Blu-ray Review: “Batman: 20th Anniversary Edition”

Batman: 20th Anniversary Edition (2009, Warner Bros.)
purchase from Amazon: Blu-ray

The movie industry seems to break a new record for box-office totals every single year, but if you remember the summer of Tim Burton’s Batman — and all the crazy lengths people went to in order to get tickets for an opening night screening — you know that the movies themselves tend not to inspire the same level of frenzy that they once did. I was 15 when Batman came out, and I remember spending pretty much an entire day looking for a theater that wasn’t completely sold out; I ended up at a midnight screening at a dingy little multiplex over an hour from where I lived, and I went home absolutely thrilled with the experience.

I’ve seen all of Warner Bros.’ subsequent Batman adaptations, but none more than once, including the original, so I was eager to break in my new Blu-ray player with the 20th Anniversary Edition release that hits stores tomorrow. Although there isn’t really anything new here — it just breaks off Batman from the previously released Anthology box — it was all new enough to me, and having never been a fan of the “buy the whole series or you don’t get none” philosophy that studios love, I was staunchly in favor of this edition even before I unwrapped it.

The movie, though? It doesn’t hold up so well. Twenty years can do a lot of things, and not all of them are kind.

Part of the problem, obviously, is simply that Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight are weightier, technically superior pictures, and Burton’s Batman can’t help but look silly in their shadow. The effects are pedestrian, the backgrounds are often obviously painted, and the acting — oh, the acting! — is ham-scented. (When everyone in your cast comes off pretty much as smarmy as Robert Wuhl, you’re in deep trouble.) At the time, Batman was a revelation, and without it, we may not have gotten the far better superhero movies that have followed, but that doesn’t mean it stands up against them. (Yes, I’m aware there are people who prefer Burton’s Batman to the Nolan pictures. I don’t understand you at all.)

It’s more than just the Nolan thing, though; at bottom, much of Batman misfires for reasons all its own. Over and over again, I found myself asking questions that had no logical answer, like: Who starts a gunfight in a chemical factory? Who sets a twelve-foot dinner table by putting the only two people sitting at it at opposite ends? And who let Robert Wuhl in here? Okay, so that last question was a joke, but really, Batman‘s seams show in awkward places throughout its 126-minute running time. You can see why Burton wanted Keaton for the part — as he says in one of the many, many bonus features on the disc, he wanted to cast someone who looked like he might need to dress up like a bat — but he has neither the hollowed-out gravitas nor the athletic physique required to really sell the role. And though Nicholson gets off plenty of great lines — most of which you probably still remember — he’s also often distractingly over the top. (Jack Palance, meanwhile, acts like he’s wandered off the set of the Adam West Batman TV show.)

Ultimately, I don’t think Batman is the sort of film that benefits from this type of upgrade; in HD, it’s that much easier to note all the ways technology tied Burton’s hands in 1989. Compare, for instance, the rooftop battles that Nolan filmed in IMAX for The Dark Knight with the hokey matte backgrounds you see here; it’s easy to see what Burton was aiming for, and if he’d been able to get there, it would have been just as visually thrilling as his movies often are, but it just wasn’t possible at the time — and given the blind spots he seems to have had for the source material, I doubt he’d have hit the mark anyway.

Still, there’s no debating that Batman is an important film, and one with plenty of fans — all of whom should devour the five hours-plus of bonus material on this disc. In addition to an entertaining and insightful commentary track from Burton, you get a pretty stunning array of featurettes, ranging from just a few minutes in length to over an hour, and covering pretty much every aspect of the movie’s development. Hell, Warners even threw in the three music videos Prince made to go along with his soundtrack. The packaging is also noteworthy — it includes a book containing over 50 pages of essays and production minutae such as photographs, script pages, and an excerpt from the comic book tie-in. Personally, I found this stuff more compelling than the movie itself, so if Batman still rings your bell 20 years later, you won’t want to miss it.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]



  • http://www.popdose.com DwDunphy

    20th… anniversary… Feeling… dizzy…

  • http://www.popdose.com jefito

    I know, right?

