Friday, May 16, 2014

Animated Batman Movie Rankings, Part 2: #5 - #1

Continuing on from Part 1, here we count down the Top 5 animated Batman movies of all time. Will my picks match up with yours? Read on an find out!

5) Batman and Mr. Freeze: Subzero

"Come on people! A guy in a weird suit with two polar bears can’t be too hard to spot!" - Commissioner Gordon

My favorite trivia about Subzero is that Warner pushed back the release date to distance it from the disaster that was the campy live-action Batman & Robin, a movie so bad, it put the Batman movie franchise in hibernation for nearly a decade. It was intended as a home video tie-in, but to avoid further embarrassment that the cartoon Batman took itself more seriously than the big budget bomb, it got delayed. Although the second animated Batman movie didn’t surpass its predecessor (Mask of the Phantasm), it’s still a worthy addition to the animated Bat library and lives up to the standard set by the series it’s based on. Batman: The Animated Series redefined Mr. Freeze with a sympathetic backstory, painting him as a tragic villain, and Subzero advances his story about a scientist determined to save his ailing wife by any means necessary, even if it means taking an innocent life. Freeze’s co-headlining is well earned, as this is primarily his story. Batman’s partners, Robin and Batgirl, have their share of screen time as well, with a budding romance sparking out of costume (Dick and Barbara are unaware of each other’s secret identities at this point). Having a bigger budget to work with, many of the vehicles are computer generated, but the CGI here doesn’t always blend seamlessly with the 2D animation. It doesn’t distract from the story but it does date it a bit. However, the runtime is a bit on the short side compared to other home video releases, and would have benefited from more breathing room to incorporate more character development for Freeze. Anyone who’s seen the classic episode “Heart of Ice” already knows about his wife Nora and Freeze’s mission to save her, but the movie could have used some flashbacks to fill in more backstory about their relationship prior to that. Freeze’s crooked colleague, Dr. Belson, could have used a little backstory to tie him into Freeze’s past as well. As it stands, Subzero is worth adding to your Batman collection, but I would have traded the CGI for more story, which would have added depth and making it feel more like a movie than a two-part episode.

Batman: Kevin Conroy
Heroes: Robin (Dick Grayson), Batgirl, Commissioner Jim Gordon
Villains: Mr. Freeze

4) Batman: Under the Red Hood

“I’m cleaning up Gotham. More than you ever did.” – Red Hood

The comic arc, Under the Red Hood, was perfectly suited to be turned into a movie. What I love best about it is it's a Batman movie made for Bat fans. Too often, superhero movies feel the need to start at the beginning, rehashing the origin in order not to alienate casual fans who have a basic understanding of the characters but aren't caught up to speed with how they've developed over the years. Red Hood keeps Batman’s continuity intact, managing to tell its story while also weaving in elements from classic stories like Death in the Family and The Killing Joke. Writer Judd Winick does an excellent job of adapting his own work onto the screen, and knows what needs to be cut in order to keep the story moving along at a good pace. This is a prime example of how a comic story should be adapted where making those cuts actually makes the end result stronger. Just like all the best Batman stories, this one involves a mystery at its core – who is the Red Hood? The story doesn’t leave a lot of room for speculation as to who the Red Hood is but while the revelation rubs a lot of fans the wrong way, it does pack an emotional punch. Bruce Greenwood brings a seasoned maturity to Batman and almost makes me forget about Conroy, as he’s one of the best actors to portray the dark knight in animation.  The Joker factors in to the plot, bringing the events that catapulted this storyline full circle. Voiced by John DiMaggio (aka Futurama’s Bender), this is one of my favorite interpretations of Joker yet. It’s a bit of an amalgam of Mark Hamill’s iconic take with a dash of Heath Ledger mixed in. Now that Hamill has supposedly retired from the role, I wouldn’t mind DiMaggio voicing Joker on a more regular basis with future projects. He brings a dark humorous edge to the role that Hamill perfected. The other major villain featured is Black Mask. The way he’s been portrayed here is one of the movie’s drawbacks as he just comes off as a raging hothead when the way he’s portrayed in the comics is cold and calculating. In the comics I always imagined his voice sounding similar to the way Jeffrey Combs portrayed The Scarecrow in the New Adventures of Batman series, which was menacing because it was devoid of emotion. When I first heard Black Mask’s voice in The Batman series, I was pretty disappointed with the way he was depicted and hoped future versions would tone him down a bit but if anything, they’ve taken it up a notch with his outbursts. It doesn’t ruin the movie, but if the movie has a weak link, this is it. Overall, the direction is top notch, with thrilling action scenes balanced with great character moments. It is a solid entry into the animated Batman library and set a new bar for all future releases.

