, but also takes the interesting approach of filtering much of the story through reporter Alexander Knox, a Gotham everyman on the hunt for a mysterious Batman that authorities insist does not exist. Michael Keaton plays an awkward, oddball version of Bruce Wayne that feels more Burtonesque than DC Comics, but at the movie's release it seemed like he was and would forever be the definitive Wayne/Batman. Nicholson's take on the Joker is closer to Cesar Romero's prancing prankster than Heath Ledger's grungy psychopath, but his murderous ways seemed plenty sinister back in '89—even if the murders were carried out with acid-squirting flowers and flesh-melting joy buzzers. Mostly, the movie captivated audiences with passable action set in the shadowy world of production designer Anton Furst's (Full Metal Jacket) gothic Gotham.
In light of the fiercely modern sensibilities of Batman Begins and especially The Dark Knight, Batman is mostly entertaining these days as a nostalgia piece (especially since its two Prince musical numbers plant it firmly in the '80s), but if you were there for its initial bow in theaters and still have a soft spot in your heart for it, this new Blu-ray version is the best way to revisit it. The 1080p VC-1 transfer isn't perfect, but it's easily the best Batman has ever looked in any home video format. Blu-ray's better color reproduction delivers accurate fleshtones, deep blacks, and a finely delineated range of grays that produce subtle shadow areas with nary of hint of black crush. Depth is also improved over the 2005 Special Edition DVD, though it doesn't compare to blockbusters shot with modern high-tech gear—the image won't wow you with consistently rendered fine detail. The clean print also has an attractive patina of fine grain.
The Dolby TrueHD soundtrack is a definite improvement over the previous Dolby 5.1 mix. Dynamic range is improved, though the source track isn't nearly as expansive and detailed as later entries in the series. Danny Elfman's score benefits enormously from the upgraded audio. The clarity is superb.
After the massive box office success of Batman, Tim Burton returned to the director's chair with a heap more power and autonomy for Batman Returns. It shows. The movie isn't so much a sequel as a remake sans studio checks on Burton's quirky sensibilities. Even Danny Elfman's score has been rejiggered with a choral accompaniment that has more in common with the former Oingo Boingo leader's work on Edward Scissorhands than the original Batman.
Many (especially Tim Burton fans) prefer Returns to the first film, but for every improvement it makes over the original outing it commits an egregious sin. Tim Burton's most unique and memorable contribution to the Batman mythos is his ghastly, deformed version of the Penguin. The character has little in common with its comic book source, but that hardly matters because Danny DeVito's horrifying performance is so memorable. In fact, the villains are the best part of the movie. As played by Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt, Catwoman is one of the most memorable villains from the '60s television series. Michelle Pfeiffer one-upped them both with a Catwoman for the ages. Her vicious athleticism, teasing romance with Wayne/Batman, and, uh, choice of wardrobe made for an iconic performance. Max Shreck is a bit of a cookie cutter villain (evil industrialists are a dime a dozen)—or would be if he wasn't played by Christopher Walken, who makes every line read menacing and outright bizarre. Despite the strong antagonists, the movie suffers from the replacement of Anton Furst's foggy, gothic production design with a cloistered, phony stage set that wears its fascist evocations on its sleeve. Worst of all, though, Keaton comes off as bored, and Burton seems too preoccupied with cranking up the quirk on his admittedly entertaining villains to pay much attention to the action sequences, which alternate between silly and abysmal. Burton's freedom, coupled with his limitations as an action director, makes Batman Returns neither better nor worse than Batman. It merely has an entirely different set of strengths and weaknesses.
One of the movie's strengths is Burton's use of a cool, stylized color palette. It comes across spectacularly on Blu-ray. The disc renders the movie's many blues and whites with incredible vibrancy, while also delivering deep blacks. Detail—from the stitches in Catwoman's costume to the Penguin's black drool—is razor sharp in close-ups, though the movie doesn't offer consistent deep focus detail. Batman Returns has never looked this good on any home video format.
The film's soundtrack has been upgraded to Dolby TrueHD and the results are satisfying. As with the earlier film, dynamic range is improved, dialogue has a bit more punch, and Elfman's score sounds fantastic.
When Batman Returns' melancholy ending left some audience members baffled and disappointed and resulted in the movie not generating anywhere near the box office numbers of its more conventionally heroic predecessor, Warner Brothers gently invited Tim Burton to move on to other projects and brought in Joel Schumacher (The Lost Boys) to direct the third entry in the series. Batman Forever saw a head-to-toe revamping of the franchise. Val Kilmer took Keaton's place as Bruce Wayne/Batman, the Batmobile was redesigned, the production design became less gothic and more cartoonish with splashes of phosphorescent color, and Danny Elfman's music was replaced by a new heroic theme by Elliot Goldenthal (Heat). From an opening gag about Batman picking up drive-thru in the Batmobile, it's clear that Schumacher is making a stark tonal break from Burton's films, too. Most of the rest of the movie's humor is similarly groan-inducing. On the plus side, though, Schumacher proves much more adept at staging action than Burton. An opening set piece featuring Batman trying to bust up a bank heist by Two-Face and his henchmen is face-paced, completely over-the-top, and expertly choreographed and edited. Fisticuffs during a requisite gala Gotham City event are far more kinetic and fun than anything in the first two films.
