When Tim Burton's BATMAN premiered in 1989, I thought that there would be no way in hell that any film could live up to the amount of hype that preceded this particular production. However, I went to the theater on opening day, and much to my amazement, BATMAN exceeded all the hype and was a grand, highly theatrical, visual masterpiece. Taking his queue from the bleak, dark nature of Frank Miller's ingenious THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, Burton and writer Sam Hamm found a way to get under Batman's skin and retrofit the old comic book character. With BATMAN, Burton and Hamm not only re-invented the myth of The Batman; they also re-invented the universe where his caped crusader would fight injustice. In Burton's Gotham City, Batman is not a one-dimensional, square jawed comic hero fighting evil wherever he finds it. This Batman is a man with emotional problems who combats evil as a way of combating his own personal demons. Burton and Hamm made the material fresh by applying some psychology; allowing the audience to see just what made his characters tick. BATMAN not only explores the deep-seated psychological problems of its hero, but it delves equally as far into the psychosis of The Joker. In this vision, Batman and The Joker are nothing more than inverted mirror images of each other.
At the time, Michael Keaton was a controversial choice to fill the role of Bruce Wayne and Batman. However, when one looks at what Burton and Hamm were trying to achieve with this cinematic interpretation, Keaton was the ideal Batman because he could portray the character’s inner turmoil, as well as be believable as an ordinary guy that needed to put body armor on at night to fight crime. Putting Jack Nicholson in the role of The Joker was a trump card that virtually guaranteed commercial success for BATMAN. This decision also proved to have a great deal of artistic merit for this particular production. Nicholson is such an enormous screen presence that he has the ability to overwhelm any project on which he is working. In BATMAN, Nicholson was allowed to go out of control, taking the character of The Joker completely over the top. This not only overwhelmed the film, but seemed at first glance to make Batman a secondary character. Upon repeated viewings one will find that as much as Nicholson's performance is allowed to go out of control, Keaton is restrained, remaining totally in control of both Batman and Bruce Wayne. Thus reinforcing the thin line that separates the similar, yet polar opposite natures of Batman and The Joker.
Both main characters have dual natures, that when looked at a whole, don't really add up to complete characters. Bruce Wayne became Batman (who is nothing more than a high-tech vigilante working outside the law) because he was searching for a sense of completion by fighting against the injustice that he was powerless to stop during his childhood, when a young Jack Napier murdered his parents. Jack Napier is a through and through criminal, who was always a few cards shy of a complete deck. It's his disfigurement at the hands of Batman that drives him completely over the edge- transforming him into The Joker. Within Burton and Hamm's framework, the characters of Batman and The Joker are directly responsible for each other’s creation, but also prove to be incomplete without one another. The cast of BATMAN also features Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Pat Hingle, Billy Dee Williams, Michael Gough, Jack Palance, Jerry Hall, Tracey Walter, Lee Wallace and William Hootkins.
BATMAN RETURNS is a film that I like quite a bit, but as a fan, even I have to admit that the movie does have some flaws. The biggest flaw in BATMAN RETURNS is the fact that was neither of the primary screen villains can compete with Jack Nicholson for sheer screen presence. Unfortunately, Michelle Pfeiffer plus Danny DeVito do not add up to one Jack Nicholson. Another problem with BATMAN RETURNS is the story. Without Nicholson's Joker as a strong central focus, putting Batman up against two rivals may have looked good on paper. But, this approach backfires on the screen, because the screenplay tries to squeeze too many characters into the story without allowing any of them to fully develop. The entire Penguin story could have been jettisoned, and in its place, the love/hate relationship between Batman and Catwoman should have been more fully explored.
Perhaps the reason the Penguin story doesn't work in the context of the movie, is that Christopher Walken’s Max Shreck is a much more memorable character. Walken's Shreck is closer to reality, and comes off as a much more evil and fascinating villain. Also, Walken is the only actor in the movie who can even come close to filling Nicholson's shoes. Walken has a screen presence that allows him to walk away with all his scenes in BATMAN RETURNS, even though his character is completely underwritten. Another strike against the Penguin story is that the character doesn't really work within the universe that Burton had established with the first film. In BATMAN, both the hero and the villain were individuals with deep psychological scars, who developed their dual natures as a result of their inner turmoil. In this regard, the Penguin is a cheat; he is a freak of nature, whose problems stem from the external, not the internal. The Penguin's dual nature is in name only, since he has a dual identity, but only one distinct personality.
