29 January 2009

DVD: "Batman: The Motion Picture Anthology 1989-1997"

Batman: The Motion Picture Anthology 1989-1997
Directors: Tim Burton, Joel Schumacher
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Michael Keaton, Kim Basinger, Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer, Val Kilmer, Tommy Lee Jones, Jim Carrey, Nicole Kidman, Chris O'Donnell, Arnold Schwarzenegger, George Clooney, Uma Thurman, Alicia Silverstone
DVD Release Date: 18 October 2005
MPAA Rating: PG-13
List Price: $79.92 - Currently Out of Print
Cinescope Personality Types: Chosen Adventurer, Existential Savior, Loyal Warrior

Bat-fans need to own the box set, Batman: The Motion Picture Anthology 1989-1997, which includes Batman (1989), Batman Returns (1992), Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin (1997).  I can hear you already, "But I don't like all four Bat-films!"  That may be, but it's also irrelevant.  Sure, the four two-disc sets are available individually, but Anthology box itself looks great on a shelf.  Besides, if you buy them individually, you're likely to not complete the set.

The Films
Batman is one of the films that defined an entire generation; pretty much every boy in America dressed up as Batman for Halloween in 1989.  The script is pretty clear and believable, and the performances are rock solid.  Anton Furst's production design truly brought Gotham City to life, and the dialogue is immensely quote-worthy.  "What are you?" "I'm Batman."  "Wait'll they get a load of me!"  "Can somebody tell me what kind of a world we live in where a man dressed up like a bat gets all of my press?"  So on and so forth.  Critics feared Michael Keaton was horribly mis-cast as Bruce Wayne, but his performance resonates even today as a character an audience believes has psychological issues.

Batman Returns and faces three enemies: Danny DeVito's Penguin, Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman and Christopher Walken's Max Shreck.  The plot is more convoluted than that of Batman, with two parallel stories running: Shreck backs the Penguin's bid to become mayor of Gotham while Selina Kyle recovers from being pushed out a window by Shreck by becoming Catwoman.  The development of Pfeiffer's Selina is interesting, though the notion that she would go back to work the next day is absurd, even if it does offer an easy way to explain how she meets Bruce Wayne.  DeVito's Penguin has some good lines of dialogue, but his delivery gets in the way too often.  Of the two Batman films directed by Tim Burton, this one feels more like a Burton film; fantastic and grotesque.

Batman Forever bears virtually no resemblance to either of its predecessors, partly because of Barbara Ling's hyper and bright production design and partly because only Michael Gough's Alfred and Pat Hingle's Commissioner Gordon return.  Val Kilmer's Bruce Wayne is less of a recluse than was Michael Keaton's, though still a believable character.  Jim Carrey's Edward Nygma (who becomes The Riddler) is well developed, along the lines of Catwoman, though the film completely squanders the character of Harvey Dent (Tommy Lee Jones).  Many fans resent the inclusion of Robin, played by Chris O' Donnell, though that plot line is actually well handled.

Batman & Robin is little more than a glorified commercial.  Barbara Ling's production design is even more disorienting and distracting this time around, making viewers feel they've just been to a late '90s rave more than having watched a Batman movie.  Again, Batman faces multiple villains, though this time around none of them are particularly well developed and all the actors ham it up.  If Danny DeVito's delivery of lines in Returns got in the way of some good dialogue, then it's hard to know whether Uma Thurman's completely over-the-top delivery has anything to do with why her Poison Ivy is so annoying throughout the film.  Arnold Schwarzenegger has some horrible lines, but he almost celebrates how bad they are by getting completely into yelling things like, "Kill the heroes!" with conviction.  Where Chris O'Donnell's Dick Grayson was brought into the fold naturally, Alicia Silverstone's Barbara Wilson (later Batgirl) is rather gratuitous and completely incongruous with the rest of the movie.

The DVD's
Bonus features abound, from music videos and deleted scenes to documentaries and director commentaries.  One of the most interesting, for Batman fans, is a storyboard sequence of a scene that was planned for, but dropped from Batman.  Not only would the scene have touched on the character of Robin, but for the DVD they recruited Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill to voice Batman and the Joker, respectively.  (They voiced the characters on Batman: The Animated Series.)

Far and away, though, the most compelling bonus feature for Batman fans will be the Batman & Robin documentary, which includes Joel Schumacher outright apologizing to fans for the film.  Chris O'Donnell complains of how the toy designers from Hasbro were more prevalent than filmmakers on the set.  For those who recognized the film for what it was (an effort to make money completely regardless of having a story to tell), it will be satisfying to hear such confessions and apologies.

The Recommendation
Warner Bros. did not skimp on bonus features for these films; even the music video for Prince's "Batdance" is included.  Burton's commentaries sound like a guy being asked to talk about an ex, and Schumacher just gloats about being surrounded by beautiful people, but they still periodically offer some insight into how and why these particular tales of the Caped Crusader came to pass.  It would be far easier--and cheaper--to content yourself with just the '89 original, but this hefty volume deserves some of your shelf space.

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