In 1989, the birth of summer blockbusters became real with Tim Burton’s Batman. Before that, the superhero genre was not the behemoth it was today with A-list actors, 9-figure budgets, and compelling dramatic tones. In fact, it was quite the opposite. Us comic books fans had to settle for slapstick one-liners in low budget sets and costumes to get our favorite heroes on screen. It wasn’t until that summer where everything changed and paved the way for films like X-Men, the MCU, and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight franchise. It was a strange decision too, but Warner Bros. and DC Comics decided on the young filmmaker Tim Burton to take on the large budget and big named comic book adaptation of Batman. Until then, Burton had only done Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice.
Of course, you can see the unique and gothic style Burton is synonymous with, along with his art direction and ability to achieve great performances with his actors, but with a big project like Batman going to a small-time director was unheard of. For its time and place though, Batman was a financial and critical success and continues to be today, even though the cinema landscape has changed. Warner Bros. and Tim Burton had to dive deeper into dark territory with this new live-action film, with grittier dialogue and cold-blooded violence to appease fans. The result gave us the year of Batman, brought a ton of new fans to comic books and the superhero icon, and built the foundation that our modern MCU and DCU is thriving on.
Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton), keeps to his billionaire life during the day, where he throws fundraisers and parties, but forgets what room of his own house he’s in. At night, he wears the cowl and fights crime in Gotham City as Batman. Not long after we see a few criminals caught at the hands of the caped crusader, a new type of villain is born by the name of Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson), who after a brush with Batman, has an unfortunate chemical accident and is transformed into The Joker. This version of The Joker is very different, as all incarnations of the character are throughout the films and comic books. It’s hard not compare to the ultimate performance with Heath Ledger’s layered anarchist take on the titular villain, but Nicholson uses his strengths to pull off a mix of comedic one-liners and chaotic brutality that is still etched into my mind. When Jack shoots his former gangster boss a dozen times as he dances in the darkly lit room and laughs, it’s as you’re watching some sort of sadistic ballet and it works perfectly with this Godfather like character Nicholson went forward with.
Helping Batman this first time out are reporters Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger), Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl), and the likable old butler Alfred (Michael Gough). There are some supporting roles that don’t get enough time to shine like Commissioner Gordon (Pat Hingle) or the most underused character in film Harvey Dent (Billy Dee Williams). Both turn in solid performances, but are so inconsequential to the movie, that they might has well been left out entirely. There are some issues with this 1989 Batman though, but it’s mostly due to the limitations of the late 1980s technology and wardrobe that keep it on par with modern day movies. With heavy leather suits and a cheesy looking Bat-Plane flying through the air, you might look back on this film with harsh criticisms, but back in 1989, this was the best of the best and conjured a ton of cheers and praise. Writing this today after revisiting the movie, I can happily say it holds up, even if certain effects are silly.
There are many facets to enjoy within this universe. The straight adaptation of Gotham City on screen with its tall buildings and 1930’s look and feel is refreshing. Again, the performances from both Keaton and Nicholson are a sight to behold, where Nicholson plays into every bit of pandemonium he emotes. On the other hand, Keaton allows himself to have a volatile personality as Bruce Wayne in certain scenes, instead of the usual calm and collected persona we’ve seen lately. It shows that he’s a real human doing extraordinary things and it’s welcome.
Danny Elfman’s score is still fantastic as well as the odd choice of having Prince create most of the music in the film. At first glance, it’s too strange to be believed, but after hearing the music play over the picked sequences, it all works perfectly in Joker’s world. Batman still holds a very special place in my soul where at the time in 1989, I and everyone else wanted to become Batman. After re-connecting with this again, that feeling came back in big way.
Batman is a visually engrossing movie, which mixes Burton’s vision of a 1930’s gothic era Gotham City with gangster style wardrobe and vehicles. This perfectly contrasts to the The Joker’s chaotic color palette of bold purples, reds, greens, and even bright whites. The culmination of both styles is completely satisfying. Luckily for us, Warner Bros. has delivered a brand new re-mastered 2160p UHD Disc with HDR10 that looks phenomenal and brings Burton’s stylistic choices to life once again to perhaps the best looking image the film has seen to date.
Colors are very important in this picture as it often relies on black levels, shadows, and dark places to conceal the heroes and villains before they make their grand entrance. Just like the comics, where we would see a shadowy figure behind henchmen, but in the next panel, we see the full fledged black bat-suit in action. This is perfectly captured in the first scene of Batman, where a couple of thugs are handing out on a rooftop at night in Gotham City. It’s a shady place indeed with dark bricks and stone, along with steam coming off the buildings. The criminals themselves are in dark clothing. In the background, Batman descends on the rooftop, which you’ll now be able to distinguish the black levels in his suit with the background sets and even the wardrobe of the bad guys. It’s a taste of what’s to come.