While BATMAN RETURNS doesn't function as a whole, Burton has managed to create individual sequences that are standouts. The pre-credit sequence, featuring Paul Reubens and Diane Salinger, showing the origins of Oswald Cobblepot/The Penguin is one of the film's highlights. Burton is easily able to make the pre-credit sequence one of the film's most effective, because aside from sound effects and some superfluous dialogue, it is silent. Without the hindrance of dialogue, Burton can enter his domain and assert his visual brilliance. Within this sequence, Burton combines melodrama, black humor and gothic horror so perfectly, that almost everything that follows the credits is something of a letdown by comparison. The only other sequence that approaches the same level of visual brilliance is the birth of Catwoman. Once again, Burton does his best work with a silent sequence. As the lifeless body of Selina Kyle lays in the gutter, it is stalked, and then set upon from every direction by a multitude of cats. The siege of cats upon Selina Kyle resurrects her as a phoenix rising from the ashes of her former life.
As I stated above, the love/hate relationship between Batman/Bruce Wayne and Catwoman/Selina Kyle is one of the best aspects of BATMAN RETURNS and should have expanded upon. Bruce and Selina have a romantic and touching relationship together; completely unaware of the sick depraved relationship they share together as Batman and Catwoman. Because of the weight of their dark halves, the relationship between Bruce and Selina would appear to be another of the tragic casualties of Burton's universe. However, in the film's final moments, Burton allows the element of hope to sneak in for the two with the coming of Christmas. Another truly outstanding aspect of BATMAN RETURNS is Bo Welch’s production design, which betters the work that of Academy Award winning work of Anton Furst on the first film. BATMAN RETURNS is truly a marvel to look at. The cast of BATMAN RETURNS also features Michael Gough, Michael Murphy, Cristi Conaway, Andrew Bryniarski, Pat Hingle, Vincent Schiavelli, Steve Witting, Jan Hooks, John Strong, Rick Zumwalt and Anna Katarina.
BATMAN FOREVER is the third film in Warner's highly profitable Batman franchise, and at the time it was released, it proved itself the most commercially accessible. Much of original director Tim Burton's dark vision has been eliminated, leaving this film more easily digestible for it's teenaged target audience. As the grosses indicated, audiences loved BATMAN FOREVER and guaranteed, yet another sequel. Fans of Tim Burton's BATMAN will be disappointed, even though his name remains on the film as producer. Director Joel Schumacher throws a dizzying array of pyrotechnics and stunts at the audience, never allowing them to catch their breath, nor analyze the film they are watching. BATMAN FOREVER may be a tremendous amount of goofy fun, but great cinema it is not. With a new director, and a new direction for the Batman series, BATMAN FOREVER also featured a new man under the mask. Val Kilmer replaced Michael Keaton, and while I'm sure this change was designed to set women's hearts aflutter, it does little to help the psychology of the character. Kilmer is a lot beefier than Keaton, which reduces the need of the character of Bruce Wayne to don the body armor plated Batsuit for a sense of empowerment. Kilmer is a likable actor, and fills the more two-dimensional role with ease.
Despite the loss of the artistic and psychological sensibilities that Tim Burton brought to the earlier BATMAN outings, I found myself enjoying BATMAN FOREVER as a live-action comic book. The plot of BATMAN FOREVER allows the Caped Crusader to go head to head against Two-Face and The Riddler. Tommy Lee Jones makes a marvelously over-the-top Two-Face, but unfortunately his character is afforded too little screen time. Jim Carrey essays the role of The Riddler, and unfortunately, is afforded far too much screen time. Carrey’s performance is best taken in small doses. After a while, his version of The Riddler tends to grate on one's nerves like fingernails on a chalkboard.
One big plus for BATMAN FOREVER is the casting of Nicole Kidman in the role of Dr. Chase Meridian. Kidman exudes sex appeal, and her kinky obsession for the man in black rubber adds just the right note to the Batman-Bruce Wayne-Chase Meridian love triangle. BATMAN FOREVER also introduces the Boy Wonder to the franchise. Obviously, Chris O'Donnell was selected for the role of Robin for the same reason Val Kilmer was chosen as the new Batman, his box office appeal for female audiences. Michael Gough returns to the role of Alfred, and lends just the right amount of dignity and humor to the character (it's a shame he didn't receive more screen time). Also returning is Pat Hingle as Commissioner Gordon. Drew Barrymore and Debi Mazar fill out the cast as Two-Face's molls Sugar and Spice. As for the plot (what little there is), The Riddler joins forces with Two-Face to destroy Batman and take over the world with 3-D television.
