"You ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?"
--Jack Nicholson, "Batman"
For those high-def fans who loved the first of Tim Burton's "Batman" films but didn't care as much for the second one and probably loathed the next two after that, Warner Bros. have an answer. It's the 20th Anniversary Blu-ray Book edition of "Batman," complete with hardcover Digibook and bonus digital copy. Of course, if you already own the multi-disc "Batman" Blu-ray anthology, this new edition is superfluous. But for those folks who want the one movie only, this edition makes an attractive proposition.
When I was a kid in the early Fifties I'd read the occasional Bob Kane "Batman" comic book, preferring the dark look of the superhero and his exploits to Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's more sanitized "Superman" of the day. In the Sixties I generally hated the corny "Batman" TV series that trivialized the "Batman" idea and made everyone and everything in the stories the objects of ridicule.
Then I heard good things about Tim Burton's 1989 motion picture, "Batman," and my wife and I stood in line on opening day. It didn't disappoint us. Sure, Nicholson's Joker was over-the-top, but for the most part, the characters were back where they belonged--in serious film noir. Not that the series wouldn't slip back into schlock before "Batman Begins" resurrected the franchise once again, but this one provided all the right ingredients its fans had always hoped for.
There are any number of reasons why "Batman" works so well, not the least of which was Burton's decision to make it as dark and realistic as possible, while still maintaining a comic-book sensibility. It isn't an easy task to convince anybody but the most die-hard superhero fan that a crime-fighter in a bat suit could really be swinging from one building to the next in a fictional Gotham City. But Burton manages the feat by making us believe in the characters, believe in their ambitions, and believe in their plights. He helps us suspend our disbelief by creating a noirish atmosphere reminiscent of the best Hollywood films of the forties and fifties and the best graphic novels of the Eighties and beyond: dark, shadowy rooms; dark, rain-swept streets; dark, smoke-filled alleys. Even Wayne Manor has a dark, brooding aspect to it.
Next, there's the matter of Michael Keaton in the starring role. Michael Keaton? When I first read he was playing the part, I could hardly find it credible. I thought it was a joke. After all, wasn't he the fellow from "Night Shift," "Mr. Mom," "Johnny Dangerously," and "Beetlejuice," all comedic roles? Was this to be another farce like the old television show? Why not Don Rickles as Batman? Made as much sense. Then I watched the movie and found Keaton almost perfect. No, he didn't fit my mental picture of Bruce Wayne; not enough muscle and not a firm-enough jaw. I mean, the only part of Batman's face we see beneath the mask is the square jaw, so I expected someone more rugged--someone more like Adam West. Yet Keaton brings to the role far more than a superhero's physique. He is a genuinely complex and tortured soul beneath the cape, a character whose motivations are always in question, if never disparaged. In short, Keaton proves a far better dramatic actor than anyone might have thought, and it is his portrayal as much as anything else in the movie that makes us accept the "Batman" universe as a part of the everyday.
Countering Keaton's Batman is superstar Jack Nicholson as the psycho nut job Jack Napier, The Joker. "So much to do, and so little time." Because of his status in the Hollywood hierarchy, Nicholson received top billing, an odd circumstance given the movie's title but an understandable one considering Nicholson's marketability. Needless to say, Nicholson plays his character as broadly as possible and, depending on your point of view, either steals the show or ruins it. Like most viewers, I've always rather liked Nicholson's creation, the flip side of Bruce Wayne, both masked, one good, the other evil; even if I think Burton gives Nicholson too much screen time, which takes away from the otherwise semi-realistic tone of the picture. "Do I look like I'm joking?" Then, too, it's The Joker and his shenanigans that almost sink the movie in the last half hour of bedlam, as things get more and more exaggerated. "Batman" fans live with it.
The movie's supporting cast do their part as well. Kim Basinger as Vicki Vale, the photographer on Batman's trail and the eventual love interest for Bruce Wayne, is sexy and convincing. Robert Wuhl as Alexander Knox, a reporter out to unmask the flying bat, is appropriately cheeky and lightens the mood of the proceedings. Pat Hingle and Billy Dee Williams look good in their roles as Commissioner Gordon and District Attorney Dent, but they go largely unused in the film. Jack Palance as crime boss Carl Grissom is on screen for only a few minutes, but he is the only actor to come close to upstaging Nicholson. And Michael Gough as Alfred the butler is the perfect gentleman's gentleman.
