Bruce Wayne watched his parents get viciously gunned down as a child, altering his perception of the world you and I see every day. Bruce learned at that early age just how corrupt life on the streets can be, and as he grew up he only saw the problem spread. Every system that's been designed to protect the general population from crime had been tainted. Thieves started bribing members of law enforcement, and law enforcement greased the political wheels with lots of lettuce. The inhabitants of Gotham City were forced to continually live in fear because a criminal can continue to harass, beat, or murder people as long as they kick up enough of their cut to the right people. That's not justice. Justice is making sure that criminals get their dues indiscriminately. Bruce has grown up watching the corruption unfold, and although he's rich beyond his wildest dreams thanks to Wayne Enterprises, he decides to use his comfortable financial situation to do something about it. Batman is born.
At the beginning of the film, Gotham City is just beginning to feel the impact of Batman taking out its garbage. Criminals are looking over their shoulder, police are starting to label him as a dangerous vigilante, and reporter Vicki Vale is digging deep to find out what the story is behind this 'bat man'. Nobody has their eye on the masked hero more than Jack Napier though, as an altercation with the masked vigilante has left his face horribly disfigured. Looking more now like a clown than a man, Jack begins a new stage of his 'career' as the criminal mastermind Joker, and he's no longer playing with a full deck of cards. The only card he has left to deal is revenge, and he endangers the lives of Vicki and everyone else in Gotham City to get it.
Batman is a truly interesting character on many levels, and Tim Burton has really been the first person in the history of film to bring that level of interest to the table. Sure, there was the popular camp filled Batman television series, but the integral complexity of Bruce Wayne was nowhere to be seen. It's on display in full force here however, and its effectiveness will undoubtedly keep Burton's version of Batman a timeless classic no matter how many times the franchise gets a reboot. The most fascinating aspect about Batman is the fact that the black mask, body suit, and cape are not the costume for our central character. Bruce Wayne is that mask. When Bruce goes to a party to keep appearances up, that's the act. Even with Batman acting as the dominant personality trait in Mr. Wayne, he's still only human. He struggles with certain aspects of wanting a normal life, such as love, but it just ends up making things more complicated. It's these numerous layers of Bruce Wayne and Batman that ultimately keeps the audience hooked, because the line between the two is always a blur.
Michael Keaton was a fantastic Batman, but Jack Nicholson was just as important in his role as the Joker. After seeing his frighteningly contrasted performance in The Shining, I don't think there's a single soul out there that can say Nicholson wasn't a good choice, and having the right actor for this particular role was absolutely crucial. The Joker wasn't just a maniacal clown, he was the antithesis of Batman. Both of them are forced to live on the outer limits of the society they inhabit. The only difference between them is that Batman still abides by some sort of moral code, almost to the point where it restricts him from doing his job as effectively as possible. There are too many variables that pain his conscience and get in the way of what he needs to do. The only thing that truly differs between hero and villain is that the Joker follows no such moral code. He can do whatever he wants simply because there's no mental barrier that prevents him from doing so. The Joker isn't creepy solely because he's frighteningly unpredictable, he's creepy because he's a constant reminder that he's really not that much different than the caped crusader that pursues him.
There are some minor nitpicks about Burton's version of the film that I have however. The mobster scene that's briefly on display before Jack Napier is forced into his new identity is comically stereotypical. Studying the personality traits between hero and villain reveal the psychological intricacies that Burton set out to portray very well, but it's fairly disappointing to see neither Batman nor the Joker actively acknowledge their similarities. Last but not least, the film is most definitely trying to pull Batman into our reality, and on many levels Burton succeeds at this. In the end though, I felt that Gotham was really more of its own entity than a realistic city that I could hop on a plane and visit if I wanted to.
