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For many Batman fans, especially those that came of age in the 90s, no Batman media can top the 1990s animated series. Released to coincide with Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, Batman: The Animated Series quickly became much more than an animated tie-in to the film franchise, drawing attention for its eye-catching art deco aesthetics and top-notch writing work. Thanks to series masterminds Paul Dini, Bruce Timm, Andrea Romano, and countless others, Batman: The Animated Series became one of the most influential pieces of Batman media ever, reinventing characters for a new generation of fans and introducing figures who would become staples of the Bat-mythos, the most notable example being Harley Quinn. The series would later spawn multiple spinoffs, giving rise to a shared animated universe often referred to as the “Timm-verse,” or the DC Animated Universe. To call it beloved is underselling it a bit. For many (this writer included) this iteration of Batman is the defining one, the one against which all others are measured.
The DCAU has been dormant since the conclusion of Justice League Unlimited, the last full series to be set within the shared-continuity universe that began back in 1992, but DCAU fans got a surprise when it was announced that the latest in WB’s series of direct-to-video features would be set within the DCAU timeline, complete with its signature art style and Bruce Timm co-writing the script. Kevin Conroy and Loren Lester would reprise their roles as Batman and Nightwing, joined by a few new voices behind old characters, but sadly for DCAU diehards, the result isn’t quite what we hoped it would be. Batman and Harley Quinn is fun, sure. Clocking in at a brisk hour and fifteen minutes, it’s an amusing distraction dipped in a coating of nostalgia, but anyone looking for a return of the DCAU’s clever writing and rich atmosphere will find themselves dissatisfied with the film.
The adventure kicks off when Poison Ivy resurfaces with a new partner in crime, fellow plant-based supervillian The Floronic Man, and a plan to transform every lifeform on earth into a plant-based organism. Lacking any solid leads on the pair’s whereabouts, Batman and Nightwing start tracking down Ivy’s former associates, starting with Harley Quinn. From this slightly flimsy setup, the film springboards into the same kind of Batman/Harley story that drove a few classic BTAS episodes: Harley makes jokes and Batman glowers, leaving Nightwing to laugh awkwardly from his place in between. And….that’s it. Rather than plumb the depths of the characters and liberally mix comic book action with character study, Batman and Harley Quinn is content to keep things light and fluffy, playing contentedly in the shallow end of the pool.
What this means for your enjoyment of the film will be determined by your expectations going in. If you’re a hardcore BTAS and Timm-verse fanboy who lovingly gazes upon your expensive box whenever the opportunity presents itself, this new entry in the canon may have you bored, disappointed, or downright angry. It takes an excessively light tone, sometimes more reminiscent of the Adam West (RIP) Batman series, though quizzically it also makes full use of a PG-13 rating with some blood, death, cursing and implied sex. PG-13 hijinx aside, Batman and Harley Quinn is only “mature” in the loosest sense though, as the film plays it very, very safe. The jokes come fast and quick, and the interesting character explorations of classic BTAS episodes are left back in the 90s.
None of this makes Batman and Harley Quinn bad — just on a very different wavelength than what fans drawn in by the Bruce Timm connection may be hoping for. As far as DC Animation direct-to-video adventures go, it’s fine; light, fluffy, inconsequential but still amusing in its own way. But by draping itself in Timmverse stylings, the film will manage to alienate most of the viewers drawn in by the appeal of nostalgia. It may wear the skin of our beloved series, but when the mask gets pulled back the film reveals itself to be closer to recent DC Animated projects than those blessed 90s days. There are pratfalls and fart jokes, and a less-than-flattering portrayal of DC-favorite Swamp Thing that may also draw the ire of Alan Moore fans.
If you know this going in, you should be able to get some enjoyment from Batman and Harley Quinn. Obviously it isn’t going to be Mask of the Phantasm (and what Batman film, before or since, has been as good as Mask of the Phantasm?) but there’s a decent fight scene or two, some fun callbacks, and of course, the all-encompassing nostalgia factor. If the idea of a shallow, candy-coated return to the Timmverse doesn’t sound like your cup of Bat-tea, you’d be well advised to give the film a pass and just pick up the recently released Phantasm Blu-ray. If, on the other hand, you have no idea what all this Batman: The Animated Series talk has been about, and you’re just looking for a Harley fix, you can do far worse.
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