Regardless of how many hundreds of millions of dollars they may have grossed, Batman's live incarnations don't come close to matching what Paul Dini, Bruce Timm, and company have accomplished with the animated efforts Mask of the Phantasm and Return of the Joker. It's tough to produce a comparable follow-up when the bar is set that high, and despite some initial misgivings I had, Mystery of the Batwoman manages to entertain while taking a markedly different approach than its predecessors.
The title gives at least a vague idea what to expect from Mystery of the Batwoman. The movie begins as a weapons shipment is assaulted by a figure in a bat costume, and this vigilante's ruthless approach nearly leaves the arms runners dead, if not for the last minute intervention from a nearby Batman. Intrigued, the Dark Knight sets out to uncover the identity of Batwoman (voiced by Kyra Sedgwick), and three front-runners quickly emerge. The first is Roxanne Ballantine (Kelly Ripa), a clumsy but brilliant metallurgist in the employ of WayneTech whose boyfriend was wrongfully imprisoned thanks to the Penguin. There's also Detective Bullock's new partner, Sonia Alcana (Elisa Gabrielli), who has a history with both Batman and mobster Rupert Thorne. Last on the list is Kathy Duquesne (Kimberly Brooks), whose character design would seem to suggest that the filmmakers felt compelled to cram Halle Berry into a Batflick before the upcoming Catwoman could hit theaters. Kathy is the daughter of Carlton Duquesne, who's acting as the muscle for a high-powered munitions ring headed by the Penguin (voiced by David Ogden Stiers rather than one-time mainstay Paul Williams) and Rupert Thorne. All three women have a motive for wanting to take down the Penguin, Thorne, and the elder Duquesne, and whoever's hiding behind her cowl forces the villains to call in additional muscle. Not only does Batman have to deal with an international shipment of experimental weaponry, an enigmatic opponent who plays by her own set of rules, and a budding romance between Bruce and Kathy, but the additional arrival of drug-fueled strongman Bane (Hector Elizando).
I first watched Mystery of the Batwoman a month or so ago, and my initial reaction was tepid. The jazzy score seemed entirely out of place, lacking the sort of energy I'd expect from an animated action flick. The first half of the movie dragged, unable to really capture my interest until the mystery aspect was dropped and action really amped up. A pop song inserted into the middle of the movie seemed jarring and interminable. The premise came across as little more than a blurry photocopy of Mask of the Phantasm -- detailing some of the comparisons would require diving into spoiler territory, but both movies have a mysterious, newly-introduced vigilante who has it out for a group of gangsters, and Batman spends a large portion of the movie trying to uncover who's behind the mask. Heck, even the movies' titles are similarly structured. There was also a brilliant intermingling of past and present in
Mask of the Phantasm as well as Return of the Joker, not only telling a great story, but further fleshing out the Batman mythos. Mystery of the Batwoman is more linear and straightforward. Since this movie is predicated on being interested in Batwoman's secret identity, the fact that I couldn't have cared less left me fairly bored for a substantial chunk of its 75 minute runtime.
A few weeks later, this DVD showed up in my mailbox, and my thoughts about the movie took a near-180. I'm not entirely sure why that is, but I think it's because I stopped comparing Mystery of the Batwoman to Return of the Joker and Mask of the Phantasm and started appreciating it for its own merits. Mystery of the Batwoman bears little resemblance to them, and that's entirely by design. Judging by the comments by producer Alan Burnett in the disc's extras, the movie's mission statement is to avoid being as dark as those two films. So, sure, Batwoman doesn't have a body count the way the Phantasm did. There are no insights into Bruce's past, though fans of Batman Beyond, particularly Return of the Joker, may enjoy a nod to his future in the form of an awkwardly flirty phone call with Barbara Gordon. Mystery of the Batwoman is lighter but still heavy on the action, offering a more accessible blend of character development and explosive battles. I found myself appreciating some of the more subtle details -- eye movements, slight changes to a character's facial expression, the sorts of details that don't overtly whack the viewer over the head -- the second time around. Admittedly, the movie didn't completely endear itself to me with that second viewing. The subdued score still didn't seem to mesh with the action on-screen, and several lines of dialogue continued to leave me wincing: "Geez Louise, it's a woman!" and "For a computer geek, you're pretty smart," in particular. (The thrice-damned phrase "computer geek" is actually tossed around twice.) Still, the majority of the gripes I had after that first viewing completely dissipated the second time through, propelling itself from a movie I at first considered to be 'passably okay' at best to 'pretty good'.
