I think we can all agree that Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy of Batman films is the greatest series of superhero films yet produced, with the middle film—The Dark Knight—transcending the superhero genre to just being a great film, and with Heath Ledger’s Academy Award-winning turn as The Joker representing some of the best acting ever in a superhero film.
And you could make a strong argument that, if not for Tim Burton’s Batman reboot in 1989, we would have never had Nolan’s films 20 years later. Remember, back in 1989 superhero films were mainly limited to Superman, with the notable exception of 1980’s Flash Gordon. And Superman’s final film to that point—the abysmal Superman IV: The Quest for Peace in 1987—didn’t exactly end the series on a high note, financially or critically.
Also, superhero stories to that point were mostly light, geared towards attracting families with kids. They drew clear lines of good guys and bad guys. Think of the original Batman TV series with Adam West. It dripped with camp and positive
messages, with Batman never crossing the line into dark vigilantism.
Up until 1989, that was the Batman the majority of the world knew.
But Warner Bros. decided to create a tentpole franchise around the Bat, featuring a dark style inspired by Frank Miller’s four-part The Dark Knight Returns comic series from 1986. They also selected an unlikely director, going with Tim Burton, who was fresh off the success of Beetlejuice and Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, but who had few other credits to his name, and certainly nothing on the size, scope, and budget allocated to Batman.
But hiring Burton proved fortuitous, as he bought into the idea of a darkly-toned film, with his own quirky sensibility, style, and world-building being just the thing to launch a darker vision of Gotham.
Another thing that separated Batman from previous films was its unique marketing and merchandising, which was
designed to build hype and launch the film to blockbuster status. Sure, there had been blockbusters before, but many of these were “accidental” such as Jaws or Star Wars, or were sequels. Batman was for all intents and purposes an original film, but one with a storied history to pull from.
An interesting documentary, Batman: The Birth of the Modern Blockbuster (included on the previous “Diamond Luxe Edition” Blu-ray, but unfortunately not part of the numerous extras included here) does a great job of analyzing the film’s marketing efforts to raise Bat awareness to a fever pitch. And I can recall my own excitement surrounding the film. In the summer of 1989, it was the film all my friends and I had to attend, and we waited hours in line to view it in a packed opening-night theater.
The strategy definitely paid off, as Batman shattered opening-weekend records, bringing in $40.49 million and trouncing the previous record holder, Ghostbusters II, by over $12 million. Batman also earned $100 million faster than any previous film, doing so in just 11 days, and ended up grossing over $410 million, becoming one of the highest-grossing films to that time.
While everyone seemed thrilled at the prospect of Jack Nicholson portraying The Joker (including Warner, which agreed to some incredible demands by the actor, including not filming during any Lakers home games), fans were considerably less supportive of Michael Keaton’s casting in the titular role. But I think Keaton did a great job, especially with his quirky, slightly-uncomfortable-in-public turn as Bruce Wayne, and feel he’s the second best of the modern Bat-men, behind Christian Bale, but ahead of Ben Affleck, George Clooney, and Val Kilmer—and with no WTF?! distracting nipples on the Bat-suit.
I’ve seen Batman numerous times, but what I mainly remember is watching it on a VHS copy and constantly struggling to see any detail in the image. Many scenes are so dark, I would constantly fiddle with my TV’s brightness control to try to find the optimal level between washed out and lost in darkness.
For me, that is the greatest benefit 4K HDR brings to the 30th-anniversary release. Dark, nighttime, and low-lit interior scenes—of which there are many—look absolutely gorgeous. Blacks are incredibly clean and detailed, with no noise or banding. Warner did a fantastic job on this restoration, allowing you to see things that were likely never visible before, especially on any prior home video release. There are still plenty of deep, dark shadows, with many scenes featuring black-on-black-on-black imagery, between the night, set color, layers of black on Batman’s suit, the black uniforms worn by The Joker’s henchmen, and more, but each retains its own level and layer of black. Batman is still a visually dark film, but now you don’t feel like you’re missing anything.
Also, even though this 4K transfer was taken from a 4K digital intermediate from the original 35mm negative—which can often introduce grain and noise into certain scenes—grain is almost non-existent here. Even in outdoor scenes or when there is lots of smoke wafting in the air, images are always clean and clear.
Detail also abounds, letting you really appreciate the art and set decoration for which the film won an Academy Award. Great care was taken to create a believable Gotham, and this transfer lets you see all of it. You can really notice the texture of the fabrics—the heavy wools of The Joker’s suits and overcoats; the dense, leathery weightiness of Batman’s cape; the smooth metallic shell of the Batmobile; and the high-tech carbon-looking skin of the Bat-wing. Also, I noticed for the first time that the buttons on The Joker’s suit near the end of the film actually have all the playing-card suits on them—another subtle touch the enhanced resolution makes apparent. The minor drawback to all this extra resolution is that some shots reveal themselves to be matte paintings, but that’s a small price to pay.
Being such a dark film, there’s not a lot of room for the wider color gamut to shine, but some scenes do benefit, such as the flames in the explosion of the Axis Chemicals plant or the brilliant purples of The Joker’s numerous suits, and especially his beret in the museum scene. The warm golden tones in Bruce Wayne’s mansion also feel extremely natural.
From the opening moments, Danny Elfman’s score really has room to breathe and shine in this new Dolby True HD Atmos mix. The opening-title scene presents his score wide and crystal clear across the front channels, letting you easily discern all of the instrumentation. While I wouldn’t call this an overly active mix, Atmos does a really nice job of expanding the soundstage, especially in key scenes throughout the film. I noticed a ton of width in the front channels, with objects traveling great distances outside the left and right speakers.
The overhead and surround speakers are used effectively throughout to create ambience and atmospheric sounds on the city streets of Gotham, or add layers of echoes in the spacious and stately Wayne Manor. During big action scenes, such as the gunfight at Axis Chemicals or the Bat-wing swooping over The Joker’s
parade near the end, the speakers effectively and appropriately immerse you in sound, with things whisking by overhead, bullets ricocheting around the room, or voices calling from distant offscreen locations. Considering that this is a 30-year-old sound mix, Warner did a stellar job.
If there’s any shortcoming to the audio, it’s that the LFE is generally a bit restrained, especially by modern standards. Bass has its moments to shine, like during the explosion at the Axis Chemicals factory, but there are other key moments—like the massive destruction of the tower bell near the finale —where a few extra dB in the bass channel would have been welcome.
Both the Blu-ray disc and the digital download from the Kaleidescape Store include numerous special features, letting fans dig into multiple aspects of the film’s production and design, and the history of Batman.
Batman set the stage for the modern superhero genre, and it has never looked or sounded as good as it does here. While not as great at Nolan’s films—and arguably not even the best of Burton’s Batman films—this movie still makes for terrifically fun viewing and is highly recommended.
Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at
@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.