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Batman vs. Two-Face Features William Shatner's Best Acting in Years (Review)

By Luke Y. Thompson

Batman vs. Two-Face Features William Shatner's Best Acting in Years (Review)

When Return of the Caped Crusaders hit DVD and Blu-ray last year, it was mean, easy, and true to say it was the best Batman movie in years. Not only did it bring back the 1966 versions of Batman and Robin, but it expanded their universe (literally, via a trip to outer space) and was full of in-joke references to other versions of Batman over the years, now filtered through the voice talents of Adam West. West may not have been the first live-action Batman ever, but he was the first one to enter global pop-culture consciousness, and for anyone who grew up with him, he was always the best.

The sequel, Batman vs. Two-Face, is nowhere near the masterful mixing of elements that the first animated film was, and given that we recently got The Lego Batman Movie, it isn't even the best Batman movie of the year. But as a battle of '60s icons past their primes yet still in high spirits, it's not a bad capper on the career of the campiest caped crusader.

While there are some decent in-jokes, like a Lee Meriwether cameo to set-up a Catwoman doppelganger gag, a bit where Batman and Robin walk down a building backwards, and a really out-of-left-field reference to the movie Lorenzo's Oil (presumably as an ultra-subtle reference to original series writer Lorenzo Semple Jr.), the new movie leans heavily on the stunt casting of William Shatner as Harvey Dent/Two-Face, which would have been believable back in 1966 and is no less fun now. West and Shatner are both campy leading-man icons of the sixties, but they haven't worked directly together since 1963's Alexander the Great. In a way, it's a fitting final battle.

On the audio book editions of his autobiography, Shatner was able to recapture the more nasal, less chesty voice of young Kirk for some reenactments; here, though the character is drawn as '60s Shatner, the voice is very clearly latter-day Bill. He maintains a youthful sense of merriment in his voice, but it's definitely the current model. West fares worse: though he can still muster the necessary enthusiasm, his voice sounds quavery and unhealthy, closer to the out-of-it "Mayor West" character on Family Guy without pretending to be. Only Burt Ward, somehow, sounds exactly the same as he ever did, despite being the most physically transformed by age in real life. Holy Dorian Gray!

Plot-wise, this is a rarity in that it actually shows the origin of an Adam West bat-foe, one that is unsurprisingly quite different from comics canon. When Professor Hugo Strange creates a machine to literally suck the evil out of Gotham's worst criminals, they all "Mwa-ha-ha!" so hard that it overloads the device, and sprays literal evil on district attorney Harvey Dent. At first, it looks like the movie is at least going with the comic's premise that Batman protects half his face with the cape; later, however, a vaporized form of the evil literally turns everyone who inhales it into Two-Faces, which makes no sense at all, even by 1966 Batman standards. But rare will be the viewer who does not forgive that lapse.

Following an opening credits montage of Batman/Two-Face battles, replete with the de rigeur ridiculous deathtraps, we go forward in time to a Dark Knight Returns reference: Harvey's face finally being healed. But before long, duality themed crimes are on the rise, despite Harvey's protestations that he's innocent. Is Two-Face really back, or does Harvey have an evil twin?

The answer, of course, doesn't matter much. You're not here for a mystery. What matters is that whether or not there's an impostor (we won't spoil), it's Shatner doing the voice, and for the first time in forever, he's forced to do two distinct roles rather than playing the caricature version of himself. Yes, as Dent, he does take what appear to be knowing...dramaticpauses!...and the animation gives him huge hand gestures to match, but as the evil Two-Face, he gets growly and mean. The actor hasn't had an identity crisis this fun since the original episodes of Star Trek featuring evil or mirror Kirk.

And he's not the only villain. Returning director Rick Morales clearly has a fondness for villains rarely seen since 1966, so King Tut (Wally Wingert) and Bookworm (Jeff Bergman) also play significant roles. Tut and his henchmen get to engage the dynamic duo atop a moving double-decker bus, which is the sort of nifty action sequence the budget could never have allowed on the original series.

DC, like all of us, didn't necessarily anticipate that this would be West's final bow, so there are hints that the series might have continued in a similar direction with new villains getting 1966-ified, like a certain Dr. Quinzel. But truthfully, it's just as well; West's physical frailty comes through even as it's clear he'd love to continue in spirit. Sure, it might have been fun to have him thusly mock the grimly world-weary Batfleck, but without Christopher Reeve around to play as foil, would there be a point? Return of the Caped Crusaders was the real final blowout; Batman vs. Two-Face feels like a side-tangent, but a fun one.

Extras are slightly less skimpy than on the previous film, with featurettes on Burt Ward and Julie Newmar, plus the entirety of a Comic-Con Adam West tribute panel that's mostly (and unfortunately) dominated by Kevin Smith and Ralph Garman. Shatner commentary might have cost too much extra, but it's a shame they couldn't spring for it.

Images: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment