Review: Batman Returns
I’ve never been a big fan of shibboleths—those words or catch-phrases designed to set members of an in-group apart from outsiders. Especially in today’s geek culture, the use of such exclusionary memes seems unnecessarily divisive. But I’ll admit, I do have my own shorthand way of identifying my people: I simply work into casual conversation the observation that 1992’s Batman Returns is a better and more interesting film than the 1989 original.
What I love most about this revelation is the looks I get in response. At one end of the spectrum, you have the folks who gape at me as if I’ve just licked their nostrils. At the other end, there’s a spark of realization, a look in the eye that says, “You get it!”
What generally follows—with the latter folk, at least—is a lengthy discussion about why. Why Batman Returns is everything Batman should have been. Why it has stood the test of time in a way the original hasn’t. Without hours to dig into all of it here, though, I’ll have to merely scratch the surface.
Simply put, whereas Batman—much as I love that film—is primarily a product, its weird and wonderful sequel is a genuine work of art. An aesthetic, thematic, and tonal expression that actually has something to say, and stands up to legitimate re-interpretation as the years pass and the weirdness of our own world finally catches up in so many ways to the macabre and gothic political tale Tim Burton wove in this most anticipated of sequels. And surprisingly, very little of that has to do with the fact that Max Shreck—Returns‘ tertiary antagonist, played by Christopher Walken in all his scenery-chewing glory—is a nasty, narcissistic, big-city tycoon with underhanded political ambitions and a feint of concern for the common man.
In any other comic-book film, Walken really would have stolen the show. But the real standouts here are Danny DeVito as a deliciously disgusting re-interpretation of The Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer, who simply makes Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman, her own.
If I had to guess, I’d say one of the reasons why Batman Returns was mistakenly written off as an inferior sequel in its day is the heavy emphasis on its villains—delightful as they are—to the exclusion of the titular hero, who almost shrinks into the background as a mysterious boogeyman. Or perhaps it’s simply that this film is so dramatically different from the one it follows, almost having more in common with Burton’s criminally underappreciated Edward Scissorhands, which he made in between his two Batman efforts.
None of this is to say that Batman Returns is perfect, mind you. Some of its dialogue falls flat, even if only by contrast
with the sheer brilliance of other one-liners. And Keaton at times seems bored to be wearing the cape and cowl for a second time. But if, for whatever reason, you haven’t seen Batman Returns since its debut, you owe it another look. And there’s no better way to do so than the new UHD/HDR release on Kaleidescape.
To say that the film has never looked as striking as it does here would be a banal understatement. The improvements over previous home video releases simply cannot be summed up in a handful of paragraphs. The additional detail over the Blu-ray release from 2010 is jaw-dropping from beginning to end, but it’s the HDR grade that truly brings this film to life.
Unlike Batman, which is a way more visually vibrant film than most people remember it being, Returns is genuinely stygian throughout, and the enhanced contrasts, shadow detail, and depth afforded by HDR give the streets of Gotham and the sewers beneath a depth and richness I don’t remember seeing even in the film’s original big-screen release. The new transfer also makes wonderful use of highlights, mostly to bring vivid clarity to the film’s diverse textures—especially in contrasting the dull, matte darkness of Batman’s costume with the gleaming, slick blackness of Catwoman’s getup.
The enhanced dynamic range also elevates narrative elements of the film, such as the scene in which Penguin crawls out of the sewers for the first time and is blinded by the strobing of camera flashes. Those bright flashes aren’t quite eye-reactive, but they are stark enough to illuminate Penguin’s discomfort and give the viewer some small taste of his experience.
I’ll admit, I was concerned going in that the HDR would do no favors to the film’s numerous matte-painted cityscapes. But since the film is in many ways shot like a play whose audience is dragged from stage to stage at a frantic pace, the fact that you can now more easily see the seams in spots actually adds to the film’s charms in an appropriately weird way. Aside from a handful of optically composited effects, Batman Returns looks like it could have been shot yesterday. By a madman,
to be sure—and certainly not funded by any major motion picture studio outside of perhaps Netflix—but yesterday nonetheless.
As for the sound, unlike the UHD/HDR release of Batman, the new Dolby Atmos mix doesn’t introduce any re-recorded sound effects, largely because it doesn’t need to. The sound elements still hold up as shockingly modern and incredibly robust, and the Atmos mix simply draws atmospheric elements and bits of Danny Elfman’s iconic score into the height dimension.
I have to say, if this is the direction Hollywood is heading with Atmos mixes, either new or re-mixed, I might have to rethink my curmudgeonly stance on the format. The new mix never whaps you over the head with kitschy audio grandstanding. Instead, it’s used largely to build the film’s environments, to give a distinct sonic signature to interiors like the Batcave and the Penguin’s underground lair. In other words, it draws you into and reinforces the onscreen action rather than distracting from it.
One other thing worth noting about the new Kaleidescape release of the film is that it’s the only digital release of the UHD/HDR remaster to include bonus features, aside from the iTunes download. Vudu, Amazon, and others have
released movie-only versions that sell the film short, in my opinion. On Kaleidescape, you’ll also need to download the Blu-ray-quality version of the film to get the bonus goodies, and said goodies are only available in standard-definition, since they were originally created for DVD. But it’s worth the extra effort. The supplements are a continuation of those created for Batman, and give a nice inside look at the making of the film, especially its effects, set designs, etc.
I wish Burton’s commentary had also been attached to the UHD/HDR version, instead of merely supplementing the Blu-ray-quality version, since it’s a worthwhile listen, and having seen the film in all its 4K glory, it’s hard now to watch it in mere high-definition. But if nothing else, doing so gives one a greater appreciation of just how incredible the new restoration is.
Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.