Well, it's about time, I heard somebody say. Warner Bros. made their HD-DVD edition of "Batman Begins" available several years ago, and Blu-ray fans have been waiting long enough. With its refined picture quality, Dolby TrueHD sound, and abundance of bonus features, this high-definition set should be pretty hard for new buyers to resist.
"It's not who you are underneath; it's what you do that defines you." --"Batman Begins"
The "Batman" comics were already popular when I was a kid in the 1950s, and at that time I had hoped there would be something better on the big screen than the corny 1943 serial, "The Batman," of which I had seen a chapter or two. I was doubly frustrated in the 1960s when the Adam West television series only seemed to ridicule the Caped Crusader.
So it was a long but worthwhile wait until Tim Burton's "Batman" in 1989, which became one of my favorite superhero movies. Yet with each successive "Batman," I saw the franchise fall further and further into the campy style of the old TV show. By the third and fourth installments of the movie series, I had again given up hope.
Then came 2005's "Batman Begins," cowritten and directed by Christopher Nolan, and I was happy all over again. I found the movie spellbinding, easily among my favorite films of the year. While it didn't conjure up quite the mystique of Burton's film, it had, like Burton's movie, abandoned the look of a colorful old comic book for the darker, more realistic aspect of a graphic novel. I'm glad Nolan resolved to go back to square one and take everything more seriously for a change, loading his cast with fine, serious actors like Michael Caine, who steals the show, and Morgan Freeman, a close second. Then, too, Liam Neeson, Gary Oldman, Cillian Murphy, Tom Wilkinson, Rutger Hauer, Ken Watanabe, and Katie Holmes portray characters who are plausible as well. And Christian Bale is the first actor in the title role who actually fits my mental image of Batman. In Nolan's hands, this is no mere comic-book character; this is a Knight Noir.
"Batman Begins" is a rethinking of the cinematic "Batman" saga, and as the title suggests, it starts by going back to the beginnings of the "Batman" legend suggested by the early comics. The first half of the movie, and the best part in my opinion, recounts the origins of Batman: How an angry, disillusioned young billionaire, Gotham City's Bruce Wayne, travels to the ends of the Earth to study the criminal mind and grapple with his own fears, forever seeking a means to fight the injustice he sees around him.
Eventually, on the edge of nowhere, he finds the counsel he's looking for in the League of Shadows, a centuries' old secret society bent on checking world corruption. Here, he learns to look inward, face himself, and draw on his inner as well as outer strength. Besides learning new martial-arts skills, Wayne learns several other things: He discovers that theatricality and deception are powerful weapons and that "You always fear what you don't understand," notions that would presage his eventual donning of cape and mask to become the melodramatic Dark Knight.
The film takes great pains to present every detail of its plot and characters as things that might actually happen, no matter how preposterous. There is no radioactive bat biting Bruce Wayne and turning him into an instant superhero with supernatural powers. Wayne is an ordinary human being with extraordinary sensibilities, a strong physical makeup, access to high-tech gadgetry, and a ton of money. What he decides to become as "Batman" seems entirely within the realm of possibility (if not probability). Even the Batmobile, here the Tumbler, is a believable real-life incarnation of the hackneyed comic-book creation.
Then, the second half of the film takes us closer to comic-book territory with a far-fetched plot involving madmen attempting to destroy the "decadent" Gotham City by pouring hallucinogenic drugs into the city's water supply and using a microwave emitter to vaporize it and cause panic in the streets. "If you'll excuse me, I have a city to destroy." While it's all very silly and tends to diminish somewhat the more realistic goings-on that preceded it, I have no objection to anything that happens. Comic-book plots are comic-book plots, no matter how earnestly their creators present them, and one has to accept such conventions if one is to appreciate any work in the genre.
Everybody in the film, heroes and villains alike, are more true-to-life than in previous "Batman" movies and come close to being almost believable in Nolan's vision. This is no tongue-in-cheek spoof. Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne may not exhibit the haunted complexities of Michael Keaton's Batman, but we are able to see in Bale's characterization a strong moral courage and a determination to do good. "What chance does Gotham have when the good people do nothing?" asks his friend Rachel (Katie Holmes). He resolves to be one of those "good people" who will stand up and fight.
Nevertheless, as sympathetic as Bale is in the role, Nolan hedges his bets by surrounding the actor with a supporting cast to die for, peripheral characters who despite their number the director weaves well into the fabric of the plot and who never detract from the movie's focus on Bruce Wayne/Batman. Michael Caine as the surrogate father figure, Alfred the butler, for example, is good enough to get his own show. I've always thought there were three actors in Hollywood who consistently transcended their material, routinely putting in great performances even when the scripts were against them, and in this movie (which does not work against them at any rate) we get two of these folks: Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman. (I missed only Gene Hackman among this magic three.) Freeman plays Lucius Fox, an old friend of Bruce's father whom Bruce comes to trust; and whom we come to trust just as much as Bruce does.
