I'm a lifelong Batman guy, pretty much, as regular readers are certainly aware by now. So it makes me a little sad that I really can't get behind the current monthly comics or the movies. (Though I have to add that with the wonderful Tales of the Batman reprint series and other stuff so readily available, it's not as though I can't get plenty of Bat-stories I like.) Nevertheless, I feel a little twinge sometimes when I remember that the current version in the comics isn't really my guy any more.
That said, there is one bright spot where I've been getting new Batman stories that I completely approve of.
The direct-to-video animated DVDs.
Now, admittedly the DC animated DVD originals have been uneven, but really they have more hits than misses. Often even when they are doing a straight adaptation of the comics they find things to improve. Certainly I liked the DVD versions of Under the Red Hood and Throne of Atlantis much, MUCH more than I did those stories as they appeared in the comics.
So I am usually more than up for whatever new offering is coming from DC's animated division. Here's a capsule rundown on a few of the recent Batman offerings.
Son of Batman.The blurb: In this critically lauded adaptation of the incredibly popular graphic novel, Batman learns that he has a son, the result of a night of passion with the Daughter of the Demon. He takes the boy under his wing, hoping to change him from the assassin he was being groomed to be. But Damian Wayne idolizes his grandfather, Ra's Al Ghul, and has been trained his entire young life by the League of Assassins, making him as deadly as he is brilliant. After Ra's was betrayed and his compound attacked, Damian was brought to Gotham City to be protected by his father until those responsible for the assault can be brought to justice.
What I Thought: Well, first of all, it's a very LOOSE adaptation of the original comics from Morrison and Kubert. But I like it a lot, I'm not all that invested in movies staying true to the original text as long as the idea is preserved. This story does a great job of streamlining the original plot, and is wisely focused on the real arc here-- how Damian Wayne, heir to the League of Assassins, is introduced to the world of Batman and eventually becomes the new Robin.
The story is practically brand-new, with a screenplay from Joe R. Lansdale (who, by the way, is no stranger to Batman; he has written some terrific Bat-prose you may not be aware of) over a plot from James Robinson.
The movie will probably disappoint diehard Morrison fans but I am not one of those. I really enjoyed it and so did my wife Julie, who's not nearly as steeped in Batman lore as I am. I'd definitely recommend it.
Batman vs. Robin.The blurb: When Batman finds himself under attack by his own son, Damian (Robin), he at first suspects the hand of Ra's Al Ghul behind the treachery, but then comes to see that the boy may be controlled by a mysterious and murderous society known as the Court of Owls.
What I Thought: That's right, this one has almost nothing to do with the graphic novel appearing under the same name. This was actually an adaptation of the "Court of Owls" storyline-- the one that dragged on so long that it put me off buying the regular Batman comics after a roughly thirty-year unbroken run. If they had called this movie "Court of Owls," in fact, I'd have probably skipped it. I have no clue why DC is so in love with that storyline (it's showing up in live action on Gotham now as well.)
All that being said-- as much as I hated the whole Court of Owls thing in the comics, I rather enjoyed this movie. It's very well-constructed, strips the story down to its most basic elements, and the plot actually makes a lot more sense than the comics version. Moreover, this time the script is from J.M. DeMatteis, and he has a knack for finding both the character drama and the humor. You really feel for Damian even as he's being a complete asshole.
The movie also has some great stuff for Nightwing and Alfred, and there's a certain amount of world-building going on as well-- it's starting to feel like the filmmakers are constructing a sort of separate "Animated DVD Batman" continuity. (That is to say, a separate one from the comics or even the other various animated series.) Even though the conclusion has Damian retiring as Robin we know it's not going to stick, and I was left wanting to see more. Again, it's pretty self-contained, but it's much more satisfying viewed after you see Son of Batman. We really dug it, though, and again my wife enjoyed it as much as I did.
Batman: Bad Blood.The blurb: The mysterious disappearance of Batman, coupled with the emergence of powerful and malevolent new villains in Gotham City, force Nightwing and Robin to take crime-fighting into their own hands – while simultaneously searching for their missing leader. They're not alone for long. New super heroes Batwoman and Batwing – each armed with her/his own sensibilities, physical abilities and crime-fighting tools – arrive in Gotham to assist in the cause. As this new "family" strives to find its own dynamic, chilling clues lead the group to suspect the Dark Knight may have gone over to the dark side. It's up to the entire Bat team to uncover the truth before Gotham City falls prey to its greatest threat yet.
What I Thought: Okay, I absolutely loved this one. It's pretty much a complete original and serves to complete the trilogy begun in Son of Batman. Again with a terrific script by J.M. DeMatteis, this time it's a story that weaves together a lot of elements from different comics stories to give us something new. It's not really an adaptation-- this is more comparable to what the Marvel movie people did with Civil War. It sort of puts together bits from the Greg Rucka Batwoman origin, the early issues of Batman Inc., and the original Morrison run of Batman and Robin, but it's a whole new story. Moreover, this is built on an idea I've been wanting to see since the mid-1980s; Batman goes missing and Nightwing and Robin have to figure out what happened to him. It ends up being an amazing Nightwing story rather than a Batman story, but as far as I'm concerned that is all to the good.
Essentially, the story is about how Dick abandons his Nightwing identity to suit up as a replacement Batman and rounds up a posse of other Batfolks to get to the bottom of things. I've said many times that my favorite thing about Morrison's Batman and Robin run was the reversal that gave us cheerful Batman and grim-n-gritty Robin, and DeMatteis really works that angle here.
