Category Archives: Tim Burton

Batman Returns (1992)

4 stars out of 4. The Batman broods, Catwoman roars, and Penguin schemes in a beautifully realized snowy Gotham.

“You’re just jealous, because I’m a genuine freak and you have to wear a mask!”

–“You might be right

Batman (1989) is a strange cross between a huge commercial mammoth and a quirky art movie that later came to be known as a Tim Burton film. It is this constant back and forth struggle that simultaneously harms the impact but makes the first Batman so damn interesting. However, it cannot be considered a true work of the director behind the lens, so Warner Bros. made it up to his the second time round. In order to lure Burton back for Batman II they had to offer him full creative control on a story that he liked.

Giving Burton carte blanche was one of the single best things to happen to the cinematic Dark Knight. Batman Returns is not only a staggeringly dark and adult film, it heightens Burton’s fascination with duality to such an extreme that for the only time in a live-action Batman film we actively question the nature of Bruce/Batman’s crusade in reference to our own lives. (Well, we also do this in the other great Batman film, but that’s in the next review.)

Returns is a brooding experience, a slow-burning multifaceted portrait of deeply flawed individuals who resort to using masks to conceal their true selves. Many decry the film for not featuring Batman as the prominent character, but when is that ever in any of the films? Here Burton is not afraid to go all the way in crafting a psychologically complex cast of characters that make the first film look like little more than a Saturday morning serial. Batman Returns is a haunted dream come to life.

The real villain behind it all is the aptly named Max Schreck, portrayed by Christopher Walken who is one of those rare actors with the gift of making anything better by merely appearing onscreen. He is a power obsessed manipulator who is scheming to build a power plant that will actually stockpile energy. But he is trying to find a way to get it past the stodgy new mayor.

Into his lap falls the Penguin (Danny DeVito) who is a deformed outcast determined to take his rightful place in society with the help of his Red Triangle gang. They kidnap Schreck and Penguin attempts to blackmail him with knowledge of Schreck’s shady business dealings. Schreck agrees and later convinces Penguin to run for mayor.

Meanwhile, Shreck’s frazzled and ineffective new secretary is making a mess of her job. Her pathetic life is such that she spends one night going through locked files to prepare for an important meeting. Schreck discovers her and unfortunately for Miss Selina Kyle these files happen to divulge the power plant scheme. In a great sequence, Schreck teases her death and then flings her out a window. This does not kill Selina, who is awakened by a horde of alley cats. A return home and a mental breakdown later resorts in some quick sewing work…

Batman intercedes and reacts to all of these individual plots as a catalyst. He is never ahead of the curve and instead prowls as the winged protector instead of the crimefighter. Keaton’s portrayal of Bruce/Batman is even more nuanced in Returns, so that while his brooding might have been seen or displayed in Batman, Returns features a complete obsessive and deeply broken man. his introduction into the film is made while sitting in a pitch black study inside Wayne Manor. The Batsignal is flashed into the sky, and giant mirrors on the manor track it into the study window, illuminating the darkness with the Bat insignia. Bruce stands into the light and then moves towards it in a stunning visual of embracing destiny.

Batman’s eventual meet with Catwoman is mirrored by Bruce’s immediate attraction to the now brazen and fractured Selina Kyle, who presents as much of if not more of a challenge than Catwoman presents to the Dark Knight. Both pairs share an almost animal attraction towards one another that becomes manifested in a revealing human nature during the day, and turns towards violence when they don their masks at night. Bruce/Batman instinctively desires to save both women, and then realizes his more personal feelings beyond that. Catwoman acts as the aggressive side of Selina’s psyche doing all that she could never bring herself to voice previously. Initially this tirade is seemingly an anti-male fight, but as her “first time” out proves, she is just as sick of the women too. Her weariness matches Batman’s perfectly.

Batman has grown tired of his crusade. Burton and Keaton provide glimpses into Batman’s real world, for example after his first meeting with Catwoman Batman is shown sitting down in the Batcave wounded by her nail barb. He asks Alfred for antiseptic and stares at the blade partly undressed form the costume. His eyes look off into the darkness and he murmurs Catwoman’s greeting: “meow”. Batman reacts instead of actively searching out crime, yet his mind can never stop processing his never-ending thirst for justice. Upon the Penguin’s initial mass acceptance into Gotham, only Bruce/Batman harbors a distrust that may partially be from an odd sense of what is almost jealousy. As Alfred asks: “Why are you now determined to prove that this Penguin is not what he seems? Must you be the only lonely man-beast in town?”