All of the different factors at play could have made Batman a fairly complicated film, but fortunately the great acting and a decent script kept things moving along at a fantastic pace, and ultimately ensured the complex psychological studies on display remained an extraordinarily easy pill to swallow. Batman effortlessly transcends above the tiresome damsel in distress storyline, as well as the clichéd perception that comic books were merely about a bunch guys in funny costumes beating the snot out of each other. Those elements are certainly here, but they're far from being the dominant themes of the film. In the end, Burton's vision of the infamous superhero has withstood the test of time, and its twenty year longevity in the genre easily classifies it as a staple in cinematic history. Numerous other filmmakers have undeniably used Burton's Batman as a building block or a reference point, and its influence in Hollywood can be seen in almost any comic book to screen adaptation you see today. If you're only familiar with the Batman films starring Christian Bale, you simply don't know what you're missing.
The VC-1 encode that appears in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 is pretty nice, especially for a film that's been around for a couple of decades. That's not to say that it's perfect however, but it's a pretty solid presentation all around.
I was pretty impressed with just how much clarity and detail there was, as I was often able to get a pretty adequate sense of depth as I watched the film. Like many other catalogue releases that are coming out around this time in the Blu-ray game, there are shots throughout that ended up looking a little soft or fuzzy. This unfortunately takes away from the fine detail and depth that much of the rest of the film has on display. I was also taken aback by the saturation of the color. Like many other Tim Burton films, the color palette isn't generally taken advantage of throughout Batman's runtime, but whenever the Joker makes an appearance or crashes a party with some toys or paint, it practically leaps off the screen. Skin tones are generally impressive, although it does take a dip towards being ever so slightly pink from time to time.
The Blu-ray game is getting pretty interesting. It's getting harder to tell lately if certain catalogue titles from Paramount, or in this case Warner Bros., have had some digital scrubbing added to them or not. Grain still seems to be intact here, but it's fairly minimal for a film that's twenty years old. Skin doesn't appear to be waxy, and a lot of fine detail is still able to make an appearance more often than not. I leave any additional comments I might have to the side, because it's pretty difficult to say if this is how the transfer was treated with any kind of certainty. I can say that the print looks pretty nice for a film that's reached its twentieth birthday, and there aren't any compression artifacts or edge enhancement halos to worry about. All in all, Batman looks better than I've ever seen it look before.
Much like the video transfer, I found the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track to sound more than adequate considering the age of the source, but there are some minor issues that hold it back.
The sound mix is interesting to try and dissect. Dialogue is fine throughout most of the film, but can occasionally come across much quieter than you should be hearing at a fixed decibel level at home. Sound effects can often sound boisterous and full, but can also sound pretty underwhelming from time to time. A lot of this has to do with the sound mix itself and not the transfer of the audio, so this is pretty much as faithful a representation of Batman we can get without crafting an entirely new mix. The score is pretty hard hitting and majestic, often swelling with gusto. Much like the dialogue and sound effects, it too can find itself hampered at times. The track also has a pitching hiccup on a couple of occasions. I know it sounds like there are a lot of negative things about the audio transfer, but again, this is a mixing issue that's been acknowledged since its theatrical run. Batman has never sounded as good on home video as it does now. Despite the issues the track has overall, it's impressively immersive for its age, and really comes out of its shell in a way never thought possible since its theatrical run.
Let's be frank. This release is either going to be your cup of tea, or it won't be. It's that simple. The Batman Anthology has already been on Blu-ray for a couple of months, and that makes for a pretty nice deterrent when you're given the option to buy one of the films on its own. If you're like me however and can't fathom spending the money on a four film boxed set when only two of them are really worth the coin, the single film digibook for Batman's twentieth anniversary is definitely the way to go.
The 'book' itself contains pages upon pages of unforgettable photos, not to mention a few other nifty surprises along the way. From front to back you'll be able to read From Fear to Frolics: The Story of Batman, Batman in Action, Model Action Visual Effects, Gotham City, a portion of the script, a piece of the comic book adaptation of the film, and information about the cast and director. The pages are of a nice glossy quality, and have tons and tons of photos to accompany everything that's discussed. Warner really did a great job with the packaging for this release. Let's get to what's actually on the disc, shall we?
