Batman (1989) (4K UHD Review)

  • Reviewed by: Bill Hunt
  • Review Date: May 27, 2019
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Batman (1989) (4K UHD Review)

Director

Tim Burton

Release Date(s)

1989 (June 4, 2019)

Studio(s)

Guber-Peters Company/Warner Bros. Pictures (Warner Bros.)
  • Film/Program Grade: A
  • Video Grade: A
  • Audio Grade: A
  • Extras Grade: B

Batman (4K Ultra HD)

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Review

In a city ravaged by crime, a mysterious vigilante—known on the street as “The Bat”—stalks the night bringing evildoers to justice. But when the rivalry between the local crime lord (Jack Palance) and his chief henchman (Jack Nicholson) comes to a boil, a new terror is created to menace the people of Gotham… a clownish lunatic known as The Joker. And even as the city leaders (played by Pat Hingle and Billy Dee Williams) try to cope with the sudden rise in violence that results, a local reporter named Knox (Robert Wuhl) and photographer Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) begin to suspect that the reclusive billionaire Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) lurks at the heart of it all.

It’s hard to remember now just what a risk Tim Burton’s Batman was back in 1989. Until the film’s release, Batman was known to wider audiences mostly for the “Pow, Zap, and Wham” of the 1960s Adam West TV series. So a darker incarnation, while much more true to the comics, was considered a major gamble by the studio. Michael Keaton’s casting as the title character was also highly controversial, especially coming off his comedic turn in Burton’s Beetlejuice. But the studio’s fears were allayed somewhat when Burton was able to convince Jack Nicholson to play The Joker, which raised the project’s credibility considerably. Nicholson went full Colonel Kurtz in the role, creating what is still one of the greatest villains of the big screen. Yet he plays it with just enough colorful camp to draw in fans of the 60s show too. (Little cinematic touches, like whirling newspaper headlines, also help in this regard.) Keaton, it turned out, was quite up to the task of playing both the distracted billionaire and the Man Behind the Cowl. Add to the mix ironic production design by Anton Furst (influenced by the look of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and the films of Fritz Lang), an edgy score by ex-Oingo Boingo singer Danny Elfman (whose title march is now considered the iconic Batman theme), and off-kilter pop songs by Prince, and not only was Batman an instant blockbuster… it redefined what big screen superhero films could be from that point forward.

Batman was shot photochemically in 35mm, using Panaflex cameras and lenses, and finished on film. For this Ultra HD release, the original camera negative was scanned in native 4K, graded for high dynamic range (in HDR10), and it’s presented here in the proper 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio. The first thing to note is that the improvement in detail is significant. In that sense, it’s a huge upgrade over the previous Blu-ray edition. Grain is light-medium, retaining the proper filmic look, but it never becomes distracting or overwhelms the image. Texturing is tight and refined, without ever looking edgy, and the whole film benefits because there’s no lower-resolution digital effects or post production to overcome. Even longtime fans are going to be surprised at how much detail is visible here. There’s a scene early in the film—where Knox and Vale are touring Bruce Wayne’s hall of armor—where I found my eye drawn to the cross-hatch pattern on Knox’s dress shirt, which I had never noticed before. An exterior shot of Wayne Manor (as Bruce is leaving to place flowers on the spot where his parents were killed) is striking too; the sky has the strong bright-gloom of an overcast day, but when you look down at the mansion itself, all of its fine stone and metalwork detail is still visible. There are a couple of shots during the film’s climax that are obviously miniatures, but on the whole this film benefits strongly from the added resolution. It’s impressive as hell.

The HDR grade is impressive too, but it may be a little polarizing for some fans. People tend to remember this film as being much darker than it actually is. It’s dark, certainly, but bright highlights abound. The HDR grade strongly enhances these contrasts. Its shadows are deep as hell, with inky blacks, but those highlights are much bolder too. The film has always had the look of being lit by moonlight or streetlight in its nighttime scenes and that has more natural intensity now in HDR—when a character’s face is bleached white and he’s standing in a spotlight, it’s going to be bright. The film’s color has also been re-graded. The exterior nighttime scenes (especially the ending) are a cooler blue and blue-gray now – almost icy – which is truer to Burton’s intended look for the film, but it’s different from the previous Blu-ray. So people used to watching it that way may be surprised by it. The good news is that they’ve fixed all of the contrast mismatches on the film’s various matte paintings, so they’re much more well blended. And the wider color gamut greatly enhances the film’s palette. The Joker’s suit is a deeper purple, with vibrant orange and green accents. The luxurious interiors of Wayne Manor and Grissom’s apartment have rich caramel, gold, and silver tones. The attention to detail in this remaster is such that it seems likely both Burton and the film’s cinematographer, Roger Pratt, were involved in the effort.

Audio on the 4K disc is included in a new English Dolby Atmos mix, along with a 5.1 Dolby Digital down-mix of the same. The Atmos is a huge improvement upon the old mix in the sense that it’s much fuller and more muscular sounding, throaty, with strong low end, and great clarity and dynamic range. The height channels are employed actively in set-pieces, but more importantly serve to extend and enclose the soundfield with a sense of environment and atmosphere. This is particularly notable in the large halls of Wayne Manor, the interior of Axis Chemicals, and especially the Flugelheim Museum. Right after Joker gasses the place, there’s a sound effect when the doors are thrown open that really lingers in the air. The spaciousness in the mix as Prince’s Party Man booms through the cavernous lobby is magnificent in Atmos. And Elfman’s score has never sounded better, which is good because the composer wasn’t pleased with the original music mix.