Liam Neeson plays Henri Ducard, a strong, tough, wise, but vaguely sinister mentor, a role Neeson seems consigned to play forever unless he puts a stop to it. Well, OK, he does it so well, one can't blame him, but really--"Star Wars," "Kingdom of Heaven," and now "Batman Begins"? Next up, it's gratifying to see Gary Oldman portraying a good guy for a change as Sgt. James Gordon, and Oldman has played so many Americans in films it's hard to remember that he's British. Cillian Murphy is perfectly cast as the slimy Dr. Jonathan Crane, alias the Scarecrow; but make no mistake, the villains are not any more superhuman than Batman is. The Scarecrow works his mischief with a crude burlap mask and a powerful hallucinogen. Then, there's Tom Wilkinson as a ruthless crime boss, Rutger Hauer as a scheming business partner, and Ken Watanabe as a shadowy cult figure, all equally up to the task. Even Katie Holmes as Bruce Wayne's romantic interest (the romance admittedly taking a backseat to the rest of the story) is fine, although she appears too young to be the Assistant District Attorney of a major city.
In a nod to "Batman Begins" fitting into the world of the earlier films as well as the comic books (several minor but notable inconsistencies aside), I liked the way Nolan ends his tale with a signal of things to come in subsequent installments. Without giving too much away, the ending tells us about the construction of a new Batcave; Sgt. Gordon's becoming Lt. Gordon, suggesting a Commissioner Gordon in the future; and, most important, the escape of a whole passel of inmates from the Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane, foreshadowing the various loonies dressing up in costume to commit their evildoings, one in particular who at the scene of his crimes leaves his calling card, a Joker.
OK, did I have any misgivings about this new venture? Of course, but I didn't find them severe enough to spoil my enthusiasm for the movie. First, I found director Nolan's fondness for close-ups and quick edits a bit off-putting, not only in the fight scenes but throughout the picture. Nolan probably uses so many of these devices because he believes they involve the audience more in the action and, just as likely, because he believes people expect this of an action film. As far as I can tell, this was Nolan's first outright adventure movie, and while he does a superb job moving things forward, it is clear he's feeling his way along like anybody else.
Next, there's James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer's score that tries hard to recall Danny Elfman's original "Batman" music without actually duplicating it. The new score succeeds mainly in sounding louder and less inspired than before, reminding us once again how unique Elfman's music was. However, I won't complain too much since the new score does have an epic, heroic sweep that grows on a person, especially as the film wears on.
Then there's the matter of the villains, something I mentioned earlier as primarily a plus. What I didn't mention is the lesser problem that "Batman Begins" offers us a layering of villains throughout rather than a single dominant force. Although I can understand how the surprise factor in using multiple evildoers can keep an audience on edge, I also feel it tends to water down our fear of any one scoundrel, particularly when we don't know who is at the top of the hierarchy.
Still, these are minor quibbles in a film that succeeded in keeping my attention from beginning to end. I've seen it a record (for me) seven times now in three years--twice in a regular theater, once in IMAX, once on SD DVD, twice on HD-DVD--and now in Blu-ray. And you know what? I look forward to watching it again.
I spent the better part of an hour comparing the picture quality of the Blu-ray and HD DVD editions of this movie, both of them using VC-1/1080p transfers, the Blu-ray on a dual-layer BD50, the HD DVD on a dual-layer HD30. I first compared still pictures from each disc, pausing at the beginning of chapters and switching back-and-forth. Then I did the same thing with moving pictures, again switching to-and-fro. At one point, I put on my reading glasses and examined the screen from about eight inches away. I must have looked at the same spot on the same wallpaper fifty times, checking both versions for sharpness and clarity. In the end, I had to conclude that if Warner Bros. did anything different with the Blu-ray transfer, they pretty much fooled me. After all this, an audio-video insider friend assured me that the Blu-ray transfer is a direct port of the HD DVD release, so the two versions should, indeed, be identical.
No doubt any minute differences I may have noticed were so miniscule they have to have been characteristics of the two disc players I was using (a Panasonic BD30 and a Toshiba A35) rather than differences in the transfers themselves. So, if you already own the HD DVD version, there is little reason to replace it. In any case, the BD screen size measures the same 2.40:1 ratio as the HD DVD, with the same pleasing delineation, rich and radiant colors, solid contrasts, and well-detailed textures. The fact is, both versions of "Batman Begins"--Blu-ray and HD DVD--look almost as good as anything I've seen in either format. Yes, it's a dark film, but inner nuances are still good, even in duskier sections of the screen, and black levels are inky black on my CRT television.
Incidentally, I've read the criticisms leveled at Warner engineers for supposedly using too much DNR on the encode to clean up grain, in the process smoothing over detail and softening some of the image. I dunno. It's true the movie appeared to have more grain when I saw it originally in IMAX, but that giant screen exaggerates everything. In a regular theater, the movie seemed very clean. I think both of WB's high-def transfers look good. Facial features are a bit soft, as I've said in previous reviews, but most things are in fairly sharp focus compared to practically every other high-def movie I've watched, and the overall video quality is quite attractive.