Mystery of the Batwoman is a confection. There are no layers to peel and explore...no deep, introspective examinations into its characters' psyches. The filmmakers set out to make a fun, straight-forward animated action flick, and at that, they succeeded. Mystery of the Batwoman hits DVD with a few supplements in tow, including a short created exclusively for this release.
Video: Mystery of the Batwoman was animated in widescreen at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The behind-the-scenes footage on the DVD shows a set of storyboards sketched out in widescreen, but protected for 4x3 displays. The "Bat Cave Profiles" and "Bat Gadget" features also include some brief widescreen clips where the differences in the two presentations are more prominent. A comparison is provided below, along with a storyboard with the phrase "16:9 widescreen format" printed on the side.
I'm not sure which version presents the film as it's preferred by its creators, and I haven't seen enough widescreen footage to be able to form any sort of strong opinion one way or the other myself. Regardless, this DVD is full-frame, which, even though the cropping is evident when doing A/B comparisons, appears to be a perfectly valid way to view the film. It may be worth mentioning that this is the second DVD of Mystery of the Batwoman to have slipped through my fingers. The featureless first disc was also full-frame, and not knowing anything about its intended aspect ratio, there was nothing about the first viewing to suggest that there was anything more or anything less on-screen that I was intended to see. I spotted the aspect ratio disparity noted above right before giving the movie a spin for the second time, and even going in knowing that there was some level of cropping, I never felt as if I was missing any of the action or only seeing a portion of what I was intended to see.
Glossing over whatever concerns there may be about the movie's aspect ratio, Mystery of the Batwoman looks excellent. The image remains extremely sharp and detailed throughout, color saturation appears to be spot-on, and black levels are as deep and inky as you'd expect from a movie starring the Dark Knight. No speckling, compression artifacts, mosquito noise, haloing around hard edges, film grain, or most anything resembling a flaw could be spotted throughout. Its edges did exhibit some slight aliasing, not appearing quite as smooth as I would have preferred, but not to the point of distraction. I was very pleased with the quality of the presentation, but I'd be curious to hear what Curt Geda and company have to say about the movie's intended aspect ratio.
Audio: The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio (448Kbps) sounds more like slightly spiffed-up stereo than something created with six dedicated channels in mind. The surrounds rarely draw attention to themselves, lightly reinforcing the score, providing subtle ambiance, and the occasional effect like flying debris, Batwoman's glider whizzing by, or grappling hooks launching from the Batwing. The rears come across as more of an afterthought than an integral part of the mix. The earlier moments are lacking in the lower frequencies, particularly the opening raid on the arms shipment. The subwoofer makes its presence increasingly known as the movie progresses, and swift kicks, punches, tossed goons, whirring motors, and massive explosions are all accompanied by a decent, though not particularly impressive, amount of bass. The bulk of the action is anchored up front, and dialogue, sound effects, and the score come through crisply and clearly. There are no major concerns with the audio on Mystery of the Batwoman -- it just sounds more like a 2.0 surround track to me than a six-channel mix.
Also included are a Dolby Digital 2.0 surround French dub (192Kbps), closed captions, and subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.
Supplements: I don't know how many viewers hit the 'Special Features' menu before diving into the movie, but as the extras on this DVD contain heavy spoilers, I'd suggest resisting that temptation until after watching Mystery of the Batwoman in its entirety.
