After 80 years in print, the DC Comics Dark Knight, the Batman, is still going incredibly strong. Whether you are an avid comic reader or primarily stick to the broadcast iterations, there’s likely a story that immediately endeared the bereft Caped Crusader to you. For some, it’s 1996 Jeph Loeb miniseries The Long Halloween, where Batman faces off against the murderous Holiday amid a gang war for control of Gotham. For others, it’s the infamous 1988 one-shot The Killing Joke from Alan Moore, which not only presents the events which forced Barbara Gordon to shift her abilities from foot soldier to online warrior, but also highlights the deep connection between Batman and his eternal nemesis. For this writer, Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman will always hold a special place. It’s not only the first film seen in theaters without an adult, but it’s the first time a “Wham!” or “Pow!” wasn’t included with every blow, yet, even at its most dark, it still remained comical. However, it’s the 1993 series Knightfall, which introduced the brilliant and strong Bane, the only villain to defeat Batman’s mind and break his body, which instilled a fascination with the caped crusader. As someone who grew up watching reruns of the Adam West-headlined television show and reading Superman comics, this story shook me. Superman might be the best version of humanity, but Batman is the strongest in terms of will and mental acuity. Thankfully, I always had Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman to go back to and see Bats rise victorious again. That is, of course until Batman: The Animated Series took its top spot as the premiere depiction of Batman in all of broadcast, thanks to the great stories and the now iconic voice work from actor Kevin Conroy. In short, we all come to Batman in our own way, in our own time. As Batman reaches his 80th anniversary, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment is releasing the previously dubbed Batman: The Motion Picture Anthology 1989-1997 for the first time in 4K UHD, which includes a new audio mix specifically for Dolby Atmos.
Be advised: the only special features included on the UHD discs are audio/language controls and commentary from each respective director. The remaining lengthy special features are attached to the Blu-ray discs, which are identical to the ones included in the 2005 Batman: The Motion Picture Anthology 1989-1997 home release. Based on the promotional material from Warner Bros. Home Entertainment, there are more than 17 hours of special features across all four films.
1989 Batman directed by Tim Burton
“How you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?”
Considering the current fandom climate, it’s worth mentioning that while many hold Michael Keaton’s debut performance as Bruce Wayne/Batman to be tip top ( this writer included), the announcement of his casting in the roll was met with public dissatisfaction. In hindsight, the concerns were largely unfounded and the film is judged by its merits, of which it has plenty. Not only does Burton capture the feeling of a modern, yet classically gothic Gotham City, he also features a version of Batman who’s as focused on fighting crime with his fists as he is doing so with his mind. Watching Bruce unravel mysteries is part of what marks Batman as the great detective and is something that has been placed to the side or taken for granted in later depictions. Additionally, the Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren script found a way to make the mysterious Joker directly connect to Bruce which didn’t diminish the ferocity of their conflict. In fact, the presentation of The Joker here became one of the defining live-action cinematic characterizations until Heath Ledger in 2008.
As for the format, UHD remastering not only enhances colors, but makes the previously flat presentation in the BD, DVD, and VHS releases appear more dimensional. Consider the fundraiser scene when Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) meets Bruce (Michael Keaton) for the first time. Set within Wayne Mannor, the UHD remaster presents a scene more appropriate to the intent: a moment of decadence as the Gotham elite mingle and gamble in the name of raising funds for Gotham’s 200th Anniversary. The grainy browns and golds now feel warmer, more accurately conveying the richness of the room literally and metaphorically. Later, during the first musical number, “Partyman,” two very noticeable differences are present. The first is in the appearance of the gas Joker (Jack Nicolson) vents into the art museum. A light purple, almost a grey, in the previous releases is now a deeper purple, presenting a clearer tie to the Clown Prince of Crime’s visual motif. In this same scene, as he and his men vandalize several works of art on their way toward Vikki, the henchmen are clearly wearing purple leather jackets, whereas prior releases suggested a dark navy or black. These are little details, but that’s where the UHD packs the most punch, not in making a film look like it was shot in today’s standards, but in ensuring that it’s presented in the way it was intended. This means making the colors more vibrant in small ways without detracting from the overall aesthetic.
