Batman: The Animated Series premiered back in 1992 when home media wasn’t really that big of a business for television properties. Sure, a handful of episodes would make it to VHS and some shows that had a small episode count would have a full season available (like X-Men and the first season of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), but that was basically it. It was such an after-thought that some shows have been lost since studios didn’t see a reason to even preserve them, especially some one-off broadcasts. That all changed though with DVD. The new medium could store way more information than a VHS tape could and it was even cheaper to manufacture and distribute. Suddenly, collecting movies became far more mainstream because acquiring them was so easy and watching them had become far more convenient. Naturally, this lead to television shows getting the full season treatment and Batman was no exception.
Released first in 2004, the first volume of Batman was followed in 2005 by three additional volumes to complete the show’s entire Fox run plus The New Batman Adventures. These volumes contained what fans wanted: all of the episodes in production order at an affordable price. And for a long time, fans were happy. Then came the HD era and suddenly studios were re-releasing all of their movies and shows on high-definition Blu-ray (and for a short time, HD DVD). A lot of people were willing to re-purchase their favorite movies and TV shows if it meant having them in HD, though it definitely seemed like the appetite on the TV side was a touch weaker. Many studios did not bother re-releasing their shows, but some did. As technology has advanced, many people are now moving away from physical media. With almost every movie and show available on some streaming service, there’s less appetite for physical things that can break and take up space.
Because of this seismic shift in media consumption, I never expected Batman to get a Blu-ray update. Mask of the Phantasm was some-what quietly reissued on Blu-ray last year and I thought that might be it. Of course, in my mind I was hoping Warner Bros. would reconsider and during the show’s 25th anniversary panel at last year’s New York Comic Con just over a year ago it was announced that the entire series would be coming to Blu-ray in 2018. Originally, it was supposed to be here in time for the 26th anniversary, but it got pushed back until October 30th, a rather minimal inconvenience considering this has been something fans have wanted for about a decade now.
You may be looking at the time-stamp on this post and wondering why I’m getting to it now and not during the release week. Well, for one I’m not a professional reviewer so I have to pay for my media and I don’t get advanced copies for review. You probably could have guessed that, though. Really though, I would have had a review up earlier if it weren’t for Amazon. Amazon was the lone place to pre-order this Blu-ray set and the online retailer had 69,048 to distribute. A regular retail version is coming, but this version had some special packaging including individually numbering each set, additional artwork, and three mini Funko Pop figures of Batman, Harley Quinn, and The Joker. It retailed for $110 to start, but gradually dropped down to about $87. It also sold-out, and Amazon upped the order to accommodate more purchases.
Now, if you’re Amazon and you secure the right to sell a so-called Deluxe Limited Edition of something and market it as a collectible, don’t you think you would take care to protect that investment? My package arrived on Tuesday the 30th, street date, in a simple padded envelope. It was beat to Hell with every corner dented and the top flap crushed to form a point in the middle of it. I’m not a stickler for packaging, but if I’m paying for a special edition of something that cost close to 100 bucks I want that thing to look nice. Why wouldn’t Amazon package this in a box with some protection? I went online and found out I wasn’t alone as many people complained of the same. I immediately requested an exchange that night, and the next morning I spoke with a rep via their live chat about my concerns with the packaging and was told my feedback was valued and passed onto the department handling my exchange, and so on.
That replacement arrived on Thursday packaged exactly the same way. This time the envelope was even partially opened, and while the contents were less damaged than before, every corner was still badly dented. The outside box is rather thin cardstock, like a DVD/Blu-ray slip cast, so it really doesn’t take much to damage or crease it. Rather than request the exchange through conventional means, I decided to speak with someone so that they could input the exchange and hopefully do something about the packaging. Again, in checking fan communities I was not alone as others received replacements that day in the same fashion. I first spoke to someone via the live chat again, and they actually referred me this time to the US phone number so I called that and spoke with another rep. She requested the exchange with a note about the packaging while also starting the return process for the second unit (I actually still have to send them back, at a cost to Amazon, though I did need to provide my own box for each one as it was recommended trying to send both in one would cause Amazon to lose track and thus bill me for an unreturned item) with the item set to arrive on Saturday. And it came, this time in a box, but with no additional packaging to protect it. One corner still got crunched pretty well, but Amazon successfully exhausted me into submission, so version 3 didn’t go back, but it’s hardly pristine.
The whole fiasco with Amazon has really been unfortunate because it’s marred what is otherwise a pretty nice release. The discs are housed in a nice book and the notes and artwork all look great. I don’t much care about the mini figures, but I suppose they’re nice. There’s a new featurette, though most of the bonus content is carried over from the DVD releases. There are a total of 12 commentaries which are also from the DVD releases so it’s disappointing new ones weren’t done. As a bonus though, both films from the original series are included: Mask of the Phantasm and Batman & Mr. Freeze – SubZero. For the sake of completion, I wish they had included Mystery of The Batwoman, but it’s not a great loss.