Batman: Bruce Greenwood
Heroes: Nightwing, Robin (Jason Todd)
Villains: Red Hood, Joker, Black Mask, Ra’s Al Ghul, Riddler, Amazo

3) Batman: The Dark Knight Returns

“In all the years to come, in your most private moments, I want you to remember the one man who beat you!” - Batman

While I said before that Year One, while essential to the Batman mythos, was a tad overrated, to me Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns is one of the greatest Batman stories ever told. It does receive more credit than it deserves in regards to bringing Batman back to his dark roots, but it has had an undeniable lasting impact on future Batman scribes who have cited DKR as their one of their biggest inspirations and will serve as a major influence on the upcoming Zach Snyder movie featuring Batfleck. But enough about its reputation, how does the movie stack up to the rest? As far as adapting classic DC properties, this one nails it. This is the best comic-to-screen DCU offering since Justice League: The New Frontier in that it feels like a complete story and not just focusing on the major beats. They were able to accomplish this by splitting it up over two releases and leaving very little on the cutting room floor. If they had treated it the way they did the Death of Superman story in Superman: Doomsday, they most likely would have condensed all of the Two-Face and mutant gang stuff and just focused solely on the showdowns with Joker and Superman, but by allowing the time and care to do it right, it feels more lived in, taking the viewer on a journey. I still remember the classic animated episode, “Legends of the Dark Knight,” where they portray different variations of Batman and one of them was a snippet of DKR and at the time I thought, “how cool would it be if they made that into a movie?” It took a few years, but it was worth the wait. Peter Weller (Robocop) is perfectly cast as the grizzled caped crusader coming out of retirement. It was a smart choice because as much as Kevin Conroy’s older interpretation of Bruce works for Batman Beyond, Weller captures Miller’s Batman spot on. I enjoyed Michael Emerson as a villain on Lost, and the guy can play creepy, but he’s far from my favorite Joker. He’s not bad, he just doesn’t steal scenes the way Joker should. While I think the DCU movies need to ease up on adaptations and focus more on original content, if all future adaptations are treated with this kind of respect, that’ll be a major step in the right direction.

Batman: Peter Weller
Heroes: Robin (Carrie Kelley), Catwoman, Commissioner Gordon, Superman
Villains: Joker, Mutant Leader, Two-Face, Superman

2) Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker

“If you don’t like the movie, I’ve got slides”The Joker

While it may not be Bruce Wayne under the cowl, Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker is a Batman movie through and through. Many, like myself, scoffed at the idea of a teenage Batman, but who knew it would turn out this good. Or dark. This is by far the bleakest Batman movie on the list, with the flashback sequence alone earning it that label. If Batman Beyond was a completely separate entity from the original animated series, it wouldn’t resonate with me as much, but this is a direct continuation of the series, giving fans a look at what becomes of Bruce after retiring from his vigilante days, and that’s what really drives it. Return of the Joker fills in more gaps, especially in regards to Batman’s archenemy. One of the biggest questions jumping forward in time was, “what happened to The Joker?” and this movie sets out to answer that. The answer is both shocking and satisfactory. Mark Hamill is back in the role he was born to play and although this version of Joker is a little more toned down than usual, he’s still just as menacing as ever. The Batman of this series, Terry McGinnis, at this point had carved out his own path as Batman, but it’s with this movie that he takes the next step of not simply filling Bruce’s shoes, but really honoring the legacy of the Batman. It’s not really fair to compare Will Friedle’s Batman to Kevin Conroy as he’s not voicing the same character, and because Conroy reprises his role as Bruce Wayne, we don’t have to. Bruce’s former partners, Barbara Gordon and Tim Drake, factor into the plot, keeping the supporting cast in the Bat family. In addition to building a new mythology, the series had always touched on elements from Bruce’s past before, but when it came to crafting a movie, the creative team knew they would have to dig deeper to make it feel worthy of a movie, and the scope of this does feel big. It’s a shame that we have yet to receive another Batman Beyond movie as this proved to be a major achievement and there are clearly many more stories to be told. I’ve still got my Batman Beyond spec script on file, so what are you waiting for WB, let’s fast track it!

