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Review: “Batman and Harley Quinn” – Chocolate/Peanut Butter or Oil/Water?

by on September 5, 2017
 

Batman and Harley Quinn Blu-rayBatman and Harley Quinn is a movie that mixes the dark, brooding mood of Batman the Animated Series with the more comedic, ridiculous elements of Batman ’66, but in a way that keeps the two elements separate and distinct from each other. It’s a black-and-tan kind of a mix, as opposed to the fully blended approach that Batman: The Brave and the Bold took. I suspect there’s a significant number of Batman fans that will react rather poorly to the movie as a result. They’re easy to spot online: insisting that Batman should/must be “serious,” considering the Christopher Nolan movies masterpieces because they were so Important (missing or ignoring that they’d invite you to think about them, only to fall apart the second you actually did), and generally staying silent at the revival in popular sensibilities regarding Batman ’66.

Fortunately, I’m not one of those fans, though I might admit to being one many, many years ago. Batman and Harley Quinn tells you what to expect right from the title: a mix of the dark and the ridiculous in a way that you’d never think would work (and very occasionally doesn’t). While you can play her with the same “psycho clown” dichotomy as the Joker, I think Harley Quinn is better used as a brightly colored comedically disruptive influence. She plays this role marvelously in Batman and Harley Quinn. In a way, you can think of this movie as Batman: The Brave and the Bold for adults, alternating between serious and silly in ways that would never pass muster for a TV-Y7 program.

Batman and Harley QuinnPlot-wise, at least, there’s not much new under the sun in Batman and Harley Quinn. Supervillains threaten, and it’s up to Batman and a set of compatriots to unravel their plot before it’s Too Late. The supervillains in this case are Poison Ivy and Jason Woodrue, a.k.a. the Floronic Man; the compatriots are Nightwing and, eventually, Harley Quinn because of her connection with Poison Ivy. The heroes begin by trying to enlist Harley’s help when they really don’t have much leverage over her, until they find themselves trying to get rid of her when she turns out to be as much of a hindrance as a help. By that point, Harley’s got it into her bizarre little head to stick around, basing the entire operation (and, therefore, the fate of the world) on the whims of a crazy woman.

Despite Batman the Animated Series‘s reputation for firmly establishing Batman’s dark-and-brooding mood in animation, it could be deliberately childish and silly at times also, and happily used Harley Quinn to inject a bit more humor into stories involving the Joker, who almost always weighted the first word of “psycho clown” more than the second. Batman and Harley Quinn is happy to use Harley in the same way, deliberately playing up her visual and stylistic clash with the darker, more serious Batman/Nightwing combination. The jokes may skew a bit more adult than before (as when Nightwing discovers Harley hiding in plain sight in a superhero-themed breastaurant) but Harley proves quite capable of deflating the Dark Knight’s more ostentatious grimness in highly amusing ways. The movie itself also mixes in a healthy dose of humor imported from the Batman ’66 TV series (most obviously in a brawl that spits up screen-wide onomatopoeia fight sound effects, which also skew more adult than the original show would have ever dared). I expect fans who aren’t expecting this particular injection may find it jarring, but I thought it was quite refreshing to see a Batman series happily mixing its metaphors.

Batman and Harley QuinnIt also helps that the performances, vocal and animated, all seem to be in on the joke. Kevin Conroy and Loren Lester reprise their roles as Batman and Nightwing, respectively, while Melissa Rauch dives into the pool headfirst as a nicely gonzo Harley Quinn. Character designs are a wonderful throwback to the original Batman the Animated Series style (or, more accurately, the revamped New Batman Adventures style), which may also throw fans not quite ready for the elements for more mature audiences than that show ever managed. As much as I like the more realistic designs used in the newer movies, it’s nice to see the more cartoony, streamlined and simplified designs in animation again. The deliberately simplified style does grant lots of opportunities for some subtle humor, especially when little more than a raised eyebrow or a shifted grimace lets us in on a character’s emotional state.

Batman and Harley Quinn also differs from Batman the Animated Series in playing up its PG-13 rating more, letting Harley rip with a few choice obscenities (which, as in many other instances in these animated features, usually feel more gratuitous than not) and toying more with sexuality than the broadcast TV series was ever able to go. There is, let’s say, a negotiation between Harley and Nightwing early on that is surprisingly frank about a lot of the subtext in superhero stories, and which also wrings a pretty good laugh out of the inherent problem of a spandex union suit for one’s combat attire. While it might echo a similar scene in Batman: Assault on Arkham, this Nightwing/Harley pairing plays an even edgier game involving control and consent and gender role expectations. It’s an experiment that pays off much better than one might expect, especially given something like the prequel segment of Batman: The Killing Joke, which ended up making the troublesome sexual politics of that story worse.

Batman and Harley QuinnI can understand if elements like that and the sharp tonal shifts can throw the average fan who’s been enjoying the films up until now, and freely admit that some of the tonal shifts in Batman and Harley Quinn stop being funny and just undermine it (as this video explaining “bathos” explains in the context of live-action superhero movies). However, I’ll favor experiments that try something new and occasionally fall down over a masterfully executed color-by-numbers exercise. On balance, I find Batman and Harley Quinn‘s experiments were a breath of fresh air that keep the overall movie feeling fresh.

The Blu-ray of Batman and Harley Quinn comes with a nicely assembled bundle of bonus features. While there isn’t a commentary track (which I would have welcomed, if only because it feels like this feature was as much fun to work on as it is to watch), there is a nice 20-minute featurette on Harley Quinn’s history in DC Comics and a 10-minute career retrospective focusing on Loren Lester. The former is a thorough look at the character that doesn’t over-mythologize her as some of these featurettes tend to do. It also features contributors ranging from co-creators Paul Dini and Bruce Timm to a fascinating clinical psychologist who describes Harley medically. The Loren Lester featurette covers his entire career in the Batman animated universe, starting with his role as Robin and ranging to his reprisal in this film. In addition to a preview of the next animated feature (an adaptation of the classic DC Elseworlds story Gotham by Gaslight) and a few older previews of earlier Batman-themed DTVs, we get the extremely appropriate Batman the Animated Series episodes “Harley and Ivy” and “Harley’s Holiday,” both of which seem to have gotten better transfers on the Blu-ray.

If nothing else, I credit Batman and Harley Quinn for being more willing to experiment with expectations far more than many of the more recent DC Animated features. Regardless of how much I’ve enjoyed many of the recent offerings, I was also feeling a distinct sense of sameness to them as they offered up stories that simply didn’t feel as groundbreaking, fresh, or original as the peak offerings from DC’s animated division (specifically, the Batman the Animated Series-to-Justice League continuum, and movies like the All-Star Superman adaptation, the Wonder Woman DTV, and last year’s Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders). If nothing else, Batman and Harley Quinn is a refreshing break from the tonal and storytelling sameness that has settled into the DC Animated feature offerings of late, and one hopes it’s a harbinger of more experimentation to come.
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  • September 7, 2017 at 6:53 am

    I'm not one of those people who thinks Batman and DC Comics as a whole should always be uber serious. There is a place for something more comedic. It's just that, when I think "DC Comics" and "comedy" together, I usually think of something aimed for the family friendly crowd like Lego Justice League, Batman: Return Of The Caped Crusaders, and DC Superhero Girls, not something like this, which is explicitly aimed at adults. Regardless, the movie is fine enough. The music is what sells it for me though.


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