In 1989 Tim Burton forever changed our vision of Bob Kane’s nocturnal caped crusader; BANG!, POW! and KASPLAT!-ing Adam West’s 1960s camp depiction into oblivion, and launching the most successful comic book cinema franchise since Superman.
Batman is the story of Bruce Wayne, the millionaire by day/rubber-clad superhero by night whose personal crusade is to forever rid Gotham City of its evil underbelly. Gotham City – where anonymous grey citizens scurry down shadowy streets, overhung with imposing grey skyscrapers that blot out the light and defy gravity as only comic book cities can. Batman, Burton’s original gothic masterpiece, introduces us to this dark and sinister world, where a superhero is needed to battle the city’s endemic super-criminals.
Michael Keaton (cast against type) plays the title character and does a surprisingly good job. The film's trump card, however, is a superbly cast Jack Nicholson. As Batman’s nemesis The Joker, a role he was born to play, Nicholson is at his most astonishing, most flamboyant best. Batman battles The Joker for control of the city and the affections of voluptuous photographer Vicky Vale (Kim Basinger), an award-winning journalist that finds our caped crusader strangely compelling.
As is often Burton's signature, Batman represents the success of style over content, with the film lacking any real substance. But who cares? This is a comic book tale after all; the paper thin plot is hidden miles below the great lead performances, and by the real star of the show - Burton’s amazing production design (reminiscent of Fritz Lang's Metropolis). A great two hours of gadgets and psychotic fun.
Batman is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and is 16x9 enhanced. Being an early Warner transfer and presented on a single-layer disc, the transfer is of slightly lower quality than we have become accustomed to these days.
As we have come to expect from Burton, Batman is primarily a visual film, and each shot, deliberate and perfectly composed, revels in its muted colours and shadowy gothic imagery. Thankfully, great black level and shadow detail support Burton's vision beautifully. What colour we get is perfectly balanced, with rich hues and perfect skin tone throughout.
It isn't all good news though, with some of the darker scenes displaying a little background grain, especially dialogue scenes where the backgrounds are a little out of focus. Whether this is due to film speed or MPEG compression is debatable. Another problem is a reasonable number of film artefacts, with the first reel being particularly bad in this respect.
In general, the heavy proportion of smoke amd steam used throughout the film is handled well by the transfer. However, on one or two occasions, slight posterisation does creep in. Dual layer discs Warner! Dual layer discs!
All in all, despite a few problems the image we are presented with is more than acceptable. None of the flaws mentioned represent a major concern, and don’t detract overly from the viewing experience.
In terms of sound, Batman features a distinctive soundtrack, introducing the dramatic and instantly recognisable score from Danny Elfman. Elfman's fantastic score is undermined in places with atrociously bad pop songs (laughably provided by Prince of all people).
The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is aggressive, but the surround usage is limited - used only to minimal effect during the action scenes. When the surround does kick in, it lacks any real directional effect being a remix (albeit a good one) from the Dolby Digital 2.0 theatrical presentation. In contrast to the surrounds, the subwoofer roars throughout the film, supporting the effects and score very nicely indeed.
Opting to present the film on a single-layer disc (this was an early release remember), there’s just no room left at the inn for anything much in the way of extras. The disc provides two text-based additions. The first is a set of career histories and filmographies for its stars, up to and including the year it's assumed the disc was first encoded - 1996. The second is eight pages of production notes - the kind of stuff you normally get on a paper insert - and in my opinion a good inclusion for any disc. Not a comprehensive collection of extras, I think you'll agree, especially given the film's profile and loyal fan base. This must be a contender for a special edition in years to come...