Batman: The Motion Picture Anthology 1989-1997 Blu-ray Review: The Rise and Fall of a Franchise

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Back before superheroes were all the rage at the box office, Tim Burton and his creative team brought Batman to the silver screen in 1989. The film was highly anticipated with the logo seeming to appear everywhere that summer. While Jack Nicholson seemed to be the perfect choice for the Joker, some fans were all in a tizzy over Michael Keaton getting cast as Bruce Wayne/Batman, going so far as to send thousands of protest letters to Warner Brothers back in the days before the nerds were online. Ultimately when the film was released, they were proven wrong not to trust Burton's vision.

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Rather than offer up a movie version of the campy '60s television series (a mistake made by the final film in this collection), Burton's vision of the caped crusader was dark, reminiscent to how the character first appeared in Detective Comics #27 (May 1939), as created by writer Bill Finger and artist Bob Kane, as well as his portrayal in comics of late '80s. Wayne was a brooding figure and Gotham looked like an extension of Blade Runner's Los Angeles. Similar to the story in the comics, Batman caused a criminal, Jack Napier, to fall into a vat of chemicals, which disfigured his face. The biggest change from the comics is the film shows Napier to be the criminal who gunned downed Wayne's parents, which was the catalyst to Wayne becoming the Batman, borrowing from Spider-Man's comic-book origin. The villain creating the hero is an interesting idea, but has since been turned into a cliché by lazy scriptwriters.

Not surprisingly, Nicholson's Joker stole the show. He gave a great performance and had the best lines of the movie, causing Batman to be a supporting character. The production design was marvelous to look at and Danny Elfman's score was an integral part of the film's resonance. The main flaw would be the synergistic inclusion of Prince songs into this world, which didn't fit.

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After Batman's great success, Warner Brothers had Burton and his team return.  The director gained more creative control when his role expanded with the inclusion of producing duties, resulting in Batman Returns be an even darker film. The villains are Selina Kyle/Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer), whose dual personality is mirrors Batman, and Oswald Cobblepot/Penguin (Danny DeVito), although rather than the familiar figure of a distinguishably dressed gentleman, Burton created a grotesque figure with deformed features who ate raw fish and spewed dark-colored liquids.

The Penguin works with corrupt businessman Max Schrek (Christopher Walken) to take over Gotham by running for Mayor, but Batman knows the Penguin is a criminal. Selina works in Schrek's office and discovers some of his plans, causing him to push her off the top of a building. She survives (somehow) and becomes the Catwoman to seek revenge; however, her vigilantism puts her at odds with Batman. She works with the Penguin to stop their mutual nemesis, which becomes slightly complicated when Selina and Bruce begin to date.

I enjoyed Returns slightly more than Batman because it had much more of a comic book feel, from its story to the camerawork to the images of rocket-carrying penguins. I did have trouble understanding how the Penguin was able to find the Batmobile's schematics and take control of it, but the film did so many things right, I overlook that plot hole.

Many parents and the studio disagreed with me, and Burton was not brought back for Batman Forever due in part to a combination of the direction he took the franchise and Returns not achieving the same return on investment. Although he stayed on credited as a producer, the directing reins were handed over to Joel Schumacher, who was tasked with creating a more accessible film. His take on the comic book material is much more colorful, reminiscent of Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy, correlating "comic" with its silliness, getting closer to the television series.

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Forever introduces Dick Grayson/Robin (Chris O'Donnell), Edward Nygma/the Riddler (Jim Carrey), Harvey Dent/Two Face (Tommy Lee Jones) and Val Kilmer as Bruce Wayne/Batman. I could find no explanation why Billy Dee Williams didn't come back as Dent. It can't be a minor reboot of the series since Pat Hingle (Commissioner Gordon) and Michael Gough (Alfred) appear in all four movies.

A lot of people consider Batman and Robin the worst of this franchise, and I used to be one of them because I distinctly remember cursing to my friend throughout, but upon re-examination, Forever earns that designation because it doesn't know what it wants to be. The main problem with the film is the terrible script, which itself has a dual personality of seriousness and silliness, likely due to it being written by Lee Batchler & Janet Scott Batchler and Akiva Goldsman, a screenwriter with a lot of bad films on his resume. In the opening moments when Batman first speaks in response to Alfred's suggestion about taking a sandwich, he delivers the groan-inducing line, "I'll get drive-thru," foreshadowing the impending train wreck.

The story deals with Two Face teaming with the Riddler, the latter having created a device to steal people's I.Q.s, to do what with isn't exactly clear. Two Face kills Dick's parents (sound familiar?) and Bruce takes him in. After learning Bruce's identity and with encouragement from Alfred, Dick becomes Robin.

The villains, who in essence are both portrayed as bad imitations of Nicholson's Joker, are poorly realized, most evident by Schumacher in the Special Features repeatedly calling Two Face "Harvey Two Face," yet he never refers to "Bruce Batman." A scene that demonstrates the lack of understanding of the character is when Two Face is in Wayne Manor and keeps flipping a coin before he can join into the fray, which undercuts letting fate decide the outcome of a decision.

The real nail in the coffin is Carrey's typically over-the-top comedic performance, which no doubt helped push the film to make so much money. He's funny, but he doesn't get the character and his riffs too often bring to mind pop culture rather than staying within the timelessness of the series. It's as if Ace Ventura plays the Riddler; however, with Kilmer not given much to do, Carrey ultimately became the star of the picture.

