Review: Batman and Harley Quinn (2017)

I hate having to write this. Batman and Harley Quinn should have been great. This movie reunites some of the people behind the now-legendary 1990s TV show Batman: The Animated Series and clearly was intended to point directly to the iconic and groundbreaking cartoon adventures of the Caped Crusader. To my memory, we haven't had a Warner Brothers animated Batman-specific movie directly connected to the '90s series in years. Kevin Conroy returns here as the voice of Batman, but we're also treated to the return of Loren Lester as the voice of Dick Grayson, aka Robin/Nightwing. With many direct connections to the animated series, a spotlight on Harley Quinn, a character who is more popular than ever, and a story by Bruce Timm, the father of Batman: TAS, what could possibly go wrong?

From 1989 to around 1997, I had Bat-fever. I would come home from school and watch Batman: The Animated Series each and every afternoon. Once, I had to go with my mom to her doctor's appointment, and I remember being SO WORRIED about missing the show that day. It was the two-part episode that introduced Two-Face, and I wasn't about to miss it. I actually changed the channel on the TV in the doctor's office waiting room so I could watch it. I've seen every episode multiple times, and I have all the DVD sets. Furthermore, I think that Batman: TAS is a major influence in my film tastes as an adult. All those noir-stained panoramas, the red skies, black alleys, and art deco architecture really made an impression on me. It wasn't all about the visuals, either. The television series was crafted to be cinematic in its storytelling, with actual detective work being a hallmark of the show. Cartoonish elements were few and far between. Batman: TAS is still taken seriously today because the show never pandered or went for easy laughs or shock value.
 I wish the same could be said about this new 2017 direct-to-video film, Batman and Harley Quinn, which is crass, goofy, and offensive. Yes, it's actually offensive. Harley Quinn is a tough character to break down because Paul Dini, her creator, crafted her with so many layers that it's hard to actually get to the bottom of what makes her tick. She's clearly a very broken person who has this weird abusive relationship with The Joker, her romantic object of affection. Dini always wrote that relationship with realistic nuance; Joker cares about Harley Quinn in the weird way that he can care about anyone, but he's also verbally abusive and physically violent toward her. Harleen Quinzel, the psychiatrist tasked with analyzing The Joker, develops a weird, destructive attraction to her patient, and the submission that leads to her becoming Harley Quinn is more tragic than anything else.

That's why it's weird to see kids cosplaying as the character (like the fourth grader I saw wearing a screen accurate Suicide Squad HQ costume at my daughter's school's fall festival, complete with short shorts and heavy makeup) and why the character is absolutely not a role model. Paul Dini and Bruce Timm know this. They also know that there's a goodness at the heart of the character buried under all the psychological damage. Like some of the best Batman characters (including Batman himself), she's damaged, and that damage is what makes her interesting. Also, Harley Quinn was always a little sexy, but she was sexy in the old femme fatale way, with her demeanor and her innate cuteness playing in direct contrast to her murderous tendencies.
Too bad that Paul Dini didn't have a hand in writing the character for Batman and Harley Quinn. He would have brought some fragile madness to the character that he created. Instead, we have a story conceived by Bruce Timm, who also co-wrote the script, which sets off all kinds of alarm bells. There's really no other way to put this: the way that the creators view these characters has become disturbing. All the levels and layers of this universe are gone, replaced by open sexuality that doesn't belong. The female characters in this animated film are too often used as sex objects. There are multiple upskirt shots that show off the panties of the female characters, and this movie features what is now just the latest sex scene between super heroes. When Batman and Batgirl did the deed in the animated adaptation of Batman: The Killing Joke in 2016, it felt out of place and fans cried foul. That scene didn't exist in the original comic written by Alan Moore, but Brian Azzarello added it to flesh out the story. There was a huge backlash (including a very confrontational exchange at a convention panel that made geek headlines) that the sexualization of the female characters was inappropriate. Though I didn't like the sex scene in that movie, I was able to move on because the film was rated R and I figured it was an isolated incident. Apparently is wasn't, though. Long-time Batman animation fans like myself will remember that Batman: Assault on Arkham from 2014 had a Harley Quinn sex scene. You know, there's a case to be made that the mating habits of superheroes is fertile ground for storytelling, and that WB animation can explore these themes in a mature fashion through appropriate (R-rated) projects. Hey, I'm no prude. It's all about time, place, and tone. Context is key.
Now we have a sex scene between Nightwing and Harley Quinn in an animated movie that, for all appearances, takes place in the classical world of Batman: TAS. Maybe if this were an isolated incident, I'd be more able to move on. Maybe if this animated movie stood by itself and didn't appear to be chasing the success of the all-ages Batman: The Animated Series, I'd care a lot less. Maybe if there wasn't a real-world problem with female comic book fans being harassed and mistreated in shops, online, and at conventions, this wouldn't be as big of a deal. But those things DO matter, and this now shows a pattern in the creative people behind these animated movies. It also shows that Warner Brothers is tone deaf as to what is going on in the culture. In all honesty, I'd be a little uncomfortable watching this with my wife, who is also a Batman fan. It would be hard to explain why every single female character either seduces a man, shows side-boob, or bends over.
You know, there is a way to tackle this subject matter with elegance and maturity. The old animated series made it very clear that Batman was attracted to Catwoman. It never downplayed the beauty or seductive nature of certain characters, but it did it with panache and grace. This movie does it with all the style of American Pie. Batman: The Animated Series is experiencing something of a renaissance at the moment, with the Warner Archive Blu-ray of Batman: Mask of the Phantasm selling gangbusters and the announcement that the entire animated series will be coming to Blu-ray in 2018. Everyone is talking about the show because it's been 25 years since it debuted and a lot of people (myself included) think that the world of Batman has still never been done better than it was in the animated series. This movie cheapens that legacy.

