VHS Review: BATMAN & ROBIN Widescreen Edition (1998; Warner Home Video)

I don’t have a ton to say about this one, because it’s shrinkwrapped and I can’t bring myself to crack the seal. Now granted, it’s not factory shrinkwrapped; judging by the amount of wear on the box itself, this is almost certainly a used copy that was re-shrinkwrapped at some point. A former rental, perhaps? I don’t know, but the fact remains I can’t work up the nerve to rip the plastic off.

And why’s that? Because this is Batman & Robin, that of generally-poorly-regarded late-90’s sensibilities, on VHS. Of course, under normal circumstances this isn’t an even remotely tough movie to find on the format, and indeed, we took a look at a one such example years ago.

Still, why the need to keep this as minty sealed fresh (such as it is) as possible? Take a look at the red banner string across the top edge of this tape, because that’s what makes this one special. It’s the widescreen edition! That’s cool! And evidently fairly rare; I don’t think I’ve ever seen one in person before landing this copy, I’ve seen none for sale on eBay (currently or in the past), and Amazon turned up nothing upon keyword searches.

In fact, it wasn’t until I did a Google image search that I found a single shot of the mythical beast, which linked to this Amazon listing, which oddly enough I couldn’t figure out how to bring up otherwise. Maybe it’s a UPC thing. (Look, I did the legwork for you!). There were exactly two used copies for sale there, I bought the cheaper one, and here we are.

Aside from that banner along the top (and which extends to the sides, FYI), the front cover is identical to the ‘normal’ VHS release; you know, Arnold in his career-defining role as Mr. Freeze, looming above wildly miscast George Clooney as Batdude and Chris O’Donnell as Robin, plus Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy and Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl. Seriously, if you hit up thrift stores as often as I do, you’ve seen this cover approximately six thousand times by this point. Except for, you know, that banner

That Amazon page is really my only resource for this release, and it tells me that it hit shelves on April 14, 1998, several months after the regular edition, which according to Amazon dropped on October 21, 1997. There was no small amount of negative press leveled at the movie, so it’s a little surprising to me that Warner Bros. thought there’d be enough demand to warrant a widescreen edition, especially one so many months later. I’m assuming the print run was pretty low, which would explain why there are quite possibly only two copies in the entire universe. Approximately, I mean.

Actually, for the most part, the print runs of widescreen VHS editions in the 1990s seems to have been lower in general. I pay special attention to these while out and about, and I even keep an eye on online auctions, and they tend to show up much less often than their full screen counterparts. There are exceptions of course, but apparently widescreen VHS editions of movies were a pretty niche category throughout the 1990s and even into the 2000s; maybe widescreen didn’t truly catch on until DVD flourished, I don’t know.

For example, I think I see at least one copy of that double VHS Saving Private Ryan set every time I’m out – the full screen edition, that is. And yet, just a couple of weeks ago, I finally found the seemingly-less-common widescreen one, which naturally became mine. Jurassic Park is another one; I’m not talking about the later THX edition with the shiny cover and all that, but rather an earlier copy that, like Batman & Robin here, looks identical to the full screen edition except for a red banner along the top edge. I stumbled upon that version by happenstance at Goodwill a few months back, and there was no way it wasn’t going home with me.

1989’s Batman and 1992’s Batman Returns also received the widescreen treatment on VHS, and while there’s a bit more evidence supporting them out there, even those don’t show up frequently at all. I’m not sure 1995’s Batman Forever even got a widescreen VHS – though eBay listings say otherwise; I’m guessing they’re auto-listings repeating an error over and over, because every time I tape a closer look, it’s the regular full screen tape.

I just realized not everyone may know what widescreen (or letterbox, as it was/is also called) refers to. Wikipedia explains it better than I ever could, but simply put, it’s the preservation of a film’s original ‘wide’ theatrical aspect ratio on home video, rather than cropping, panning and scanning for a 4:3 screen. Of course, we have big ol’ widescreen TVs and Blu-ray and whatnot now, so it’s not much of a big deal anymore, but back in the standard-definition television days, widescreen was the way to go if you wanted to see the whole movie. Yes, the image was technically smaller, with big black bars along the bottom and top of the screen “sandwiching” the film in the middle, but you got the entire image, and that was the important thing.

Does Batman & Robin benefit from this enhancement? It’d take more than letterbox to save the movie, but then, maybe that’s why I get such a big kick out of this release. “Well, it’s not a very good movie, but at least now we can see all of it…”

Plus, I just like widescreen in general. As such, I try to pick up these versions whenever I can. Or more truthfully, I like to get both pan-and-scan and widescreen copies when possible, not unlike both mono and stereo LPs.

Like the front cover, the back cover for the widescreen edition of Batman & Robin is practically identical to the full screen version you trip over while walking down the street. The only real differences are the additions of a 1998 copyright date added to the fine print and the box at the bottom explaining the widescreen situation (as opposed to the usual “this film has been formatted…” line). Look, Batman & Robin‘s 1:85:1 aspect ratio hath been preserved!

If you go back and read my older article on the full screen edition of the tape (albeit a Blockbuster-branded one, hence the article in the first place), you’ll see I felt the descriptive summary on the back cover was a little “out there.” All these years later, widescreen or not, that feeling remains. In lieu of re-sharing my thoughts in a slightly altered form, I’m just going to copy and paste what I wrote then, because you can’t plagiarize yourself and it’s my blog and I’ll do what I want: “My favorite part is the mention of ‘New very special effects…’, as if these special effects are substantially more special than your usual , run-of-the-mill special effects. I love this tape. Also, ‘From our Batfamily to yours’? That’s adorable Give me a break.”

Batman & Robin is one of those movies I’m inexplicably fond of. Yes, the negative buzz surrounding it is warranted. BUT, it’s such an artifact of late-1990s Hollywood and the period of my life in which it falls, that I just can’t hate it. In fact, I’m going to quote myself again here, because like I said, my blog, my rules: “Despite the fact the movie is one of the worst things ever, I have an inexplicable fondness for the film. Well, not really for the film per se. More for the time period and where it falls in my lifetime. Going further into all that would be a huge digression, so let me stay kinda on track here. Batman & Robin: I remember the release, I remember (and sampled) the Taco Bell tie-in promotion, and I remember the revelation that it apparently made theater-goers cry. I wouldn’t know, though; we tried to go see it, but the only available-to-us showing was sold out, so we settled for, I’m pretty sure, Men In Black.”

Look, this is all my half-hearted way of trying to close this one out. Like I said before, I can only say so much about a sealed tape. And besides, today the prospect of a widescreen version of this movie isn’t so novel anymore; you’ve been able to see it this way since it hit DVD, as far as I know. (Wasn’t it a flipper disc, with full screen on one side, widescreen on the other? I have an old DVD copy boxed away, but I refuse to dig it up for an article approximately four people are going to read.)

Still, a widescreen VHS copy of Batman & Robin, that’s pretty neat. I don’t know how long it was in print or for how long it was sold, but in my experience, it’s not easily found nowadays. Since the regular VHS version had that late-90s home video charm in spades, it stands to reason that the special widescreen edition does as well, though I’ll admit the feeling of ‘exclusivity’ takes away from the mass-market, mainstream appeal of the version you usually come across. Or something like that.

I don’t know where exactly I’m going with this. Look, 1997’s Batman & Robin, they put it out on a widescreen VHS, and you’ve just see the proof. THE END.

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