DeVito’s performance as the Penguin is not really a truly menacing one. In fact, the Penguin is quite sympathetic as a deformed outcast desiring to take his revenge against a society so cruel that as an infant his own parents dumped him in the sewers on a cold Christmas Eve. His manipulation at the hands of Schreck only enhances this sympathy as a man hungrily tearing away at a raw fish being catapulted into a mayoral campaign. Yet the Penguin has a knowing sense of life that belies the script’s twisted sense of humor. Not only is this a deep film for adults to consider, it’s darkly funny too.

Gotham City is stunning to look at just like the first one was. The switch from the massive Gotham set built in England to soundstages on the Warner back lot sounds like a budget cut at first thought, but the production design actually goes beyond Anton Furst’s sprawling dingy Gotham to create a snowy oppressive landscape that seems to leap right out of Detective Comics. And snow. Did I mention the snow? In Batman Returns, it’s always snowing in Gotham. The use of refrigerated sets for the penguins allowed for use of actual snow in L.A. of all places. This wonderfully chilly atmosphere lends an air of dreamlike reality to the proceedings s much that at times one feels as if you’ve fallen into a dark snowglobe.

Danny Elfman’s score is much improved as he no longer is forced to rely on the heavy heroic theme and gets freed up to be a bit more operatic. There is always a note of tragedy in each character’s theme and this is no more apparent than in the conclusion where the music becomes Hermann-esque. The script is endlessly inventive and interesting, as the massive subtext that is so interesting in Batman is no longer “sub”. Returns is all subtext and truly fascinating to delve into. The gloom and sense of tragedy combine into what can truly be considered a form of operatic narrative.

It is this theme of duality and outcasts that further separates Returns from all the other Bat-films. Combined with the stupendous production design of a wintery Gotham, an actual adult witty depth far beyond the first film and a bold style from a director unafraid and not limited on self-creativity this time around; Batman Returns is not only the best live-action Batman film to this day, but is also the best and most fully-realized of all Burton’s films.


Oh, and this Batman kills. Keaton punch.

EDITIONS: The first film given a wide release in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound, Returns quickly debuted on VHS and Laserdisc. It follows the pattern of the other three Batman films in the franchise by seeing an early DVD release featuring image manipulation, slight cropping, artifacts and all the fun stuff. Then it was treated to a 2 disc Special edition like the others in 2005, from a new HD master. 5.1 mixes are presented in both Dolby and DTS, with the DTS being far superior due to bitrate.  Of the four, it has the best presented image and this comes out further on the Blu-ray release. This Blu-ray is a direct port of the same master to 1080p. Audio is present in Dolby TrueHD 5.1. However, there are still some issues with the image that distract my eyes as on the other three films based of this HD master. There still seems to be signs of grain reduction and image manipulation as on the ’05 SE DVDs, which prevents these from being definitive. Audio packs a bigger punch at about double the bitrate of the DVD’s DTS track.

Also, why do people feel the need to crop films composed and shot for 1.85:1 to 1.78:1? So what if your precious HDTV has two tiny miniscule black letterboxing bars? You’ve cropped the sides off! All four Batmans are cropped this way from their original 1.85:1.

Due to my love of the first film’s Dolby Stereo mix, and after noticing that the credits only list Dolby Stereo, I’m more than curious about the Laserdisc PCM surround. I’ll update comments here when I find a rot-free copy.

Notes: My only problem with this film is that Selina suddenly becomes quite adept at fighting and her other Catwoman activities. Where did all this skill come from?

-You know this film is going to be better when the soundtrack switched from cheesy Prince to Siouxie and the Banshees.

-Returns is beautifully self-aware:

Alfred: Let’s not forget about repairing the Batmobile. There’s certain security to consider. It’s not as though we can take it to any old “Joe’s bodyshop,” is it, sir?

