BATMAN - DVD review

...the yardstick by which all subsequent Batman movies are measured.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

"You ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?" --Jack Nicholson, "Batman"

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 and movie 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 upcoming 1989 motion picture, "Batman," and my wife and I stood in line on opening day. We weren't disappointed. 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 high camp, but this one provided all the right ingredients its fans had always been hoping 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 line. I mean, the only part of Batman's face we see beneath the mask is the square jaw, so I expected someone more rugged and masculine--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 case Jack Napier, the Joker. "So much to do, and so little time." Because of his status in the Hollywood hierarchy, Nicholson would receive top billing, an odd circumstance given that the movie is titled "Batman" but an understandable factor 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 Nicholson is given too much screen time and 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 (although I'm not as enamored about 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 all subsequent "Batman" movies are measured. Rightly so.

"Batman" was one of the first handful of DVDs to appear with the introduction of DVD players in 1997, and it was one of the first three discs I ever bought. The other two were "Blade Runner" and "The Wizard of Oz," all from Warner Bros. A comparison of the video quality between the old "Batman" transfer and the new Special Edition indicates the same image size, 1.85:1, but a higher bit rate for the new one results in deeper, richer colors and a very slightly sharper image. While the old transfer was anamorphic and enhanced for widescreen TVs, just as the Special Edition is, there's just that bit more definition in the new transfer. You will find very low levels of grain and the merest hint of soft murkiness remaining in the darker scenes, elements that may have been present on the original film stock. Strong black levels ensure a solid picture and set off the rest of the colors, with facial tones looking especially realistic. The only thing missing in the video department is the pan-and-scan presentation offered on the old disc, a welcome change.

"Batman" used an early Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, which still works well. The overall tonal balance is particularly natural, and sounds from the left, right, and rear speakers are subtle enough to embellish the listening experience without engulfing it. Bass and sonic impact are more than adequate, but don't expect the kind of spectacular sonics you will find in 2005's "Batman Begins." One of our more audiophile-minded readers will want to write in and tell us how the set's DTS 5.1 soundtrack holds up.

It was about time Warner Bros. gave this movie a special-edition treatment after all these years. Disc one of the two-disc Special Edition contains the feature presentation; thirty-eight scene selections but no chapter insert; English and French spoken languages; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles. In addition, you'll find a widescreen theatrical trailer and 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.

There isn't a lot the producers of any special-edition DVD can do (documentaries, featurettes, interviews, stills galleries, behind-the-scenes stuff) that we haven't seen done before, but the WB folks give it good shot, anyway, with a lengthy and varied assortment of bonus items. Disc two begins with "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." Next 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. After that is 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 in order is "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. Each of the titles is self-explanatory, and as with all the groups of features, there is a "Play-All" link for easy access. Then, there are two more galleries: "The Heroes of Batman," including short chapters of one-to-five minutes on Batman, Vicki Vale, Alexander Knox, Commissioner Gordon, and Harvey Dent; and "The Villains of Batman," 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; and "Batman: The Complete Robin Storyboard Sequence," a four-minute animated segment.

Parting Thoughts:
The "Batman" Special Edition is available individually or as a part of a big box set, "Batman: The Motion Picture Anthology 1989-1997," that also contains two-disc editions of Burton's "Batman Returns" (1992), again with Michael Keaton, a creepy affair I've never cared much for; Joel Schumacher's "Batman Forever" (1995), with Val Kilmer's Batman the best thing about it (Batman creator Bob Kane said Kilmer was his favorite actor in the role); and Schumacher's highly disappointing "Batman & Robin" (1997), starring a curiously bland George Clooney, that derailed the series for the better part of a decade.

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. Everyone will have his or her favorite "Batman" movies, to be sure, and for me they are the original "Batman" and the newer "Batman Begins," albeit for different reasons. Their commonalities, though, are what count: their dark tone and their strict adherence to the rules of the worlds they create. These movies are fun, exciting, resourceful, daring, and inspiring; and Burton's "Batman" is the template for all the superhero movies to come after it.


Film Value