If there's one thing Judge Maurice Cobbs has learned, it's to never cross a vampire.
"I will drain you dry…and use your cape as a dinner napkin!"—Dracula
The mystique of the supernatural has always been entwined with the legend of the Batman, and vampires are certainly nothing new to his world; longtime fans may remember that one of the Dark Knight's earliest foes was a vampire-werewolf called the Monk. This strange, hypnotic foe kidnapped Bruce Wayne's fiancée, Julie Madison, and led Batman on a merry chase from New York to Paris to the Monk's secret castle in "the lost mountains of Cathala by the turbulent river Dess" in Hungary, where the villain and his bloodthirsty henchwoman Dala were neatly dispatched by a pair of silver bullets. One of my favorite Batman tales from the Detective Comics of my youth was the absolutely chilling 'Tec # 455, which found Batman alone in a spooky, decrepit house, facing off against a vampire named Gustav Decobra, who had hidden his still-beating heart and could not be killed with conventional methods; my childhood faith in the world's greatest detective was reaffirmed when Batman plunged an arrow into the grandfather clock that housed the gruesome treasure, sending Decobra to his doom.
But Batman would not square off against the King of Vampires himself until 1991, with the critically acclaimed fan-favorite Elseworlds graphic novel Red Rain. When Dracula leads an army of vampires to Gotham City, the only hope for the city is Batman…but even the Dark Knight finds himself ill-prepared to face the supernatural threat. When he is critically wounded in an encounter, a heroic vampire named Tanya saves his life—by turning Batman into a vampire! Red Rain was followed by two sequels, Bloodstorm and Crimson Mist, and is generally regarded as one of the best Batman tales of all time.
Now, in the first direct-to-video movie from the creators of the animated hit The Batman, the threat of Dracula once again casts a shadow over Gotham City—just in time for Halloween.
Facts of the Case
Batman (Rino Romano, Roughnecks: The Starship Troopers Chronicles) has his hands full: Both the Joker (Kevin Michael Richardson) and the Penguin (the always enjoyable Tom Kenny, voice of Spongebob Squarepants) have escaped Arkham Asylum looking for a hidden multi-million-dollar payoff. After being betrayed by the Penguin, the Joker encounters Batman and, in the ensuing battle, seemingly falls to his death. Meanwhile, the Penguin slips off to Gotham Cemetery in search of the money, but accidentally frees Dracula (Peter Stormare, Constantine) instead, who makes the diminutive thief his servant and begins spreading the curse of vampirism across the city. As the number of missing persons grows, the police mistakenly assume that Batman is responsible—but when Dracula sets his sights on Vicky Vale (Tara Strong, Batman: The Animated Series), the Dark Knight must use all of his scientific skill and investigative prowess to find Dracula's lair and cure his minions, before the vampire king resurrects his long-lost love.
Warning: Minor spoilers ahead.
I really wanted to like The Batman vs. Dracula, even though The Batman doesn't appeal to me very much. From character designs that are rather alien to me (anime—yeech!), like the apelike, absurd-looking Joker redesign and a Bruce Wayne who looks more like he should be hanging out on The O.C. than stalking criminals in Gotham, to the absence of essential characters like Jim Gordon, to the rather uncompelling voice work from most of the cast—even from animation regulars that I have come to expect more and better things from—I could only see The Batman as not much more than a vehicle designed to move as much Batman-shaped plastic out of the stores as possible. Actually, I'm a sucker for "versus" movies in general; even the recent Alien vs. Predator movie hasn't cured me of that. But then they came straight out of left field with this little project: the Thrilla in Manila, the Brawl for it All. Sure, Dracula's faced off against a variety of heroes in the movies, everyone from Billy the Kid to Abbott and Costello. And this isn't the first time that an animated Batman vampire story had been proposed; back in the glory days of Batman: The Animated Series, a story was concocted that involved Nocturna (Remember Nocturna? Old school, baby!), but the WB shot down any use of vampires at all for a variety of reasons, and the idea was ultimately shelved; the closest they ever came to doing a vampire on the show was Ra's Al Ghul. So I was delighted when a team of animators got to tackle a honest-to-goodness vampire yarn. I thought to myself, could I possibly overlook all the things I dislike about The Batman and enjoy this almost foolproof premise for the delicious orgy of buttkicking that it must inevitably be?
Unfortunately, whenever you come across a foolproof premise, you must take into account the inexhaustible resourcefulness of the world's fools.
When you take a premise as rich with potential as a Batman-Dracula showdown and the end result feels painfully underdeveloped, you have a serious problem. In this production almost everything seems subpar; the pacing is rather clunky, seemingly engineered for the maximum lack of suspense, and the writers seem to be juggling more subplots than they are comfortable with. The result is story elements that seem rushed, absurd, and even pointless—like the introduction of a strange sunlight-gathering device that obviously exists for the sole purpose of giving Batman a way to beat Dracula at the end of the movie, despite Bruce Wayne's vague claims of other possible humanitarian uses. One moment of unintended hilarity has Dracula speculating on just how he managed to get to Gotham: "It must have been the result of events that transpired after I died," he concludes with a metaphorical shrug. Obviously, this production is geared toward that juvenile viewing audience with the notoriously short attention span, and I don't think I…um…what was I talking about, again?