Moreover, the idea that Dick Grayson and Kate Kane have known each other for years isn't something I remember seeing in the original comics but it makes perfect sense, and leads to some truly hilarious banter between them when the new Batwoman finds out who Batman and Nightwing really are. ("Alfred? Really?" "No, seriously, he's a badass.")
Likewise, the villains get a slight reshuffle from the "Leviathan" storyline, but --I know, I'm repeating myself, but this is all I can think of to express it-- it all really works.
This movie ends up being what I always wished we saw more of in comics like Gotham Knights or Batman Inc-- the whole team working together, all the Batfolks on stage at once. (I still think a monthly team book with all the Bat heroes together called something like Justice League Gotham is a no-brainer, but DC never seems to figure that out... the closest we ever got to that in the comics was the Outlaws miniseries.)The action is great, and there are nice subtle touches-- like how the Dick Grayson Batman is dressed in the Bronze age outfit, not the current grimdark battle-armor version.
The movie ends with the entire Bat squad ready to embark on new adventures, and there's even a tease that we're going to eventually get Barbara Gordon as Batgirl, too.
So at this point I'm completely on board. I am SET for as many Batman DVD adventures from this creative team as they'll give me.
Batman: The Killing Joke.The blurb: What does it take for a person to snap? How much despair for a mind to fracture? These are the twisted questions that The Joker has set out to answer, to show Gotham that even an ordinary man like Commissioner Gordon is only one bad day away from sheer insanity. Based on the acclaimed DC Comics graphic novel, witness a journey into the dark psyche of the Clown Prince of Crime. Follow his humble beginnings as a struggling comic to his fateful encounter with the Dark Knight that changed everything. Fueled by the return of Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as The Joker, witness the birth of a super villain, the fortitude of a hero and the punch line that you will leave you speechless.
What I Thought: Well, you know how I just said I was completely on board for more Batman original DVDs? This one was not that. I feel bad for all the folks that were lobbying so hard for it to get made for the last decade or so, because they deserved better. It's especially galling, when Bad Blood concludes with the promise of Barbara Gordon as Batgirl, that this film follows up with a story that essentially shits all over her character.
I'm not even talking about the completely gratuitous (and creepy; I don't know why some writers think fight sex is erotic, because it just makes everyone involved look horribly dysfunctional) sex scene, though that was of course THE thing everyone wrote about in reviewing it. A sex scene I could live with-- after all, they teased such a development between Bruce and Barbara in Batman Beyond years ago. No, it's that it's BAD sex. Cruel. Between people that don't seem to even like each other. Batgirl is an idiot, obsessing over Batman like a teenager with a crush, and then Batman takes advantage of that. It's not clear that he even ever unmasks to her. Despite all the desperate effort to make Barbara look like an adult, the relationship shown here between Batman and Barbara almost comes off as pedophilia. Certainly it's a weird kind of workplace sexual harassment vibe at the very least; it becomes even more awkward and cringe-inducing afterward when Barbara's trying to mend things by yelling at Batman about how it was just SEX, it doesn't have to mean anything. It plays like some Gamergate asshole's interpretation of feminine empowerment.
Then, about halfway through, the movie suddenly takes a weird left turn into a heartfelt and worshipful adaptation of The Killing Joke.
And it's... well, it's very well-done. Here is where I reveal myself as the heretic who thinks The Killing Joke just isn't that good. So all the things I didn't much care for in the original, I didn't much care for here, either. But it's a great adaptation. The movie is so reverent towards the source material that it might as well be a really well-crafted motion comic.
The voice work is astounding, though, particularly Mark Hamill, who really sells the origin flashbacks. But here is the thing-- the original comic, when it appeared, seemed to be underscoring the idea that the Bat-office under Denny O'Neil absolutely despised Barbara Gordon as Batgirl. The whole idea was to take her permanently out of play. The fact that we eventually got Barbara as Oracle, that was all John Ostrander and good on him for doing it... but it doesn't change the fact that for a long time there, DC wanted to disavow the Barbara Gordon Batgirl. She wasn't badass enough. There was definitely a 'no girls allowed' vibe in the Batman books of the time. Even the Huntress, her nominal replacement in the Gotham crew, was often portrayed as headstrong and clueless.
And this movie? Same thing, but even more so. Watching The Killing Joke, you are not left with the impression that you've seen the definitive Joker story it's supposed to be. No, you're left with the vague sense that this was a 76-minute hit job on Batgirl. The perfunctory end-credits scene with her as Oracle only makes sense if you know the comics. But even with that handwave towards redemption the whole theme nevertheless comes across as stupid bitch should have known her place.
I don't think even Denny O'Neil felt THAT strongly about Barbara Gordon as Batgirl. It's so overwhelming I think it ruins the movie even if you're a huge fan of Killing Joke. And I'm not. Can't recommend this one.
So there you have it. Despite the bad taste the most recent one left me with, I'm still optimistic about DC's line of animated originals. I'm interested in the upcoming Justice League Dark and The Judas Contract and I'll probably check them out.... but really, as far as I'm concerned, the BEST ones are the true originals. I'd much rather have more new stories of the Bat team as it existed at the end of Bad Blood, ideally scripted by J. M. DeMatteis. Or, if they insist on adaptations, why not try some of the Bat stories that aren't quite so well-known? Batman and Robin and the crew vs. Boss Thorne, the later story that also had the resurrection of Hugo Strange? Or "Bat-Murderer" from Wein and Aparo? Or The Lazarus Affair from Marv Wolfman? (That'd be an easy one to fold Damian Wayne into, as well.)
Not that anyone's asking me. But if it was me, that's where I'd take it; more originals. DC spent all that time carefully crafting a brand-new take on the Batman's world, why not put it to use? Let's see some more, you were just getting warmed up.
See you next week.