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With Forever's financial success, Warner Brothers figured they would strike while the iron was hot and crank out another installment that was more kid friendly and toyetic, the latter bit of marketing jargon meaning the film was meant to be a toy catalog. Since Kilmer had already committed to The Saint, George Clooney was given the cowl. This time out all the darkness was removed and Robin became an adaptation of the '60s series that everyone feared preceding Burton's first foray. Schumacher chose his godson's favorite villains, Dr. Victor Fries/Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Dr. Pamela Isley/Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman) to next tackle the Bat.

The plot is a tad convoluted and the images so mind-numbingly dazzling I may well be wrong after watching it again, but here's what I think happened. Freeze has been physically altered while doing cryogenic research in an effort to save his sick wife. He steals diamonds to fuel his devices, which is how he runs up afoul of Batman. The first action sequence makes clear there's nothing considered too silly by the filmakers as Batman and Robin escape Freeze's exploding rocket by sailing through the air on metal doors they use as surfboards.

Ivy is also a scientist whose molecular structure has been altered when her boss, Jason Woodrue (John Glover), tries to kill her by throwing her into a bunch of chemicals, including plant toxins, after she catches him creating some type of super-solider serum and selling it to rogue countries. Ivy kills Woodrue with a kiss and takes Bane, who is fueled by Woodrue's serum, to Gotham where she solicits Bruce Wayne to finance her environmental work, but he refuses because of the damage it will do to humankind. At a fundraiser Wayne is holding where Batman and Robin are the special guests, Ivy shows and through the use of pheromones she's created causes a rift between the heroes.

Ivy and Freeze begin to work together against Batman and Robin, who are now working against themselves. Alfred is sick and dying, coincidentally with the same disease that Mrs. Fries has. In yet another twist, Alfred's niece, Barbara (Alicia Silverstone), who Bruce has never heard mentioned before even though Alfred supposedly visited with her previously, arrives for a visit. Continuing the series trend of Batman's identity being revealed in every movie, Barbara learns Bruce and Dick's secret and finagles her way into becoming Batgirl.

Robin finds the villain once again being the standout role, although in this case it's not a good thing because the most memorable bit of acting is Schwarzenegger's stiff delivery of corny, cold-related one-liners. It's obvious from the production design they had a big budget -- they even went to the trouble to change the qwerty configuration on a keyboard -- but that just goes to show you need more than money to make a good movie. If you enjoy watching bad, bloated excesses with a group of friends, add this to your queue.

While many rightfully deride Robin and while I am still annoyed they desecrated the Snow Meiser's song, you can't deny it stayed true to what it tried to be throughout. I give a lot of credit to Schumacher, who is seen apologizing on the disc for disappointing fans. Rarely does an artist admit failure, and his humility certainly scored points in my book because he gave the studio what they wanted out of the project.

The video on all four is presented in 1080p High Definition 16x9 with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, changed from the 2005 release of the set, which was in 2.35:1. The colors are very vivid. In Batman, they are limited, mainly used when the Joker is around, providing a contrast to the blacks of the Dark Knight. The use of color increases as Returns is set during a snowy Gotham during Christmastime and gets more progressive with Schumacher's films. Robin looks like an animated feature there's so much color used in the production design.

Other than Forever, which has a soft focus in many scenes, the details and textures are sharp throughout most of the films, although Batman uses atmosphere and smoke to create diffusion in some exterior shots. One problem with the high definition presentation is that many of the effects standout for the wrong reasons. Much of the animation, miniatures, and matte paintings no longer fool the eye and thus lose their magic.

The audio level of both the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 and Dolby Digital 5.1 is set very low. I had to increase the volume by 15 compared to most other Blu-rays and there were still times the softly spoken dialogue got lost. What was amazing is that when listening to the director commentaries -- where there were pauses and the film's audio was allowed to play -- the levels were louder than those same moments on the other tracks.  The music made the most use of the surround, although Freeze's dialogue could also be heard on it. The action scenes didn't make full use and mainly played through the fronts. The gunshots in Batman were very familiar and sounded like they were stock sounds.

Although they are all the same from 2005, there are a treasure trove of Special Features that should have Batman fans and film fans very excited. There is a six-part series called "Shadows of the Bat" that looks at the making of the film with interviews of the participants that are more candid than expected about the business, from Burton talking about knowing his services were no longer needed to O'Donnell feeling uncomfortable with the direction of the last film. The only thing that would have improved these would have been Keaton revealing why he didn't come back and Peter Guber talking about getting squeezed out of producing by Burton, but hard to believe such likely negative information would be included. The directors repeat some of the information here in their individual commentary tracks, but that makes the tracks no less engaging as they cover a lot of ground over the film's runtime.

"Legends of the Dark Knight" is a very insightful examination of the character by people who have worked on him like Denny O'Neil and Alex Ross, admirers like Harlan Ellison, and even competitor Stan Lee; all of whom are fans. "Beyond Batman" looks in-depth at the different filmmaking aspects. There are profiles on the heroes and the villains, two promotional television specials, and a number of music videos related to the soundtracks by artists such as Prince, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Seal, and Jewel. U2's "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me" is absent.

Deleted scenes from Batman feature a storyboard sequence that would have introduced Robin before the idea was cut from the script. Forever offers 14 minutes of deleted scenes that would reveal a darker film that reexamined the original story, making Bruce the reason the family went to the movies that fateful night. Robin cut a scene about Alfred.

The Motion Picture Anthology 1989-1997 set has quite a bit to offer and looks very good, so serious Bat-philes may want to grab the set.

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