(On TV, October 2019) I’m not much of a comic-book fan, but there is something about Batman’s cast of supporting characters that I find interesting and Harley Quinn is surely one of the best newish (1992) introductions to the menagerie. (I’m not a big fan of the Margot Robbie version of Harley Quinn, but that’s another discussion for another time.) This animated movie Batman and Harley Quinn takes from the New Batman Adventures TV series in recycling the art style and personalities of the characters. Quinn being Quinn and Batman being Batman provides much of the fodder for the film’s admittedly lighter tone: Noticeably lighter and funnier than the previous Batman animated movies (a clear step up from the repellent The Killing Joke), Batman and Harley Quinn nails the tone of the character and how she sees the world. It’s surprisingly racier than what you’d expect from the series (including some naughtiness between Quinn and Nightwing), but it somehow works. The film is at its best in small character moments: the overall plot is a bit too sombre, and the film ends about two minutes too early for a satisfying denouement. But having Quinn expel gas in the Batmobile has its own particular charm. Batman and Harley Quinn is not a great movie in that it won’t do much for those not already at ease in the Batman universe. But it’s fun enough for those who are, and noticeably better as a lighthearted adventure than the ultra-grimness of some other animated Batman movies.
(On Blu-ray, June 2017) In the Hollywood game of commercially viable mad-libs, combining Lego with Batman gets a primal squeal from everyone’s inner eight-year-old boy. I’m no exception. The LEGO Movie having become an unexpected modern classic, it’s no surprise if the follow-up LEGO Batman Movie ends up being a bit more ordinary … but still far more entertaining than most other movies of the year. Best described as a Batman movie made with Lego bricks, this comic take on an archetypical character finds insightful things to say. The emerging “Lego house style” of storytelling is heavy on humour and knowing references to its own nature, and The LEGO Batman Movie certainly follows in that vein, all the way to daring to deliver a heartwarming family-oriented comedy featuring one of the darkest superheroes out there. It does work, although it should be noted that the high-energy comedy of the first few minutes does give way to a more measured pace for most of the film. Batman fans should prepare themselves for a tornado of references to past films and comic book series, from obscure characters to quick-cut homages to previous movies, alongside other pop-culture references. The jokes are certainly rapid-fire: at times, like its predecessor, this is a film that calls for the freeze-frame button and repeat viewings in order to appreciate the complexity of the backdrop, the layered jokes, the mind-boggling animation and the overall sweep of the cinematography. Far more visually ambitious than its predecessor, The LEGO Batman Movie uses a bold colour palette, numerous atmospheric effects and a far more permissive animation style (including bending mini-figures to impossible poses) to give a pleasant blockbuster-movie sheen to the results. The voice talent is up to the film’s humour: Will Arnett’s voice is perfect as Batman, while notables such as Michael Cera, Zach Galifianakis, Rosario Dawson and Ralph Fiennes also contribute their distinctive tones to the results. Overall, it’s a successful film, and one that is, court-jester-like, far more revealing in moving past Batman’s arrested development than in other more serious takes on the character. Those wondering if the Blu-ray is worth purchasing should be reassured: Not only is the film worth watching in freeze-frame high resolution, it comes with a small but entertaining basket of special features, including the unexpectedly hilarious “Dark Hoser” paean to Batman’s Canadian roots.
(On-demand Video, December 2012) Is it possible to follow-up a modern classic such as The Dark Knight without making a few missteps in the process? Probably not, but writer/director Christopher Nolan makes fewer mistakes than most in trying to provide a definitive conclusion to the cycle he launched with Batman Begins: In The Dark Knight Rises, he’s willing to toy with the archetypes of superhero movies (Batman doesn’t make an appearance until 50 minutes in the film), blending it with real-world elements in order to deliver a thrilling, hefty, sometimes-philosophical take on the place of extraordinary people in society. Christian Bale once again stars as Batman/Bruce Wayne, once again flanked by Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman, and this time ably supported by Tom Hardy as supervillain Bane, Joseph Gordon-Lewitt as a capable partner and less-ably by Anne Hathaway as Catwoman. (Let us be blunt: Hathaway has old-school grace and beauty, but it’s not the slinky-sex-kitten quality that the best Catwomen should have.) Still, the script is the most interesting element of the picture: it blends real-world markers with superhero crutches (so that we get CIA extraction planes, professional football games and references to social inequality alongside cities cut off from the rest of the world by hoodlums, people dressing up in amusing costumes and a quasi-mythical “League of Assassin”), scratches a little bit to reveal character motivations, re-uses elements of the previous two films to good effect and tells a surprisingly satisfying story despite numerous small flaws. For anyone else, The Dark Knight Rises would be an impressive achievement: as big and bold as an action blockbuster should be, while handled with a surprising amount of depth, darkness and complexity. Still, compared strictly to Nolan’s previous two films, it’s a bit of a letdown: the themes aren’t as strong as in The Dark Knight and the ingeniousness of Inception is considerably toned down. But never mind the comparative let-down: The Dark Knight Rises is an enormously successful film, another example that entertainment doesn’t have to be entirely brainless. It’s a spectacle with some depth, a daring way to handle an immensely popular protagonist and a subversive way to follow-up its previous two installments. It easily ranks as one of the good movies of 2012, and it should please even the most demanding fans.
(Second viewing, on DVD, June 2009): With the critical and commercial success of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, it’s becoming easier to forget about Tim Burton’s reinvention of the character, before it slid once again in franchise-killing high camp during the Joel Schumacher years. And that’s a shame, because despite some increasingly dated aspects, Batman still keeps an operatic grandeur that resonates even today. The story is thin and eighties-fashion still peeks through the self-conscious blend of historical references, but the entire film remains intriguing. Health Ledger may have taken over the Joker’s look, but Jack Nicholson’s take on the character remains magnetic. Only an underwhelming finale falters visibly: While everyone remembers the Batman/Joker showdown in the streets of Gotham, fewer will recall the following sequence taking place in a cathedral. Two decades after the film’s release, the special edition DVD can afford to be candid about the film’s rushed production, last-minute producer-driven script changes and casting choices. Alas, director Burton’s commentary track could have benefited from judicious editing: His “you know?”s start grating early on and never fade away.
(Third viewing, On Cable TV, June 2016) I hadn’t watched Batman in more than ten years, but another look was more than warranted given rapid evolution of superhero movies since then. Tim Burton’s Batman turns out to be a significant step in the evolution of Batman’s movie portrayal from sixties silliness to Nolan’s grimmer portrayal. It’s certainly trying to be more serious, but it can’t completely manage it. It doesn’t help that Burton’s vision for his characters (and particularly the joker) is so colourful and exuberant: it’s tough to keep a straight face at what Jack Nicholson pulls off in his completely unrestrained performance. Otherwise, it’s fascinating to see in here the seeds of the modern superhero blockbuster, albeit with pre-digital effects, restrained cinematography and somewhat more silliness. (Not included in the movie, but far more important, are the media tie-in and marketing effort surrounding the film, which I remember more than the movie itself) Michael Keaton is better than anyone may remember as Bruce Wayne/Batman, while Kim Basinger is spectacular as Vicki Vale. The ending is a bit dull (the Joker shooting down the batwing is memorable, but the subsequent cathedral sequence isn’t), but there are enough good scenes along the way to make it worthwhile. It’s probably impossible to overstate Batman’s impact on the modern blockbuster industry, but there’s actually a worthwhile film underneath the hype.