If you were a kid like me growing up in the late 90s through the early 2000s, there’s a good chance that your ass was glued to the floor for 30 minutes straight whenever Batman: The Animated Series was on TV. To this day it’s one of the best, if not the best, adaptation of Batman that has ever existed or will continue to exist. It captures the dark mood and gothic visual aesthetic perfectly without compromising the more ridiculous Dick Tracy-esque elements that help make Batman so iconic. It’s a great show for all ages. It takes itself seriously, never afraid to tackle big thought-provoking themes, while still making them easily digestible for younger audiences.
One of the most enduring elements of the show, outside of the nostalgic reminiscence of its viewers, is the character of Harley Quinn. What started out as a mere female underling for the Joker, voiced by Arleen Sorkin, became a fleshed-out character that was adopted into the established Batman canon. Although Sorkin hasn’t always voiced the animated character, Harley Quinn has managed to live on, and in an act of homage she gets her due in DC Animation’s new film Batman and Harley Quinn.
The film is drawn and animated in the same style as the old animated series, and even features the return of voice talents Kevin Conroy as Batman and Loren Lester as Nightwing. Oddly enough though, Harley Quinn is voiced by Melissa Raunch instead of Arleen Sorkin. She does her best to emulate that iconic exaggerated New York accent, but she comes off as merely an imitator, sounding too much like Lori Petty. She still does her best to fill Sorkin’s big shoes with some strong voice acting, holding her own against the more experienced Conroy and Lester and establishing a notable chemistry between all of the actors while selling Harley’s unique brand of simultaneous madness and toughness. She still makes you feel like you’re watching the old cartoon, but this is in no small part due to the return of Conroy and Lester.
The story, for better or for worse, feels like an elongated version of the television show it emulates. A villain is committing a series of crimes across Gotham in an attempt to fulfill some scheme and Batman has to stop them. This time it’s Poison Ivy working with Floronic Man, another plant-power based super villain from the comics, to develop a weaponized serum that’ll turn the world’s population into plants. Quinn has allegedly turned a new leaf and has left behind her life of crime, but when Poison Ivy’s trail runs cold for Batman and Nightwing they enlist her to help them find and stop the duo of villains. I thought having Poison Ivy as the antagonist was a great choice due to the big sister/romantic dynamic she’s shared with Quinn in the past. This choice of villain is a great example of where the film works best; by showcasing all the traits and relationships of a character the animators created 20 years ago.
Quinn is introduced working as a skimpily dressed waitress in a super-heroine themed restaurant – it was a bit jarring to see the filmmakers objectify a cartoon character – but she immediately kicks the ass of a gawking man and holds her own in a fight against Nightwing a couple of scenes later (and then later has sex with him). She’s more than her abusive relationship with the Joker that initially defined her character. She owns her sexuality and is not afraid to kick ass, and when she dons her original costume she gets back to being just as crazy as you remember her. It’s very simplistic characterization, but they still care about allowing Harley Quinn to shine front and center in the film in plenty of comedic and dramatic – albeit cheesy – scenes, along with substantial involvement in the film’s multiple action scenes.
Unfortunately, the film is not well written by any means. It would be wrong to go into this with the same expectation of quality you would with Mask Of The Phantasm (1993) or SubZero (1998). When I said that this felt like an elongated episode of the show, I may have been giving the film too much credit. The writing is completely plot-driven and doesn’t give you any kind of arc with any of the characters outside of the main goal of stopping the villains. It’s much less satisfying than an episode of the show. Batman is in crimefighter mode 100%, and when he’s not delivering overly long exposition he’s acting as the straight man to Harley, while Nightwing acts as the mediator between the serious Batman and not at all serious Harley Quinn. The movie feels really padded from the abundance of exposition and the sheer amount of weirdly pointless scenes; the most “out there” of which is a bit in which Harley brings Batman and Nightwing to a bar in the woods outside of Gotham that serves as a hangout spot for supervillain henchmen (still in their costumes no less), and there are two complete karaoke song numbers where the heroes just stand there and do nothing.
Outside of some sobering discussion on global warming, this is definitely a film that isn’t trying to take itself too seriously. This is a film for the fans. The characterization is stock but the nostalgic familiarity, humor, and many admittedly welcome references to the Adam West 1960s Batman show make up for the lack of dark tone and nuanced story development in the writing. The lighter tone conflicts a bit with the dark art style that they’re reusing, but since the movie is centered around Harley Quinn it almost makes sense that the film doesn’t take itself so seriously. So check this movie out if you love the Kevin Conroy Batman, but don’t expect it to be exactly as you remember. Just a fun way to kill an hour. Batman and Harley Quinn is available through online streaming and will be on blu-ray August 29th.
Batman and Harley Quinn feels like an elongated episode from the old 90s cartoon injected with more of the fun and camp from the Adam West show, which I thought were nice references. It also helps lighten the mood in a way that makes sense for a film that’s more focused around its leading villain than it is the caped crusader. Not the best of the Batman animated films by any means but it’s at best a nice throwback and at worst a lazily written excuse for more Batman content.