One questionable side effect of the UHD remaster occurs within the same “Partyman” sequence. If the audience knows where to look, the prosthetic application Nicolson wears is plainly visible whereas it seems more hidden in the prior releases. This could be due to the enhanced imagery or something intentional finally being brought to light. Keep in mind that in this sequence Joker is wearing make-up to cover his pearl-white skin. So either it was always intended to seem somewhat apparent that Joker’s covering something up or it’s just something unearthed by the enhanced image. In checking other scenes, particularly the well-lit “Trust” sequence during the parade near the finale, the application lines are less apparent.
1992 Batman Returns directed by Tim Burton
There are some which possess a deep fondness for Burton’s return to Gotham. It’s a Christmas tale (the auteur’s favorite time of year for storytelling) in which Batman battles corporate greed while fending off the Penguin and Catwoman. There’s a lot going on in this film and not all of it works. Certainly, the kinks present in the first film – Batman’s lack of mobility in the cap and cowl, for example – don’t seem to have been dealt with, so when the sequel demands bigger and better, Batman’s response is atypically stiff, even if it does give off a touch of intimidation as Batman stands stiff against his assailants. While the storyline begins and ends with Oswald Cobblepot, Penguin’s alias, Batman Returns is at its strongest when focused on the rise of Catwoman via poor Selina Kyle’s mental breakdown. Returning writer Sam Hamm’s and newcomer Daniel Waters’s script made an enormous departure from Selina’s cat burglary background and made something more rich as a result. Tired of being taken advantage of and pushed around, not to mention bouncing back after being murdered, Catwoman is a spirit of vengeance which would be right at home in present stories.
There are many who ride hard for Batman Returns and if you’re one of them, you’ll enjoy this enhanced edition of the film all the more.
The changes to the anthology really start being noticeable with Returns. The omnipresent grains on the previous release is lessened and the harsh black-white contrast over much of the film is color-shifted to include more blues. That means the morose opening sequence loses some of the starkness to let a colder feel seep into the frames. With the film taking place in December, that cold hue lingers throughout. This creates a lovely contrast in other areas, specifically in Selina’s home. In the Blu-ray release, her apartment’s painted in a shade of pink, whereas the remaster lends to a lighter red, one which takes on the appropriate menace when Selina shifts into her Catwoman persona. Much like Batman, the colors in Returns are what make the big difference from one iteration to another and will certainly be the biggest draw for most cinephiles. For instance, in the holiday party sequence where Selina and Bruce accidently out themselves to each other, Selina’s dress is now a beautiful deep emerald, backlit by a room showered in a golden hue. There’s a richness and depth in the costuming and scenery that is better displayed in this version which make the scene more grounded as it becomes more personally treacherous for the burgeoning lovers.
1995 Batman Forever directed by Joel Schumacher
“Riddle me this. Riddle me that. Who’s afraid of the big black bat?”
This is another entry in the anthology with its detractors, of which this writer is not one. Schumacher’s neon lights mixed with a gothic aesthetic made for a strange pairing, sure, but it worked beautifully to highlight the narrative’s theme of duality. From the city to the villains and even to the hero who takes on a partner, Forever tackles the present and past to conceive of a future. Does it always work? Nope. It’s very much a product of its time, especially with the very Jim Carrey performance making Edward Nygma more jokester than mercurial. He’d been on a hot streak with The Mask, Dumb and Dumber, and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, and this film let him bring all of that energy to the role. This approach made the dangerous Nygma less of an equal to Batman’s brain, but the film takes advantage of another cerebral enemy to fill that gap and finds opportunities for Bruce to solve some puzzles. The inclusion of Two-Face serves mostly to give the Riddler someone to partner with and give a name to the kind of hyper-violence a neon-drenched Gotham enables. In short, it’s never a bad time to watch Tommy Lee Jones chew some scenery. Even if audiences will never know what it means to get a kiss from a rose on the grey, there’s never a doubt that the third film in the anthology leaves an impression.
