Batman vs. Two-Face: Can We Overcome Literal Evil?

I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s, but always felt spiritually and psychically more connected to the generation before me, and the one after me. I should have been a hippie, or I should have been part of Richard Linklater’s Austin Slackers. One of my very favorite shows growing up was Batman, which went off the air in 1968.  I was the ripe old age of one.  TV reruns became the way I dealt with this man-out-of-time problem. I would comb through the TV guide looking for every instance of this show being replayed.

In the original run, each week played two half hours — Wednesday and Thursday nights in which Wednesday was the setup with a cliffhanger, and Thursday saw the caped crusader’s escape the clutches of the freak of the week and triumph over evil.  When I was a kid, Batman most often replayed after school, usually with each two-part episode played one day after the other — a disaster in the the event my mom told us to “go outside to play, and turn off the boob tube!”

In the tradition of Arrested Development and Fuller House, Batman ‘66 made a triumphant return in last years direct-to-video Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders. The actors are all very old or dead, so the next best thing? Animation in the style of the 60’s show, voiced by surviving actors and sound-alikes, while featuring the same campy POW graphics and music to match. I know — pretty great! You are wondering, “how did I miss that?!!”

The follow-up — Batman vs. Two-Face — arrived this week, almost as if to commemorate Adam’s West’s passing the past June. West completed his voice work earlier this year, making his last film role the one that made him famous the world over. Burt Ward reprises Robin, Julie Newmar Catwoman, and to add extra fun, Lee Meriwether — who played Catwoman in the 1966 Film Batman: The Movie but not on the TV show — shows up in a supporting role and even gets to briefly don the Catwoman costume.

William Shatner joins these remaining classic cast members with a new take on Two-Face (a villain never used in the original show.). The animated Harvey Dent/Two-Face looks exactly like a young Shatner — creating a mental conundrum as I tried to imagine how Captain Kirk and Two-face both occupied the same space-time continuum in 1966! Shatner’s classic  staccato acting style helped him achieve fame with an over-the-top, yet widely loved character. He seems uniquely suited to join the cast of Batman ‘66, bringing just the the right amount of camp, layered on top of both the obvious and psychologically buried duality of Two-Face.

Dr. Hugo Strange has developed a new device to rehabilitate criminals … The Evil Extractor! This technology “siphons the reservoirs of evil deep in the criminals warped brains,” and then deposits this physically manifested evil green goo into a giant vat.  What could possibly go wrong?

The vat of evil splashes on Harvey, creating the super villain Two-Face. This is exactly the kind of tech that would appear in the original, always obviously labeled, and always obviously flawed. We of course know answers are never this simple, but the beauty of this film is that it tries to tackle WHY real life is so complicated. Batman ‘66 uses it’s own historical format, not only stating the obvious, but helping the audience to see that literal manifestations of mental illness are never going to be as clear as Harvey’s half ruined face.

In addition to his half facial disfiguration, and dual personality, he makes key decisions with the flip of a coin, his criminal plotting boiled down to binary decisions arrived at by chance. This film succeeds both as great fun and nostalgic entertainment, but also at asking questions:  Is there evil locked up inside even the best of us? Can we purge this evil? What does it mean to rehabilitate our criminals? Does positive behaviour in the now make up for our bad actions of the past? When do we have to “serve our time,” and when can we call it even?

The film tries to answer some of these queries with varying degrees of success … it’s pretty overt regarding Harvey/Two-Face; protective of Batman; and gives us hope in the introspective and evolving Catwoman. And even when not directly stated, this series has always been pretty on the nose with it’s commentary and message. To me, the form and the history makes this more forgivable than in other entertainment.  

Shatner delivers an inspired performance, giving us an Andy Serkis/Gollum dual personality while addressing the question of rehabilitation, and seriously confronting the issues of mental illness, trauma and how we overcome evil. The perfect mixture of fan-service fun with more grounded storytelling, using the emotionally black and white nature of the original show to make us think outside our own personal boxes.

I always want the animation to be better on these direct-to-video films, but it works here.  In short order I actually forgot I was watching animation and just sat back and enjoyed the ride in this old-school Batmobile. Unlike Batman ‘66, Batman vs. Two-Face transcends it’s camp origins. While last year’s Return of the Caped Crusaders also tried to ask some questions, it really felt mostly like another episode in the ‘66 canon. Batman vs. Two-Face is both excellent storytelling and a wonderful send-off for the late-great Adam West.

I give it 7.5 Golly-Gee-Willikers out of 10 BAM POW’s!

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