Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Heath Holland On...Batman Unlimited

by Heath Holland
With these two new animated movies from Warner Brothers, it’s finally time to give Batman back to the kids.

Something has happened to Batman. Over the past 10 years, the character has gotten increasingly dark, to the point that the original intended audience for this comic book hero (children) can’t get near the character because he’s been saddled with all sorts of nightmarish angst and psychological baggage. True, Batman was born in the shadows, but he was always intended to be accessible to all readers, not just adults. It used to be that the darker Batman stories from the comics, such as Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, were the exception to the rule and offered a rare glimpse into the inner workings of the character. They deconstructed Batman, got inside his head and the heads of his villains, and gave older readers an alternative from the monthly offerings that DC Comics published, which were aimed at a general audience. For as far back as I can remember, though, Batman has been caught in a perpetual state of deconstruction. The status quo of good guys fighting bad guys is long gone.

I know that I gushed over the Warner Brothers animated adaptation of The Dark Knight Returns, and even had some nice things to say about Batman vs. Robin earlier this year. I had high hopes for Warner’s next big DCU animated film, Justice League: Gods and Monsters, because it was going to restore Bruce Timm to his rightful place as the overseer of this animated comic book universe. Well, I bought that movie, but I can’t bring myself to watch the darn thing it because it just looks so grim. The back of the box cautions that the film is rated PG-13 for “violence throughout, and suggestive content, including nudity.” For those taking notes at home, these movies are still being sold in the children’s section of retail stores.
So when I heard about a new kid-friendly line of direct-to-DVD films from Warner Brothers called Batman Unlimited, I had my fingers crossed that this would be something that would bring back a few things sorely missing from Batman over the last ten years. When I found out that the movies tie into a new line of Batman toys from Mattel, I was skeptical. Now that I’ve seen both of the films that bear the Batman Unlimited brand, I have to say that I’m both impressed and relieved. Batman is once again a hero. He’s dark, but not tortured. He has friends. He trusts people. It’s a Batman you can be comfortable showing your children.

The first film, Animal Instincts, introduces us to the “Animilitia,” a group of animal-themed villains consisting of an intelligent gorilla named Silverback (he’s a lot like Gorilla Grodd), Wonder Woman’s foe Cheeta, Killer Croc, Man-Bat, and led by The Penguin. Their scheme is a bit arch and old-school--there’s a meteor passing over Gotham filled with a core of gold, and Penguin wants to drag the meteor down onto Gotham City so he can get to the precious metal, even if he has to sacrifice the city to do so. It’s kind of silly instead of sadistic and gruesome, but I’ll take it.

If the super-villains are allowed to team up, then why can’t the heroes? Batman is aided by Green Arrow, The Flash, Nightwing, and Red Robin. It’s probably not a coincidence that both Green Arrow and Flash have shows on TV right now, but it works. Also, the movie doesn’t bog down the plot with the drama and backstory of Nightwing and Red Robin, and lets their respective roles define them instead of years of continuity that kids won’t be interested in. Batman gets along with his friends, and they work together in a way that I haven’t seen in years. It’s so good to have that dynamic back. I miss Superman being here, but maybe he’ll turn up in future films. One of the things I appreciate is that these movies can serve as an introduction to these characters and lay the groundwork for future exploration. They don’t beat you over the head with back-story, but they allow the characters to be who they are.
The second film is titled Monster Mayhem, and takes place on Halloween night in Gotham. The Joker is up to no good, and this time he’s enlisted the help of Solomon Grundy, Silver Banshee, Scarecrow, and Clayface. This one is more fun than Animal Instincts, but only because it has Joker in it and isn’t afraid to be big and ridiculous. We get all the other heroes from the previous film, only with Cyborg sitting in for The Flash. The plot of this one involves using computer viruses and hacking into secure systems, in case you need a dose of reality with your superheroes. Don’t worry, though, the movie doesn’t let you take things TOO seriously. There’s a gigantic mechanical T-Rex in this one, and in the grand tradition of previous heroes (The Doctor and Opitmus Prime), Batman rides a dinosaur. And because these movies are based on a toy line, you can go to the store, purchase said dinosaur, and bring him home so Batman can ride him around your own house. Also, it shoots missiles!