Bruce: Security? Who let Vicki Vale into the Batcave? I’m sitting there working and I turn around, there she is. “Oh hi, Vick – come on in.”

EDIT 7/1/13: After listening and comparing the Laserdisc’s PCM version of the Dolby Stereo mix and the initial 1999 DVD with a 384 kbp/s Dolby 5.1 track, I’m convinced that they are the theatrical mixes from 1992. Both use the same video master and share the same mix qualities, with the matrixed surround having great midrange but the 5.1 having the superior highs and deeper LFE due to the discrete channels. Both completely outdo the remix struck in 2005 for SE DVD and Blu-ray which had loudness compression in addition to noise reduction. (Both theatrical mixes have very light tape hiss which the later mixes have erased.) Additionally only 11 theaters in North America were equipped for Dolby 5.1 in 1992 for the release of Batman Returns, so 99% of audiences experienced the Dolby Stereo mix. Judging from the sound, I’m pretty sure the initial mix was done in Dolby Stereo as it is very similar to the mix on the first film but with enhanced detail from being three years younger. Then I assume the go ahead was given for the usage of Dolby SR-D (as it was known at the time) and the mixers took the pre-existing 4 track master and maximized the detail inherent. Also, in addition to opening the film to 1.78, the color timing has been changed to make the film bluer in keeping with modern tendencies on the later transfer. In other words, I highly recommend the outdated LD and old DVD if you like this film as much as I do.

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Filed under 4 stars, Batman, Film Directors, Film Review, Tim Burton

Batman (1989)

Bold, uncompromising poster image that stopped 1989 traffic dead in its tracks.

3.5 stars out of 4. Uncannily mesmerizing while dancing with the devil in the pale moonlight.

What Batman did for the comic book industry and comic book film in 1989 is incalculable. It was simply everywhere that summer and its aftereffects are felt to this day, as every single new comic book film that comes out bears the hallmarks of the founding comic book films: Richard Donner’s Superman (1978) and Tim Burton’s Batman (1989). These two films have even more in common. Both are compromised but ultimately great films that feature a developed narrative around their respective character’s origin into their heroic counterparts. Batman forms a kind of dark reflection of the lighter and more robust Superman, much as the character did upon debuting in 1939.

The plot of Batman is simple enough: Batman (Michael Keaton) prowls the night in Gotham City, wreaking havoc on the criminal underworld. This underworld falls under the mob boss Carl Grissom (Jack Palance in a great bit part), whose right hand man is Jack Napier (Jack, is any other name necessary? Nicholson), a man with a certain fondness for the color purple and cards…

Reporter Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) investigates “The Batman” to no avail until the arrival of photographer Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger, who sticks out like a really sore thumb). At a party held in Bruce Wayne’s manor, Vale and Knox try and get Commissioner Gordon to admit facts about this mysterious Bat-creature. Bruce is taken by Vale, but is forced to go off after Gordon, who was called away on a big tip off.

This tip is that Napier is cleaning out a chemical plant acting as a front for Grissom’s shady dealings. In fact, he has been set up for having an affair with Grissom’s woman and the police close in. Batman attempts to apprehend Napier, but a stray bullet forces Napier over a railing of chemicals. Batman tries to save him, but Napier falls to his death and lands in the boiling green murk.

Over the course of the film, Napier arises to become the Joker, takes over Grissom’s command and wreaks havoc throughout Gotham. He develops a fondness for Vale, and the film culminates in a final showdown with the two grand foes of comic book lore high atop a Gothic church tower. (You can’t help but notice the giant visual and staging reference to Vertigo.)

Throw in a flashback to Bruce’s parent’s murder and you have basically the general version of every single major comic book origin film that has been released since. (Sequels non withstanding.) But the genius of Batman isn’t in the story. It isn’t even in the monumental production design that was responsible for the construction of a full scale Gotham City that is a third star of the film. The genius and reason why so many have re-watched this film is subtext. Like Superman before it, and Batman Returns to a much greater degree after it, Batman creates a fully realized world and characters entirely through subtext. The seemingly simple story takes on new meaning because the audience is allowed to savor and digest the events onscreen. Burton allows the story to progress naturally and is never afraid to let the camera linger on a scene lest we forget the whimsical dark fantasy that is Batman.