The warmer, yet decaying tones of Gotham look fantastic with browns and yellows littering the buildings in its cooler climate, but when Nicholson goes full-on Joker, her literally brings the brightest colors to an otherwise drab museum and splashes the place with rich reds, purples, and greens, which simply pop right off the screen. Even his purple suit with his bright white makeup and red lipstick are more eye-catching in this new image. The HDR10 really helps out at the parade sequence where the dark blue sky with the full moon shining on the big parade balloons, where the bat-plane has a unique black color to it, different than any other color in the film. Those little nuances rally help Burton’s style play out. Skin tones are natural when in warmer settings, but can be a bit cooler when in exterior shots.
Details are sharp and vivid as well, more so than in previous Blu-ray editions. Individual threads and hairs can be seen in the old school clothing choices, as well as in Joker’s perfect purple suit. The heavy makeup he wears as well can be seen easily with his necessary smiling prosthetics around his mouth. The Bat-mobile and Bat-suit show the metal and rubber textures very well respectively, which show up in different lighting conditions. Crisp lines and deep definition are present in each scene as well. There is a great, natural layer of film grain to keep the movie in its filmic state as well, where no second of the image has a soft or murky look. Lastly, there were no issues with banding, aliasing, or video noise. With this new 4K UHD image with HDR10, Batman has never looks this good and has me dancing with the devil in the pale moon light.
Batman comes with an improved Dolby Atmos audio mix that is leaps and bounds better than anything I’ve heard in its release history. With the new Dolby Atmos track, every bit of the sound design is improved upon. Danny Elfman’s score makes a bolder statement with its woodwinds and brass that brings a larger sound to the system. It just feels like a functioning entity with new life. Each note is precise and clear with a great amount of low end. Even Prince’s soundtrack contributions such as “Partyman” are infectious and well-rounded.
Where sound effects are concerned, all are more robust and have a deeper low end. When the Bat-mobile revs its fire engine, you can feels the rumble in your chest and walls. It’s never rocky, but smooth and loud. Other gun shots and vehicle crashes, along with the climactic scene at the top of a bell tower sounds off with a deep noise that resonates through each speaker with perfect clarity and directionality. Other sound effects of steam blowing off of pipes, background gun shots, and building debris falling places all come through greatly in the rear speakers.
Atmospheric sounds such as Gotham citizens talking, yelling, or other faint music in the background are full and roaring with the right amount of balance and mix. Overhead channels deliver the goods with church bells chiming, rain, wood creaks in the ceiling, and helicopters flying overhead. These environmental sound effects are top notch and are never soft sounding.
Lastly, the dialogue is always crystal clear and easy to follow along with, free of any pops, cracks, or hiss. This track is perfectly situated on the center channel and rounds out this phenomenal sounding audio track.
The UHD Disc in question contains only the vintage commentary track with Tim Burton. Other than that, the other vintage bonus features are included on the Blu-ray Copy only, which include feature length documentaries on the making of the film, storyboard sequences, interviews, music videos, and more. All of these are definitely worth your time, however it would’ve been nice to have some new extras here.
Audio Commentary – Tim Burton’s commentary track is a great listen and has a lot to say. He discusses what attracted him to the project, his experience with Batman, casting, his design work, the music, and the film’s release and reception.
Legends of the Dark Knight: The History of Batman (HD, 41 Mins.) – Through interviews and images, we see the creation and evolution of Batman in Comic Book form, as well as the big screen, and how big an impact he’s had on out culture, including his traits, personality, and purpose.
Shadows of the Bat (HD, 72 Mins.) – This is a giant making of the film, with interviews, on-set footage, casting, and more.
Beyond Batman (HD, 51 Mins.) – There are five different sections that focus on the cinematography, makeup, props, costumes, and music of the film.
The Heroes and the Villains (HD 20 Mins.) – There are seven separate videos that discuss the main movie characters in the film.
Storyboard Sequence (HD, 4 Mins.) – There was a deleted Robin scene that was supposed to be in the original film. This is the storyboard sequence that was cut before they shot the movie.
On the Set with Bob Kane (HD, 3 Mins.) – The guy who created Batman Bob Kane talks about the character and Burton’s film. This should have been longer.
Music Videos (HD, 14 Mins.) – There are three Prince music videos, including the infamous Batdance video.
Theatrical Trailer (HD, 2 Mins.) – Trailer for the film.
THE ULTIMATE WORD
Tim Burton’s Batman film will forever hold a noteworthy place in my mind. I was eight years old when it came out in 1989 and I was all about Batman. Burton’s distinct style of Gotham and ability to perfectly cast these characters was uncanny. For the time and place, this movie worked well and was pretty much flawless. And some 30 years later, it holds up and continues to entertain. The new 4K UHD transfer with HDR10 is unbelievably good, which is a significant upgrade in color and detail from previous releases, while the new Dolby Atmos track adds new life to this already impressive soundtrack with overhead effects and more nuanced depth. There are no new bonus features, but the same incredible and feature length extras are included here. With a Blu-ray version and digital copy included, this release is a MUST OWN!
Written by: Bryan Kluger