The most notable extra is "Chase Me" (6:23), an animated short crafted in part by Paul Dini. Bruce Wayne is bored by the vapid girls who flit around a party, and when he manages to escape downstairs, he stumbles upon Catwoman breaking into a wall safe. The resulting chase has Batman following Catwoman throughout Gotham City, culminating in an encounter at the city zoo. The short is silent in the traditional sense -- not only is there no dialogue, there aren't even any sound effects, although the way it's scored, the music takes the place of some of the effects that would otherwise have been present. I'm still not a particularly big fan of that style of music being paired with this sort of animation, but the short is excellent, and its presence on this DVD is greatly appreciated.
"Behind the Mystery" (9:33) has quite a bit of the talent providing the voices of Mystery of the Batwoman -- Tara Strong, Kevin Conroy, Elisa Gabrielli, Kimberly Brooks, Kelly Ripa, Kevin Michael Richardson, Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., Eli Marienthal, Hector Elizando, and pop artist Cherie -- commenting on various characters, their motivations, and the recording process. Producer Alan Burnett, casting/voice director Andrea Romano, and producer/director Curt Geda also chime in with a few notes.
The latter three return for "Batman: P.O.V." (10:16), a roundtable discussion from some of the producers and assorted talent behind the scenes. The topics include how quickly the script was churned out and how the ending was retooled, how Batman is better understood through the introduction of these female characters, coming up with the character design for Batwoman, using music to differentiate characters, and the process of recording the voice actors separately. The choice of villains for Mystery of the Batwoman has inspired plenty of discussion on various message boards, and that's touched upon here, such as how the Penguin wasn't popular with at least one of the producers and how they didn't want to spoil what they liked so much about Bane. It's also noted how the name of Batwoman's four-color alter-ego was reused and altered for one character in this movie.
"The Making of a Scene" (2:17) has Andrea Romano discussing how an animated movie is brought from concept to completion, briefly running through the writing, recording of the voices, storyboarding, animation, and mixing in the music and sound effects.
"Bat Cave Profiles" is a set of files detailing Batman, Robin, Rupert Thorne, Bane, the Penguin, Carlton Duquesne, and the three newly-introduced women who are suspected of lurking behind the mask of Batwoman. "Bat Gadgets" similarly notes the specs behind the Bat Boat, Batwoman's Bat Glider, the Bat Wing, the Batmobile, and the Batarang. Both "Bat Cave Profiles" and "Bat Gadgets" begin with the same pieces of animation, the latter typing the information out gradually, making them a little longer than necessary to sift through.
Finally, "Super Hero Favorites" is a pair of promos, each running around a minute and a half a pop, for other Warner superhero DVDs, including X-Men: Evolution, Super Friends, and Justice League.
All of the video extras are presented full-frame with Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kbps) audio.
As Mystery of the Batwoman is a Warner release, the disc is seated in a snapper case, and its inside flap lists the movie's twelve chapters. Tucked into the packaging are a pair of rebates, offering a few dollars back on purchases of the upcoming video game "Batman: Rise of Sin Tzu" and Mattel's line of Batman action figures. There's also a folded mini-poster for Return of the Batwoman, plugging other DC superhero DVDs on the flipside. The disc's static menus are enhanced for widescreen displays, featuring the familiar, haunting theme playing underneath.
The DVD-ROM portion includes a demo of "The Toxic Chill Game", which completely locked my computer up both times that I tried to access it.
Conclusion: Viewers who go into this DVD not expecting a dark, engaging tale along the lines of Return of the Joker or Mask of the Phantasm will probably find something to appreciate about Mystery of the Batwoman. I wouldn't recommend this disc as a starting point for someone new to Batman's animated exploits, but hardcore Batfans will find Mystery of the Batwoman worth buying, particularly at the $15.99 price point being offered by Target in its first week of release. Those with more of a casual interest may want to stick with a rental.