Those Wonderful Toys – Batman (1989) 4K Ultra HD

Looking back to my teenage youth in the summer of 1989, I remember talking to my friends about the upcoming Batman movie with some skepticism. Hard though it may be to fathom now, comic book superhero movies were actually out of fashion at that time. Batman in particular was mostly remembered for the campy 1960s TV series, and the casting of Beetlejuice funny guy Michael Keaton suggested another comedic take on the character. Initially, the whole project sounded like a bomb waiting to go off. Not until the first trailers rolled out could I have suspected that a weirdo director by the name of Tim Burton was about to change the course of cinema for decades to come.

Nowadays, superheroes dominate every form of motion picture entertainment from movies to TV. A teenager growing up today may not even remember a time before costumed heroes from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the DC Extended Universe, and dozens of competitors based on comic books from the popular to the obscure battled for their eyeballs and attention. At the tail end of the 1980s, however, all we really had was Superman, a film franchise that had already flamed out with the disastrous Superman IV: The Quest for Peace in 1987 and nearly killed the entire genre. By that measure, Batman was quite a risk for studio Warner Bros. Had it failed, we’d be living in a very different world right now.

Batman (1989) - Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne
Year of Release: 1989
Director: Tim Burton
Watched On: 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray
Also Available On: HBO Max
Various VOD rental and purchase platforms

Of course, Batman was a monstrous box office blockbuster and a cultural phenomenon. I didn’t know anyone in my age range who saw it fewer than three times in the theater. (One of my friends set the pace with nine viewings.) Prince songs from the soundtrack album were in constant rotation on the radio and Bat-merchandise was everywhere. You couldn’t look down the street without seeing a half dozen or more people wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the Bat-logo. Batman proved that not only were movies based on comic books still viable, but that audiences would have an almost insatiable desire for them when done well.

Most of the film’s success was chalked up to Burton taking the material seriously, unlike the goofy and lighthearted TV show from a couple decades earlier (which was at an ebb its popularity, before nostalgia would later reclaim it). The director took some inspiration from writer Frank Miller’s acclaimed The Dark Knight Returns comic, with its mature, vigilante Batman battling crime in a Gotham City defined by corruption and decay. Burton’s Batman wears dark leather and body armor, not colorful spandex tights. The movie is surprisingly violent, and has swearing (a lot more swearing than I remembered, frankly) and references to sex. This certainly isn’t Adam West’s wholesome Caped Crusader or the one from the Super Friends cartoon.

At the same time, the movie isn’t nearly as serious as it was initially perceived. Burton has his own affinity for camp that comes out in force with Jack Nicholson’s gleefully manic portrayal of The Joker as a lunatic with a clown fetish and a fondness for bright purple wardrobe. The two-time (later three-time) Oscar winner has an absolute blast hamming it up and delivering dialogue like, “This town needs an enema!” On top of that, I think the director was smart enough to understand that the idea of a guy who dresses up in a bat costume to fight crime is inherently silly, and wasn’t afraid to inject his film with plenty of humor when needed. Some of his successors have forgotten that lesson.

Batman (1989) - Michael Keaton and Kim Basinger as Batman and Vicki Vale

As the years have gone on, the Batman character in media has grown increasingly dark, broody, and intense. Aside from the Lego Batman parody, recent iterations have had no humor at all (nor much sense of fun, to be honest). Audiences have responded well to the shift. Ironically, the Burton films that started this trend toward a more serious Batman are actually viewed now by some fans as too campy or “dated,” as if they were only a KA-POWW!! away from the Adam West version. I reject this notion. The grimmer Batman becomes, the less interesting I find him. Burton strikes a delicate balance and I appreciate his tonal swings now more than ever. (I love West’s Batman on its own merits as well.)

The 1989 Batman also lacks the wall-to-wall action required in a superhero film today. If anything about the movie were actually dated, the longish stretches of plot and character drama between the big set-pieces are no longer considered acceptable in a blockbuster of this type. I like its pacing just fine, personally, but I realize that complaining about the freneticism of modern movies runs the risk of my sounding like an out-of-touch curmudgeon.

That said, this Batman has its flaws. I find the swearing excessive. (I don’t have a blanket aversion to swearing, but it feels unnecessary and jarring here.) The love story plot between Batman and reporter Vicki Vale is unconvincing, and Kim Basinger is stiff in the role. Love them though I may, the Prince songs feel like they were foisted on the film by studio mandate in order to generate soundtrack album sales. In general, I get the sense that Burton (on only his third feature) was held back from going all-out and making the movie as weird and idiosyncratic as he would have liked. He’d get more leeway on that in the sequel.