Tommy Lee Jones' version of Harvey Dent/Two-Face has all of the subtlety of a bag of hammers, but he does manage to return some of the scenery-chewing fun that Jack Nicholson's Joker brought to the original. Val Kilmer is a more traditionally square-jawed and handsome Bruce Wayne than Keaton. He handles what little there is of his role well enough to make you wish he could have played the Caped Crusader in a much better flick. Jim Carrey is less compelling as the Riddler, reducing the character to a hybrid of Frank Gorshin's television version and Carrey's own rubber-faced pet detective, Ace Ventura (his transformation into the mischievous archvillain is accompanied by a killer Flaming Lips tune, though). Chris O'Donnell is decent as a late-teen version of Dick Grayson/Robin, but the crowded screenplay doesn't have either the time or gumption to fully explore the sometimes contentious relationship between the orphaned acrobat and his benefactor, Bruce Wayne.
Despite its garish production design and loads of lame gags, Batman Forever manages to entertain on its own terms. It's a mediocre Batman flick, but Schumacher and his cast and crew deserve props for telling a story that, unlike Burton's Batman Returns, at least attempts to push the story arc forward by putting the issue of Bruce Wayne's murdered parents to bed once and for all and introducing Robin into the story.
Batman Forever may overdo it on the colored gel lighting, but Schumacher's stylized choices come across well on Blu-ray. Depth, detail, and the general smoothness of the image are superior to both of Burton's films. Again, fleshtones are accurate (when they're supposed to be) and blacks are rock solid. Vivid colors are more vivid than they've ever been before.
Schumacher's film also benefits from the audio upgrade more than Batman or Batman Returns. Here, the TrueHD mix delivers a thunderous effects mix, finely detailed score, and pristine dialogue. It's not quite reference quality, but it's extremely impressive for a movie made in 1995.
Batman & Robin is every bit as awful as the reputation that precedes it. The flick is, in many ways, Joel Schumacher's version of Batman Returns: the movie he would have made the first time around if the studio (and presumably producer Tim Burton) hadn't imposed stylistic limitations on him. Batman Forever was a bigger financial success than Batman Returns, so Schumacher was given more leeway for his second entry in the franchise. His approach was essentially to make a 100 million dollar feature film adaptation of the campy '60s TV series. Unfortunately, the movie doesn't even work on those dubious terms. Batman's tacky charm came from its gentle mocking of lightweight Silver Age comic book conventions. Its silly gags worked because Adam West and Burt Ward played everything straight, as though Batman and Robin weren't in on the joke. In Batman & Robin, the Caped Crusader (played by George Clooney) mugs for the camera and makes Superman jokes, while the Boy Wonder goofs about chicks digging the Batmobile. Everything (with the exception of some smoothly choreographed action sequences) is so dreadful it leaves you deeply, viscerally uncomfortable for everyone involved. Arnold Schwarzenegger is wretched as Mr. Freeze, tossing out as many bad puns as John Matrix in Commando but with a fraction of the macho charm. Uma Thurman seems to have approached the role of Poison Ivy as an opportunity to work on her Rosalind Russell impersonation. The results are half-baked, hammy, and incredibly irritating. The presence of Bane and Batgirl (both poorly translated from the comic) bog the movie down so that the jam-packed, barely coherent story seems as much an assault on one's cerebral cortex as the hideous production design (Batman & Robin's DayGlo excesses make Batman Forever look reserved by comparison).
Irony of ironies, Batman & Robin comes off the best of the four movies in high definition. Its 1080p transfer is even smoother and more detailed than Batman Forever's. Schumacher's stylized color palette is cranked to the max and the transfer handles it all with incredible precision, delivering hues that are as finely delineated and free from bleeding as they are eye-popping.
The Dolby TrueHD audio track is also an improvement over Batman Forever's. The sound design is over-the-top, but perfectly mixed to immerse the viewer in the movie's topsy-turvy world. Directional panning is used effectively during the many action sequences, and there's plenty of LFE to rumble the walls in your home theater. Fine detail like cartoon sound effects when Mr. Freeze's henchmen tumble during battles with the Dynamic Duo are rendered with more clarity than was possible on DVD. Batman & Robin may not be a good movie, but it looks and sounds stunning in high definition.
Batman: The Motion Picture Anthology 1989-1997 packages its four Blu-ray discs in individual slimline BD cases with sleekly rendered variations on the Batman symbol on each cover. The cases slide into a slimmed down replica of the cardboard box that housed the two-disc Special Editions for the 2005 DVD version of the anthology. The box is attractive, but extremely flimsy.