Burton's ingenuity, Keaton's and Nicholson's star turns, and the excellent supporting cast would go for naught, however, if it weren't for Anton Furst's production design and Peter Young's set decoration, which combined for an Academy Award; Roger Pratt's cinematography; and Danny Elfman's original music (but maybe not Prince's song contributions). One look at and one listen to this movie's opening sequence alone, and you know it's "Batman," a unique work of considerable influence and imagination. Silly touches aside, like the overambitious Batmobile and Batplane, this movie is the yardstick by which we have measured all subsequent "Batman" films.
Although Warner Bros. use a dual-layer BD50 and a VC-1 encode to reproduce the film in 1080p high definition, there are noticeable differences in various parts of the movie's visual quality. It isn't at all bad, although one has to wonder about the director's intent in the original print. There is more than a modicum of natural grain in the darker scenes, and detail and delineation can run the course between sharp and polished on the one hand and dull, soft, and veiled on the other. Part of the problem is that Burton probably meant his film to look misty and dark, and it's certainly that, with a dull sheen over some of the sequences. Yet in brighter shots, the picture is crystal clear. Overall, despite the occasional softness, it looks pretty good.
WB audio engineers provide both lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 and regular, lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks. I listened in TrueHD, which firms up and smoothes out the sound better than the regular DD 5.1. Still, the audio is somewhat rough and edgy, with relatively little information in the surround channels beyond some musical ambience enhancement. Bass is also a mite restricted, and dynamic impact can vary from one action scene to the next. The sound can roar when it wants to, but it's a bit coarse and hard in the process. It's OK, but don't expect the kind of spectacular sonics found in later series entries like "Batman Begins" or "The Dark Knight."
Disappointingly, the bonus materials on this Blu-ray disc come in standard definition only. Ah, well, it's still good to have everything from the two-disc Special Edition DVD on a single Blu-ray disc. First up, we find an audio commentary by director Tim Burton. Although Burton will never win any awards as a public speaker, his remarks are candid and enlightening in a sometimes halting, purely improvisatory way. Equally important, when he has nothing to say, he has the good sense to say nothing, something that doesn't seem to stop many other, more-loquacious commentators.
Next, we get "Legends of the Dark Knight: The History of Batman," a forty-minute documentary that takes us all the way back to the 1930s and is as much a history of the comic-book form as it is of "Batman." After that comes "On the Set with Bob Kane," two minutes of comments by the creator of "Batman." It's basically a short promo, but it's fun hearing from Kane, who died in 1998. Then, there's a series of three featurettes called "Shadows of the Bat: The Cinematic Saga of the Dark Knight," recounting the production of the "Batman" movies. They include "The Road to Gotham City," seventeen minutes; "The Gathering Storm," twenty-one minutes; and "The Legend Reborn," thirty minutes.
Following that, we have "Beyond Batman," another gallery of short featurettes, six of them in all, taking us behind the scenes. These include "Visualizing Gotham: The Production Design of Batman," ten minutes; "Building the Batmobile," nine minutes; "Those Wonderful Toys: The Props and Gadgets of Batman," six minutes; "Designing the Batsuit," seven minutes; "From Jack to The Joker," ten minutes; and "Nocturnal Overtures: The Music of Batman," seven minutes. Then, there are two more galleries: "Batman: The Heroes," including short chapters of one-to-five minutes on Batman, Vicki Vale, Alexander Knox, Commissioner Gordon, and Harvey Dent; and "Batman: The Villains," profiling The Joker and his henchman, Bob the goon.
Finally, there are three music videos by Prince: "Batdance," "Partyman," and "Scandalous," four-to-five minutes each; "Batman: The Complete Robin Storyboard Sequence," a four-minute animated segment; and a theatrical trailer.
"Batman" comes with a digital copy disc (stored separately from the Digibook), compatible with iTunes and Windows Media devices; English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, and Portuguese spoken languages; English, French, Spanish, Chinese, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, German, Italian, Korean, Norwegian, Portuguese, and Swedish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
The high-definition movie disc comes housed in the back of a handsome, fifty-page, hardbound Digibook, with color pictures, illustrations, cast and director biographies, text essays, script excerpts, and comic adaptations. Very impressive.
We can be thankful for Burton's "Batman" for reinvigorating the idea of the superhero on the big screen and encouraging the series of "Batman" films that followed, even if some them were not very good. Everyone will have his or her favorite "Batman" movie, to be sure, and for me they are the original "Batman" and the newer Nolan films, albeit for different reasons. Their commonalities, though, are what count: their dark tone and their adherence to the rules of the fantasy worlds they create.