The Blu-ray disc makes the English audio available in lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 and regular Dolby Digital 5.1. Either way, it is as good as the video. In Dolby Digital, I found big dynamic contrasts and a robust deep bass. In Dolby TrueHD I found a small but noticeable improvement in sonic quality. In TrueHD the dynamic surges and impact, pinpoint surround activity, taut bass, extended frequency response, realistic clarity, and wide, open feeling of depth and breadth are more prominent than ever. Yes, I also spent a few minutes comparing the TrueHD tracks on the Blu-ray and HD DVD discs, and again I found no discernable differences. There is no reason I can think of for either of the TrueHD tracks to sound any better than the other, and they don't.
Remember, though, that on both the BD and HD DVD discs the default settings are regular Dolby Digital. As happens more often than I like to admit, I was ten or fifteen minutes into the movie before I thought to switch over to TrueHD. I wish that owners could set their players or receivers to automatically detect and play back the best available audio codecs, but as yet most equipment doesn't work that way, and it's usually up to absentminded fellows like me to remember to do it. Oh, well....
The bonus features on the Blu-ray Limited Edition Giftset include everything found on the HD DVD and more.
The first major item on the disc itself is the In-Movie Experience, which basically replaces a regular audio commentary. The filmmakers take you behind the scenes as you're watching the film, providing small image inserts, comics, special effects, and the like, all on screen along the way. Because it took a while to develop the capability for Blu-ray to reproduce this feature and because Warner Bros. apparently didn't want to release the Blu-ray disc without it, the studio postponed the BD edition for some time. Now that it's here, it's worth the wait, unless, as I say, you already own the HD DVD. (Note, though, that you must use a BD player with BonusView or BD-Live capability in order to access this extra.)
After the "In-Movie Experience" you'll find another exclusive high-def bonus, the first six-and-a-half minutes of the IMAX "Prologue" (16x9) to the movie's sequel, "The Dark Knight," in high definition.
Following the "Prologue" is a section of "Additional Footage" that contains "Reflections on Writing Batman Begins" with David S. Goyer, two minutes; "Digital Batman," the effects you may have missed, a little over one minute; and "Batman Begins Stunts," two minutes.
The longest section is called "Beyond the Story," which includes eleven sections. There is MTV's "Tankman Begins," a cute parody lasting about five minutes, integrating scenes from the movie with added shots of Jimmy Fallon and a surprise guest. Next is "Batman: The Journey Begins," a fourteen-minute documentary on the development and casting of the film. It's typical of such making-of documentaries, with comments from the director and filmmakers, plus excerpts from the movie. After that is "Shaping Mind and Body," twelve minutes on Christian Bale's transformation into Batman. Then it's "Gotham City Rises," twelve minutes on the creation of Gotham City, the Batcave, Wayne Manor, and more. Following that is "Cape and Cowl," eight minutes on the development of the new Batsuit; "Batman: The Tumbler," thirteen minutes on the reinvention of the Batmobile; "Path to Discovery," a fourteen-minute look at the first week of filming in Iceland; "Saving Gotham City," thirteen minutes on the miniatures, CGI, and effects for the monorail chase scene; and "Genesis of the Bat," a fourteen-minute look at the Dark Knight's incarnation and influences on the film.
The extras on the disc conclude with "Confidential Files," which lists and explains "Hardware," "Enemies," and "Allies and Mentors" in the story; a stills gallery; forty scene selections (but no chapter insert); and a widescreen theatrical trailer. There are English, French, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Portuguese spoken languages; English, French, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Portuguese subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
As usual with a Warner Bros. Blu-ray disc, this one also includes pop-up menus, bookmarks, and an indicator of elapsed time.
In addition to the Blu-ray disc, the Limited Edition Giftset contains several other fun items. Foremost, there is what WB call "lenticular" artwork. I guess this is what I would call a 5" x 7" holographic photograph, and it is startlingly realistic in its 3D depth. Then, there are five collectable postcards, also 5" x 7"; a thirty-two-page booklet containing script pages, storyboards, and film stills from "The Dark Knight" prologue; a sixteen-page DC Comics adaptation of "The Dark Knight" prologue; and a coupon worth up to $7.50 to see "The Dark Knight." OK. You're getting the idea that the "Batman Begins" giftset heavily promotes "The Dark Knight." Life could be worse.
Is "Batman Begins" the best superhero film of all time? I have no idea. But is it entertaining? You bet. There have been few films over the years I liked well enough to watch as many times as I have watched this one, with the story and characters holding up each time. I found the movie creative, energetic, imaginative, involving, and even a little inspiring. Its edgy tone and dark atmosphere coupled with its comic-book theatrics make it a winning combination for older children and adults alike. If this Blu-ray version can't sell the film to a whole new group of home-theater buffs, nothing can.