Where Burton’s films feature scenes decorated and lit with restraint, leaving the outlandishness to his characters, Schumacher goes all in on everything. Even with all the neon in Forever, the world never felt in-balance with the aesthetic. One could argue that it’s intended to mess the seriousness of Burton’s Gotham with the ‘60s vibe of the Adam West television show. What results is a visual representation of Nygma more washed out than his loud personality and Two-Face got the best of both. In the remaster, however, you can really see the details, like Nygma’s red hair flowing out from under his helmet as he tests out The Box on his Wayne Enterprises boss. Though the flashier moments, like the raid on Nygma’s lighthouse at the end, don’t seem to take as much advantage of the color boost, the smaller moments in the film do make a greater impression. It’s not just the red in Nygma’s hair, it’s Doctor Meridian’s (Nicole Kidman) office as she meets with Bruce (Val Kilmer taking his turn under the cowl in a performance that gets far more flack than it should) which feels more like an actual space than a set. Like in Batman at the fundraiser, the remaster removes some of the feel of set dressing by injecting depth via richer color. Everything feels more tangible and less prop-focused.
1997 Batman & Robin directed by Joel Schumacher
“Alright, everyone. Chill.”
Strangely, Schumacher’s final outing, and the last Batman film until 2005’s Batman Begins, receives the most ire out of this series. For some, it’s George Clooney taking on the lead with a performance which, while not Oscar-worthy, does nail the charming, boyish imp side of Bruce Wayne. For others, it’s the way the script by Akiva Goldsman reduces a strong female character – Poison Ivy, played with the perfect amount of cheek by Uma Thurman – into more of a sex kitten, while also making a prime Batman villain – Bane – into nothing more than a mindless henchman. The one thing that is agreed upon is the Bat-nipples. They’re glaringly unnecessary and symbolic of a film more interested in spectacle than substance. Batman & Robin seems to want to bridge the gap between Adam West-era camp and modern cinema, but it never quite makes the leap.
Of the entire bunch, Batman & Robin seems like the obvious one for the UHD upgrade. Between Mr. Freeze’s (Arnold Schwarzenegger) glittery skin and the decadent reds and lush greens which surround Ivy, not to mention Robin’s (Chris O’Donnell returning) own red robin color scheme, there’s no place where color doesn’t seem to shine, glow, or protrude. Interestingly, this isn’t where the remaster stands out. Not specifically. It’s not in the color itself, but in the way it’s presented. Freeze’s cold blue shifts to more of an ice blue, making him appear more like the Snow Miser, a character Freeze seems to idolize for reasons which only make sense in a less realistic and more exaggerated cartoon-like way. Similarly, the scene of Thurman’s Pamela Isley’s death is overgrown with green haze which shifts to red during her rebirth as Poison Ivy. Most of the grain is gone in the remaster, making the respective scenes of transforming from something gruesome into something dangerously lush more visibly attractive.
Remastering the Batman: The Motion Picture Anthology 1989-1997 into the 4K UHD combo packs will result in an instant buy for some and a more hesitant one for others. The fact that there’s nothing new in the special features is a bit of a downer, but there’s no denying that the films themselves – however you feel about them – look brand new. In many cases, the subtle changes in the color generate new interpretations of the scenes compared to when they were originally presented. Selina’s return home after her failed murder is comedically dark when the room is pink, yet the transformative hellishness of her ordeal becomes far more apparent with the slight shift in color tone to red. The details can make a movie and these remasters enhance every one.
Each film is available as individual UHD combo-packs beginning June 4th online and in-stores. A four-film UHD collection is coming on September 17th, available for pre-order now.