There's good news and bad on the supplements front. The good news is that there is a boatload of extras. The bad news is that, with the exception of a downloadable digital copy of Batman, it's the same boatload that accompanied the 2005 DVD release of this set. If you already own that boxed set or the two-disc Special Editions of each of the four films, an upgrade to this Blu-ray box won't garner you any new supplements.
Batman and Batman Returns are accompanied by Tim Burton audio commentaries, while Joel Schumacher provides tracks for Batman Forever and Batman & Robin. Each movie also comes with a portion of an exhaustive, six-part documentary on the franchise called Shadows of the Bat: The Cinematic Saga of the Dark Knight. Parts One through Three ("The Road to Gotham," "The Gathering Storm," and "The Legend Reborn") are included on Batman; Batman Returns contains Part Four ("Dark Side of the Knight"); Part Five ("Reinventing a Hero") accompanies Batman Forever; and Batman & Robin includes Part Six ("Batman Unbound"). Together, the six parts run a little over two-and-a-half hours in length. Each disc in the set also contains brief video vignettes about the movies' heroes and villains (Batman, Vicki Vale, Alexander Knox, Commissioner Gordon, Harvey Dent, The Joker, and Bob the Goon on Batman; Batman, Alfred, The Penguin, Catwoman, and Max Shreck on Batman Returns; Batman, Robin, Dr. Chase Meridian, The Riddler, and Two-Face on Batman Forever; and Batman, Robin, Batgirl, Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy, and Bane on Batman & Robin).
In addition to the commentary, documentary, and character vignettes, Batman offers "On the Set with Bob Kane" (2:33), a featurette that follows Batman's creator during his visit to Tim Burton's production. "Legends of the Dark Knight" (40:39) traces Batman's history in the comics. "Batman: The Complete Robin Storyboard Sequence" (4:24) provides a look at storyboards for a scene that was to briefly introduce the Boy Wonder into Burton's original film, but was cut at the last minute. Animated with camera pans across the drawings, the piece is a lot of fun because it employs Mark Hamill as the voice of the Joker (Hamill performed Batman's arch nemesis in Batman: The Animated Series). The disc also contains three Prince music videos ("Batdance," "Partyman," and "Scandalous"), and a theatrical trailer for the film.
Batman Returns includes an electronic press kit called "The Bat, the Cat and the Penguin" (21:54), as well as a half-dozen production featurettes: "Gotham City Revisited: The Production Design of Batman Returns" (11:27), "Sleek, Sexy and Sinister: The Costumes of Batman Returns" (13:31), "Making Up the Penguin" (8:15), "Assembling the Arctic Army" (9:34), "Bats, Mattes and Dark Knights: The Visual Effects of Batman Returns" (11:37), and "Inside the Elfman Studio: The Music of Batman Returns" (11:25). There is also a music video for "Face to Face" by Siouxsie and the Banshees and a theatrical trailer for the film.
Batman Forever comes with an electronic press kit called "Riddle Me This: Why Is Batman Forever?" (23:25). It also has a collection of production featurettes: "Out of the Shadows: The Production Design of Batman Forever (12:39), "The Many Faces of Gotham City" (13:44), "Knight Moves: The Stunts of Batman Forever (5:42),"Imagining Forever: The Visual Effects of Batman Forever" (7:07), and "Scoring Forever: The Music of Batman Forever" (6:26). The disc also offers seven mostly incomplete deleted scenes, a music video for Seal's "A Kiss from a Rose," and a trailer for the film.
Batman & Robin delivers five production featurettes: "Bigger, Bolder, Brighter: The Production Design of Batman & Robin (10:00); "Maximum Overdrive: The Vehicles of Batman & Robin" (9:55); "Dressed to Thrill: The Costumes of Batman & Robin" (12:13); "Frozen Freaks and Femme Fatales: The Makeup of Batman & Robin (9:23); and "Freeze Frame: The Visual Effects of Batman & Robin" (9:02). A 45-second deleted scene introduces the fact that Barbara Wilson is the daughter of Alfred's long, lost love. There are also music videos for "The End Is the Beginning Is the End" by Smashing Pumpkins, "Look into My Eyes" by Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, "Gotham City" by R. Kelly, and "Foolish Games" by Jewel, as well as a trailer for the movie.
The video supplements on each of the four discs (including the six-part documentary) are presented in 480p standard definition and, sadly, look quite a bit rougher than the main features.
With transfers that are noticeably superior to previous DVD releases but far from reference quality, and a metric ton of recycled extras but not a single HD exclusive, the cost of upgrading to the Blu-ray edition of Batman: The Motion Picture Anthology is too steep for anyone but the most hardcore of Dark Knight devotees. Those coming fresh to the series shouldn't hesitate to opt for Blu over DVD—Batman and its trio of sequels have never looked this superb on home video.
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Review content copyright © 2009 Dan Mancini; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.