He and in turn we are fascinated with the idea that a man can be so divided into two different personalities. The day and the night, dark and the light sides of Bruce Wayne/Batman are probed in this popcorn blockbuster in ways that are totally unexpected. Keaton gives us a portrait of a haunted man, a man unable to forget the traumatizing night when his parents were gunned down in front of him. His role as Batman is not a child’s desire for revenge but a duty he has assigned to himself that only he can ever perform. It is at once both his existence and the means to save that tortured life. His Bruce Wayne is an educated but preoccupied man who in turn comes off as ineffective and somewhat clumsy. This provides an excellent cover to the Batman persona without resorting to the smarmy playboy. It also forms a protective barrier around the brooding and intensely focused core inside the Batman. Burton cast Keaton because he could picture him needing to put on a big costume to go out and fight crime.

And god, those eyebrows…they seem almost unreal, always questioning and I’ve always thought they resemble bat wings.

The film’s Batman is at once familiar and unsettling. There is something demonic about the Batsuit, primarily in the way the cape can flap like wings and how it makes the man appear more like a creature than just a man in a suit. Even the chest symbol is more like a demonic bat instead of the instantly recognizable standard logo. Batman moves in a semi-robotic way that further reinforces the idea that this an unstoppable force and not a man. (In actuality this is of course because the actor inside could hardly move at all) But it is still definitely Batman, right down to the utility belt full of Batarangs. And Keaton’s eyes just make the burning desire for vengeance come alive in the cold dark shadows of nighttime Gotham.

On the other hand, Jack plays…well Jack. His Joker is really a more whimsical version of his own screen persona. And it doesn’t really work for the character, but is able to work in the context of the film. It’s a good performance with some really wonderfully quotable lines, but all in all I just wish they had gone with a stronger performer in this vein, one who could more accurately portray all the aspects of the Clown Prince of Crime instead of a nuanced caricature deriving heavily from Caesar Romero’s portrayal in the TV series.  Oh heck, I think that not casting Tim Curry here was one of the biggest casting blunders in film history. Whew, glad I finally got that out!

The obligatory love interest of Vicki Vale feels unnecessary because she is unnecessary. The script gives her few options: Look for Batman, be saved by Batman, be confused about Bruce Wayne. That’s it. Really. As portrayed by Kim Basinger, Vale is almost a non-entity. Her performance is completely dull and we really can never see just what both Bruce/Batman and the Joker see in her. (We can’t fault her that much, as she was a last-minute replacement) This would harm the impact of the climax if it weren’t for one other little addition to the story.

In this film, it is the Joker who killed Bruce’s parents. I know what you’re saying: “Wait, what happened to Joe Chill?” the intent is to bring the themes of dual identity and induced transformation closer together so that the balanced yin and yang of the Batman-Joker conflict also becomes intertwined. It is an admirable thought, but ultimately a bit too convenient to have each create the other. Bruce/Batman lost his family and his life in a random act of violence culminating in two gunshots. It is too easy to say that the Joker pulled the trigger because it then gives Batman’s crusade a direct tangible opponent that he can overcome and possibly even surmount his oppression. Batman is doomed to be a creature of the night, united to his code forever so to have the reason for his torment be his primary aggressor is at once to clean and too melodramatic to actually work.

Burton’s Gotham is a cross between a flatter version of Blade Runner and Dark City. It is a grimy metropolis full of both people and steam, darkness and drab colors so that realism and comic book fantasy come together in one giant visual clash. The city becomes a breathing organism that looks as if will swallow its inhabitants whole. Shadows lurk at every corner even in broad daylight so it becomes a perfect habitat for our pointy eared friend. Oddly though the setting itself looks slightly fake which gives this eerie feeling of surrealism so that we are never sure whether this is the 1940’s, the 1980’s or a studio backlot. It is yet another aspect of design that entices the mind.