It’s important to note, however, that Burton has made a few changes to the new mix. Longtime fans of the film will know that its post-production was rushed to meet the theatrical release date. So some of its sound effects were borrowed from other films. Specifically, most of the gun shots were reused cues from the Dirty Harry films. And when the Batmobile raises and lowers its armored shields, mechanical noises from James Cameron’s Aliens were used. For this new mix, all of those have been replaced with unique sound effects. It’s tastefully done and works well in context, but there will almost certainly be fans who quibble over the changes. This would be less of an issue if Warner had included the previous Blu-ray’s 5.1 audio mix on the discs, but they didn’t. (Again, the English 5.1 Dolby Digital mix here is new, down-mixed from the Atmos.) So don’t get rid of your previous Blu-rays.

Additional audio options include 5.1 Dolby Digital in French, Italian, German, Castilian Spanish, Latin Spanish, Chinese, Czech, Hungarian, Russian, Polish Voice-Over, and Thai. Optional subtitles include English for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, French, German for the Hearing Impaired, Italian for the Deaf, Castilian Spanish, Dutch, Chinese, Simplified Chinese, Korean, Latin Spanish, Arabic, Czech, Danish, Finnish, Hungarian, Norwegian, Polish, Russian, Swedish, and Thai.

Also important to note: The Blu-ray included in this package is mastered from the new 4K scan. That means it has more detail than before, but also the new color grade (sans HDR). It also includes the new Atmos mix. And again, the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is NOT the previous Blu-ray audio but the Atmos down-mix, so it includes the sound effects changes. The original theatrical audio is not included here either. That’s a shame, and will cause some consternation from fans, but again the solution is to hang onto the previous Blu-ray for posterity’s sake.

In terms of extras, the 4K disc itself includes only this:

  • Audio commentary with director Tim Burton

But the Blu-ray in the package carries over all of the special features from the previous Blu-ray edition, including:

  • Audio commentary with director Tim Burton
  • On the Set with Bob Kane (SD – 2:34)
  • Legends of the Dark Knight: The History of Batman (SD – 40:39)
  • Batman: The Complete Robin Storyboard Sequence (SD – 4:25)
  • Prince: Batdance Music Video (SD – 6:58)
  • Prince: Partyman Music Video (SD – 4:01)
  • Prince: Scandalous Music Video (SD – 4:18)
  • Theatrical Trailer (SD 16x9 – 1:44)

Shadows of the Bat: The Cinematic Saga of the Dark Knight (3 parts – 71:45 in all)

  • Pt. 1 – The Road to Gotham City (SD – 17:44)
  • Pt. 2 – The Gathering Storm (SD – 23:00)
  • Pt. 3 – The Legend Reborn (SD – 31:00)

Batman: The Heroes (5 clips – 12:40 in all)

  • Batman (SD – 4:55)
  • Vicki Vale (SD – 1:57)
  • Alexander Knox (SD – 1:37)
  • Commissioner Gordon (SD – 1:55)
  • Harvey Dent (SD – 2:13)

Batman: The Villains (2 clips – 7:23 in all)

  • The Joker (SD – 5:00)
  • The Goon (SD – 2:22)

Beyond Batman (6 parts – 50:41 in all)

  • Visualizing Gotham: The Production Design of Batman (SD – 10:26)
  • Building the Batmobile (SD – 9:25)
  • Those Wonderful Toys: The Props & Gadgets of Batman (SD – 6:03)
  • Designing the Batsuit (SD – 6:58)
  • From Jack to the Joker (SD – 10:40)
  • Nocturnal Overtures: The Music of Batman (SD – 7:06)

If you look past the fact that the extras are in 4x3 and standard definition (which is how they were originally produced back in 2005), you’ll find that the content is quite good. The highlight is the three-part Shadows of the Bat: The Cinematic Saga of the Dark Knight documentary, which details the process by which the film was brought to the screen. The documentary includes substantial interviews with all of the key people involved, including Keaton, Nicholson, and Burton. Unfortunately, this was prior to the re-discovery of Bill Finger’s involvement in the creation of Batman, so Bob Kane gets all the credit. (But don’t let that get in the way of your enjoyment.) The commentary is good as well, with some thoughtful anecdotes, and the rest of the bonus material focuses on different characters or aspects of the production and design. There’s also paper inserts that include a DC Universe offer and a Movies Anywhere Digital code.

If Richard Donner’s Superman launched the modern big-screen superhero genre, it was Tim Burton’s Batman that allowed it to grow beyond mere nostalgia and granted later filmmakers permission to take more risks. More to the point, Batman has long deserved—and finally been given—the proper restoration and finish it deserves. Longtime fans used to the look and sound of the previous Blu-ray may need time to adjust, but there’s no denying that the new 4K remaster and Atmos mix are spectacular. Warner’s Ultra HD is thus highly recommended... provided you can accept the changes (and yes, overlook its properly terrible cover art).

- Bill Hunt

(You can follow Bill on social media at these links: Twitter and Facebook)

 

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