BATMAN & ROBIN
Filled with the "Bat Nipple" excesses of director Joel Schumacher, not to mention being saddled with a particularly weak script, BATMAN & ROBIN is was the film that killed the franchise born of Tim Burton’s dark vision. In some ways, Schumacher returned the Batman franchise to the campyness of the 60’s television series, but without out the wink and nod to the audience that BATMAN & ROBIN is supposed to be camp. Some things in BATMAN & ROBIN do work, but a lot of things don’t, so the resulting film is less than satisfying when taken on its own, and could be considered an outright disaster then held up in comparison to what Tim Burton had achieved with his films. Personally, I like George Clooney; he does a pretty decent job with the whole Bruce Wayne/Batman thing, but here, his Wayne definitely fares better than Bats. Actually, Clooney is a whole lot better than the script, but a lot of folks had a hard time accepting him as The Caped Crusader. Perhaps if Clooney were given something more to work with, he may have come off better with audiences. Chris O'Donnell returns to the role of Robin and comes off well enough in his second outing.
The plot of BATMAN & ROBIN puts the Dynamic Duo up against Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman); with the heroes seemingly receding into the background as the new villains get the build up. Unfortunately, the villains come off as more cartoonish than as an actual threat, which in the case of Mr. Freeze is a real waste of the character’s potential. Mr. Freeze is probably the most tragic of all the villains in the Batman catalogue, and I am sure a great movie could be made out of the tragedy… but this sure isn’t it. With Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze, the writers just feed the character a series of goofy, throwaway action movie lines to spew at the heroes, instead of trying to find and depth in the character. In its continued misguidedness, BATMAN & ROBIN also introduces Batgirl in the guise of Barbara Wilson (Alicia Silverstone), young niece to Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Gough). The addition does little to enhance the film. The cast of BATMAN & ROBIN also features Pat Hingle, John Glover, Elle Macpherson, Vivica A. Fox and Vendela K. Thomessen.
Warner Home Video has made the films that comprise BATMAN: THE MOTION PICTURE ANTHOLOGY 1989-1997 ($130) available on Blu-ray Disc in 1.78:1 aspect ratio presentations that have been encoded onto the discs with the VC-1 codec. The 1080p presentations are generally very good, but they are not perfect, owing to age, the limitations in their original cinematography and what was then state-of-the-art for visual effects creation. That said, each of these films look better on Blu-ray than they ever have before and are rendered with enhanced resolution and detail. As the oldest film, BATMAN is the least satisfying visually. BATMAN has a dark smoky look, as well as a numerous analog/optical effects, which does soften up the image to some degree. This is not to say that BATMAN looks bad in any way, it’s just that there are limitations in original production technique, which becomes more apparent in hi-def. Close-ups and shots without effects reproduce with the best level of clarity and detail and one really can appreciate Nicholson's prosthetic make-up for the first time, since it was up on the big screen. For my money, BATMAN RETURNS is the most beautiful film in the collection and renders with vastly improved clarity and image detail over its predecessor. As I mentioned above Bo Welches production design truly impresses and really comes into its own in high definition. Color reproduction is also improved in BATMAN RETURNS, but this has more to do with how colors are used in this film. BATMAN FOREVER is a good-looking film, but comes across a bit smokier and slightly less detailed film than BATMAN RETURNS. Joel Schumacher's visual excess really plays well in high definition, with some impressive moments, but there are minor inconsistencies from one sequence to the next. Colors really pop in this film, but that is reflective of Schumacher’s approach to the material. BATMAN & ROBIN improves upon the visual strengths of BATMAN FOREVER and delivers a more consistent and better-resolved presentation. Sure, some shots display a minor softness, but nothing seems out of sorts. Again, colors really pop, some of the costumes and sets come across as candy coated and really look great. Across the board, blacks are very deep, but not always at reference level. White are almost always crisp and stable. Contrast and shadow detail is variable from film to film, with the oldest film coming across as the weakest, but things significantly firm up on the second film and remain fairly stable in the final two. The elements from which each of the films have been mastered appear quite clean. Some grain is present in each of the presentations, but is less that I would have expected; indicating a bit of digital smoothing has been applied. However, I did not detect any overt waxiness to the appearance of the actors, so the application of any DNR is handled with restraint.
