The Cat, the Bat, and All That – Batman Returns (1992) 4K Ultra HD

Batman Returns, the immediate sequel to the 1989 smash hit, is redeemed mainly by association with its predecessor. It’s a Batman movie directed by Tim Burton and starring Michael Keaton, one of only two. Those aspects give it a certain cachet among fans who continue to hold it in some high regard, even if, to be blunt about it, the follow-up isn’t half the movie that Batman was.

I recently happened across an old review of the movie, first published in Douglas Pratt’s LaserDisc Newsletter in late 1992, that opens with the astute line: “Since nobody saw Batman Returns twice, the question in approaching the disc is how well it withstands repeated viewings.” Indeed, as much as it seemed like a cultural requirement to see the first Batman multiple times before it left theaters in the summer of 1989, few felt the same three years later. While still a box office success, Returns only grossed about 60% of what the original had. It was a highly anticipated movie that everyone went to see, yet for most people, once was enough.

Further to that end, I have purchased copies of Batman Returns on home video alongside the 1989 film, multiple times from DVD to Blu-ray and now 4K, yet I’ll be damned if I can remember whether I ever bothered to watch it again in full between 1992 and this viewing.

Batman Returns (1992) - Michael Keaton as Batman
Title:Batman Returns
Year of Release: 1992
Director: Tim Burton
Watched On: 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray
Also Available On: HBO Max
Various VOD rental and purchase platforms

Unlike some of the Bat-flicks to follow, Batman Returns isn’t actually a terrible movie. It has a number of qualities to enjoy, and even savor. Once again, Tim Burton delivers a fabulous vision of a crumbling metropolis lost somewhere between the 1930s and the modern day. His visual design sense continues to dazzle, and Danny Elfman provides another stirring score (with some noticeable hints of his work for the next year’s The Nightmare Before Christmas slipped in). The script also toys with a couple of interesting thoughts about the duality of being a masked hero or villain, and which identity is a costume and which is a true self.

Most of all, the film has Michelle Pfeiffer’s delightful performance as Catwoman, which may rank as the definitive portrayal of the character. The actress clearly had a blast playing both sides of Selina Kyle’s personality, the mousy secretary and the uninhibited antiheroine. She has great chemistry with Keaton, and the movie wisely writes out Kim Basinger’s boring Vicki Vale character with a couple offhand lines of dialogue to focus on the dynamic tension between Bruce and Selina.

A better version of Batman Returns would devote its entire length to Batman and Catwoman. Unfortunately, the version Burton provided shortchanges Pfeiffer by cramming in additional storylines about Christopher Walken as evil capitalist Max Shreck and Danny DeVito as the repugnant Penguin, plus Vincent Schiavelli as leader of a circus-themed street gang that kidnaps children. The picture is so overstuffed with villains that it reduces Batman himself to a supporting role in his own movie.

Batman Returns (1992) - Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman

None of the other characters are as interesting as Catwoman, and the screenplay doesn’t know what to do with them. Shreck is positioned as the mastermind schemer pulling everyone else’s strings, yet his plan to build a power plant that will somehow suck the power out of Gotham City is weakly defined or motivated. Why does he need all this electricity he wants to steal, and what is his ulterior plan to do with it? Those questions are never addressed.

At the time of production, Danny DeVito seemed like ideal casting for The Penguin, but the conception of his character here is far too foul and filthy and repulsive. Yes, he’s a villain, but the villains in a movie like this should be fun. This one is just grotesque, especially in the way DeVito insists on playing him as so disturbingly horny. The film fails to reconcile Penguin’s unpleasantness with the goofiness of having him ride around on a giant toy ducky while leading an army of actual penguins wearing rockets strapped to their backs. Tim Burton might have found the juxtaposition amusing, but it doesn’t play as well as he hoped. Nothing about the character makes sense.

Catwoman’s origin story is also difficult to suspend disbelief for. After Shreck attempts to murder Selina, she’s licked back to life by magical cats, thus transforming into an instant vigilante with never-before-suggested incredible acrobatic skills. I know that the movie is based on a comic book, but storylines like these break the spell of the semi-plausible world built in the last film.

I feel a little hypocritical complaining about the silliness in this sequel when I’ve previously praised the humor in the first movie, and am a fan of the wacky 1960s Batman. Yet Batman Returns struggles to find its tone. Does it want to be a dark and serious take on a superhero story, or a campy comedy? It veers wildly between each, never quite striking a balance that works (which, in my opinion, the prior movie did). The fact that much of the plotting is so blatantly dumb doesn’t help in that regard.

