We’re always on the lookout for awesome 4K content to deliver spectacular audiovisual experiences, and Christopher Nolan’s trilogy of Batman films recently received Ultimate Collector’s Edition versions. A great opportunity to revisit some of the director’s earlier work after enjoying Tenet so much. How do the films hold up in the 4K era? We checked out Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises.
After the recent success of “The Batman”, it was nice to switch gears again and go back to the Christian Bale-led cast of Nolan’s movies. Watching them back to back, it’s striking to see how different they are in places, while still forming a coherent whole as a trilogy. The first film, Batman Begins, is the one that feels most unlike the other two, as a large portion of its story explores Bruce Wayne rather than Batman – showing us his origin story and personal journey and development. As a result, large parts of the film don’t actually take place in Gotham City, with Wayne traveling to the Far East where he is trained and transformed by the Ra’s Al-Ghul. It makes for a some beautiful scenic vistas that are starkly different from the dark and gritty streets of Gotham without resorting to ‘color’ and ‘light’ in their visual depiction – all three films are much darker than the older Batman films were, but they explore this in different ways.
The Dark Knight reintroduces us to The Joker, famously portrayed here by Heath Ledger. After Jack Nicholson’s over the top, cartoon-like depiction of the character, this Joker gives us a new dimension of criminal genius, cunning and cruelty, all wrapped up into one. Widely considered to be the best of the trilogy and even Nolan’s best feature yet, it surpasses Batman Begins in nearly every way – brilliantly blending action, suspense, character development and great acting from a cast that also includes Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman.
In The Dark Knight Rises, Batman has initially taken a step back from crime-fighting after the events of The Dark Knight, but the appearance of Catwoman (Anne Hathaway) and Bane (Tom Hardy) forces him to no longer just live as Bruce Wayne but once again assume his shadowy alter ego. Following up the massive success of the second film was never going to be an easy task, but Nolan succeeds in directing another excellent Batman film without surpassing (or even matching) the impact that The Dark Knight had.
When zooming in on the visual quality of these 4K releases, it’s easy to see why these films benefit from the 4K treatment. Batman Begins is perhaps the best example of this, as a film that was released when DVDs were still popular. We dug up that version, and the contrast is staggering. Now that HDR10 support has been included, the higher resolution picture works incredibly well in the film’s many scenes that were shot in low light – which includes outdoor visuals where Wayne’s travels don’t depict the Far East as a colorful paradise but rather as a mystical place where he develops his shadow side.
For The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, there are fewer of these subtle nuances to find, as Gotham City was already higher in contrast with its sharper edges and more industrial look. Instead, what jumps out here are the scenes where the picture suddenly switches from a 2.40:1 aspect ratio to a 1.78:1 aspect ratio – the latter more commonly known as the IMAX format. Because it’s been done so well, it provides a dramatic effect that immediately gets you on the edge of your seat when it happens – and the third film has even more of these moments than the second one did. All three films excel when it comes to the level of on screen detail, the use of color and shadows and the crispness of the image though, which is reason enough to watch all three again.
That doesn’t take the audio into account though, and all three films feature a DTS HS MA 5.1 track on the 4K disc. We realize that some people will be disappointed at the lack of an Atmos and/or DTS:X track if they’ve invested in the associated hardware, but all three films are a major step forward from the original Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks that they were first launched with, and even from the TrueHD track on the initial BluRay discs. The Dark Knight is especially fantastic in the audio department, but the audio mix for The Dark Knight Rises feels like it has been tweaked to ensure that Bane sounds a lot less “mumbly” than we remember him – making him even more menacing than before.
Longtime fans will also appreciate the extra features, although most of these (especially the ones on disc) were available with previous releases as well. What’s interesting is how each film has a different “interactive experience” tied to the main feature – one that’s not available on the 4K/UHD discs but can only be seen with the included regular BluRay disc. For Batman Begins there’s an “In-Movie Experience” that works as a picture-in-picture mode with extra information about the production process (we had to tweak our audio settings to hear the sound though), while The Dark Knight works with “Focus Points”, which let you jump out of the film at certain moments for a short featurette. The Dark Knight Rises embraces the world of phone apps, with a Second Screen Experience that gives you additional insights through an app on your phone or tablet.
Other extras (which all come on a separate disc) are mostly the usual “making of” and “look back” features we’ve come to expect, but it’s worth pointing out that Batman Begins excels with an especially wide range of extra features. The other two films have fewer features available, but make up for that with their longer length, so each film features roughly two to three hours of extra materials.
It’s worth noting that all three films have previously launched in the 4K format, and what you’ll find on these discs is identical to those releases in terms of content and quality. If you’re relatively new to 4K and don’t have the films yet, then these Ultimate Collector’s Editions feature a few physical goodies on top. They all come with nicely designed steelbooks for the film and a book-like case for each edition that also holds several other extras, including a photo book, a dozen cards and a Batman sleeve to help keep everything together. There’s a double-sized poster included with each release as well, but we’re generally not big fans of folded up posters that never look quite right/smooth when on display. It’s a small niggle though, as this trilogy is a selection of cinematic masterpieces that look and sound fantastic in 4K, reaffirming why Nolin is one of this generation’s leading filmmakers.