Wednesday, September 16, 2015

DC Animated times 4

Son of Batman (2014, d. Ethan Spaulding) - netflix
Justice League: War (2014, Jay Oliva) - netflix
Batman: Assault on Arkham (2014, Jay Oliva, Ethan Spaulding) - netflix
Batman Unlimited: Animal Instincts (2015, Butch Lukic) - Teletoon


DC Entertainment's direct-to-video animation wing has been steadily cranking out animated features for almost a decade now, with seemingly more and more productions being released each year.  Despite being a pretty huge DC fan (well, I was anyway) and was a fairly religious watcher of their animated output (particularly their Batman and Superman animated runs leading into Justice League in the 90's and early 2000's), it didn't take long before I not only stopped buying their new animated movies but began ignoring them altogether.

Though originally starting as original stories, or at least semi-original stories inspired loosely by existing story lines, the run of DC Animated movies quickly devolved into lazily adapting existing stories.  I had read most of the stories being adapted (or I purposely skipped them for disliking the creative team) so I had no real need to invest any more time or money into these animated features.  The features I had seen to that point, like Justice League: New Frontier, Green Lantern: First Flight or All-Star Superman just didn't feel very satisfying.  They took long form stories and compressed them into a rougly 75-minute animated feature and that compression never seemed to serve the story particularly well.  The fact that there was no continuity between features and the voice casts would change dramatically from one to the next also didn't help maintain my interest.  The biggest problem I saw at the time was they were adapting fairly recent stories, one which were already well enough told and available, when they could have gone back into DC's deep, deep repositories and found some vintage stories and updated them for modern audiences but in a new medium.

The final straw for me was when The New 52 hit (wherein DC Comics cancelled their entire line of books and relaunched their entire universe with different and in some cases radically altered versions of their characters) and the DC Animated features coming out were reflecting these so very recent stories.  I was already quite disinterested in the New 52.  Animated adaptations seemed like the furthest thing I was interested in.

So, after so long, why the recent spell of DC Animated watching?  I'm not exactly sure. Partly a burning desire to watch something with superheroes in it, and having only a shorter amount of time to spare, and even a little curiosity.

Of the four I watched in the past two weeks, Son of Batman is perhaps the most egregious example of what I dislike about these animated features. It runs at a stilted pace, the characters don't feel connected to one another at all, and the animation gets lazy (when the man-bats spew out of the ocean there seems like hundreds of them taking to skies as the same animation repeats itself, but moments later it only looks like a couple dozen actually flying out there, with what looks like the same image of Man-bat repeated over and over but at different sizes to fake out some depth).  There's a lot of animated nonsense, things happening on screen to create action or visual drama but are utterly pointless, and a lot of egregious death but with no real sense of any relevance to death.

  This film is a very loose adaptation of Grant Morrison's initial Batman run from a few years back (though he's not even given story credit) which introduces Bruce Wayne's son, Damian, into the DCU.  It was a storyline I wasn't very fond of, but this is a poorer rendition of it.  The voice casting isn't bad (Jason O'Mara makes a decent Batman) but again, it just doesn't feel like the actors are relating to one another (in all likelihood they're recording their lines separately) and there no warmth at all to it.  Plus, they didn't even have Damien do his trademark teeth-sucking "tt".

But it was watching Justice League: War and noting Jason O'Mara again as Batman that I realized that this current spate of DC Animated movies was looking to tie together as a cohesive universe, using a consistent voice team and  a small stable of directors).  The "War" story is based off the first story arc of the New 52 Justice League, by Geoff Johns and Jim Lee.  That storyline also served as a complete reintroduction to the DC Universe for the readers at the time, so there was a lot of groundwork it was trying to lay.  A lot of that ground-building spills into this feature, such that there's no sense of familiarity between the characters (Flash and Green Lantern have met prior though), everyone gets an introduction but few get an actual story (pretty much only Cyborg and Shazam have what could be described as a character arc here).

War isn't terrible, it's almost saved by a surprisingly quippy Green Lantern (a role usually reserved for the Flash), but at the same time it doesn't really fulfill the needs of a movie very well.  It feels like a pilot episode of a new program, introducing things, but unsure of itself or where it's really going to wind up.  The post-credits sequence hint at Aquaman's arrival, leading into the Justice League: Throne of Atlantis feature released this year (based off another comic-book arc from the same series).  Likewise Son Of Batman received a sequel this year in Batman vs Robin, again loosely adapting events from the Morrison run, and followed by Batman: Bad Blood to come next year, delving into Morrison's Batman and Robin run wherein Dick Grayson takes over as Batman and Damian's mentor.