Batman: Will Friedle
Heroes: Bruce Wayne, Commissioner Barbara Gordon, Batgirl, Robin
Villains: The Joker, Harley Quinn, The Jokerz gang

1) Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

“Your angel of death awaits.”The Phantasm

The benchmark. The first full length animated Batman movie and so far only one that’s ever been released theatrically. Therefore the one every subsequent movie is compared to. Not only is Mask of the Phantasm the best animated Batman movie ever made, it’s arguably the best Batman movie of all time. It’s got all the elements that make for a good Batman story - mysterious plot, intriguing villains, tragic love, and if that’s not enough, it’s got The Joker piloting a jet pack. Spinning out of the best animated superhero show ever (no debate), Phantasm benefited from a dream creative team at the top of their game. The episodes of the show have been described as “mini-movies,” bringing a size and scope to the small screen unrivaled in animated programming at that time, and Phantasm builds on that model, allowing for a little more breathing room to include some fantastic flashbacks that not only provides additional insight into Bruce’s decision to don the cape and cowl, but also ties in directly to the main plot in a completely satisfying way. Others have come close, but no Batman movie since has matched the pathos on display here. And did I mention The Joker was in this? Yeah, he appears in half these movies, but I don’t think he’s utilized better than he is here (Return of the Joker being a very close second). The way he ties into the plot is one of the movie’s major highlights and Mark Hamill is at his manic best, the perfect balancing act between scary and funny. The story’s primary antagonist, the Phantasm (loosely based on The Reaper from Year Two), fits perfectly into Batman’s world and the mystery surrounding the foe’s motivation makes for a cool twist. It really doesn’t get much better than this, and in my eyes, it has yet to. If you’re a Batman fan and haven’t seen this, stop reading, do yourself a favor and go watch this now.

Batman: Kevin Conroy
Villains: The Phantasm, Joker

There you have it. I don’t claim this to be the definitive list, but that’s how I rank them. It’s worth noting that the Joker appears prominently in 5 of the 10 movies and that out of those, 4 ended up in my Top 5. Does Joker instantly increase the quality of any Batman story, or is it just a coincidence? Either way, it doesn’t seem to hurt.

As much as I enjoyed comic-to-screen adaptations of The Dark Knight Returns and Under the Red Hood, it would be nice if the direct to video line of DC Universe Animated Original Movies would live up to their name and actually be fully original content as opposed to just adapting the most popular DC comic stories. I’m sure it’s only just a matter of time before they adapt such classics as The Long Halloween, Knightfall, Hush and the more recent Court of Owls story lines, and while those are all fantastic tales of the dark knight, I really don’t want to experience the abridged versions. The first release under this banner was Superman: Doomsday, a truncated reworking of the Death of Superman arc. The execution was pretty sloppy and what could have been Part 1 of an animated trilogy, instead resulted in a stripped down version that didn’t do the story justice and left fans wanting.

What I’m getting at is if a comic storyline can’t be adapted into the strict 75 minute limit that is imposed on these movies without making major sacrifices, come up with something new that does work within that timeframe. How about it WB?

Having said that, I’m looking forward to the upcoming release of Batman: Assault on Arkham this summer, which tells an original tale set in the world of the Arkham video games and I will revisit this list at that time to see where it slots in. Until then…

How do my rankings compare to yours? Am I totally off base and you would have liked to see something ranked higher on the list? Let me know!

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