Commentary by Director Tim Burton - This is honestly one of the best commentaries I've heard in a while. Despite being a one man show, Burton remains relevant and interesting throughout the runtime of the film. His predates the film of production, to the time where he was merely becoming interested in taking on the caped crusader in a feature length format, right up until even after the production of the film was complete. You won't find a lot of tiresome gaps as Burton's always on a role, and always changing up the topic of conversation to keep things interesting. If you're a fan of the film, you owe it to yourself to hear Burton speak out about it.
On the Set with Bob Kane - This is only a few minutes length, which is rather disappointing considering the man who created the main character is here to share his thoughts on Burton's film.
Legends of the Dark Knight - The History of Batman - This featurette is 41 minutes in length, and basically covers the history of Batman in its entirety. Interesting and never dull, this feature is sure to please both newcomers to the franchise and fans alike.
Shadows of the Bat: The Cinematic Saga of the Dark Knight Parts 1-3 - An impressive 71 minutes long, these featurettes really cover the numerous aspects of the film's production overall. Much like the commentary, it covers everything from the film's planning stages right up until the finished product is released.
Beyond Batman Documentary Gallery - 6 Featurettes - At about 51 minutes in length, these featurettes cover most aspects of the designing stage for the film. This includes everything from costumes to big toys the dark knight likes to cruise around in, and it's about as informative as you can possibly get. This could end up being just a little dry for some of the viewers, but overall it's executed fairly well.
The Heroes and Villains Profile Galleries - This cuts the lengthy featurette time we've seen up to this point down to about 20 minutes, and as the name basically implies, it covers the profiles for the numerous characters that appear in the film.
Batman: The Complete Robin Storyboard Sequence - This is a scene that was mapped out for the film at a very early stage that introduced Robin, but Burton apparently realized it wasn't the right way to go. So pretty much acting as a nice little afterthought of a bonus, it's an interesting piece of history for the film, but don't expect to be seeing gold from this particular storyboard or anything. It was cut for a reason.
Also included on this disc are a few music videos from Prince, which I personally could care less about since I'm not a fan of music that can date an otherwise timeless film. The theatrical trailer is also included, and a digital copy of the film is available in its own cardboard sleeve, which is pretty nice as it doesn't end up taking additional space in the digibook packaging.
All in all the extras that are included for the single release of Burton's Batman on Blu-ray are all worth the time. Almost everything included is loaded to the brim with detail without ever getting obnoxiously dull, and there's nothing I would really consider to be throw away material... besides maybe the Prince videos. Even if Bruce Wayne goes the rest of his life searching for his own brand of justice, we can at least breathe easy knowing Warner did this film justice for its first ever standalone Blu-ray release.
Tim Burton brought Batman to life on the big screen in a very big way. It changed the way Hollywood went about depicting superheroes, as well as the expectations the movie-going audience would have for the genre ever since. Despite some of the minor issues Batman has along the way, the fact that it's still as influential today as it ever was says a lot. It had some incredibly complex characters and themes to bring to the fold, and Burton was able to get it done almost effortlessly. I can't just give all the credit to Burton though! Michael Keaton was accurately able to depict the complex character that is Bruce Wayne, and Jack Nicholson's take on the Joker will be legend forever, even with the late Heath Ledger's superior performance in mind. Despite a sometimes inconsistent video source on display that can at times be soft or fuzzy, and an audio track that's somewhat lacking in the mix department, Warner Bros. has done a fantastic job at bringing Batman to Blu-ray in a stand-alone release with all the bells and whistles it deserves.
It should come as no surprise that I highly recommend this release to everyone. Burton's vision of the caped crusader is still almost as refreshing as it was when it debuted twenty years ago. Knowing that it can still hold a candle on its own, even knowing superior films like The Dark Knight will come along to knock it down a peg, there's no doubt in my mind that Burton's Batman will still be just as celebrated twenty years from now. If you don't already own the Batman Anthology set and don't plan on spending money for a couple of films that you can't stand, then there's no reason why this release shouldn't be added to your collection today.