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When Tim Burton's Batman was released in 1989 (a bygone era when there wasn't a new superhero movie hitting screens every few months), it was, to use a cliché, a game changer. Prior to this, Gotham's finest had been portrayed in campy and humorous ways in the TV series that starred Adam West. While that show was, and still is, a whole lot of fun, comic book fans knew that it wasn't a particularly accurate depiction of the character. Burton's picture fixed that, bringing a grim, seriousness to the film but still managing to work some welcome humor into the production. It was done with just the right amount of maturity and with an all-star cast.
The film opens with the now familiar murder of Bruce Wayne's parents, the event that would cause him to want to use his considerable wealth and resources to fight crime as an adult. From here, we meet the adult Wayne (Michael Keaton), a suave and charming man who does an admirable job of hiding his secret identity from everyone but his trusted butler, Alfred (Michael Gough). Wanting to figure out if the underworld rumors of the Batman are true, reporter Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) teams up with foxy photojournalist Vicki Vale (Kim Bassinger) to work the story. Meanwhile, a criminal named Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson) falls into a chemical vat when a job goes wrong, an incident that turns his face white, his lips bright red and his hair green. Now fairly insane, Napier renames himself The Joker and launches his attempt to take over Gotham City's criminal underworld, much to the dismay of Police Commissioner Jim Gordon (Pat Hingle) and District Attorney Harvey Dent (Billy Dee Williams).
After Vicki Vale and Bruce Wayne strike up a romance, The Joker takes a liking to her and, after kidnapping her, brings Batman out into the open for a climactic showdown!
It's hard, if you weren't there, to imagine just how ‘big' this movie was not just to comic book fans of the late eighties but to anyone with an interest in the cinema of ‘the fantastic' and the film proved a massive commercial success and did quite well with critics at the time as well. Thirty years later, it holds up well. Yeah, you can complain that maybe Michael Keaton doesn't look so mobile in that suit or that some of the matte paintings stand out more than they should but Burton, with this film, managed to capture the essence of what made the comic books that inspired it so engaging for so many people. This wasn't' a kid-friendly Batman, he wasn't spouting off puns to Robin (in fact, Robin was nowhere to be seen) but rather a dangerous vigilante. Yes, of course, he was working towards the greater good but there was an element of darkness to both Batman and Bruce Wayne that kept him interesting and, more importantly, human enough to hold our attention.
As to the performances? Keaton is suave enough to pull this off. He's pretty good as Bruce Wayne, quirky without overdoing it and able to balance the seriousness of his background and place in life with a sense of humor. In the Bat-suit he looks a little stiff, but that's more the fault of the suit design than his performance. All in all, he's good. Kim Bassinger is fine as the love interest. She too balances the different aspects of her role very well. Supporting work from Robert Wuhl (who is mostly comic relief), Pat Hingle, Michael Gough and Billy Dee Williams is also solid.
And then there's Jack Nicholson. As The Joker, he chews the scenery in this picture like it's going out of style, but he does it well and goes so far over the top in that inimitable way that only he can that you can't help but be entertained by his antics. His take on the character isn't quite as dark or sinister as it probably could have been (though it has its moments) but he's a blast to watch here, strutting and dancing about like a lunatic and clearly having a whole lot of fun doing it.
Batman makes its way to 4k UHD with an HEVC / H.265 encoded 2160p presentation framed at 1.85.1 on a 100GB disc with HDR 10 enhancement and it looks fantastic, leaving the older VC-1 Blu-ray transfer (which, to be fair, looked quite good) in the dust. Where things really jump out as improved is in terms of the shadows and the shadow detail seen in the image. The transfer retains Burton's intended dark, industrial look while allowing us to take in everything that lays waiting in the film. Dark scenes are dark, sure, but never murky or blotchy looking. Blacks look pure throughout, inky and deep, while the film's frequently muted color palette is reproduced very well. Lighter scenes, like the scene where The Joker trashes the art museum, really pop the way that the best transfers do, showing off fine detail like never before. Colors look great, the orange and purple in Nicholson's costume really appearing quite vibrantly here, while texture and depth are both stronger and more refined. The film retains the expected amount of natural film grain, as it should, but shows now noticeable print damage at all, not even a small white speck, it's pristine. There are no problems at all with any compression nor are there any issues with edge enhancement or noise reduction. The transfer is beautifully filmic from start to finish. All UHD releases should look this good!