Nevertheless, three decades later, Batman holds up remarkably well, and that’s mostly attributable to Tim Burton’s vision to redefine how to adapt a comic book into a movie. By blending elements of the (then) modern day with a 1930s Art Deco design aesthetic, he created a Gotham City trapped outside of time, and therefore timeless. Even when the mattes and miniature special effects aren’t necessarily photorealistic, they feel like old-school movie magic. The film is a marvel to look at. It’s also exciting, fun, and still a fantastic example of what a populist summer blockbuster can be.

Batman (1989) - The Batmobile

The 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray

Batman has been a perennially popular home video staple since the VHS days. The film’s first Blu-ray edition, released back in 2009, was a very respectable disc with a nice video transfer and a whole bunch of supplements. Rewatching it again now for a comparison, the image has pretty good detail, contrast, and colors. That’s not to say it couldn’t be improved, but it holds up better than I expected.

A 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray followed a decade later, in 2019, sold either individually or as part of a 4-Film Collection with Tim Burton’s direct sequel and the two Joel Schumacher follow-ups. Both the UHD and the Blu-ray in the package were remastered from a 4K scan and feature a new Dolby Atmos soundtrack. I have extremely conflicted feelings about it.

On the one hand, the UHD’s 4K image (letterboxed to the theatrical 1.85:1, not slightly open-matte as the old disc had been) has an impressive boost in sharpness, detail, and clarity in most scenes. While the shots with optical composites are naturally still pretty soft and grainy, other footage benefits tremendously from the new 4K scan. Close-ups, especially, have oodles of detail. In the scene where Vicki Vale pretends to kiss Joker’s arm and stops to pick lint out of her mouth, you can practically count every thread in the jacket sleeve. Many of the colors are also more vivid and vibrant, on the occasions when they haven’t been radically altered. At its best, the UHD disc makes the old Blu-ray look drab and dull.

The first problem is that High Dynamic Range encoding appears seriously overcranked at my projector’s usual calibration settings. The picture is far too bright, which makes the movie look overlit and exposes the seams in mattes and opticals. Fortunately, turning the display’s tone-mapping settings down mostly resolved this for me and brought the contrast back into a nominal range. Although I’ve encountered this a few times before, it’s relatively rare. I hardly ever feel the need to change settings on a title-by-title basis (nor should I have to, ideally), but this one required it. Note that this is only an issue on the HDR UHD. The regular Blu-ray disc looks fine at my calibrated settings for Standard Dynamic Range content.

More distressingly, the movie has been given a teal-and-orange color makeover that significantly changes the look of the photography in many scenes. Present on both the UHD and the comparable remastered Blu-ray, the effect is fairly subtle during some parts of the movie, mostly just leaving a slight teal tinge to whites. However, certain moments and scenes are smothered in a grotesque bathing of teal that looks horrible, and it happens frequently enough to pull me right out of the movie. The teal-and-orange look is a fad that started with the advent of digital color grading in the early 2000s. Movies made before that time did not and should not look like this.

The most frustrating thing about this is how inconsistently it’s applied. Within any given scene, Joker’s face may look white in one shot and then teal in the next, with no discernible motivation for the change. While I may concede that the old master perhaps had a touch too much red that left whites with a pinkish hue, that was still preferable to this gaudy abomination.

Batman (1989) color comparison - 2009 Blu-rayBatman (1989) color comparison - 2019 Blu-ray

The Dolby Atmos soundtrack likewise makes major changes to the content. The audio hasn’t just been remixed; many sound effects have been replaced and sound very different than the originals. How much this bothers you may depend on how familiar you are with the old soundtrack and/or how much of a purist you are about such things. For my part, at least as far as Batman is concerned, I find it a little annoying but not quite as bothersome as the teal coloring.

The mix itself has some fun panning and separation effects, including overhead action from helicopters and the Batwing jet, but many of the sound effects are disproportionately loud relative to the rest of the audio. Meanwhile, even though explosions can hit with some rumbly bass, the Danny Elfman score has a very flattened dynamic range and sounds disappointingly thin.

The disc also includes a 5.1 option, but it’s only in lossy Dolby Digital and seems to just be a fold-down from the Atmos. Lest one pine for the old Blu-ray’s Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track with the original sound effects, keep in mind that this movie predates 5.1 audio and played theatrically in matrixed Dolby Surround. The film’s actual original sound mix has not been available on home video since Laserdisc.

The only bonus feature on the 4K disc itself is an audio commentary by director Tim Burton. The rest of the extras are found on the accompanying Blu-ray. The content is directly ported from the prior Blu-ray with nothing newly created. All of it originated from a DVD edition dating back to 2005, and everything except a trailer is authored in standard-definition video. The featurettes and documentaries add up to about two hours of material more impressive in volume than in substance. Most of it is very promotional and superficial in nature.

Batman (1989) 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray

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Note: All screenshots on this page were taken from the standard Blu-ray edition of the film and are used for illustration purposes only.

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