Monday, July 1, 2013

Batman on Film Part 7: The Animated Movies

On this edition of “Batman on Film,” we’re looking at all the animated films featuring our Dark Knight hero. Now, we’ve already discussed Batman: Mask of the Phantasm in a separate feature, so we won’t discuss it here. In this article we will discuss the straight-to-video features released starting in 1998 through the current day. Note that team-up films like Superman/Batman: Public Enemies or Justice League: Doom won’t be considered as Batman is not the main focus of the film.  Here we go:

Boyd Kirkland
1998 • 70 Minutes

On the Forced Perspective podcasts focused on the Batman animated series, me and the crew discussed at length many of the wonderful single episodes the series produced. Chief among them was one of the first ever aired on television, “Heart of Ice.” This episode is responsible for creating the Mr. Freeze origin story that everyone accepts as canon now, and was later used in Batman & Robin.  SubZero was actually supposed to be released simultaneously with Batman & Robin’s theatrical release, but was pushed back due to poor critical reception of the infamous disaster of which that film became to be known.  SubZero takes place after the “Batman: The Animated Series” episode “Deep Freeze.” Victor Fries has moved to the Arctic to live in an environment that keeps both himself and his cryogenically-frozen wife, Nora, alive.  Her containment unit becomes ruptured and he is forced to travel back to civilization to find an organ donor to save his dying wife. Freeze discovers that the perfect donor match is Barbara Gordon, daughter of Commissioner Gordon and secretly Batgirl, and will take her dead or alive to save his wife. Enter Batman and Robin to save the day.  The films plays out much like 3 part “Batman” episode, which isn’t a bad thing.  The action is exciting and the artwork, as always from this production crew, is outstanding.  Kevin Conroy brings it, as always, to the role of Bruce Wayne and Batman while Michael Ansara is a perfect Mr. Freeze, with his dead-panned, cold (pardon the pun) delivery of his lines.  SubZero certainly faired better with critics than its live-action companion did, and even won an Annie Award (awards for animation) for Best Home Video Animation.
Grade: B+

Curt Geda
2000 • 77 Minutes

In 1999, Batman made his return to animated series with “Batman Beyond.” This time, however, we join Gotham City in the future, where Bruce Wayne is an old man who has retired from crime-fighting. But he’s not done with the scum of Gotham City’s underbelly yet, this time he mentors Terry McGinnis, a new Batman, on how to be The Dark Knight of tomorrow. The series was received by incredibly-skeptical fans that were not fans of this non-canon interpretation of their beloved Batman. However, their expectations were exceeded when “Batman Beyond” went on to become an exciting, action-packed, yet futuristic take on Batman that still remained true to the spirit of the character we all love.  In 2000, Warner Bros. Animation released Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker on home video. The film’s plot is in the title, as The Joker, long-thought to be dead, has returned to terrorize Gotham City. Both Bruce and Terry have to investigate the return of the Clown Prince of Crime and determine whether he is the real Joker and how he has managed to return from the grave. The film’s highlight is a flashback sequence that takes the viewer back to a “Batman: Animated Series”-style sequence that shows Batman and Batgirl attempting to rescue Robin from The Joker and Harley Quinn. The scene reveals that The Joker has mentally, physically and psychologically tortured Tim Drake past the point of no return, which causes Batman to completely lose his temper. I won’t give away what happens, but The Joker meets his apparent death in a shockingly violent manner.  This was a point of contention with executives as the MPAA gave the film a PG-13 rating due to the violence. Warner Bros. panicked and re-edited the film to a much tamer version, cutting down on a lot of the dramatic and emotional impact. When the kid-friendly version did not perform well financially, the film was released completely intact in an “Original Uncut” version.  The rest of the film is quite good as well, with the mystery of how the Joker survived his apparent death providing a good mystery for the caped crusaders to solve.  Mark Hammil returns to voice The Joker, and he’s at his maniacal best. Will Friedle plays Terry McGinnis as a brash, young kid still learning the ropes while Kevin Conroy transitions perfectly from Batman in his prime, to an old, crotchety Bruce Wayne.  The film packs a lot of drama and emotion, and, thanks to the darkness of the flashback sequence, a satisfying climax at the end of the film. One of the best.
Grade: A-

Curt Geda
2003 • 75 Minutes

Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman, much like SubZero, plays like an extended episode of “Batman: The Animated Series,” which again, is not a bad thing.  This was the last solo-Batman film released that takes place in the “DC Animated Universe.” Batman would later re-appear, voiced by Kevin Conroy, in Justice League features.  The film is rated PG, so a little more freedom than the television show, but not quite as dark as Return of the Joker. Batman is back in present day this time, and he’s trying to solve the mystery of a new heroine that has invaded Gotham City and has taken to dressing herself up like him. This new “Batwoman” is reckless, which Batman doesn’t exactly appreciate, and is trying to take on the likes of some of Batman’s foes, namely The Penguin and Rupert Thorne.  Batman’s main priority is to stop this new Batwoman from doing more than good, and he uses his detective skills to figure out who she is. Batwoman herself is played by Kyra Sedgwick, and the film, in a bit of clever voice casting, introduces 3 female characters that all have an agenda and could possibly be Batwoman. The 3 characters (Kathy Duquesne, Rocky Ballantine and Sonia Alcana) all have similar sounding voices, which throws the audience off.  It’s a clever trick and the payoff to the mystery is amusing.  Ultimately, not a great film, but not bad either.
Grade: B-

2008 • 75 Minutes

In 2007, DC Comics started up the DC Animated Original Movies line, where it took stand-alone concepts or sometimes straight comic book stories and adapted them to full-length features. Some of these have worked like Superman: Doomsday and Wonder Woman. Others like Gotham Knight, have not. This collection of six short animated Batman films was released in time with the now-classic The Dark Knight in 2008. The six short films were supposed to bridge the gap of what happened between the movies Batman Begins and The Dark Knight and depicts Batman in the “Nolan Universe.” Segments of the film were written by Batman alumni like David S. Goyer, Brian Azzarello, Greg Rucka and Alan Burnett, so you’d think at least one of the stories would be captivating. Sadly not. The producers took a page out of the Wachoski playbook and all the stories are done in an “Anime” style. Sadly, the Japanese animation style just doesn’t fit in the Batman universe. This anthology did have one saving grace at least: Kevin Conroy as Batman. His voice as The Dark Knight will never and can never be outdone.

