After my massive disappointment with Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice, I figured it was time to look back at some older Batman productions. Specifically animated ones that were more consistent and had a better grasp on their aims rather than the ambitiously moronic vision of Zack Snyder.
3/26/16: Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (Re-Watch)
Batman: The Animated Series was my first exposure to the character and probably my favorite overall incarnation of the property. Sure, I enjoy the entire Nolan trilogy and the Tim Burton films hold a place in my heart, but the 1990s animated series managed to do something few other film versions of The Dark Knight could; balance a genuine respect for the character with a consistent sense of humor and style. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm gave The Animated Series creator Bruce Timm and his team the chance to both tell an engrossing modern story for the character and give a unique take on his early years. No, it’s not the typical “parents died, slowly realizing he can become a vigilante” storyline as much as one where Bruce is already aware he wants to fight crime while masked yet finds a plausible way out. With a genuine romance that could bury his purpose before it starts yet a constant tugging need to uphold the promise he kept to his parents. The modern tale seems reminiscent of something like Batman: The Long Halloween, but flawlessly connects with the flashbacks and showcases more of The Caped Crusader’s detective skills than any other feature length take on the character. The style showcased reminds one of the neo noir timelessness of Burton’s version of Batman, but allows for a more nuanced sense of scope and expression that live action can’t quite capture with every image. The voice acting fits the gravitas wonderfully, whether it be Kevin Conroy getting to show the full range of Bruce Wayne, Mark Hamill continuing to ooze the perfect type of slimy giddiness he usually does for The Joker or Dana Delaney expressing the perfect mixture of knowing regret & firm wherewithal. For an age where theatrical animation from major studios was right in the middle of a true Disney plagiarizing ghetto, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm takes its subjects and world seriously and with the style & substance of a three dimensional live action thriller.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Abandoned World’s Fairs
In 1996, Bruce Timm followed Batman: The Animated Series with the obvious second DC property Superman: The Animated Series. This sixty minute production is technically a three part episode of that show that marked a crossover between both shows, though at the time Batman: The Animated Series went through a major style redesign to match the Blue Boy Scout’s show and became The New Batman Adventures, which is probably the biggest issue I could honestly have with this special. It particularly stings with the new look of The Joker, which weirdly resembles the titular character of another WB show of that era Freakazoid! with black eyes and white irises that are quite jarring. Regardless, the characters are consistent with the previous series in terms of behavior and tone. What works about this version is that there’s obviously an adversarial relationship between Superman and Batman, but its not so one sided. It has different layers, including the love triangle between Lois Lane, Bruce Wayne and Superman that actually makes for fun conflict while never wasting Lois or overemphasizing either hero. Plus, there’s an intriguing sense of conflict even between Lex Luthor and Joker, who have clashing yet believable motivations that would intertwine them. Still, Joker’s final fate being on a rather ambiguous note feels disingenuous, given his extreme likelihood of returning. One of their confrontations also leads to the film’s best comedic moment between Harley Quinn and Mercy Graves, two of the characters created for both series that would end up being integrated into the DC Universe proper. That alone shows the impact of this series, one that will hopefully not mirror the choices made in certain other recent adaptations.
Rating: 4 out of 5 Kryptonite Statues
3/29/16: Batman: Year One
The recent rash of DC animated films don’t have any real connection to the earlier mentioned attempts at the DC animated universe Bruce Timm created. Sure, Timm is a credited producer on most of them, but they share no real continuity with his stabs at the characters from the 1990s-2000s. Instead, these versions attempt to adapt specific stories or runs from the comics, many of which I can admit I’m not as familiar with. Batman: Year One, however, is one story I’m rather familiar with. Released in 1987 as a three part story written by comic book legend turned crazy kook Frank Miller tells the story of Bruce Wayne’s return to Gotham & first year as Batman as well as James Gordon’s move to Gotham with his pregnant wife Barbara. The story Miller crafted contrasted Batman’s return to his crime infested hometown with Gordon’s introduction to this same crime infested area from the perspective of the police. Both have a sense of temptation, either for Bruce to give in to his occasional desires to stop fighting crime or Gordon’s attraction to Essen. These moments make them human and – more importantly – set up the bond between the two of them that culminates in their partnership as that slowly incriminate the organized crime of Gotham throughout the story. Ben McKenzie and Bryan Cranston display all of this vocally, showing the anxiety and determination they have as characters. Visually, this is one of the more impressive examples of the DC animated films, given that it so closely resembles Dave Mazzucchelli’s cinematic art style quite well. Still, the film fails to translate something pretty vital, even when directly lifting time after time from the page; an authentic sense of grit. The color palette and animation is rather smooth and elegant, which looks good in terms of a direct-to-video animated film, but sacrifices the genuine grit on display in the original book. Still, a solid adaptation of the character and one of the better films in the recent DC Animated Canon.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Flaming Trays