Dark we can live with. The Batman does, after all, live in the shadows. Grainy? Well, take it with a grain of salt. But flat? Can’t have it.
The Batman started streaming on HBO Max on April 18, way ahead of the Blu-ray and 4K Blu-ray releases on May 24th. The film represents a break from the previous year of Warner titles on HBO Max, which tended to hit the streaming service simultaneously with theatrical releases during the Covid-19 pandemic. The Batman just premiered a month-and-a-half ago in the US, but is already available with a streaming subscription ($9.99 – $14.99 per mo.) on HBO Max (and now on HBO premium cable/satellite channels).
After seeing The Batman twice in theaters the home media experience turned out to be a buzz killer. On the big screen, with proper color calibration and distributed sound, the film is just gorgeous. Together, Director Matt Reeves and Cinematographer Greig Fraser created a new sub-genre for Batman films, a dark detective story that recalls thrillers such as Seven and dives deep into the voluminous history of Batman: Detective comics.
Reeves introduces a young, gritty, and less-sophisticated Bruce Wayne who rides a plain old motorcycle (not a Bat Cycle) and wears a mask that looks like it was sewn in a high school home economics class. Even the Batmobile looked more like a souped-up muscle car from Mad Max rather than the war machines in The Dark Knight film series. But it all worked, especially in the theater.
At home, the experience was different. The streaming image from HBO Max is flat and extremely grainy at times, as if the video compression was focused more on file size than bit depth. You can always boost contrast on your TV to make up for some of the poor contrast ratio, but at that point you’re just trying to fix a poor image. Take, for instance, the images of Selina in the club scene where colors and contrast are reduced to garbage. The compression is so bad that her pink hair is the only thing that sticks out.
Another example of a lack of contrast can be seen in the image when Batman is talking to Selina (see the screen photo above). Although there is plenty of definition in the shadow areas (his cape and chest armor) there is virtually no true black in this image. The thumbnail displays pure black value while the full image gets nowhere close. With deeper bit-depth (up to 10-bits with HDR) the image should be able to hold details while adding enough contrast to give the picture some punch. A good example of contrast in home media can be found in Tenet, where the black levels are deep (even in the streaming file) without giving up detail.
Just to be sure this was not a problem with just one output, we took a look at The Batman on three different screens: a 75” Sony Bravia with Dolby Vision (light and dark options), a Samsung 65” 7-series (with HDR10), and a 32” LG HDR computer monitor. All of them showed an inferior image to other streaming films on HBO Max with Dolby Vision such as Zack Synder’s Justice League and Godzilla vs. Kong.
The Batman is also very grainy, and seeing as though much of this film was shot in low light interiors or outside at night it is kind of a disappointment to find that much evident grain in home theater presentations. We can only hope the Blu-ray and 4k Blu-ray video presentations are properly color corrected and compressed, in which case the grain could be less of a distraction.
What can you do? We suggest making some picture adjustments before delving into The Batman. If you have settings for Dolby Vision (like you may find on a Sony Bravia) the first thing we suggest is changing the HDR preference to Dolby Vision Dark to add a little more black to the shadow areas. You can also try adjusting the contrast to give the black levels more punch. And, watch the film in cinematic mode without any sunlight or ambient light to interfere with the screen image.
We definitely do not suggest turning on any type of Vivid saturation setting. This just adds unnatural color and doesn’t do much for the image except make it look unrealistic (also, in this case, worse). And, keep off Sports mode if you want a more cinematic feel (although, some may argue a “graphic” look for The Batman with boosted colors and contrast may be better than the provided color space).
The streaming presentation isn’t all bad. The Dolby Atmos audio sounded impressive with plenty of surround effects and dynamic range that reaches some very deep low frequencies. The car chase scene when Batman chases the Penquin has got to be one of the best in the film, and maybe even in Batman movie history. Listen close for the incredible sound design incorporated in this sequence.
And, bonus materials (8 total) are included on HBO Max including The Batman: Becoming Catwoman, The Batman: LED Volume, The Batman: Vengeance Meets Justice, The Batman: Genesis, The Batman: Bruce or Batman?, The Batman: Guest Curator, The Batman: Deleted scene: The Joker, The Batman: The Cat, and The Batman: Finding the Batman.