Perhaps you are talking to the screen right now and saying “What about those LEGO DC Superhero movies? Aren’t those for kids?” Well, yes they are, but they skew pretty young, in my opinion. I enjoyed The LEGO Movie, but the subsequent LEGO superhero movies are loud and kind of obnoxious to me. They try to see how many jokes and sight gags they can pack into each minute, and THAT’S FINE, but I wasn’t drawn to that sort of portrayal of heroes when I was a kid and I’m still not really into that. I prefer the reality presented in comic books where it’s all taken pretty seriously, just not TOO seriously. There needs to be a middle ground between campy slapstick and adult interpretations of the characters. We have that here; these movies FEEL like comic books in the best sense. There’s a cost of admission, and that’s the suspension of your disbelief. Once you’ve given yourself to the world, you’re in it.
To be fair, though, you don’t have to suspend your disbelief any more than you do with most of the Marvel movies, and maybe that’s what Warner Brothers is going for here. They certainly haven’t learned that lesson with their feature films, which drag our heroes down into the mud and remind us that they’re just as dirty and corruptible as the rest of us, but these two animated movies exist in a world where superheroes are FUN and where you can have good and evil without darkness and tragedy. This is like if the Justice League cartoon that started in 2001 and Super Friends had a baby. That baby could watch Batman Unlimited without getting messed up and having nightmares. It’s totally kid-friendly, but it’s not strictly for kids. These movies are for anyone who’s into DC superheroes. The plots aren’t contrived and stupid; you have to pay attention to what’s going on to follow them. Kids will enjoy the non-stop action, but adult superhero fans will enjoy seeing their heroes unravel mysteries and the fun of seeing the characters interact with each other. Nightwing, for instance, finds The Flash to be exasperating, but he still likes him. There’s just enough substance to the characters to satisfy older fans without boring younger ones. No existential crisis here, thank you.

Visually, the films are solid, and occasionally they’re stunning. In a big departure, Gotham City is no longer the noir city of yesterday, and is now a bright, technological city of neon. It’s the Neo-Tokyo of Akira on crack. They borrow heavily from anime sensibilities with speed lines and impossible gravity, but retain the distinct Warner Brothers style that a lot of us have grown up with. Similarly, the voice acting is spot-on. Batman sounds like Kevin Conroy, the actor who has voiced the character more than anyone else, but it’s actually a voice actor named Roger Craig Smith. The Joker sounds just like Mark Hamill, but it’s not him. It’s an actor named Troy Baker. I feel like great attention was paid to make these movies accessible to both adults who have spent years with these characters, as well as a new audience of children. In fact, the highest compliment I can give these films is that they passed “the kid test.” I watched them with my daughter and she loved them both. In fact, after we finished Monster Mayhem, she immediately began to draw Joker. MISSION ACCOMPLISHED! I’ve watched three DTV Warner Brothers Animation films so far this year (these and Scooby-Doo and KISS: Rock and Roll Mystery), and have come away a fan of them all.
Even the special features on the DVDs are fun. Animal Instincts provides us with an overview of the character of The Penguin and describes who he is and why he does what he does. It’s accompanied by comic book panels of the character throughout his entire 70+ year existence. The goal, it seems, is to make kids want to read comic books. And in a twist that I wasn’t expecting at all, one of the talking heads speaking about The Penguin is A KID. GASP! He’s the son of Supernatural producer Adam Glass, and he’s identified as “Aidan Glass: Very, Very Big Batman Fan.” How cool is that? Good on you, Warner Brothers. The DVDs also contain about 45 minutes each of animated DC cartoon shorts that apparently aired on YouTube. They’re a mixed bag, but I especially like the ones about a Batman in feudal Japan.

Now in the interest of full disclosure, I’m bragging pretty hard on these movies, but they’re not perfect. At around 80 minutes, they still feel a little long and repetitive. Really, they feel like TV animation, and it makes me wonder if that was the original intention with them. The animation is really nice, but it’s not feature quality. Still, I’m thankful that this isn’t a CGI project (though some CGI is used), and it retains the familiarity of line-art that lends itself to superhero storytelling. While I love all the different suits Batman has for different occasions (like Iron Man), my cynical side suspects they’re here to sell toys. I have to remind myself that it’s okay to sell toys, because toys are cool and Batman toys are even cooler. The plots, which I’ve mentioned having to pay attention to in order to follow, are miles above standard children’s television storylines, but are still not mind-blowing. These are not game-changing Batman movies; they’re fun distractions to take you away from reality and deposit you into a brightly-colored world of larger-than-life personalities. You know, like comic books.
In researching these movies, I ended up reading quite a few user reviews (almost always a mistake), and most of them looked something like this: “Stupid movie! Batman is supposed to be DARK and GRITTY! What is WB thinking with this stupid crap for kids? No one wants this!” Well, I want this, because I want kids--including my own--to be able to see the same things that I loved about these heroes when I was a kid. Batman, more than most comic book heroes, is open to many different interpretations; he can exist in multiple visions of Gotham City. He can be a noir detective, a warrior in the shadows, and a man driven beyond sanity by his own demons. But he can also be a Knight of Justice who cooperates with fellow heroes to beat the bad guys. He can have cool gadgets and different suits for different missions. He can have awesome vehicles and a social life outside the costume. For too long, Batman has been the tortured martyr. We’ve had the deconstructed Batman (and will have him for years to come, it appears), but I’ve really missed this particular take; I’ve missed the status quo that ended so many years ago. Without a status quo, these characters simply aren’t sustainable. If the superhero kids in their 30s and 40s insist on dragging Batman into their adulthood and don’t leave anything for younger generations, what will be left for those kids? The answer is “not much.” With these two films, the FUN Batman is back, watching over Gotham City, and this time he gets by with a little help from his friends. Welcome back, Batman! You have no idea how much I’ve missed you.


