Finally, they've gone and done it. They've made the Batman movie we've all been waiting for. Not that I wasn't a fan of Tim Burton's first two 'Batman' flicks (especially the dark and rather avant garde 'Batman Returns'), but after the dreadful Joel Schumacher era -- remember the day-glo 'Batman Forever' or worse, the nipple-enhanced Batsuit of 'Batman & Robin'? -- I wasn't exactly holding out hope for the future of the franchise. Then, lo and behold, director Christopher ('Memento,' 'Insomnia') Nolan comes along and blows all my expectations out of the water. 'Batman Begins' is a startling return to form for the Bat, and rivals the best comic book movies ever put onscreen, including 'Superman: The Movie,' 'Spider-Man 2' and 'X2: X-Men United.'
The Schumacher stumbles aside, a Batman movie seems almost impossible to screw up. The character has always been a rather atypical comic book hero: he has no real superpowers, dresses up in a black rubber batsuit and is one seriously troubled obsessive-compulsive. In short, the guy's a freak -- so making an interesting movie out of him shouldn't be too hard. The action is a given (who doesn't love watching a grown man fly around in batwings and kick the shit out of criminals?), and with such a rich inner life, the duplicity of Bruce Wayne/Batman is inherently fascinating. And Nolan does make it seem easy. He nails all the elements perfectly. Along with screenwriter David S. Goyer, he has crafted a realistic, believable backstory for the Bat, picked a cool couple of villains (especially the uber-creepy Scarecrow, played to perfection by Cillian Murphy) and enticed an excellent supporting cast to the film, including Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman and Ken Watanabe. Together, they create what is probably the classiest comic book adaptation yet.
But what really elevates 'Batman Begins' to the level of pop art is the respect with which Nolan treats his story, and the Batman universe. Sure, there is some black humor here -- especially Murphy and Neeson, who relish their bad-guy roles -- but 'Batman Begins' is played straight. Bruce Wayne/Batman is a fully-formed, flesh-and-blood character, not just some cipher in a suit. He fights not only to avenge the death of his parents, but for a truth he believes in, that he must believe in. His interactions with the other characters also have genuine consequences. Unlike, say, the recent James Bond flicks in which everything is fun and games, the fear of death and the finality of death permeate every frame of 'Batman Begins.' Gotham City feels like a living, breathing metropolis, and we care about what happens to the people of this world -- we want to see the good guys win and the bad guys get their just desserts. Like the first couple of 'Superman' flicks and both 'Spider-Man' movies, 'Batman Begins' is a film with real resonance.
And then there is Christian Bale. Though some diehard fans balked when he was chosen as the fourth actor to become cast in the film franchise (but then I guess they balk at everything, don't they?), his performance quickly silenced any critics. Though I am a Michael Keaton fan (sorry, Val and George), Bale may indeed be the best Batman yet. He's the perfect age for a young Bruce Wayne, still filled with childish imprudence and impatience, but with an adult sophistication and intelligence. (Think a young Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker, only with better acting chops.) Bale admirably fills out the Batsuit, and I personally look forward to seeing him as the character for many years to come. If nothing else, seeing 'Batman Begins' on HD DVD only whets my appetite even more for the upcoming 'The Dark Knight.' Batman has, indeed, come home.
'Batman Begins' is probably the most eagerly-awaited title to hit HD DVD thus far. A true A-list, must-have disc for early adopters, a lot is riding on this one. If 'Batman Begins' doesn't look and sound spectacular, and boast tons of supplemental features, the HD DVD format is going to have its first genuine disappointment on its hands. But I'm happy to report that 'Batman Begins' delivers in spades. It is all that I hoped for, and as it stands now, is likely to be the first disc I pull out when I need great demo material to show off my system.
