Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Batman (1989)
Studio Line: Warner Bros.

After a young boy witnesses his parents' murder on the streets of Gotham City, he grows up to become the Batman, a mysterious figure in the eyes of Gotham's citizens, who takes crime-fighting into his own hands. He first emerges out of the shadows when the Joker appears -- a horribly disfigured individual who is out for revenge on his former employer and generally likes to have a good time, but the identity of the `bat' is unknown. Perhaps millionaire Bruce Wayne and photographer Vicki Vale have a good chance of finding out?

Director: Tim Burton
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Michael Keaton, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Pat Hingle, Billy Dee Williams, Michael Gough, Jack Palance
Academy
Awards:
Won for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration. 1990.
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1/16X9, standard 1.33:1; audio English Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Surround; subtitles English, French, Spanish; closed-captioned; double sided - single layered; 31 chapters; Rated PG-13; 126 min.; $19.98; street date 3/25/97.
Supplements: Cast Biographies; Production Notes.
Purchase: DVD | Score soundtrack - Danny Elfman

Picture/Sound/Extras: C/B+/D-

Batman came out while I attended college in the late 1980s. Actually, it arrived over summer break, so when we went back to school in the fall, I asked my friends' opinions of it. You see, I really loved it and had become quite enamored of all things Bat-related during those few months, so I was curious to know what others thought.

One friend, who we'll call "Mike" - since that's his name - absolutely hated it. His statement, and I quote, was that Batman was "like a nightmare" because of its unrelenting darkness.

Another friend, who we'll call "Biff" - although his real name's Hyun - also disliked Batman, but for alternate reasons. He knew little about Bat- history and had mainly gained exposure to the series through Frank Miller's amazing mid-1980s graphic novel series The Dark Knight Returns. Since that series featured a really brutal Batman, Biff thought the 1989 movie version seemed way too mild. A nightmare? Not nightmarish enough, according to him!

In a nutshell, I think those two opinions neatly sum up the dichotomy that surrounds the first two Batman films directed by Tim Burton and starring Michael Keaton. Lots of people think that Batman and 1992ís Batman Returns were too dark and disturbing and would have preferred lighter fare such as the old TV series from the 1960s; these people somewhat got their wish with the brighter - and much less compelling Joel Schumacher entries, 1995ís Batman Forever and Batman and Robin. Lots of other people, however, believe that the movies have not even remotely lived up to the grittiness and drama of the comics; in their minds, a Batman who's not R-rated probably can't live up to the original spirit.

As for me, I'm somewhere in the middle. Scratch that; saying that I'm in the middle implies that I have some sympathies with the "itís a nightmare" crowd, which I don't. I don't want to see a warm and fuzzy Batman, so I think they're way off base. My sentiments come a lot closer to those of the other half of the equation, but I can never quite decide how much I agree with them.

I always loved comic books when I was a kid, but during my earliest years I stuck with very light fare such as the Archie series; I read the occasional superhero book but something about them struck me as too serious and "adult," so I preferred these more comedic offerings.

In 1981, I found some of the old superhero magazines I had collected and gave them another shot. Lo and behold, I found myself quite entertained by them and I almost instantly delved deeply into the world of Marvel and DC comics. While I read virtually everything I could get - when I become interested in something, I rarely go halfway - it quickly became clear that Batman and Spiderman were my favorites. Interestingly, both characters possessed similar backgrounds in that they entered into their lives of crime-fighting due to the murders of close relatives. However, the execution of their duties varied radically, since Batman tended to be rather serious and grim while the web-swinger always tossed in delightful bon mots as he bopped the baddies.

Ironically, both those characters were the subjects of much speculation throughout the 1980s as to their fates as big-screen stars. Spiderman is finally due to hit the silver screen in 2002, but obviously the Batman issue got resolved long before that. By the time Batman arrived in 1989, my days as a serious comic book fan were long gone. Oh, I still checked them out on occasion, such as when I read The Dark Knight Returns back in 1986, but they were pretty much gone as a factor in my life.

Batman changed that to a degree. No, I didn't really delve into all the books like I had earlier in the decade, but I certainly became much more interested in Bats himself and I picked up quite a few comic anthologies to get me back into the swing of things. When the movie came out on tape later in 1989, I darned near wore out the thing.

Probably the weirdest part of my brief Bat-obsession is that to this day I cannot really explain why I enjoyed the movie so much. When I first saw it, I found it oddly unsatisfying but I still couldn't stop thinking about it. Obviously, further viewings convinced me that I really loved it, but I never could adequately explain to myself the reason for this affection.

