My guilty pleasure? Batman. My plans this past weekend? Watch all the movies. I had a great (although slightly bleary-eyed) weekend. DC and Warner have really picked up their game these past few years with animated Batman films, maybe because the legend that is Christopher Nolan brought the Dark Knight back into popular culture. For the most part, these features are no longer extensions of whatever Batman series is airing at the time: they are stand alone films that experiment with the story and pick away at the legend. So, if you get a hankerin’ to watch an animated Batman movie (because hey, some of these deserve some serious recognition), might I suggest you pick one of the following:
Fast forward a few years and meet an old, retired Bruce Wayne and a soon-to-be-retired (at age 70) Jim Gordon. Things are looking pretty bleak for Gotham, the city where crime never sleeps. There’s a new gang called the Mutants (Geordi La Forges with nipple piercings) who attack everyone they see, apparently without cause. Bruce can’t take it anymore, and is shaken out of retirement by a serious itch to crack some femurs. What is distinctly different about this Batman compared to other versions is that he is, simply, a lot older. He can still take a beating, though, and recover from stab wounds faster than a bowl of yoghurt.
Oh, and he drives a tank. It’s actually kind of cute. There’s a lot of talk about Dick Grayson but no appearances, sadly. The Dark Knight Returns Part I does have a Robin, however, in the fan-girl form of Carrie Kelley. I never liked Carrie Kelley. She bounces along rooftops like a noob and adds little to Batman’s operations aside from a touch of youth.
The film’s conflict is relatively tame and the pace is relatively slow – maybe to match Bruce’s aged lifestyle. The Dark Knight Returns Part I is essentially a movie about a man who comes out of retirement because he’s bored, needs an excuse to rev up the old tank, and wants to slap around some young whippersnappers. If you’re wondering about Part II, it’s more of the same, save Batman trades in the tank for a horse.
This isn’t so much a feature film as a collection of shorts. One of the first frames flashes a graffiti sign which reads, “Have I got a story for you,” and thus is the theme of this movie. It’s drawn more like an anime than a cartoon, with each chapter experimenting with a different style. Overall, however, it is dark, slimy, and a very haunted version of the Batman mythology. Gotham Knight looks more like scenes from Todd McFarlane’s Spawn than anything else.
The story and history of Batman gradually unfolds as the movie progresses. It starts with slightly exaggerated civilian sightings before shifting to the viewpoint of Gordon’s detectives, crossing paths with the Dark Knight while out on the job. Eventually we get Lucius Fox’s involvement and finally Bruce Wayne’s point of view. While the storytellers’ and Batman’s design changes with each new chapter, Bruce Wayne is always voiced by Kevin Conroy, the most recognizable ‘voice of Batman’.
Each chapter fits together nicely, and the changes in the animation aren’t too abrupt. It was interesting to see so many different designs of the cape and cowl, and tour the Batman story from speculation to myth to memory. Since each chapter stands alone, Gotham Knight is a great movie if you plan to pause, walk away, and return when you’re ready.
Finally we meet Damian Wayne in all his arrogant glory. While Dick Grayson was the ‘acrobat Robin’ and Tim Drake was the ‘smart Robin’, Damian is popularly known as ‘the little shit’. Does he deserve a movie? Absofreakinglutely. Did they do him justice? Son of Batman isn’t a bad attempt.
Talia al Ghul drops the baby bomb on Batman when their son is about ten years old. She needs Damian to stay with his father while she hunts down Slade Wilson, the man proclaiming himself the new leader of the League of Assassins. Is Bruce Wayne shocked to discover he has a son? According to the dialogue, yes. According to his facial expression, not a bit. But then again, a squint from Batman could mean anything from explosive rage to total ecstasy.
The facial expressions in general are a little glossed over in this film. While the action sequences are alright, the talking bits were just lazy, with flapping mouths being the only movement in the entire shot. What keeps the movie interesting are the action sequences and the classic Animated Series feel. Sticking to tradition, there’s a villain, a blackmailed scientist, a convenient antidote, and a lair that blows up right on cue. I think the final fight took more time to plan and execute than the entire rest of this film, which A) means the creators respect a good climax, but B) means the rest of the movie falls below the bar.
Son of Batman doesn’t quite meet my expectations for animated Batman features. It’s enjoyable, but not nearly as deep or thought-provoking as the number one film on this list.
Don’t let the dorky poster fool you. Batman: Year One feels like a spinoff of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy. Lieutenant Gordon (voiced by Bryan Cranston) moves to a corrupt Gotham with his pregnant wife, Barbara, the same year Bruce Wayne (voiced by Ben McKenzie) returns home from his travels and secret training. Gordon deals with dirty cops while Bruce tries to find his footing as a masked vigilante. The reason I point out Nolan’s version is because here, like in Batman Begins, Bruce needs to test the waters a bit before he can become the Batman we all know and fear, and here, like in The Dark Knight, Gordon’s job and public recognition puts a strain on his marriage. Combining the two stories and following both Batman and Gordon as main characters is an interesting feature and, so far, something unique to the animated Batman films.
The movie doesn’t only follow these two characters from start to finish, it’s also narrated by them in the style of an old detective film. This adds a bit of texture to the movie and provides insight into what Batman and Gordon are thinking: a rare treat for followers of these particular introverts. It also encourages the movie to lean a bit towards the theatrical, mainly in the case of imagery. There’s no humour, cheese, or beat-them-up-because-we-can’t-use-our-words moments, which are so common in DC movies directed at younger audiences. As an older viewer, this is a huge relief.
Catwoman’s presence in the film is pretty useless: she has no contact with the main characters and does little to affect the plot. She may have only been included to add another female character. As a whole, Batman: Year One isn’t as gory as Gotham Knight but isn’t as plot-twisty as Under the Red Hood. It settles for a good compromise.
I fraking love this movie. I love everything about it. The plot, the characters, the action, the pin points of humour… It is the shining bat signal of all my hopes for DC animated films. The grand mystery of Jason Todd (Robin number two) is introduced, picked at, and agonized over from prologue to conclusion. Batman is scarred, regretful, and if possible more broody than ever, and the introduction of a new villain, the Red Hood, puts all his morals and past actions into question. It is Batman in his prime with just the right amount of ghosts to haunt him.
Under the Red Hood, I think, has the best animated representation of the Joker. He’s sadistic, totally without boundaries, twisted, psychotic, and murderously evil. He’s also unpredictable. A good Joker should always have a bit of unpredictability because I doubt the Joker himself knows what his next step is going to be. Under the Red Hood is mainly about (you guessed it) the Red Hood, so the Joker only plays a supporting role, but his presence is essential to the drama of the film and his appearances are perfectly timed, placed, and utilized.
The animation isn’t necessarily groundbreaking – although it is very good – but the action is fantastic. The animators take full advantage of their craft and press the limits of possibility. It’s creative, flashy, and even though it’s just a drawing, I found myself wincing several times.
Speaking of impossible acrobatics, Under the Red Hood witnesses the return of Nightwing (hurray!) voiced by Neil Patrick Harris (r-really?). But hey, you know what? It totally works. Good call, Casting. His banter with Bruce Wayne (voiced by Bruce Greenwood) cherishes the Batman/Robin relationship. Nightwing adds just the touch of humour this film needs to break the seriously dramatic tone.
Under the Red Hood is an addictive movie that pulls you in and keeps you hooked. If you choose only one film from this list CHOOSE THIS ONE. I dare you to watch the first five minutes and give up. I dare you.