  1. Good stuff here as always. I myself really like dark Batman but I never thought of it as taking Batman away from kids. I was once a kid who was obsessed with Batman and I would never want to deprive some other kid of that. I want to check these out now!

  2. The Animated Series is and will always be the true benchmark for Batman representation for me. I'm not a huge comic guy, but I eat up the movies and shows whenever Batman is involved. But BTAS had such a fantastic balance of that darker side of Batman, a lot of it wrapped up in the art style, and mixing of storylines and characters worthy of the adults watching, but exciting and accessible for kids. It sounds like these movies sort of find something similar, although the art here seems more colorful and I imagine strikes a lighter tone. I'm only in my 20's, but I buy all these Batman movies thinking man I wana share this with my kids someday, and share this thing I love so much. So these are definitely ones I want to check out. I just hope that these comic book companies don't forget who they are truly made for, and it's not the 20 and 30 something's that hold on to their childhood. As much as I love stuff like YHE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, I really hope creators can strike a balance between adult and children content.

    1. I totally agree on BTAS. I was the target audience for that show as a kid, and I loved it. Now that I'm an adult, I still really enjoy it. Even though I've read and cherish lots of the dark and gritty Batman comics, the 90's cartoon is still the archetypal Batman for me. I think the problem with entertainment in general these days is that there isn't much "family" content anymore. Everything is either for kids or for adults, and things like BTAS or kid-friendly movies with really good writing and themes that adults can enjoy have gone by the wayside.

    2. I honestly can't imagine anything ever touching or topping Batman: The Animated Series for me. I love that Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill still do the voices for the games, but the series was so PURE. "Heart of Ice," man. It's gonna live forever.

      And because I'm shameless:

  3. Good Batman stuff here Heath and while I've enjoyed the Nolan trilogy mostly it is nice to see that things are getting a little brighter and animated movies like this is the perfect medium to do it and not live action where Batman fred flinstones down a dinosaurs back and has a frickin credit card in his name. All that being said after the disaster of Batman and Robin they needed to go dark.
    I think there's personally room for both types myself as long as they are separated as different universes. It would be super awkward if Ben Affleck rode a dinosaur in the next solo Batman film. Speaking of DC its kind of a shame that everything looks to be super dark on the live action movie horizon, sure we dont want aquaman to look as corny as his cartoon counterpart but can't he have a little color?

  4. There's absolutely room for both types. That's the spirit with which I wrote this. I certainly see a need to serve different audiences, and I don't want dinosaurs in my live-action Batman movies. I think the IDEA behind the Christopher Nolan movies was solid, and it was time to take Batman back into some more serious waters after how silly things got in 1997. But then when you realize that Batman and Robin was 18 years ago and that it was the last theatrical Batman film that was safe for younger Bat-fans, it becomes apparent how long we've been in these darker waters. We need a balance of both lighter and darker content so that all audiences are being served. Prior to these Ultimate Batman movies, it had been a long, long time since the younger audience had something that treated the characters seriously but was still accessible by a wide audience. I'm just really glad Warner Brothers is behind these and is getting Batman back into the hands of kids. BTW, I showed my daughter a picture of Aquaman from the upcoming Zack Snyder movie, and it made her so sad. It makes me really sad, too.

  5. Thanks buddy - I was looking at my Batman comics (recent collections of New 52 stuff) thinking about how I wouldn't be able to let my son read these for quite awhile and same goes for even the animated Batman movies on my shelf - I appreciate the recommendation of something I can watch with the boy while he's still a boy (but like, after he stops shitting himself - yeesh).

    I agree with your comment about a mix being needed and you're so right - yeah we're living in a Teen-40 year old geek's wet dream right now but someone's gotta look after the budding geeks too! I LOVED Superman when I was 3 or 4 years old - I'd never show Man of Steel to my son at that age - I'll have to go back to the classic Christopher Reeve stuff, which is fine, but it's sad and weird that the kids are being forgotten in what ostensibly should be kid stuff!