While The Killing Joke was DC’s most talked-about animated film last year, Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders was its best. Conceived as a continuation of sorts to the ‘60s television show, it brought together the Dynamic Duo of the series’ original stars, Adam West and Burt Ward. It was a fun, clever and equal parts loving and mocking of the original show. The film’s sequel, Batman vs Two-Face, premiered this weekend at NYCC and while the audience laughed and cheered (particularly when the dedication to the late West appeared onscreen) throughout, the movie isn’t quite as good as its predecessor.
Two-Face (played wonderfully by William Shatner here) is arguably one of Batman’s darkest adversaries, but he didn’t appear in the original show. However, while he seems like an odd fit for the light, campy world of Batman, but writers Michael Jelenic and James Tucker do a nice job of justifying his presence here. After Hugo Strange (who also didn’t appear in the original show) builds an “Evil Extractor,” star lawyer Harvey Dent becomes Two-Face when the device explodes and the evilness liquid (ew) taken from all of Batman’s worst rogues scars half of his body. It’s very Jekyll and Hyde and a smart, efficient way of bringing Two-Face into the world. Unfortunately, the character basically disappears post opening credits sequence after Bruce Wayne, Dent’s longtime friend, pays for his corrective surgeries.
It’s kind of a letdown and makes it seem as if Two-Face never gets the chance to be a villain post-explosion. However, that doesn’t turn out to be the case. Instead, the credits sequence shenanigans are supposed to act as a montage of the villainous things Two-Face does. The dialogue eventually makes that clear, but the movie itself doesn’t at the time and unobservant audience members (like me seeing this first thing in the morning on the fourth day of NYCC) might spend much of the film catching up. Moreover, it’s just a strange narrative choice—particularly considering the way the character functions in the rest of the film.
After the surgery, Bruce spends a lot of time denying that the villain behind all the 2-themed crimes could possibly be Dent and it creates a lot of tension between him and Dick Grayson (Burt Ward, wonderful as ever). Some of it is meant as an elaboration on the joke that Batman and Robin are secretly gay—a handsome rival suitor that makes Robin feel inadequate because of his long history with Bruce. That stuff is fun and leads to some really nice character beats between Bruce and Dick. However, if that were the goal anyway, then why elide any time at all? That storyline would be much more believable and dramatic if it slowly revealed the effects on Dent rather than pretending there’s a mystery to solve.
Instead, Batman spends a frustrating amount of the movie ignoring the obvious. In fact, the filmmakers for some reason attempt to make us doubt Dent is Two-Face at all, employing a lot of shadows and misdirection to obscure the truth. However, the problem with casting someone with such an iconic voice like Shatner (and then publicizing the fact) is that it makes that eventual twist obvious to the audience long before the characters. Knowing the twist beforehand saps the film of dramatic tension as a result and the red herring villains we get instead (King Tut and Bookwork) feel like wasted time.
However, regardless of any issues with how the film uses Two-Face, Shatner’s performance is possibly the best thing in it. There are few actors whose voices are more distinct than his, but he manages to tone down those stilted cadences and mostly disappear into the roles. As Harvey Dent, he sounds smug, a rich, handsome guy who knows he’s smart enough to do whatever he wants. As Two-Face, his voice is guttural and smarmy, his evilness manifested in the way he harshly croaks every word. It’s a grand performance and it’s a shame the film spends so much time ignoring him.
Batman vs Two-Face is–in nearly every way–not quite as good as Batman: The Return of the Caped Crusaders. There are too many characters and too many of the jokes are just repeats of those we saw before. Still, for those who want to hear the great Adam West’s final performance or William Shatner do his best work in ages, the film is essential viewing. And really, even with its flaws, it’s still a pretty fun way to spend your time. Just don’t expect to have as much fun as the first time.
Batman vs. Two-Face is available on DVD, and streaming platforms.