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.
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.
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.
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.
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.