Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman, Warner Bros.' new animated direct-to-video movie, is not a deep or profound entry in the Bat-cycle, nor is it a particularly exciting one. But it's a pleasant afternoon-filler and will likely please those fans of the animated universe who fondly recall the low-impact dramatics of the series' first incarnation. That may sound like faint praise, but only a churl would look for a follow-up that competed with the smash-mouth style of Return of the Joker. If this one feels like a "breather," well, we all need those from time to time.
For those who care about such things, the story is set somewhere between the close of The New Batman Adventures and the events described in flashback in Return of the Joker. Batman and Robin are still patrolling the city, but Barbara Gordon has gone off to college. (Those familiar with Batman Beyond will also recognize hints of a developing relationship between Bruce and Barb.) So the city goes into a mini-tizzy when a new Bat-character appears. "Batwoman," they dub the bat-clad female vigilante who is taking out the weapons manufacturing operations of the Penguin. He, Rupert Thorne (making a welcome but somewhat wasted return) and new character Carlton Duquense are making and selling high-tech guns for a foreign power, and Batwoman, for unknown reasons, is determined to shut it down. Batman, for his part, is worried that the public will confuse her with him and is intent on uncovering her identity and stopping her.
He quickly latches onto suspect number one: Kathy Duquense, Carlton's fast-talking, fast-living daughter, but his feelings are complicated when he becomes smitten with the vivacious girl. The movie breaks no new ground here�Bruce has tilled this same field with both Catwoman and Andrea Beaumont�but Kathy is an attractively written character, and voice actress Kimberley Brooks brings her to sexy life. The relationship isn't really believable: Bruce is old enough to be her father, and Kathy is a real light-weight. But the movie doesn't push them at each other and is content to let them chase and banter in an old-fashioned, Hawksian kind of way. Their scenes together, wisely, play more like gentle comedy than star-crossed romance.
That tone, overall, is the movie's real strength. It doesn't take itself very seriously and plays like a jazz riff on old themes. (In this it is ably abetted by Lolita Ritmanis's torchy score.) Its relaxed attitude is also reflected in a relaxed treatment its own purported "mystery." Like an Agatha Christie (or a Scooby Doo, come to that), it trots out the line-up of obvious suspects-cum-red herrings for the Batwoman's real identity: Kathy herself; Rocky Ballantine, a smart but klutzy blonde; Sonia Alcana, a tough-talking police lieutenant; and (for those especially observant and/or paranoid), Penguin's throaty lounge singer. (Oh, and let's not overlook Barbara. Is she really off at college?) But writers Alan Burnett and Michael Reaves are smart enough not to play the mystery out too long and lay their cards face up at just about the moment the audience has likely figured out the real Batwoman's identity. At that point the movie either has your attention or it doesn't, as it shifts into straight action mode.
The action scenes are not very thrilling, but neither are they perfunctory; in keeping with the film's retro-noir mood, they go for graceful choreography (especially in a high-kicking, dance-like battle between Batwoman and a pair of the Penguin's henchwomen) rather than extreme bone-crunching. I don't know if most audiences will be bored or not, but I think it is a good choice, as it fits better with the movie's low-key approach.
A word about performances: There have been three major recasting decisions. The first, and least arguable change, has Eli Marienthal stepping in for Mathew Valencia as Robin, apparently a function of Valencia's changing voice. That's a justifiable reason, but Marienthal is a bit too much the excited teenage boy in this film, where Valencia covered Robin's youth with a somewhat studied ennui. As Bane, Hector Elizondo gives a softer and less menacing air to the masked colossus than did Henry Silva, but only die-hard viewers are apt to notice. Meanwhile, in what will surely be the most controversial aspect of the film, David Ogden Stiers has taken over the role of the Penguin from Paul Williams. The fact is that Williams owns the role of the Penguin as much as Mark Hamill owns the Joker and Kevin Conroy owns Batman. It doesn't matter that Stiers delivers an impeccable performance with lots of nuance and character�it is still an alien voice. Otherwise, the acting stable is uniformly good, and it's a particular joy to have Efrem Zimbalist Jr. making a major reappearance as Alfred, still as dry and silvery and sardonic as ever. He hasn't had this much screen time in a Batman since the days of the first series.
And that's where viewers looking to be pleased should go. Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman uses the redesigned look of The New Adventures, but in tone it more closely resembles The Animated Series. Partly that's because it uses a gangster-driven storyline (something TNBA rarely indulged in) and partly because it has a dialogue-heavy script, in which Batman especially is less than taciturn. But it also has the louche, character-driven feel of the best BTAS episodes, a quality that was partially eclipsed by the later, more virtuosic series.
Those expecting a dark, gothic and gripping cinematic experience, a la Mask of the Phantasm or Return of the Joker, may be disappointed. But, as usual, Alfred puts it best. At one point in the film, he cheekily describes a tail job as a "pleasure drive." That's Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman in a nutshell: a relaxing cruise down memory lane. Highly recommended for those looking for just that kind of diversion.
Produced in 2018