Bells and whistles are great and really help to make a release feel special and important, but ultimately this set is to be judged on its transfer. I was a bit let-down with the transfer on Mask of the Phantasm last year, so I was a bit guarded as the release of this approached. I have spent, as you probably have noticed, a lot of time with this show over the past year so I perhaps more than most was ready for a new transfer. Those DVDs are fine, but there is a grainy texture to a lot of the episodes. Some may find that charming, and a little grain does help to enhance that noir feel the show is going for, but a lot of it also just looks like something broadcast in standard definition being marred when converted to digital. It’s less a grain, and more a fog that’s present. I’m happy to say though that these new transfers really impress. They’re rich in color and it looks like the finished animation cel is being place right on the screen. The impact is the most dramatic with the first two seasons of the show, the Fox Kids run, as that image was more complex. There was more texture to the backgrounds and stronger lighting effects that makes this set feel like a whole new show.
There are at least two drawbacks I’ve noticed when watching this set. I obviously haven’t had time to watch the whole thing, though I do intend to, but I picked out select episodes from each season to get a feel for the set. The first episode I watched was “Beware the Gray Ghost.” It felt rather appropriate given the episode’s subject matter in relation to myself. That episode looks really awesome in HD given all of the explosions and dynamic actions of the characters and vehicles. The one thing that did standout as a negative though is the mouth flaps. The animation for them was never a strong suit for the show, with less attention paid to actually making it look like the characters were mouthing the words they were supposed to be speaking. It’s really apparent with The Joker, who almost always has those yellow teeth exposed smashing together with every sentence. This shortcoming is just more noticeable in HD, and in this episode in particular it was really distracting with the video store clerk who has a straw in his mouth for much of his scenes. There’s also the more vibrant coloring of the blue accents on Batman’s costume. They’re quite bright now, similar to how Batman looks in promo materials for this show, and it might be a touch too much, but it’s not killer or anything.
Aside from that though, I have little to complain about regarding the look of the series. The episodes are presented as seasons of the show, with the The New Batman Adventures now just referred to as season 3 of the show. For those episodes the intro has been removed and replaced with the season one intro. I never cared for the intro for that show so it doesn’t bother me they swapped it out, but that might irritate some out there. That third season also looks good in HD, it’s just not as dramatic an improvement compared with the first two seasons. The character designs were simpler and the lighting effects toned down. It’s mostly a series of flat colors so everything just looks richer and smoother. I have not watched it, but I assume the disc for Mask of the Phantasm is identical to the stand-alone release. The SubZero disc is new, and it includes all three episodes featuring Mr. Freeze as a bonus feature, plus the episode from Batman Beyond featuring the character, so you’re getting an extra episode. I did watch SubZero and can say the transfer looks better than the Mask of the Phantasm one, though the included episodes are presented in standard definition, so no preview of what Batman Beyond would look like in HD. The new feature on the series is on its own disc and it’s a brief retrospective on the series. It didn’t need its own disc, but it was probably easier to do than tacking it onto the end of another disc. There’s also a little feature on the creation of Harley Quinn included, which is well done.
I do have one other nit to pick and it’s in regards to the packaging. The book that houses all of the discs looks great. It has artwork featuring the main villains and Batman throughout it, though one page has what looks like Joker from The New Adventures but colored to resemble the season one and two Joker, which is kind of ugly. Not a big deal though. What is more concerning is the stubborn nature of the sleeves that house the discs. Getting them out is nearly impossible without forcibly gripping the disc between a thumb and forefinger to yank it out. Some are more stubborn than others. I fear this is a set that if watched frequently would gradually damage the discs, so while the packing looks pretty great, it’s not quite so functional. There is a digital copy of the entire set included, so I suppose those concerned about damaging the discs could opt to watch it digitally instead, preserving the hard copies as a backup. I have not downloaded the files though so I don’t know how they work precisely. If they can be integrated with something like Amazon Prime that would make them available on multiple devices that would obviously be a plus.
Frustrations aside with acquiring a decent version of the item, I would say this is a pretty worthwhile set to own for fans of the series. If you already own the DVDs, as I do, it’s still worth the investment since the transfer is handled so well. In a world where physical media is dying, it’s also a plus that it looks nice on a shelf so if you have to have it at least it looks good. Naturally, if you’re a fan of the show, but never owned it before, then this makes it an even easier decision. If you’re opposed to physical media then you can hold out for a streaming option, but in the interim you’d be missing out. The inclusion of the two movies helps to push this one over the top for me, and I’m glad it’s a near complete release of every animation project associated with the franchise. I suppose those who were really invested in the Kids WB era will wish it included the cross-over episodes with Superman and Mystery of The Batwoman, but I didn’t need those. I do wonder what this means for the Superman cartoon as well as Batman Beyond. I never got into Superman, but I own all of Batman Beyond on DVD. Given how well The New Batman Adventures held up on transfer to DVD, I probably won’t be that interested in a Batman Beyond Blu-ray, but I reserve the right to change my mind down the road. For now, this is pretty much exactly what I wanted and I’m happy to have what is probably the greatest action cartoon ever created in high-definition.