And then we come to the score. One has to remember that Danny Elfman was not a renowned film composer at this time. His Batman score can easily be defined by the march heard over the opening titles. Dark, operatic, ominous, heroic, orchestral, and ultimately perfectly suited to the film’s take on the Caped Crusader. It’s really a multifaceted score that is also able to provide humor and whimsy to suit even the smaller moments. Modern comic book  film scores should take note of this. It’s not all heroic and dramatic themes. Unfortunately, some folks in the production thought it would be a good idea to bring in some outside talent to make a hit record. They called in Prince to write a song or two and he returned with enough material to release an entire separate soundtrack album inspired by the film. Several of these are rammed into the film, and aren’t bad as backing music in some scenes. But the Museum sequence where Joker destroys all the priceless art does not, repeat: NOT need Prince’s “Partyman” to accompany it. But it’s quickly brushed over and forgotten so the movie can continue. They continued this practice with the other three films in the first franchise but thank goodness with the external songs featured hardly at all.

Most importantly, the film creates a universe for Batman to inhabit. I’m not referring to the production design, which is stellar, but just look at how Returns achieves similar results with a vastly smaller scale. The film shows us an alternate world that truly needs a Batman to watch over it. It may be somewhat like our own, but it is still somewhat comic. This is what Tim Burton really nails in his direction because everything always comes back to this notion of being in a real world. And it is a world that slowly reveals itself, a world for all but primarily aimed at adults. Over time things seep into focus and further enhance the idea of reality. This is the reason why the film is so re-watchable. It doesn’t care to give us everything on first glance. It doesn’t want to give us the easy way out. We have to work a bit too. And for a movie that is a founding pillar of huge commercialization in film, that is a huge achievement.

EDITIONS: Batman was quickly released on VHS and Laserdisc. This master was then released on an early 90’s era DVD, which was riddled with artifacting, cropped to 1.78:1 from 1.85:1. Finally in 2005, the film received a 2 Disc Special Edition fully loaded with in depth documentaries, Director commentary, and a brand new master struck for all four films in the franchise. All of these look strangely soft, as if there had been some grain removal and noise reduction. Audio gets a bump from the original Dolby Stereo surround to 5.1 via Dolby and DTS mixes. These are nice additions but both feature a tinny quality with little low end information. The original track would have been nice.

The Blu-ray edition is the same HD master from 2005 used for the SE DVD, just like the other three films respective Blu-rays. Video is improved with the jump to 1080p, but there’s still that inherent softness and lack in fine detail which once again suggests that these old HD masters were tinkered on in the ways of DVD false enhancement. Audio is 5.1 in a lossless Dolby True HD track. This appears to be the master source for the SE DVD’s 5.1 mixes, and all three are identical in content.

All things considered, I watch Batman on Laserdisc. The pressing is from 1990, done by Pioneer USA. It is an exceptional transfer, full of detail and clean as any LD image around. Framing is at the original 1.85:1 so all of the little details aren’t lost on the sides. But the big draw here is the audio. I’ll admit that when I watched the DVD’s I never liked the 5.1 mixes. They seemed tinny and too accentuated in the highs. Plus the separation seemed to modern for 1989. On LD, the digital tracks present the original Dolby Stereo surround mix in lossless PCM. Here there’s plenty of low end that provides a punch sorely lacking from the remixes. The rear mono surround channel is exceptional for this format and features fantastic stereo separation, so much so that you feel like there’s 5.1 going on sometimes. And your subwoofer will rumble with joy at all kinds of things that wouldn’t be covered by a discrete LFE channel.

There is a downside however. The VHS and LD were color timed upon their release so that they would appear brighter and more visible on CRT televisions of the day. The original film is a bit darker and more clouded in shadow. But the modern transfers are only minutely darker in comparison so this is kinda negligible. In any case, the 21 year old Laser kicks tail. And yes, I think it’s even better than the Blu-ray. Sue me. When Warner finally does justice to all the Bat-films transfer wise (yes, even the Nolan films aren’t done very well) then we’ll see. Until then, “I’ve got work to do.”

NOTE: I just picked up a copy of the film’s novelization, and will read through to see if there are any differences. So far every Batman novelization I’ve read has a multitude of material that was either glossed over or dropped altogether.

PS: What was Alfred thinking when he let you know who inside?!?!?!?!?

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Filed under 3.5 stars, Batman, Film Directors, Film Review, Tim Burton