Barman Begins

Batman Begins on Blu-ray

Our favorite superhero movies have been origin stories. This is what we get with Batman Begins and, it's the best of all the Batman movies to date, a satisfying and entertaining look at how events at and below stately Wayne manor got under way.

As with the original Richard Donner Superman and Sam Raimi's Spiderman, Batman Begins follows the creation of the legend. This time, Christian Bale is the young Bruce Wayne (well, the adult young Bruce Wayne; there's also a little kid Bruce Wayne played by Gus Lewis) who searches for his destiny through a life of petty crime that leads him to a far east prison and eventually membership in a mysterious group called the League of Shadows.

And as with Donner's Superman, Batman Begins helps get its sense of realism through an outstanding supporting cast that, in this case, includes Michael Caine as Alfred, Morgan Freeman (as a kind of “Q” from the Bond movies), Gary Oldman as the some-day-in-the-future Commissioner Gordon and Liam Neeson as Wayne's mentor and eventual nemesis. Oh, yeah. Katie Holmes is also along as Wayne's longtime sometime girlfriend.

The story of young Bruce witnessing the murder of his parents at the hands of a thug is well known, but we get it fleshed out a tad this time, with more background into what kind of man his father was (a liberal's vision of a “good capitalist”, a rich guy who manages to have a heart of gold despite his evil money; fortunately we aren't beaten over the head with it) as well as glimpses into his relationship with the young Bruce . This serves to illustrate the huge loss his parents' death was to Bruce, partially as a way to explain why (when he grew old enough) he left behind his life of privilege and crawled into the dark underside of world society.

Then someone named Ducard (Neeson) finds him and recruits him to a mysterious League, where he's trained in all kinds of methods of battle. But when he graduates and learns his mission is to destroy Gotham City because it was a horrid place – kind of like Islamofascists want to destroy western civilization because they don't like people who don't kowtow to their world view – he balks.

Hence Bruce Wayne's split from the League that recruited and trained him and his return home, not to destroy Gotham but to save it. He discovers a conveniently forgotten, or ignored, arm of the Wayne conglomerate, run by Freeman, and uses sit to equip him with the nifty high tech stuff used to stuff Batman's utility belt. When combined with the skills he honed in training for the League, he becomes the crime fighting sensation we've been waiting to see since the movie began.

This is when Batman Begins becomes a more conventional Batman movie, as the Caped Crusader begins living his secret life from his bat cave headquarters located below Stately Wayne manor (we were a little disappointed that they never referred to it as “stately Wayne manor” even once in passing, but just a little).

Batman Begins may not be high art, but it does a very good job of stringing the new story around the Batman myths that have become so well-known over the years.

Christian Bale is excellent in the title role, and we enjoyed how he put on a “fake” voice while wearing his Bat suit to help prevent people from identifying him from his voice (how come no superhero has thought of that before?).

The entire cast is very good, and we were pleasantly surprised to see Rutger Hauer on hand, though he has quite a small part. We particularly liked Caine, who brought depth and dignity to a role we figured he'd just walk through. Likewise, Freeman brings some humor and heart to his role, while Neeson's "dual role" gives him a chance to flex his thespian muscles a bit as well.

This Batman movie also features a wonderful, high tech look for Gotham City and we liked it even better than Burton's excellent dark metropolis.

It's a great Blu-ray disc, too, which doesn't really surprise us since the DVD was also terrific.

The 1080p picture quality is spectacular, another fine reference-quality disc. It features wonderful sharpness and detail and a 16x9 compatible widescreen picture (2.40:1) that you'll probably be seeing used to demonstrate TV's in stores over the next several months.

Blacks are really important in a movie about the Dark Knight, whether it be the color of Batman's suit or just the night scenes. Fortunately, this Blu-ray excels in its black reproduction, with a 3D-like image that's rich, with excellent contrast and a very sharp image.

The sound is also reference quality. Presented in Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround, all of the channels receive a good workout, with clarity and detail coming through just as you'd want it to on a fine disc, with subtle details never lost in the mix. And of course your subwoofer will also love this disc.

Our Limited Edition Gift set Blu-ray came packed with extras, too, including a nifty, 3D-like removable cover picture, five collectible postcards and two comic books that are based on the Dark Knight prologue, the IMAX version of which is also included. It also came with a 10 dollar coupon for the sequel that hits theaters in 2008.

And there's plenty more, too.

First among these is the Blu-ray exclusive Picture-in-Picture "In Movie Experience," which gives you director Christopher Nolan and a bunch of cast and crew members offering insight into the movie. Your BD player has to have the BonusView (BD Live) capability, which could require a firmware upgrade. Our PS3 with the latest firmware handled it fine.

There's also a series of featurettes and a Batman spoof "Tankman Begins," which is reasonably amusing, as well as stills galleries and the teaser.

We went into this expecting the film to suck. To our joy, it doesn't. In fact, it's a very entertaining film that's not only fun to watch but, especially in this Blu-ray version, a joy for home theater aficionados.

Batman Begins, from Warner Home Entertainment
140 min. anamorphic widescreen (2.40:1, 16x9 TV compatible/Pan&Scan sold separately), Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
Starring Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Katie Holmes, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman
Produced by Emma Thomas, Charles Roven, Larry Franco
Written by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer, directed by Christopher Nolan

Batman Gotham Knight Batman: Gotham Knight on Blu-ray Disc

Warner Brothers also sent us this animated collection of Batman stories that supposedly take place in the time frame before "The Dark Knight." It's a series of six interconnected stories presented as one feature divided into sections.

Each feature is from a different creative team and has its own look and feel and it's a pretty cool collection that pits the Bat person against such bad dudes as Scarecrow, Killer Croc and Deadshot.

It's an interesting collection of tales, well told for the most part, though the animation quality is spotty.

One thing that really impressed us with this Blu-ray was the gorgeous quality of the backgrounds, which appear to be nearly photo-realistic even though they're undoubtedly CG. They make even the weakest of the animated sequences seem better.

The disc itself is another credible entry from Warners. The 1080p picture, at an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, is great for the most part, though we didn't notice much of that great 3D look that helps draw you into a movie so well, appearing almost like a window onto the action rather than an image on a screen.

Still, it's no piece of garbage, either.

Audio is merely Dolby Digital 5.1 which, in an age of lossless formats such as Dolby TrueHD and dts HD Master Lossless is a disappointment. The quality is good, but we were hoping for even more. Still, the dialogue comes through loud and clear, and there's pretty good use of the low frequency effects channel. The music sounds very good, though, and the overall effect is quite dynamic - though we'd have liked more surround.

Warners piles on the extras here, too, including an interesting documentary on the life and career of Batman's daddy, Bob Kane and a nifty look at the upcoming animated Wonder Woman feature.

There's also an audio commentary with DC Comics Senior Vice President/Creative Affairs Gregory Noveck, former editor Dennis O'Neil and Kevin Conroy, "the voice of Batman."

And if that isn't enough, they also toss in four episodes (though the quality is very substandard to the main feature's) of the old Batman animated series that ran on TV.

Batman: Gotham Knight, from Warner Home Entertainment
76 min. 1080p widescreen (1.85:1), Dolby Digital 5.1

Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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