Brandon Vietti
2010 • 75 Minutes

Thankfully, all is not lost for Batman. DC Animated Original Movies delivered Batman: Under the Red Hood in 2010.  Red Hood was adapted from two Batman shorelines: “A Death in the Family” and “Under the Red Hood.” The film starts in flashback and depicting the brutal death of Jason Todd, one-time companion to Batman as Robin, at the hands of the Joker. In present-day Gotham City, Batman is a war with Gotham’s criminals (as always) and teaming with Nightwing, another former Robin, taking down an android known as Amazo. Batman and Nightwing investigate what connection Gotham City gangster, Black Mask, has with the robot, and find that there is a rogue vigilante known as The Red Hood involved in a turf-war with Mask.  The Joker, who was the original Red Hood, is interrogated and denies involvement. In the end, we find out how Red Hood, Joker, Jason Todd and even Ra’s al Ghul are all connected.  The film borrows heavily from the source material to great effect and it should make many comic book geeks very happy with its faithfulness. For the first time in a stand-alone Batman film, Kevin Conroy and Mark Hammil do not provide the voices of Batman and Joker. Bruce Greenwood (Star Trek, Double Jeopardy) does a fine job as Batman, but it is jarring not to hear Conroy.  John DiMaggio, best known for his work as Bender in “Futurama”, provides the voice of The Joker. His approach is much different than Hammil’s maniacal take, and voices the character in a much more subdued and disturbing way. Hammil’s work will always win “Best Joker” polls, but DiMaggio, again, isn’t bad… just different.  Jensen Ackles and Neil Patrick Harris provide good supporting work as Red Hood and Nightwing respectively.  A damn good film.
Grade: A

Sam Liu, Lauren Montgomery
2011 • 64 Minutes

If you’ve seen Batman Begins, you’ve seen the skeletal structure of this film. Batman Begins borrows heavily from Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One 1987 storyline which tells the first year of Batman fighting crime in Gotham City, including the beginning of his alliance with Jim Gordon. This film is a straight adaptation of the 4-issue story arc.  A lot of the plot points will seem familiar.  Bruce Wayne returns from traveling the world, where he learned various forms of fighting disciplines to wage war on the criminals of Gotham City.  James Gordon has just moved to Gotham City and begun working in the Gotham City Police Department. Both Wayne and Gordon become acquainted with the corruption of the police force and its elite citizens.  Bruce Wayne becomes a masked crimefighter, while Gordon forms an uneasy alliance with a vigilante criminal to take down the greater evils in Gotham. There’s a reason Christopher Nolan borrowed so heavily from this story: it works. It’s captivating. It’s true to the spirit and character of Batman.  Benjamin McKenzie (88 Minutes) provides the voice for Batman this time around. Again, he’s no Kevin Conroy, but who is. Eliza Dushku (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dollhouse, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back) joins the Bat Universe as a pre-Catwoman Selina Kyle and Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) kicks ass as Commissioner Gordon, probably the best voice acting for the character, with all respect to Bob Hastings.  Again, this retelling of Batman’s origin will not provide any surprises, but it is an excellent source of Batman entertainment for new and old fans alike.
Grade: B

Jay Oliva
2011-2012 • 152 Minutes 

The Dark Knight Returns was released as two parts, but they really must be seen as one film. One can’t talk about the films without referencing the source material. In 1986, DC Comics released The Dark Knight Returns, a 4-part graphic novel that takes place in an alternate future where Batman has retired due to old age. After Harvey Dent, whose face was fixed and declared mentally sane, disappears and crime starts to become an epidemic in Gotham once again, a 55- year old Bruce Wayne dons the cape and cowl to strike fear into Gotham’s criminals.  He tracks down Two-Face, wages ware against a street gang known as The Mutants and eventually inspires them to become a gang of vigilantes instead. A new Robin joins him, this time a teenage girl named Carrie Kelly. Batman’s sudden reappearance in Gotham sparks the interest of The Joker and the US government. The Joker, who had been catatonic due to the lack of Batman in his life, reawakens and goes on a killing spree, while the government, feeling a loss of control to a vigilante, sense none other than Superman to clean up the “mess.” The Dark Knight Returns is more than just a superhero story. It’s an epic and tragic opera. And it’s perfectly adapted to the screen with these straight-to-video masterpieces. Almost everything from the book, with the exception of Batman’s inner monologue, is brought to life. Batman is voiced by Robocop himself, Peter Weller, while Modern Family‘s Ariel Winter plays Robin. Weller’s performance as Batman is jarring, but perfect given the context of the story. This Batman is a hulking slab of meat, and Weller’s deep voice provides the right amount of menace.  Michael Emerson (Lost) plays the Joker beautifully, (but again, he’s no Mark Hammil) and provides a worthy foe to The Dark Knight.  The entire voice cast works, even Conan O’Brien as a talk-show host that meets a grizzly end at the hands of The Joker.  If you’ve read the book, you owe it to yourself to watch this film.  If you haven’t, watch this film then read the book. One of the best Batman films ever made.
Grade: A+