Video Picks & Passes







This week, caped crusaders rule the DVD racks. Summer smash Batman Begins comes to home video, along with new editions of every other Batman movie in the last quarter century, including the 1989 Tim Burton film that started it all. Meanwhile, the imminent theatrical release of The Legend of Zorro— the much-anticipated, long-delayed sequel to the 1998 hit The Mask of Zorro— warrants a new special-edition release for its predecessor.

Along with Superman and Spider-Man 2, Batman Begins is one of the best comic-book films, avoiding the campiness of the Superman films and the cartoonish psychology and relationships of the Spider-Man films, and achieving a more operatic, mythic, larger-than-life feel than the X-Men movies. Above all, it succeeds where the earlier run of Batman films by Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher failed: It creates a compelling, complex personality behind the cowl, a hero who is more than a figurehead in his own film, overshadowed by colorful adversaries. At last, the Dark Knight has a soul.

Lacking super-powers, Batman depends on fear and stealth. Yet he fights for justice rather than revenge, and would even risk his life to save an opponent.

“Your compassion is a weakness your enemies won't share,” warns an enigmatic mentor known as Ducard. “That's why it's so important,” counters Bruce. “It's what separates us from them.”

Ducard is connected with the mysterious League of Shadows, dedicated to combating decadence — but its methods are murder, fear and, ultimately, weapons of mass destruction. In an ambitious showdown, Batman wages a literal war on terror against this al Quaeda-like adversary.

Among earlier Batman movies getting new DVD editions this week, the best regarded remains Burton's 1989 Batman, starring Michael Keaton as the caped crusader and Jack Nicholson as the Joker.

Critics adored the film's gothic set design and Nicholson's showy performance, while comic-book fans credited Burton with rescuing the Dark Knight from the over-the-top camp comedy of the 1960s series and making him suitably dark and brooding.

But, really, it isn't that good. The plot's a mess. Keaton's a cipher, with or without the mask. And, in that stiff rubber suit, he seems less a lithe super hero than a semi-mobile action figure. Nicholson dominates the film, which should have been called Joker instead of Batman, but his ballyhooed performance, while menacing, is lacking in whimsy and conviction. Like much of Burton's oeuvre, Batman is long on style and short on story and characterization.

The Mask of Zorro was one of the best surprises of 1998, a rousing, witty, morally redemptive tale of two Zorros — one the familiar Don Diego de la Vega (Anthony Hopkins), aging champion of the oppressed, and the other a scruffy rogue (Antonio Bandaras) with a grudge against the villains. The latter must learn the meaning, as well as the methods, of heroism. Moral themes such as family, honor and defending the poor are integral to the story. Catholic priests, who aid both Zorros in their missions, are depicted as part of the suffering oppressed, not the evil establishment.

Content advisory: Batman Begins contains recurring menace and frightening imagery, much stylized action violence, a scene of strong-arm interrogation tactics, at least one instance of profanity and some minor profanity and crass language. The Mask of Zorro contains much stylized violence, one gross-out scene with a decapitated head, mild sexual innuendo and sensuality, and fleeting rear nudity. Batman (1989) contains some gruesome images and violence and an implied sexual encounter. All three films are best suited to teens and up.