Release Date(s)1992 (June 4, 2019)
Studio(s)PolyGram Pictures/Warner Bros. Pictures (Warner Bros.)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: A+
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: B-
It’s Christmastime in Gotham, where the snow-laden streets are rife with rumors of a mysterious “Penguin Man” living beneath them. But that’s initially of no concern to business magnate Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), who’s scheming to build a new power plant in a secret bid to take control of the city. When his lowly secretary, Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer) discovers his plan, Shreck tosses her out a window, unwittingly creating Catwoman in the process. And when The Penguin (Danny DeVito) finally emerges from the sewers—and allies himself with Shreck and Catwoman—it’s only Batman (Michael Keaton) who can save Gotham’s citizens from a terrible fate.
As a follow up to his wildly successful Batman, Tim Burton’s Batman Returns is an admirably ambitious effort, with more complicated characters and a carefully interwoven plot. But it’s also strangely lacking in energy and suspense. You get the sense that Burton is more interested in his villains this time around. Cobblepot’s origin story is Dickensian orphan by way of Charles Addams, while Selina Kyle’s is a female empowerment revenge tale that dances right on the edge of camp. These are matched with the stock machinations of Shreck’s capitalist run amok. Meanwhile, the film’s settings and production design have a more intricate and painterly aesthetic here. All of this would be fine… except for the fact that Batman is essentially relegated to a supporting role in his own film, and not a very interesting one at that. The scripting is uneven, with some brilliant dialogue and some that’s just awful. And while DeVito, Pfeiffer, and Walken give it their all, none of them are as dangerously off-kilter, interesting, or menacing as Nicholson’s Joker from the first film, who shines as much for his unexpected performance touches between the lines as for anything that’s actually on the scripted page. There is certainly much to recommend Batman Returns, but it’s an odd duck and—unfortunately—a bit of a misfire.
Like Batman (1989), Batman Returns was shot photochemically in 35mm, using Panavision cameras and lenses, and finished on film (with visual effects produced in VistaVision format). For this Ultra HD release, the original camera negative was scanned in native 4K and graded for high dynamic range (in HDR10). The result is presented here in the proper 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio. In many ways, the improvement in resolution is even more spectacular than the first film in Ultra HD (reviewed here in 4K). The detail is abundant and tight, with gorgeously refined textures visible in the fabric of suits and costumes, and in the stone and brick of The Penguin’s watery lair. Film grain is once again light-medium, retaining a lovely photochemical look without ever being distracting. And the model-work in this film is better, though a few of the optically composited shots have a much softer appearance, as you’d expect. On the whole, though, this is a tremendous upgrade of the previous Blu-ray image.
The HDR grade is better too. Batman Returns has much more of Burton’s characteristic icy blue-silver and black look. That, combined with film’s equally characteristic Christmas setting, more readily lends itself to enhancement with high dynamic range. Shadows are deep and detailed, with ink-black depths, while the highlights are bold but just shy of being eye-reactive. The wider color gamut enriches the film’s hues with greater saturation and accuracy, while adding a more natural aspect to the theatrical-styled palette. It’s very hard to imagine that this film could look better than it does here in Ultra HD.
On the audio front, the primary offering is a new English Dolby Atmos mix that’s a fine upgrade over the previous Blu-ray, though not nearly as much of one as the original Batman in 4K (if only because that film’s theatrical audio had a flatter and more unfinished quality from the start). The soundstage is big and lively, with a nice high ceiling of atmosphere added by the height channels, and a fuller sound overall. Clarity is excellent and there’s wonderful spaciousness in the mix—you can hear this in the Batcave, in The Penguin’s cavernous lair, and especially in Shreck’s party scene. Low end is natural and effective, without ever sounding forced. The mix just has a more nuanced character; it’s a little more detailed, a little more precise. Danny Elfman’s score has lovely clarity and energy. And unlike Batman’s Atmos mix, there are no sound effects changes that I can discern. All in all, it’s a great mix for this film.
Additional audio options include 5.1 Dolby Digital in English (which I believe is the same mix included on the previous Blu-ray), Quebec French, French, German, Italian, Castilian Spanish, Chinese, Latin Spanish, Czech, Hungarian, Polish Voice-Over, Russian, and Thai. Optional subtitles are available in English for the Hard of Hearing, French, German for the Hearing Impaired, Italian for the Deaf, Castilian Spanish, Dutch, Traditional Chinese, Simplified Chinese, Cantonese, Korean, Latin Spanish, Arabic, Czech, Danish, Finnish, Hungarian, Norwegian, Polish, Russian, Swedish, and Thai.
A note on the Blu-ray version: The regular HD disc in the package is mastered from the new 4K scan and color grade, so its image is greatly improved over the previous Blu-ray. It also includes the new Atmos mix, but as best I can tell the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is the same one as the previous Blu-ray.
Warner’s 4K disc includes one special feature only:
- Audio commentary with director Tim Burton
This is the same track from the previous release. But the Blu-ray in the package also includes the following video extras:
- The Bat, The Cat, and The Penguin (SD – 21:54)
- Shadows of the Bat: Pt. 4 – Dark Side of the Knight (SD – 30:19)
- Siouxie and the Banshees: Face to Face Music Video (SD – 4:21)
- Theatrical Trailer (SD 16x9 – 2:35)
Batman: The Heroes (2 clips – 7:08 in all)
- Batman (SD – 3:07)
- Alfred (SD – 4:01)
Batman: The Villains (3 clips – 11:22 in all)
- The Penguin (SD – 4:29)
- Catwoman (SD – 4:32)
- Max Shreck (SD – 2:19)
Beyond Batman (6 parts – 65:52 in all)
- Gotham City Revisited: The Production Design of Batman Returns (SD – 11:27)
- Sleek, Sexy, and Sinister: The Costumes of Batman Returns (SD – 13:31)
- Making-Up The Penguin (SD – 8:15)
- Assembling the Arctic Army (SD – 9:34)
- Bats, Mattes, and Dark Nights: The Visual Effects of Batman Returns (SD – 11:37)
- Inside the Elfman Studio: The Music of Batman Returns (SD – 11:25)
Again, these are all carried over from the previous Blu-ray, in standard definition as originally produced. Everything is here and it’s all solid material, looking at various aspects of the characters and the filmmaking process. Burton’s commentary is very similar in tone and content to his track on the first film. And the extras are formatted as an extension of those on the first film as well. There are also paper inserts that include a DC Universe offer and a Movies Anywhere digital code.
If Batman Returns isn’t as good a film as Burton’s original Batman, it is at least more interesting. Even better, Warner’s new Ultra HD release delivers a significant image and solid audio upgrade of the previous Blu-ray. If you’re a fan, you’ll definitely not want to miss it. Recommended (again, aside from its terrible cover artwork).
- Bill Hunt