The films that comprise BATMAN: THE MOTION PICTURE ANTHOLOGY 1989-1997 are presented on Blu-ray Disc with 5.1 channel Dolby TrueHD soundtracks. Even with the lossless encoding, BATMAN remains a fairly dated sonic experience. Sound effects come across as a little canned and lack the intensity of new tracks, but Danny Elfman’s wonderful score fares much better, as do the Prince songs. There is a good spread to the outlying channels, but certainly not at the level that one finds in newer soundtracks. BATMAN RETURNS ups the ante significantly and comes across as a much better sounding film. Made a few scant years later, one can tell the mix is more sophisticated and comes closer to what newer tracks sound like. Sounds are spread through the soundstage in a more consistent and engaging manner. Again, Danny Elfman’s wonderful score benefits from the lossless encode. BATMAN FOREVER has a stronger, better-defined mix than its predecessor, with a fuller bottom end and a more effortless, full range sense of fidelity. No surprise here, as the newest film of the bunch, BATMAN & ROBIN has the best sounding soundtrack. The mix is the most modern, with the biggest soundstage and the greatest sense of envelopment, clearest fidelity and deepest bass. Across the board, dialogue reproduction is clean, with the voices become fuller as the series progresses. English, French, Spanish, German and Italian Dolby Digital 5.1 channel tracks are also encoded onto each of the discs, along with a Portuguese language track. Subtitles are available in English, French, Spanish, Chinese, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, German, Italian, Korean, Norwegian, Portuguese and Swedish for all four features.
The interactive menus allow one access to the standard scene selection and set up features, as well as the supplemental materials that pertain to each of the films and series in general. BATMAN includes the following supplements: Starting things off is a running Audio Commentary with director Tim Burton. Beyond Batman is a gallery of programs that cover a range of topic such as production design and cinematography, the Batmobile, props and gadgets, the Batsuit, Jack Nicholson’s makeup and Danny Elfman’s score. Standard Featurettes include: On The Set With Bob Kane, Legends Of The Dark Knight: The History Of Batman and Shadows Of The Bat: The Cinematic Saga Of The Dark Knight Parts 1-3. Three Prince Music Videos are also provided, as are The Heroes And The Villains: Profile Galleries, a Storyboard Sequence and a Theatrical Trailer. A Digital Copy of the film is also provided.
BATMAN RETURNS includes the following supplements: Starting things off is a running Audio Commentary with director Tim Burton. Featurettes include: The Bat, The Cat And The Penguin and Shadows Of The Bat, Part 4: Dark Side Of The Knight. A Music Video for the song Face To Face by Soiuxsie and the Banshees is also provided, as are Batman Returns: The Heroes And The Villains: Profile Galleries and a Theatrical Trailer.
BATMAN FOREVER includes the following supplements: Starting things off is a running Audio Commentary with director Joel Schumacher. The Documentary Galleries feature the following programs: Out Of The Shadows, The Many Faces Of Gotham, Knight Moves: The Stunts Of Batman Forever, Imaging Forever: The Visual Effects Of Batman Forever andScoring Forever: The Music Of Batman Forever. Standard Featurettes include: Riddler Me This: Why Is Batman Forever? and Shadows Of The Bat: The Cinematic Saga Of The Dark Knight, Part 5: Reinventing A Hero. A Music Video for the song Kiss From A Rose by Seal is also provided, as are Batman Forever: The Heroes And The Villains: Profile Galleries, seven Deleted Scenes and a Theatrical Trailer.
BATMAN & ROBIN includes the following supplements: Starting things off is a running Audio Commentary with director Joel Schumacher. The Documentary Galleries feature the following programs: Bigger, Bolder, Brighter: The Production Design Of Batman & Robin," Maximum Overdrive: The Vehicles Of Batman & Robin, Dressed To Thrill: The Costumes Of Batman & Robin, Frozen Freaks And Femme Fatales: The Makeup Of Batman & Robin and Freeze Frame: The Visual Effects Of Batman & Robin. Standard Featurettes include Shadows Of The Bat: The Cinematic Saga Of The Dark Knight, Part 6: Batman Unbound. Four Music Videos are also provided; The End Is The Beginning Is The End by The Smashing Pumpkins, Look Into My Eyes by Bone Thung-n-Harmony, Gotham City by R. Kelly and Foolish Games by Jewel. A Deleted Scene and a Theatrical Trailer close things out.
While Tim Burton was at the helm, the BATMAN movie franchise was definitely on course to greatness. When Joel Schumacher began steering the ship, the franchise hit stormy seas, lost direction and ultimately sank. The Blu-ray presentations offer significant upgrades over their standard definition counterparts. Fans will definitely want to upgrade, especially where the Tim Burton films are concerned.
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