Presented in 2.40:1 widescreen and 1080p/VC-1 video, I can find nothing to fault here. I've always thought that the dominant color of the Batman cinematic universe has been black, from the black of the Gotham skies to black rubber of Batman's suit to the black chrome of the Batmobile. Even recalling my 'Batman Begins' experience in the theater, I remember it being a largely colorless, rather dour experience. So this HD DVD presentation was a total surprise for me. Noticeably superior to the standard DVD, the film really is quite colorful. Even if it is appropriately dark and even grimy in spots, colors are always rich, vivid and free from oversaturation. Right from the beginning, such as in the early flashback scenes of Bruce Wayne as a child, oranges, yellows and greens are quite rich and pure, with wonderfully accurate fleshtones. Even the training scenes early on with the Liam Neeson character, which are shot in overcast exteriors, exhibit flashes of striking color, such as the deep blues of the arctic ice or the subtle shadings on a flower. Hues never bleed or smear, and no chroma noise is apparent.
The source material has also been kept in pristine shape. Blacks are rock solid and contrast excellent. The image has great "pop" but even the harshest whites don't bloom or obscure detail, and shadow delineation -- essential to a dark and moody Batman flick -- is superior. Even in the darkly-lit lair of the Scarecrow, for example, I could still make out the texture on the burlap sack cover his head, right down to the lines in the rope holding it together. I was even more surprised by how improved sharpness is versus the standard DVD release, which was a bit spotty -- this HD DVD image is never anything less than razor-sharp. The sense of depth is consistently top-notch throughout, and this is another of those great HD DVD transfers that often exhibits the "window effect" -- looking more like a fine photograph than video.
Lastly, Warner has also done another fine job encoding 'Batman Begins.' Though the film is not as quick-cut as some recent blockbusters, it does have many scenes of fast action, which this transfer handles adroitly. No macroblocking or any type of posterization is present. And though there is some slight film grain present at times, there are no compression problems or resultant noise. Excellent, excellent job, folks. 'Batman Begins' looks fabulous.
Ensuring that 'Batman Begins' sounds as good as it looks, Warner has created a new Dolby TrueHD track for the film -- say hello to your new reference disc. As impressed as I've been with the past TrueHD tracks on such HD DVD releases as 'Training Day' and 'The Perfect Storm,' this one is simply the best sound mix I've yet heard on any home video format, period. The sound design and overall aural presentation of this film simply never steps wrong, with the excitement level never waning from the first frame of the film to the last.
Though there are plenty of sonic moments in 'Batman Begins' that thrill, three sequences in particular stood out for me as great examples of demo material. The first act "ice pond" fight between Liam Neeson and Christian Bale, the Batmobile chase and the elevated train destruction scene are all up there with the most exciting sequences I've heard on pre-recorded video. The Dolby TrueHD track is simply flawless here. The force of sound emanating from the rear speakers is incredibly robust and intricate, and despite the cacophony of sound, subtle details remain audible, such as the flap of a batwing or the grating of metal train wheels. It is that kind of attention to detail that elevates 'Batman Begins' to that rare experience where it is highly pleasurable to just close your eyes and listen -- even without visuals, 'Batman Begins' wows.
Also making a great case for Dolby TrueHD is the exceptional dynamic range. Low bass here is some of the deepest I've heard -- the last 30 minutes or so of this film is a total gas when cranked up loud. The quality and depth of mid-range and high-end is mightily impressive, as despite all that is going on here -- dialogue, effects and the fine score by James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer -- nothing seems lost in the din. Balance is pitch perfect, and I never had to adjust my volume control to make out dialogue, which is quite a rarity on action-type soundtracks. Like the video, I can find nothing to complain about with the audio for 'Batman Begins' -- it met my expectations and, in spots, exceeded them.
'Batman Begins' ports over all the same standard-def extras as the two-disc DVD release of the film, which certainly makes it a great value for money. Of course, it helps that most of the goodies here are actually worth watching -- a welcome surprise in these days of EPK filler and other forgettable extras.
Rather unusual for a major release, there is no audio commentary of any kind on 'Batman Begins.' Nor are there any deleted scenes, or techy-like material, such as storyboard comparisons. Instead, we get what is essentially a two-hour documentary, broken up into a bunch of shorter featurettes. Though the HD DVD-exclusive "In-Movie Experience" (see below) is a bit more concise and certainly easier to digest in one sitting, I'm afraid diehard Batman fans are gonna have to watch all of this stuff. (Disappointingly, all of these featurettes are presented in 480i standard-def video, and though shot in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, are letterboxed in a 4:3 frame. It is a shame Warner didn't present these extras in full 1.78:1 widescreen, even if they are only 480i standard-def video. Sigh.)