English language tracks are provided in Dolby Atmos, Dolby TrueHD 7.1 and Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound. Assuming you have the hardware to handle it, that Atmos mix is the way to go as it is pretty much reference quality. Right from the opening of Elfman's now iconic score, the track is rich and beautifully detailed. You can make out all of the layers of not just the music used in the film, but the action set pieces and quieter scenes as well. Sure, the fight sequences and car chases pack some serious punch but pay attention during the party scene and you'll hear all sorts of interesting chatter and noise in the background that fills the mix out really nicely. Bass response is superb, the low end of the film is anchored really well, it's powerful and very strong but never buries the performers. The mix really opens things up, with dialogue never less than crystal clear and always super easy to understand. The Prince tracks that are used throughout the movie also sound fantastic here, very lively and energetic with plenty of strength behind them. It's a beautiful mix.
Dubbed options are provided in French, German, Italian, Spanish, Chinese, Thai and Czech Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo and in Hungarian, Polish and Russian Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound. Subtitles are offered in English SDH, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Arabic, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Hungarian, Korean, Mandarin (Simplified Chinese), Mandarin (Traditional Chinese), Norwegian, Polish, Russian, Swedish and Thai.
The only extra on the UHD is an archival commentary track with Tim Burton. For those who have yet to hear the track, it's an interesting talk with the filmmaker who walks us through how he came on board to direct the film, what intrigued him enough about the project to get involved, what he tried to bring to the movie in terms of style and the overall ‘look' of the picture, casting the film and what it was like working with the different actors involved in the production and plenty more. It's an interesting, engaging and very informative track worth checking out.
As to the extras found on the included Blu-ray disc (which uses the new restoration for its transfer and features the same Atmos mix that is included on the UHD disc), there's nothing here that fans haven't seen before but there is a lot of archival material starting with On The Set With Bob Kane, a quick three-minute interview with the creator of Batman who speaks all too briefly about his affiliation with the film and the character. More in-depth is Legends Of The Dark Knight: The History Of Batman which is a very good forty-one-minute history lesson that covers the origins of the character, the different ‘versions' of him that we've seen over the years, the impact that the character has had on pop culture and quite a bit more. Shadows Of The Bat: The Cinematic Saga Of The Dark Knight explores, over the span of seventy-two-minutes, the making of Burton's Batman. It's a super in-depth piece that features some great interviews with the cast and crew, on set footage, behind the scenes info and lots, lots more. It's one of those great pieces that really leaves no stone unturned. From there we get seven different character profiles in Batman: The Heroes and Batman: The Villains that cover Bruce Wayne, The Joker, Vicki Vale, Commissioner Gordon, Bob, Alexander Knox and Harvey Dent. These rub a combined twenty-minutes or so and, as such, they're pretty brief. Beyond Batman spends fifty-minutes exploring five different aspects of the making of the movie: cinematography, make-up, props, vehicles (the Batmobile in particular), costumes and Elfman's musical score. There's some interesting material here and it's worth digging into it.
Rounding out the extras on the Blu-ray disc is Batman: The Complete Robin Storyboard Sequence (a four-minute piece that shows off the storyboards for a scene that Burton opted not to shoot), music videos for Prince tracks Bat-dance, Partyman and Scandalous, the films original theatrical trailer, menus and chapter selection.
This release also comes with an insert card for a Digital HD download version of the film and is packaged with a slipcover.
While it would have been nice to have some new extra features included on this release, the fact of the matter is that Warner Brothers' 4k UHD release of Tim Buton's Batman really benefits from a genuinely beautiful presentation. If we didn't get anything new, pretty much everything from the past issues has been carried over, but it's that transfer and that reference quality audio that really makes this worth the upgrade. The movie itself remains a lot of fun, an enjoyably noirish take on The Dark Knight directed with loads of style and featuring a great cast. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.