As such, I won't even attempt such explorations here, but I will discuss how I feel about it more than a decade later. I still like the movie very much, though I still don't completely know why. It's clearly a flawed film, one that's always seemed fairly awkward and stilted. Much of the action seems grafted on almost as an afterthought, and Batman (Keaton) plays far too small a role in the proceedings; Burton clearly identified more with the Joker (Jack Nicholson) and apportioned screen time as such.

Actually, that split isn't quite as bad as it initially seems. Part of the reason Jack Nicholson's Joker appears to dominate screen time is because Keaton's time is split between shots of him as Batman and as Bruce Wayne. This makes it seem that he's not around very much. Mainly, however, Batman appears to be fairly absent from his own film because of the nature of the performances from both Nicholson and Keaton.

Much furor accompanied Keaton's selection as Batman, all of which I thought was unfair. If you see the film and he stinks, that's fine, but I disliked the prejudging that occurred. In the end, Keaton did pretty well in the role, but it seemed that the pressures might have gotten to him to some degree. In Batman, he appeared mannered and forced much of the time, as though he tried too hard and thought too much about his performance. He certainly succeeded better at the role in Batman than would successors Val Kilmer in Batman Forever (Batman as smooth ladies man) or George Clooney in Batman and Robin (Batman as affectionate Daddy) but not nearly as well as he would in Batman Returns.

Nicholson's domination of the film also occurs because he's darned good as the Joker. Granted, Jack's Jack; he basically plays a variation of himself in the role. Nonetheless, the part fit and he provided a consistently fascinating and entertaining presence. He contributed some mighty odd acting choices along the way, virtually all of which worked. For example, check out the scene in which he's just murdered his old boss and he spies a newspaper headline that reads "Winged Freak Terrorizes Gotham", which was a reference to Batman; Joker ominously utters "'Terrorizes?' Wait'll they get a load of me!" All that's well and good, but as a commentary on the stereotypical menace of the scene, Jack added a little "oooooo" like you'd hear in sixth grade when someone got in trouble, then finished it with the completely nonsensical but brilliant "Oop! Oop!Ē and laughed. On the page, it's a nothing scene, but through Nicholson's performance it became one of the best parts of the film.

However, I do have one major quibble with Joker's role in Batman. Bruce Wayne became Batman because of a quest for justice/vengeance spurred by the murder of his parents when he was a kid. In the original comic book version, an anonymous crook named Joe Chill killed the elder Waynes, but in the film, Joker - or Jack Napier, as he was known then - was the one who did the deed.

Bob Kane, Batman's creator, said around the time of the film's release that if he'd thought that far ahead, he would have made Joker the killer of the Waynes, but I don't buy that. I don't like the neat little way that the movie tied up the origins of Batman, and I think his pathology seemed much more meaningful without that extreme coincidence; the randomness of their murder in the comics appeared much scarier and more resonant to me. For the record, when he kills the Waynes, Napierís accomplice was allegedly supposed to be Chill, but the movieís Joe didn't fire a shot.

The rest of the acting in Batman seemed to be vaguely competent but unspectacular. Michael Gough embodied Bruce Wayne's butler Alfred well, but he, like Keaton, wouldn't truly fill out the role until its first sequel. Jack Palance did an okay turn as crime boss Carl Grissom, but he was largely forgettable. The same went for Pat Hingle as Commissioner Gordon and Billy Dee Williams as DA Harvey Dent. Robert Wuhl provided a little comic relief in his almost-completely expository character as reporter Alexander Knox.

As far as the women in the cast go, the main star was Kim Basinger as photographer/love interest Vickie Vale. Her performance can be described as passable at best. Granted, Vickie didn't have a lot to do in this film other than scream and be rescued by Batman, but still, she offered little presence or zest to the movie. I feel a nearly irresistible urge to fast forward every time she appears on screen. Still, she's frigging Olivier compared to Jerry Hall's turn as gangster moll Alicia. To call her performance wooden and stiff would insult trees. Maybe the producers cast her because they thought she'd bring Jagger to the set.

Tim Burton has been a sensational but erratic director throughout his career, and Batman may better display his various tendencies better than any other film. It certainly showed a unique and distinctive vision of the series and it made its mark with tremendous flair. However, I can't help but think that the pressures of creating a big-budget "event" movie after two small comedies - Pee-Wee's Big Adventure and Beetlejuice - may have affected his work, because Batman consistently seemed vaguely unsure of itself. Overall, I still find it to be a very entertaining and provocative film, but my interest continues to puzzle me.