  • http://www.popdose.com DwDunphy

    This just reminded me of some other stupid nostalgia… I miss the old 2-screen theater when you had to rush to stake out a spot on the line, and you built up anticipation for a movie. With multiplexes devoting two to three screens for a single big film, it has probably been more than a decade that I've had to actually work at seeing a movie.

  • Arend Anton

    The neighbor kid had a “BATMAN WAY” street sign in his room. I never quite understood why there would be a Batman Way. Damn only child got every toy imaginable.

  • http://www.popdose.com DwDunphy

    Does “the Batman Way” mean he likes it in the cave?

  • http://robertcashill.blogspot.com BobCashill

    Standard DVD is bad enough at revealing the effects limitations of older films; Blu-Ray must be terrible, unless a lot of effort and sensitivity is put into the transfer.

    Batman '89 was a compromise between Burton and co-producer Jon Peters, who ordered that Ninja assassins pop out of the bell tower and other “crowd-pleasing” foolishness, some of which Burton was able to ignore. Batman Returns is Burton's all the way and by far my favorite of any Batman film to date; Nolan's “realist” approach works in some ways but his films fall flat as fantasy for me.

    But, ah, the good old days when you had to wait hours to see an event movie. The vastly increased number of screens, and round-the-clock showtimes, took care of that–the experience was sacrificed for convenience, and lost its specialness.

  • Arend Anton

    Come to think of it, the Batman Way does sound like a bit like a kama sutra position.

  • http://www.addictedtovinyl.com Matt

    Yeah, wouldn’t want to see this one on Blu-Ray.

    I was around your age when this came out, and the release of this film couldn’t have been any more larger than life in my world. Epic.

    Watching it earlier this year, I’ll agree that it hasn’t aged well, but it still brings back a lot of the memories of seeing it in the theater for the first time, and how cool it was. Batman has to hold the record for one of the fastest franchise flameouts with the diminishing returns offered up in the form of Batman Returns, Batman Forever, and then Batman + Robin. I’m not even sure I bothered to see Batman + Robin. I think the series could have held together if they had been able to hold on to Michael Keaton wearing the Batsuit.

    But these days with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, I think that the Batman franchise has carried on quite nicely!

  • http://www.popdose.com DwDunphy

    Exactly. I remember standing on a wraparound line to get into the theater for Raiders Of The Lost Ark, buying a commemorative program for the movie (remember those?) chit-chatting with other people while waiting to get in, basically giving in to the hype. Now, it doesn't matter when you arrive. They don't sell programs anymore but they do sell pizza, cappuccino, hot dogs, hamburgers, sushi, curly fries, Haagen Daaz ice cream…

    ..Oh, and there wasn't an effin' cell phone back then.

  • http://www.popdose.com DwDunphy

    Exactly. I remember standing on a wraparound line to get into the theater for Raiders Of The Lost Ark, buying a commemorative program for the movie (remember those?) chit-chatting with other people while waiting to get in, basically giving in to the hype. Now, it doesn't matter when you arrive. They don't sell programs anymore but they do sell pizza, cappuccino, hot dogs, hamburgers, sushi, curly fries, Haagen Daaz ice cream…

    ..Oh, and there wasn't an effin' cell phone back then.

  • http://www.popdose.com DwDunphy

    Exactly. I remember standing on a wraparound line to get into the theater for Raiders Of The Lost Ark, buying a commemorative program for the movie (remember those?) chit-chatting with other people while waiting to get in, basically giving in to the hype. Now, it doesn't matter when you arrive. They don't sell programs anymore but they do sell pizza, cappuccino, hot dogs, hamburgers, sushi, curly fries, Haagen Daaz ice cream…

    ..Oh, and there wasn't an effin' cell phone back then.