Though Warner doesn't really order all these featurettes in a truly user-friendly way on the menu, I tried to watch them in some sort of logical order. Note that all are culled from the same spate of cast and crew interviews dating back to the time of the film's production and release, as well as a wealth of behind-the-scenes footage. First up are "Genesis of the Bat" (15 min.) and "Batman: The Journey Begins" (14 min.). These offer a good point of introduction, with director Christopher Nolan and screenwriter David S. Goyer handling the lions share of the explaining. "The Journey Begins" also details the casting of the film, including the then-controversial choices of Christian Bale and Katie Holmes. Even if you don't get into all the more technical-oriented featurettes later one, definitely watch these two.
Next we have three featurettes that focus on the nitty-gritty of production. "Path to Discovery" (14 min.) chronicles the challenges of shooting the film's opening scenes and backstory in the cold climate of Iceland. "Saving Gotham City" (13 min.) highlights the film's excellent action scenes, which were staged with as little CGI as possible -- one of the reasons 'Batman Begins' remains, for me, superior to most other blockbusters these days. But my favorite is "Shaping Mind and Body" (13 min.), as Bale is put through the paces, training to play such an iconic character. Many feel Bale is the best Batman yet, and I can see why. He seems to have an innate understanding of the character, and he certainly has the right physicality for the part. The behind-the-scenes fight footage here is also quite cool.
An additional three featurettes examine various production aspects more in-depth. "Gotham City Rises" (13 min.) pays a visit to the production design team, who had the massive task of reimagining the fabled city for a new generation of Batman fans, as well as having to work within real-world locations in some instances, such as Wayne Manor. "Cape and Cowl" (8 min.) practically fetishizes the Batsuit, and I'll admit all that hot black rubber is a turn-on. Finally, "Batman: The Tumbler" (14 min.) pays tribute to the kick-ass Batmobile, which the Nolan originally conceived as "a Lamborghini crossed with a Humvee." Even Holmes gets into it, admitting that for the first time, she realizes "why guys love cars so much." Think she bought one for Tom Cruise?
Oddly, Warner has placed yet another three featurettes in their own section, called "Additional Scenes." But there is no deleted or additional footage here, so whatever -- am I missing something? Instead, these are three short little vignettes, each running about two minutes. "Digital Batman" is an all-too-quick comparison between a CGI Batman created for the film, and the real one -- I wanted to see more of this. "Reflections on Writing" is also a far-too-short, cute little story from Goyer on how word got out that he was writing the new Batman flick. Finally, "Batman Begins Stunts" is simply a montage of behind-the-scenes footage of the Batmobile and the Batsuit in action.
The extras start to wind down with two text-based goodies. The Still Gallery focuses exclusively various advertising a concepts for the film's multi-million dollar marketing push. Separate sections for the U.S., International and pre-release campaigns are included. "Confidential Files" is a rather extensive assortment of animated text pages featuring more stills and concept art for the various "Hardware," "Enemies" and "Allies and Mentors" of 'Batman Begins.' This is actually a very cool, well put-together and informative extra, so don't skip it just because it might seem like a bunch of lame production notes.
Rounding out the package are two promo items. The "Tankman Begins" spoof that was created for the 2005 MTV Movie Awards is entertaining, but like most of these type shorts, runs out of steam quickly. Last but not least is the film's Theatrical Trailer (actually only a 1-minute teaser), presented in 2.35:1 widescreen, 1080i-MPEG-2 video and Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround. Kudos to Warner for that -- I hope we see more trailers in the future in full HD video.
'Batman Begins' is a no-brainer. Even if you are only casually interested in the film, you should definitely check this one out to see the HD DVD format at the top of its game. Terrific transfer, awesome Dolby TrueHD soundtrack and tons of extras -- including some genuine HD bonus content -- make this one the A-list HD DVD release to beat. Now is a very good time to be an early adopter!