Even the poor pacing and gaping plot holes might have been excusable had it not been for the painfully bad dialogue, such as when the Penguin, admiring the lovely Vicky Vale on television, exclaims, "Nice jugulars!" Yeesh. To be fair, nothing in the movie is consistently bad; when Batman springs into action, battling groups of vampires on the mean streets of Gotham and in a maze of catacombs beneath the city, the movie comes to life (undeath?), and there are some nice moments of suspense when the Joker reappears as a vampire—yes, you read that right, a vampiric Joker. Also, whatever misgivings I may have about the design of the characters in general, Batman seems to be in fine form and fully in character; I liked the way that this production emphasized the detective abilities of the Batman and also his dedication to preserving life whenever possible, even as low a life form as the Joker. It's touches like these that make me wish that some story elements had been better fleshed out and others abandoned altogether (like that eleventh-hour "resurrect my long-lost love" crap that was pitiful when Coppola did it in his take on Dracula way back when).
The only voice work in the show that can be considered remarkable is that of Tom Kenny (you know…the Mayor of Townsville?), who makes the most out of a goofy-looking Penguin saddled with goofy-sounding dialogue ("Wakey, wakey and nighty-night! You have places to be, and people to bite!") and Tara Strong, who follows up her excellent work as Batgirl on the previous animated Batman show with a strong performance as journalist Vicky Vale. Kevin Michael Richardson, who menaced Batman as Carlton Duquesne in the direct-to-video movie Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman, puts his own stamp on the Joker, but—no offense—Mark Hamill has pretty much made that character his. Rino Romano is pretty good as Batman, but his Bruce Wayne leaves much to be desired, partly because of the far-too-young design of the character and partly because of the almost teenaged inflections Romano brings to the voice. After all is said and done, a young Bruce Wayne is a bad idea; he works best as a seasoned pro wrapped in mystery—like James Bond, or Sherlock Holmes, he is most effective when we know he's good but very little about how he got that way.
Peter Stormare as Dracula chews the animated scenery with the hokiest of Eurotrash accents, which unfortunately dissipates much of the menace associated with Dracula, making him seem like less of a threat and more of a refugee from a schlocky late-night horror movie…and it actually kinda works, given the age group that this production is aimed at. His fights with Batman are appropriately over-the-top, without seeming too menacing. Be advised, however: People do get bitten and turn into monsters, although very little is actually shown, and there is a surprising amount of blood; parents may want to give this a run-through just to make sure it suits them first. No one actually dies, however, except Dracula, and the victims are all cured by the end of the movie. Frankly, although I might have a problem with letting a kid watch something like Batman Beyond: The Return of the Joker, this shouldn't be too much for the wee ones to handle, especially if there's a parent nearby. Ultimately, the story is more fun than frightening, despite its flaws, and although this less-than-thrilling adventure might have seasoned Batman fans crawling up the walls, the intended audience—the little shavers clutching those aforementioned bits of Batman-shaped plastic in their grubby paws—will probably get their share of Halloween thrills with their favorite hero as he battles things that go bump in the night.
The Batman vs. Dracula is presented full-frame; it looks as good as any given episode of the series, and the print is as crisp and clean as you would expect from a new production. The sound is an excellent, roof-raising Dolby 5.1 surround that is really nicely balanced; in one early sequence, the steady hiss of rain practically placed me in the middle of the scene. Extra features include a pretty neat "Science vs. Superstition" featurette, in which Batman uses his batcomputer—excuse me, the batwave—to examine the myths surrounding Dracula and vampirism and the facts behind those myths; did you know that vampire legends go back almost 4,000 years, to ancient Mesopotamia? Well, after watching this feature, you will—as well as fun facts about garlic, hypnosis, rabies, and the "fight-or-flight" response. Better leave vampire hunting to the professionals, though.
"Voices in Close Up" features interviews with the voice talent and production crew and a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the feature. The "City of the Knight" feature also allows access to behind-the-scenes goodies, but you've got to navigate through a little game to get to them. Whatever. And this DVD includes trailers for over a dozen other animated offerings from Warner Bros., everything from Atomic Betty to Justice League Unlimited. The only flaw that I could find in the menu system was the lack of a chapter select menu.
Batman vs. Dracula was good enough that I wish it had been better, but in the final analysis, the product is exceptionally average. While there are good points to this production, they just aren't plentiful enough to overcome the flaws, and while this may be a spooky and entertaining diversion for the younger set, more mature viewers may be left wanting. Fair enough; The Batman is aimed more at the kiddies than anyone else. Still, it leads me to wonder: Will we ever see an animated version of the Superman vs. Muhammad Ali fight? Hope springs eternal.
Oh, get the hell out of my courtroom. Not guilty.
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