Before I beat a dead horse (too late), let's move on to other aspects of this thing and how they also fail. Should we talk about the bit where Harley Quinn farts in the Batmobile and Batman has to stop at a gas station because it smells so bad? Should we discuss how treating Batman as the straight man in a comedy is not a great idea? Maybe we should talk about the TWO full musical numbers in this movie. That's right, there isn't just one musical number, we're treated to a dirty double. The first one is kind of entertaining until it becomes clear that we're getting the entire song. The second one just feels out of place. I honestly don't understand what Bruce Timm was going for here. By copying the visual style of the old show, it LOOKS like Batman: TAS. With Kevin Conroy and Loren Lester back as their characters, it SOUNDS like Batman: TAS. But Batman:TAS was never this stupid. It was smart and moody and dark and dripping with drama. I don't recall anyone ever farting in the Batmobile. not even once.
Despite my complaints, this is not all bad, and that's what makes it really frustrating. The story pits Batman, Nightwing, and Harley Quinn against Poison Ivy and another plant-based villain, Floronic Man. When was the last time you saw Floronic Man in anything? Rounding out the green-thumbed trifecta, they even manage to incorporate Swamp Thing into the story. Because Harley and Ivy have a history, Batman needs her to help find and take down Poison Ivy before she can launch her diabolical plan. In theory and on paper, Harley Quinn comes across as a strong female character who is always in control of her own destiny. She can hold her own against Batman and Nightwing, she isn't a damsel in distress, and she is the one who ultimately has the power to stop Ivy. The Joker isn't in this story at all, giving Harley an independence that she rarely had on the old show. It's a shame that the writers put her sexuality on front street as much as they do, because it really makes the other aspects of her character a lot more difficult to see. Hard to admire Harley's strength when she's ripping juicy farts and making vibrator jokes.

Visually, this thing looks like a million bucks. The animation is solid and the retro style of Batman: The Animated Series is everywhere. The Bruce Timm designs are timeless, and it's great to finally see them again. The vocal performances of almost everyone are equally wonderful. Kevin Conroy simply IS Batman, and always will be to me. Loren Lester is Dick Grayson, and he sounds the same, even after all these years. Paget Brewester steps in as the voice for Poison Ivy, replacing Diane Pershing, and I could hardly tell any difference. The trouble comes with the new voice of Harley Quinn. In the original animated show, Harley was voiced by Arleen Sorkin, who also voiced the character for the Arkham Asylum video game. Professional voice actor Tara Strong took over the role for Arkham City and Arkham Knight, and she did such a great job with it that nobody really noticed the switch. Here, though, Harley Quinn is voiced by Melissa Rauch, an actress on The Big Bang Theory, and it's just not good. I don't understand this stunt casting when there are people who are more qualified for the job. It's not like Harley Quinn doesn't have a distinct voice or anything. Kind of important, if you ask me.
Ultimately, I'm very disappointed with Batman and Harley Quinn. Look, I get that this movie isn't supposed to be taken seriously. It's supposed to be a funny, silly alternate take on a very dark world (Deadpool, anybody?). I understand the joke, and I WANT to be on board with it, but the creative decisions seem to work against the desired tone instead of supporting it. There are something in the neighborhood of thirty of these direct-to-video DCU animated films, and I've watched almost all of them. That's why it pains me to admit that quality has become a lot more hit or miss lately. This one seems like a short-sighted attempt to cash in on the popularity of both of the characters from the title, but also to ride on the coattails of the enduring success and popularity of Batman: The Animated Series. It isn't completely terrible, nor is it the worst direct-to-video animated DCU movie that's been produced. Instead, it's just sort of blah, but this blah comes with lots of T & A. Weird, weird choice, guys. Fans deserve better, and so do Batman and Harley.

Batman & Harley Quinn (Blu-ray + DVD + UltraViolet Combo) 

Further reading:
Justice League: Dark


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