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Batman The Long Halloween Part One Review: (Appropriately) Incomplete

The expressed goal of adapting Batman: The Long Halloween in animated form was to be the most comics-faithful DC animated movie to date. And while that can’t necessarily be said about the artwork, which fits the new DTV aesthetic aside from some Tim Sale-style opening credits, the story so far is certainly close enough. Part One, available this week on Blu-ray and digital, obviously only deals with the first half of the story. So we can’t know yet if it tries to do anything as silly as making Hush turn out to be the Riddler. But it does make for an extremely moody Batman tale that feels very much of a piece with ’90s Batman overall.

Gotham City looks like a Tim Burton movie, and the major characters feel more visually inspired by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm than Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale, albeit in the current overall DC animated style. And while the animation feels like its a hybrid, the backgrounds at least look hand-painted on black paper, like the classic Animated Series. Batman (Jensen Ackles) comes across as a rookie superhero at a crossroads. Having hoped to simply intimidate street thugs for a living, he finds he must rise to the challenge of being a detective who can outsmart the most devious of criminals. And he’s still figuring out his own strengths and weaknesses. But he has that Bruce Wayne arrogance nonetheless.

Translating comic book dialogue too literally doesn’t always work in a more audio-visual medium. In a comic, where the eye takes in all the artwork first, conversations can be on the nose. But in any form of movie, viewers’ eyes and ears go to the characters. And when one of them is young Harvey Dent (Josh Duhamel), and he keeps saying things like “I’m of two minds” or “I’m just one man,” it gets to be groan-worthy quickly. It’s hard to imagine anyone viewing this doesn’t already know what’s coming for him. Sure, some kids may watch it, but maybe they shouldn’t. The rating is a “hard” PG-13 with some bloody mafia-style violence.

Most live-action Batman movies make the mistake of neglecting the detective aspect of his persona. There’s a reason for this: his arch-foes are colorful characters, often stunt cast with celebrities, and pretty obviously guilty. Many of the best comic stories get around the problem by featuring a mystery with the standard super-villains on the periphery. So we have the Joker here (Troy Baker, again doing Mark Hamill), and a more heroic Catwoman (the late Naya Rivera). But the big bad — a killer who operates only on holidays — remains anonymous, and the movie ends with a post-credits tease. The full story should span a year; we’re merely four months in by the end of Part One. And for those concerned about excess Joker, that impression appears to have been mainly made by the marketing department at work.

But as far as Batman goes, it’s hard to imagine comics fans will take much issue. Yes, this is a young Batman, so occasionally he misses the mark on a jump and slips. But the learning curve is evident. He doesn’t kill, he doesn’t just want to settle down, or even do a raspy voice. He’s still just trying to be the best Batman he can be. With Alfred there to occasionally remind him what the best Bruce Wayne should do as well. The Gotham he resides in is gray, shadowy and huge. Cinematic references to Alfred Hitchcock and Roman Polanski sneak in occasionally.

Aesthetically, the only odd misstep is of representation. In place of the comic’s Irish gang, we get a Chinese gang who border on racist caricatures in their design. And while the movie casts Catwoman correctly — by current continuity — with Afro-Latina actress Rivera, she’s not drawn that way. Considering DC only this year put out an animated, multicultural, martial arts movie, they could have done better here.

Assessing half a movie remains a challenge, as it’s always easier to do a good setup than a satisfying payoff. The screenplay ditches a lot of the comic’s specific details in favor of simply implying them, which makes this a little bit of a Cliffs Notes version. However, minus a few Carmine Falcone-centric scenes that slow the pacing way down, The Long Halloween Part One offers a Gotham City that’s fun to observe from afar. Though you’d never, ever want to live there.

The included trailer for Part Two hints that all the good stuff will come there. The heroic trio of Batman/Gordon/Dent will break apart, and Falcone will make bad deals with supervillains that ensure eventually they rise in Gotham and more traditional organized crime falls. All of this is established Batman lore, and not a plot point spoiler. The fun will be in seeing how it all happens. And if an origin story makes you want to see that, despite knowing how things must work out, it’s done its job.

The Blu-ray disc sent for review, like so many other WB and DC movies of late, features an infuriating 50/50 rate of the main menu actually showing up when the disc loads. The pop-up menus presumably cut costs somewhere, but it’s infuriating to have to restart the thing at least once every time. Especially since the disc goes to a complete stop/required reset if paused long enough to go into sleep mode. (This is the one and only valid reason to miss VHS.)

Aside from some reused extras, like a couple of older trailers and Batman: The Animated Series holiday-themed episodes, the main new thing is an animated short based on The Losers. No, not the Vertigo version made into a live-action movie, but the original World War II iteration. Featuring Ming-Na Wen as a Chinese double agent, the movie feels unfortunately anti-Asian at the wrong time, and ends on an awkward cliffhanger. (In combination with the Chinese gang in the main feature, this makes an unfortunate trend.) Though there is some fun to be had with the sheer amount of excessive violence, as these combat vets land on a dinosaur island and proceed to machine-gun everything in sight.

If any movie deserves an “incomplete” grade, it’s Batman: The Long Halloween Part One. But that would be a cop-out. So deducting for the racial insensitivity, it’s…

Grade: 3/5

Recommended Reading: Batman: The Long Halloween

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