Nostalgia is a funny thing. When you bear witness to your favorite superheroes being botched left, right, and center on the big screen, the small screen, and in the pages of the comics books from whence they hail in the misbegotten-yet-perpetual cycle of reinvention, the once uber-fan has only three responses. The first is to embrace the new stuff, which never feels the same no matter how much you paste on a fake smile and claim acceptance. Eventually you just snap, which invariably leads to the second response. That consists of screaming into the wind about how bad things have gotten, even when at heart you knew along that things would change because they always do. Nothing lasts forever, including greatness. And the third is to embrace nostalgia, revisiting the time-honored source of your golden memories, all the while hoping beyond hope that your dream team would reunite and make things right again.
Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it.
Batman and Harley Quinn is the latest direct-to-video DC Heroes offering from Warner Bros. Animation, though it did have a brief engagement on the big screen to help promote it. It is brought to us by Bruce Timm and Alan Burnett, the team that brought us Batman: The Animated Series, the best thing Warner Bros. has ever released. Ever. Bar none. While it’s drawn in the style of their final season, dubbed “Gotham Knights” (aka The New Batman / Superman Adventures), the pull of nostalgia and the promise of greatness still heavily perfumes the air. There are misgivings, of course. There always are. Bitten and burned fans are always a bit leery. We want to believe, but can we fully afford to trust? So they dangle a carrot. The dream team reunites the dream team. Kevin Conroy returns as Batman, rejoined by Loren Lester as Nightwing, the former Robin. That’s a seriously awesome carrot. And they’ve got some A-list heavy hitters in the voice cast to back them up: Kevin Michael Richardson, Paget Brewster (who is not the original Poison Ivy, but damn she’s good), Rob Paulsen, John DiMaggio… seriously, the talent is here. I question none of these masters of the craft. Wait, Melissa Rauch as Harley Quinn? Ok, seems an odd choice at first blush. But since she’s carrying the headline position, what do we have here? She’s got Harley’s nasal accent, perhaps laid on a bit thick, but nothing I can’t work with. She sounds a bit grittier than previous Harley talents Arleen Sorkin or Tara Strong. But performance… she gives it her all, and so help me, she nailed the character. Credit where it’s due. So casting is officially up to expectation. And since we know animation is also never a problem in this style, that’s two for two. That leaves story, character, and situations.
Story: Poison Ivy has joined forces with Jason Woodrue, The Floronic Man. Their mad plot: inspired by the accident that created Swamp Thing, they’re going to recreate that formula and turn all of humanity into plant-people in order to save the planet. Batman and Nightwing enlist the aid of Harley Quinn because, even though she’s a bona fide sociopath, she has made great efforts to go clean, and her history with Ivy could be the x factor that saves the day. Story is fan-approved gold, even if it’s a stretch. They even hang a lantern on this: enlisting Harley is just not their finest Plan B.
Character: Do we really even need to question this? The writers, the actors, the producers… they know their stuff. This is really looking too good to be true, people. It’s been a lot years, and I really want to believe. I need my heroes back. Even just one of them at this point is enough.
Situations: Houston, we have a problem. Or… do we?
When they released The Killing Joke, we went a little too far when Batman and Batgirl hooked up. There is no way he’d ever be able to look Commissioner Gordon in the eye ever again after that. And as Nightwing pointed out here, it’s not like Batman has never made out with a supervillain before. That’s supposed to justify the hook-up between Nightwing and Harley.
Even if I have zero problem with the former Boy Wonder’s lack of self-restraint (whatever happened to Starfire, Grayson? Seriously?), there’s a trend in comedy today that bugs the ever-loving crap out of me. Awkward is not funny. It’s just awkward. Yet, we’ve been programmed over the last generation or so to believe that awkward is the height of comedic genius. As Mel Brooks once said, “Funny is money, wit is shit.”
This awkward stuff carries through at a henchman hideout party scene where Harley has to sing a number in return for some information on Ivy’s location. Again, credit where it’s due, there are two songs for the asking, one from Rob Paulsen, the other from Melissa Rauch, and both are very well performed. After years of Animaniacs, I expect Paulsen can sing. He’s proven it to us many times. (If you’ve somehow missed Animaniacs, this is an example of true funny as opposed to awkward funny.) Again, I’m not so familiar with Rauch, but she’s holding her spotlight for the right reasons. She’s got pipes.
The situation around the talent… the whole setup seems forced. More awkward, less funny. Ok, I give up. Humor is subjective. This doesn’t necessarily tickle my funny bone, but clearly the cast and crew had fun with it anyway. And I’m willing to roll with it because, quite frankly, I’m just happy beyond words to have something — anything — that tells me that somebody out there still remembers what DC’s heroes could be when they’re written properly. Dammit, it’s GOOD to have Conroy back as Batman, and as incredible as it is, it’s even BETTER to have him portraying HIS particular version of Batman. Yes, there are differences. Look back at The Killing Joke as a prime example. It’s subtle, but these are things lifelong fans notice. Batman is always a little different in the hands of different writers. Some get it really close, some are just way off the mark. With these examples, other than the whole Batman / Batgirl thing, it’s very close, which is why Conroy was the right man for the right job. Honestly, he’s the absolute best even when Batman isn’t written to spec. I told him so to his face. He is MY Batman. Faith is rewarded on that front here. Batman is solid character perfection at all levels in this, something I never thought I’d be able to say again. And having Lester there really helped to heal some old wounds. The team still works. Of course it does. Glad to have you back, guys.
For the big climax of the tale, the interplay between Ivy and Harley was perfect. As I say, neither of these actresses were the originals, but the original chemistry was there. Writing the characters to that level is where it starts, but if the performance can’t carry it, it crumbles anyway. Paget and Rauch hit the ground running this, and they completely stuck the landing.
There is a mid-credits cut and an extended post-credits scene to watch out for, the latter of which is a bit over the top, but hey, it’s Harley. It has to be.
Just a quick aside… the wretched little Superbabes dive where Harley’s working as a waitress in plain sight offered up a little easter egg for me. In one of those blink-and-you-miss-it cameos, one of the waitresses is dressed in the Catwoman design first introduced in the now-classic Knightfall storyline. This is one of the best story arcs from the early 90s comics, the same era as the original Batman: TAS. Catwoman got her own solo title as a result of that, and this was the look she carried for years after. Never in a million years would I have expected to see that version in animated form, but there she was.
I never thought I’d say this either, but I miss the 90s. Well, some of it. One more tug at the nostalgia strings…
And that’s really what this movie amounted to for me. It’s a much-needed reminder that even though DC has really transformed itself and its characters on page and screen into something I no longer recognize nor want to be a part of anymore, there are still talents out there who get it. They still love what I love, for the same reasons I love it. It feels a bit like digging up a time capsule in places, and that’s perfectly fine by me. If they’d make more of these, without maybe the need for awkward, they’d win me back for the long haul. It really doesn’t take much… just the best talent, the best characterization, the best writing, and the continued high standards of quality animation. That’s not asking for the moon, is it?