Saturday, 3 December 2016

Movie Review: Batman: Return Of The Caped Crusaders (2016)



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I think it’s a safe bet to say that my primary exposure to the 60’s Batman TV show is on the same level as most millennials; that being, a meme-level awareness of the show without really understanding why it was so popular. I mean, good or not, it was undoubtedly influential as pretty much everything about it, from the costumes to the action to the music, has been satirized, spoofed and deconstructed in the decades since its original airing. I bring this up because, as one of the three Batman-centric films released this year alone (possibly four, if you count Batman's cameo in Suicide Squad), this one is most definitely meant to appeal to that era of Batman’s history. Bringing back the old school cast in vocal roles for an animated film, this particular feature is going to be rather a strange outing. And yet, even with that in mind when I first watched this, this feature would end up being even stranger than I ever could have anticipated, in the best way possible. This is Batman: Return Of The Caped Crusaders.

The plot: Batman (Adam West) and Robin (Burt Ward), trying to enjoy some downtime in stately Wayne Manor, discover that supervillains the Joker (Jeff Bergman), the Penguin (William Salyers), the Riddler (Wally Wingert) and Catwoman (Julie Newmar) have high-jacked a local television station. However, as the Dynamic Duo set out to once again bring these nefarious ne’er-do-wells to task, it seems that it will only be the beginning of their task as something a lot closer to home is about to bring the real terror to Gotham City.

Given the fifty-year disconnect between when the show first started and now, I am genuinely impressed at how good the voice acting. And no, I’m not just talking about the newcomers. Bergman, Salyers and Wingert do a great job as their respective villains, getting down the character trademarks without it feeling like cheap imitation. And there’s the original three, and my word, you would not guess that they now fifty years older than their characters. West has been kept busy on the vocal front thanks to Family Guy, but his performance as Batman/Bruce Wayne feels just as impactful, sincere and at times intense as the Batmen of today. Ward, likewise, fills Robin’s body with a voice that manages to work through the near-constant “Holy ____, Batman!” quips he’s given. And Newmar… wow, Catwoman is sexy here. I mean, I know that Catwoman through the ages has been considered rather sexualized, but her portrayal manages to get that across through nice pre-90’s subtlety so that it’s sexy without necessarily being sexual. Hey, after seeing Catwoman and her whip be associated with leather wear and bondage for so long, this is quite remarkable.

In terms of visuals, this film has to compete with not just Snyder’s pop grandeur but also Timm’s noir finesse. While the animation may be a little consistent in places, it is quite crisp in its details. It feels like a cross between the detailing of Timm and the neo-Flash motions of Adam Reed’s Archer, and while it may on the television/original YouTube quality, it makes for a suitable visual aesthetic to fold around the narrative. Usually, something this rather rudimentary would come across as either cheap or lazy, but here, it ends up matching the tone of the story superbly.

This film, by and large, is meant to be a fresher presentation of the olden days of Batman’s legacy, that being the camp days of the 60’s. To that end, this is unashamedly and consistently goofy in its mannerisms. It manages to tick a lot of boxes in terms of the aesthetic that the West era is best known for, from the over-the-top vocal and physical gestures to the mind-blowing amount of alliteration put in the dialogue, right down to the plot itself involving cloning and space stations. This is basically the kind of story that would they would have told in the series if they had enough of a budget for it. Well, then again, I doubt they have been this humourously self-aware in the process as there also quite a few references made to how this style of Batman has since been interpreted by the audience, like with the veiled jabs at the homosexual connotations that have been read into the relationship of the Dynamic Duo. However, even with those extra touches, this doesn’t feel particular snarky about its own existence; this is still a tribute to the days of West and Ward and, from the tone outwards, this fits along those lines.

However, it seems that this film’s ambitions are far greater than just honouring the old guard. Underneath the bombastic revelry and nostalgia-driven yucks, there is a surprisingly sharp pen at work on the script. Now, even though we are arguably living in the Golden Age of superhero films, fanboys the world over have been making certain unfavourable observations about the current state of genre. It seems that writers Michael Jelenic and James Tucker are among those observers. While it’s perfectly okay with making fun of itself, it seems much more willing to lash out at the current cinematic superhero scene, not to mention DC’s recent output as a whole. From the ubiquitous nature of Batman himself and it seems everyone has been trying to copy him for their own works, to weirdly specific grips about his recent films like the joke made that references the ending of The Dark Knight Rises, the satire is strong with this one. It has the kind of outsider’s perspective that makes for some rather interesting (and true) statements. In fact, far more than the nuances of the writing, the entire production serves that end as it manages to encapsulate one of the biggest aspects that the majority of recent comic book films have been sorely missing: A sense of fun. With the others so occupied with dark and brooding seriousness, it’s so good to see a genuine no-holds-barred fun superhero film.

All in all, this is easily the best comic book movie of the year. It has the nit-picky insight of a fan film with the animation values and star power of a mainstream production, taking Suicide Squad’s renegade and care-free attitude and Deadpool’s willingness to mock the competition and managing to do both better than their respective films. Add to that pleasing animation and great voice acting, and you have the kind of Batman film that fans have been waiting for for a long while now. It’s better than Rupture, as the commentary made here may not be as intricate but it applies to something that I hold a bit closer to my heart of hearts. However, as much as I love the dialogue in this film, it doesn’t quite match up to the gloriously intense moments of The Hateful Eight.

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