Some contingents of Tim Burton fandom hold that Batman Returns is actually superior to the first Batman, in that it is more purely Burtonian, unshackled from the restraints the studio imposed upon the director the first time around. I can see that argument, and even respect it. The movie is filled with many of his trademark flourishes and sensibilities, and definitely could never be the product of anyone other than Tim Burton. Nevertheless, it didn’t work for me in 1992 and doesn’t work much more for me now. As I watched it again for this long-overdue revisit, I was once more overcome with the realization that the sequel is, sadly, a dud. Sometimes, a little restraint is needed to improve the work.

Batman Returns (1992) - Danny DeVito as The Penguin

The 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray

Batman Returns was released on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray in 2019, sold either individually or in a 4-Film Collection with Batman (1989), Batman Forever (1995), and Batman & Robin (1997). The standard Blu-ray in the case has also been remastered from the same 4K scan.

Many of the things I had to say about the 1989 film in 4K apply to this one as well, both positive and negative. Aside from a handful of inherently soft and grainy optical composite shots, the 1.85:1 image is often extraordinarily sharp and detailed, enough to put the older Blu-ray from 2010 (which was pretty decent on its own) to shame. Unlike the previous film’s UHD disc, however, I had no need to turn down my display’s tone-mapping. Brightness levels look fine and the contrast is crisply defined even at my normal calibrated settings. I’m hopeful that whatever happened on the Batman disc may have been an anomaly.

Regrettably, Batman Returns also suffers from a gaudy new teal-and-orange color grade that changes the look of the photography. Wherever the film previously had cool blues, they are now replaced with sickly teal. In fact, an entire range of colors has been replaced with a blanket of either teal or orange, flattening the visual palette of the movie significantly.

I know some apologists who will argue that we can’t use older video transfers as a reference (fair enough), and perhaps the new master is more accurate to how the film is supposed to look. Sorry, I can’t buy that excuse. The teal-and-orange color fad is a byproduct of digital color grading tools introduced in the early 2000s. Movies simply did not look like this in 1992.

Batman Returns (1992) color comparison - 2010 Blu-rayBatman Returns (1992) color comparison - 2019 Blu-ray

On my first watch of the UHD disc, I was inclined to say that the application of teal here is more tolerable than it had been on the 1989 Batman. In most scenes, I wasn’t too bothered by it. The colors only took me out of the movie on a few occasions. Strangely, the regular Blu-ray from the same master actually seems to be worse in this regard. Scanning through that disc, I’m hard-pressed to find any scenes not totally swallowed in teal. This could be a side effect of the downconversion from HDR and Wide Color Gamut. Regardless, make no mistake that the Ultra HD still has plenty of teal where it shouldn’t.

The new Dolby Atmos sound mix has a broader dynamic range in Danny Elfman’s musical score than the Atmos track on Batman did. The new disc has plenty of bassy heft in the music. In fact, the score is a little annoyingly rumbly. With no Batwing jet in this outing, Returns offers fewer opportunities for overhead effects. The only ones that caught my attention involved Penguin’s dumb helicopter umbrella and a swirling frenzy of flying bats.

If any of the film’s original sound effects were taken out and replaced with library recording substitutes for the Atmos track, I must confess that I’ve watched Batman Returns far fewer times than Batman and am less familiar with how it should sound. I’ll go ahead and assume that such a thing did happen here as well. Certainly, a number of audio cues sound disproportionately louder than the rest of the soundtrack.

The supplement package looks a lot like the last film. The 4K disc only has an audio commentary, while the accompanying Blu-ray ports about 2.5 hours of featurettes and documentaries (in standard-definition video), as well as a very cheesy Siouxsie and the Banshees music video, from a very old DVD. The theatrical trailer is the only item in high-def.

Batman Returns (1992) 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.

One thought on “The Cat, the Bat, and All That – Batman Returns (1992) 4K Ultra HD

  1. Like most things in life, guess this one comes down to timing. I saw ‘Batman Returns’ on TV as a kid and LOVED it. Saw ‘Batman’ for the first time in 2008 as a 24-year-old, and was only mildly entertained. I will always favour ‘Returns’ over ‘Batman’, but that opinion would most likely differ had I seen the OG in cinemas in 1989. As coincidence would have it, ‘1989’ did mark my first-ever visit to the States (Florida) and I happily bought (well, ‘received’ from my dad) a few packs of trading cards of the movie that I own to this day.


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