The DVD:

Batman appears in both an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 and in a fullscreen version on this double-sided, single-layered DVD; the widescreen image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Only the widescreen picture was reviewed for this article. Batman was one of the very first DVDs to hit shelves in 1997, and that vintage showed; the movie looked watchable but moderately flawed.

For the most part, sharpness seemed to be adequate, as much of the film appeared reasonably crisp and well-defined. However, some wide shots came across as mildly soft and fuzzy, and at times the image took on an artificial tone. Jagged edges cropped up with minor frequency, and edge enhancement seemed apparent on occasion; for example, the scene in which Joker first confronts Grissom clearly demonstrated ringing around Jack.

Print flaws were minor but consistent. Throughout the movie, I saw mild instances of white speckles, and some digital artifacts appeared to mar the presentation as well. Those lent the image a rather grainy appearance at times. However, more significant print defects such as scratches, blotches, or tears didnít cause any problems.

Black levels could have been deeper, especially since they were such an important part of this dark film. However, I thought they seemed to be reasonably dense and tight, and shadow detail usually looked appropriately clear and opaque. A few scenes - such as the bedroom sequence - came across as a bit heavy, but as a whole, low-light segments were acceptably clean and accurate. Ultimately, Batman offered a watchable image, but it could really use a new transfer to bring it to its peak performance.

On the other hand, the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Batman provided a surprisingly compelling experience. This was one of those ďremastered for Dolby Digital 5.1Ē affairs popular on early Warner Bros. DVDs, and although the soundfield stayed true to its Dolby Surround roots, I thought it offered a rather robust piece.

The soundfield largely stayed anchored to the front channels, and there I heard a nice array of music and effects. Danny Elfmanís operatic score showed fine stereo separation across the forward speakers, and the surrounds added solid power to the elements. Though used only sporadically, Princeís tunes also added to the track; for a fine example of five-channel music, check out the museum scene that featured ďPartymanĒ.

Effects provided a good spectrum through the front channels; elements blended together nicely and they panned cleanly and smoothly. Surround usage was good for these aspects of the track. I detected no split-surround elements, but the rears kicked in with a strong level of reinforcement during the deed sequences, and these complemented these scenes well.

Audio quality has some concerns, but it generally seemed to be positive. Dialogue sounded somewhat artificial at times since many of the lines clearly needed to be looped, but as a whole speech stayed acceptably natural and distinct. I detected no concerns related to edginess or intelligibility. Effects could seem somewhat flat and thin at times, but they generally came across as accurate and realistic, and they demonstrated no signs of distortion. For those elements, bass response was somewhat boomy, but the low-end packed a very solid punch, and the sheer power of the bass allowed me to forgive its moderate lack of tightness.

Music also appeared to be nicely robust and bright. Elfmanís score demonstrated fine power and range, and Princeís songs also were fairly clear and broad. Ultimately, the soundtrack for Batman showed its age at times but I found it to offer a surprisingly robust and involving experience for a somewhat older movie.

Batman includes few supplements. In the Cast area, we find perfunctory biographies for Jack Nicholson, Michael Keaton, Kim Basinger, Pat Hingle, Robert Wuhl, Billy Dee Williams, Michael Gough and Tim Burton. (What role did he play?) We also get some fairly good Production Notes, but thatís it.

One oddity about this DVD: the version of Batman found on the widescreen side slightly differed from the one located on the fullscreen side. The former slightly edited the climax; the shot in which Vickie Vale kissed the Jokerís coat and removed a hair from her mouth vanished. This scene can be found at the 1:54:07 mark on the fullscreen platter; why it was omitted from the widescreen edition remains a mystery.

As I write this in July 2001, I find it somewhat hard to recommend the DVD of Batman. On one hand, I continue to love the movie. It doesnít have the same hold over me it maintained a decade ago, but I continue to be very fond of it, and I think itís one of the best action films ever made.

However, the DVD seems less satisfying. Although the sound quality is quite good for a moderately older movie, the picture shows a variety of flaws and can only muster a mediocre rating. The widescreen version also slightly edits the film, and the whole package lacks any significant extras.

In its favor, Batman remains an acceptable DVD. Yes, picture quality seems disappointing, but itís not truly bad, and the audio compensates. Also, the DVD currently lists for only $19.98, which is quite inexpensive.

Normally, Iíd definitely recommend this DVD of Batman; the combination of cheap price, adequate presentation and great movie should be enough. However, rumors persist that WB will release a special edition of Batman at some point. Iíd hate to urge you to buy this disc and then tell you to get a new one soon thereafter. If you donít worry about repurchases, go ahead and grab Batman. Otherwise, you may want to wait and see what the future brings.


Equipment: Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.
Menu:  DVD Movie Guide | Archive | Top