Stepping aside from adaptation though, there's Batman: Assault on Arkham which actually takes place in the Batman/Arkham video game universe, something I'm largely unfamiliar with.  This film is largely a Suicide Squad movie, with Batman taking a supporting role, and what it does so brilliantly is manage to navigate all three of the DC Comics Universe, the classic DC Animated Universe and the Arkham videogame universe almost effortlessly.  Returning is the ultimate Batman voice actor, Kevin Conroy, as well as CCH Pounder returning as Amanda Waller, while Troy Baker does a mean impersonation of Mark Hamill's Joker, as does Hynden Walch of Harley Quinn pulling back the DC Animated vibe into it, while the look and feel draws completely from the video games (though it's not nearly as dark, the character designs, including Batman's weird pupils, are here), and overall it feels like a Suicide Squad story (more modern Squad than classic '80's but still not bad).

Son of Batman was a pretty bloody affair, but it was also blindly so.  As characters wound their way through piles of ninjas, cleaving them with swords, or tearing down man-bats, they were so faceless that they were the utmost of expendable, and their fights were meaningless.  In Assault on Arkham, we're watching bad people (the Suicide Squad is a team of criminals who are forced into serving the government to perform dirty tasks for which they need maximum deniability) invade a maximum security criminal asylum in order to achieve their objective (finding a particular Maguffin) but obviously things aren't clean and the bad people start killing prison guards.  Though sometimes played for laughs, each guard killed feels like a tiny punch in the gut.  We're along for the ride with Deadshot, Harley and company, and as such we're rooting for their success, in a way, but at the same time, it's almost better if they're stopped.   Which is why Batman flits around in the background.  By having a real hero partiicpate in the proceedings it continually reminds us just how bad the people at the center of the story are.

Assault on Arkham is a definite "mature audiences" picture, and not for the kids.  There's excessive violence and plenty of swearing and it feels quite natural.  It feels like an "R" rated production that isn't held back by anything, allowing the creative team to tell the story they set out to tell.  That it's an original story is also definitely in its favor as it allows for an "anything can happen" vibe.  Set loose from the constraints of any continuity it really does manage to surprise and occasionally shock, but it also entertains quite well to.  The action sequences are not only well done, but inventive, with more than a few moves that I've never seen before (Batman's facepalm to Harley was a classic).  Quite easily the best of the DC Animated features to date, one I'd more than likely revisit multiple times.

Finally, there's Batman Unlimited: Animal Instincts, the first of a new line of direct-to-video movies meant to promote and sell toys, namely the awfully ugly Batman Unlimited line.  Normally a new toy line gets an accompanying Saturday morning or weekday cartoon to keep the toys fresh in kids minds, so this tactic of forcing them to buy it is kind of counter-intuitive.  It presumes buy-in on the toy line in advance, rather than promoting it.

This new Unlimited series takes place in an alternate world (well, even more alternate than usual superhero stories), one where there's flying cars and all building seem to be sky scrapers and the police aren't that keen on superheros.  It's sort of a Blade Runner/Fifth Element  kind of vibe.  This story finds Batman, Nightwing, Red Robin, Flash, Green Arrow (the latter two included more than likely because of their prominent TV series) squaring off against the Penguin and a cadre of animal-themed villains (including Cheetah and Killer Croc) and a trio of robotic animals, as they try to suss out what is their master plan.

Though the futuristic setting is kind of ho-hum, and the costume designs are largely terrible, this wasn't actually that bad of a feature.  It's pretty juvenile compared to most other DC Animated features, but that's for the best given what its purpose is.  The characters, even Batman, are pretty light on their toes, so there's a lot of fun quipping and creative fights happening on screen (plus the Flash is very much a Wally West-style Flash, so that's welcome any day), and the overall scenario is kind of silly in a big, grand, 1960's suppervillain manner, so it pretty much demands that you don't take it too seriously.  Good for the kids, for sure

Overall, beyond Assault on Arkham these DC Animated features haven't exactly inspired me to dig deeper into the back catalog, but now with such easy access as they crop up more and more on Netflix, I just might when I'm bored or short on time.