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.

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Jeff Giles
Jeff Giles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Popdose and Dadnabbit, as well as an entertainment writer whose work can be seen at Rotten Tomatoes and a number of other sites. Hey, why not follow him at Twitter while you're at it?