I popped in the Blu-ray for Batman and Harley Quinn filled with giddy expectation and joyful nostalgia. As someone reared and raised on Batman: The Animated Series in the 90s, simply seeing the old Bruce Timm character designs filled me with joy. Knowing that the movie would revive the original Harley Quinn created for that show in an age when poor Harley has been sexualized and stylized to emo boner fantasies felt like exactly what I needed to get back into the character. As the opening scenes played out, I also realized that the plot involved my beloved Swamp Thing and that I’d even get to see a character who I adore so much in the classic Batman TAS aesthetic. It seemed like an animated feature that was meant for me and would help revive my love for good ol’ Batman in an era when the cinematic DCU has made me question my loyalty for the character.
Then the plot started and my heart sank lower and lower until the credits rolled.
A huge appeal of Batman and Harley Quinn is the fact that Bruce Timm was in charge and presumably bringing back the aesthetic and storytelling that he founded in the 90s and proved to be so popular that it spawned an entire DC universe for a generation of TV animation brats. He wrote this movie after all, and the guy was responsible for several of the finest episodes of the Batman Animated Series. However, even though he designed Harley Quinn, he didn’t write the character. That fell onto the great and underrated Paul Dini whose presence was sadly missed here. Dini has a sense of humour and a dedication to empathizing with broken characters that made Harley Quinn an icon. Timm simply liked the look of the character—and boy does that ever show here.
After a decent prologue establishing that Poison Ivy (Paget Brewster) has teamed up with Floronic Man (Kevin Michael Richardson) to steal Dr. Alec Holland/Swamp Thing’s formula to turn the world into living plants as revenge for the climate change destroying plant life perpetrated by humanity. Batman (Kevin Conroy) and Nightwing (Loren Lester) figure out the dastardly plot, but don’t know where to find the villains. So they decide to track down some of Poison Ivy’s old associates for help, which leads them to Harley Quinn (Melissa Rauch).
So far, so good. The design is almost fetishistically true to the original Batman TAS (with the exception of Nightwing’s mullet, thank god). The plot held promise and it was a crossover between Batman and Swamp Thing that should have happened on the TV series decades ago. The tone was in line with Batman TAS at its goofiest. This thing could work. Then Nightwing finds Harley at a superhero Hooters restaurant where model waitresses dress up as heroes to be ogled. Harley is working there, but wearing one of the more excessively sexualized Harley outfits from recent years. It felt like a self-aware joke at first, and then it became clear the cartoon ogling was sadly sincere. Once Batman, Nightwing, and Harley Quinn teamed up the movie soon devolved into a series of crass sex jokes and even a handful of fart jokes.
The whole movie felt off. Like Timm was trying to make a funny Batman: TAS episode but forgot how so he resorted to frat house gags to fill the space. By the time the team stopped at a bar on the road and the movie paused for not one, but two consecutive karaoke numbers for the sake of quirky humour, I was out. Somehow Timm and co. blew the opportunity to revive the iconic version of Batman that they had once created. In its place wasn’t just a pale imitation, but an insult to fans. It has all of the bro humour and unnecessary violence that has dragged down recent DC animated movies. Only this was worse. Not only more crass and gratuitous than the DC animated movies that fans already complained about, but completely tone deaf and lazy (and this is coming from a guy who actually defended the loathed Killing Joke adaptation, which I maintain is very much worthwhile as long as you only watch the 45 minute faithful adaptation of the book and ignore all the crap surrounding it).
How bad is Batman and Harley Quinn? Bad enough that the movie barely even ends, it just fizzles out once the writers reach 70 minutes and give up. There’s a token Swamp Thing cameo that’s deeply disappointing and then the entire story turns out to be set up for yet another Harley fart joke—and not even a good one. It’s sad to see Batman and Nightwing in their TAS form and voiced by the original actors reduced to token wise-crackin’ sidekicks to Harley. It’s as if everyone involved barely even wanted to make a Batman and Harley movie. They just took the assignment because an animated movie had to be made and Harley has hit a level of popularity that made the studio insist she lead. It wouldn’t surprise me if the script was written the night before production started and loathed by everyone involved. Sure the animation is gorgeous and recaptures the original design, but to what purpose? A YouTube fan fiction Batman: TAS revival would have been executed with more respect and creativity. The fact that Bruce Timm steered this ship is just sad. The movie may have been made for fans of Batman: The Animated Series, but they are the last people who should actually watch it. They don’t need this pain. Trust me. I experienced it and it’s almost too much to bear.
The Blu-ray does look good though, as if that matters. The animation is gorgeous in that slanted and deceptively simple Batman: TAS way. The action scenes might be gratuitously long, but are beautifully executed by longtime DC animation veteran Sam Liu. Too bad the script didn’t deserve all the effort. There are also a handful of decent special features. There’s a nice 20-minute documentary about Harley Quinn featuring creators Paul Dini, Bruce Timm, and (oddly) a clinical psychologist talking about the subtext to Harley’s childish voice and abusive relationship with Joker. More than anything else, the doc proves just how crucial Dini was to creating Harley Quinn and how much she’s missed. Amusingly, Timm seems baffled by Harley’s popular appeal, which explains a few things about this movie and the psychologist remains silent when discussing the character’s appeal to young women, which speaks volumes in a sad way.
There’s also a nice ten-minute doc about Lorn Lester and his long career voicing Robin/Nightwing. Weirdly Kevin Conroy pops up, but the doc doesn’t get into his relationship to Batman, which is even more important. It’s a pleasant diversion, yet more than anything else just made me long for a full doc about the Batman: The Animated Series that will hopefully arrive some day. Finally, there is also a pair of Harley-centric episodes of the old series to remind fans how far off the mark this movie is as well as a preview of the upcoming Gotham by Gaslight adaptation. It looks gorgeous and the filmmakers say all the right things. Yet given the gross depths of Batman and Harley Quinn bro humour and grimdark posturing, I worry about how they’ll expand that classic Elseworlds tale. Especially given all the discussion of how dark the story is and the Jack the Ripper prostitute-murdering set pieces. They’d better not screw up that classic, even though it’s nice to hear that the team is interested in pursuing more Elseworlds tales for future animated DC features. It brings us all one step closer to the long rumoured Superman: Red Son flick. That could be something special and even if they screw it up, it should at least be better than Batman and Harley Quinn, which just might be the worst project that this team has made to date. Make sure to avoid it, especially if you love Batman: The Animated Series. Don’t spoil your memories of that beloved program on this gross and lazy cash in.