The DC Animated Universe has been spinning out cool direct-to-video comix movies for decades now. I haven’t loved every single one, but most of them are quite good. In the last few years, they’ve really been experimenting, telling Batman stories in anime or imagining him as a contemporary of Jack the Ripper.
Now we have “Batman: Soul of the Dragon” (Warner Bros.-DC, 2021, 83 min.), the 40th film in the line. The story centers around Bruce Wayne’s (David Giuntoli) early training period as he’s preparing to become the Batman, when he trained with five other students at a secret monastery run by O-Sensei (James Hong): there’s Richard Dragon (Mark Dacascos), a clear nod to Bruce Lee; Jade (Jamie Chung); Lady Shiva (Kelly Hu); the Jim Kelly–inspired Ben Turner (Michael Jai White); and Rip Jagger (Chris Cox). Years later, when a millionaire cult leader seizes power from a mysterious gate to other dimensions, Dragon and Wayne must reunite, re-form the team and go into battle.
This is good pulpy stuff. It’s a flat-out love letter to 1970s pop culture, a spot-on mash up of kung fu movies, blaxploitation flicks and the James Bond franchise. (I especially enjoyed the opening title sequence, a tribute to Maurice Binder, who created all the classic Bond titles like “Diamonds Are Forever” and “You Only Live Twice.”) “Batman: Soul of the Dragon” is rated R, but it feels more like PG-13
As mentioned, The DC Animated Universe has been gradually dipping its characters into R-rated shenanigans. They made a terrible, wrongheaded version of the classic graphic novel “The Killing Joke,” and Melissa Rauch (“The Big Bang Theory”) played the voice of Joker moll Harley Quinn in “Batman and Harley Quinn” (2017) with more adult language and situations.
The first two seasons of “Harley Quinn” (Warner Bros. – DC Universe Originals, 2019) star Rauch’s “BBT” castmate Kaley Cuoco, also an executive producer. This is one of my favorite new things, a mash-up cocktail blending “Seinfeld,” “The Tick” and over-the-top violence. It’s a classic sit-com with exploding people and profanities galore. Harley Quinn stories usually revolve around her twisted relationship with The Joker (Alan Tudyk). In the first episode, Poison Ivy (Lake Bell) finally convinces Harley to dump that purple clown, and she moves into Poison Ivy’s apartment with her roommate, a talking plant named Frank (J. B. Smoove).
Season one does a great job blowing up the whole world, leaving season two to get even weirder as Harley and her crew pick up the pieces and get back to the business of crime. The whole thing gets really meta: In one episode that focuses on the return of Batman, Harley and company don’t actually appear, and the whole story is framed by two nerds in a basement deciding to watch the latest show. One guy wears a shirt that reads “Release the Snyder Cut,” and the other guy’s shirt says “The Last Jedi is Not Canon.”
This is most emphatically not for kids — it’s what’s called a “hard R” — but it is catnip for the kind of grown-up comic book fan who appreciates genre manipulation and sharp, satirical writing about the tropes of the genre. It’s as much about bad dating and mundane everyday stuff as it is about heists and evil schemes. One episode takes place at a bar mitzvah for the Penguin’s nephew. The voice cast is all comic aces like Tudyk, who also voices Clayface and other baddies; Jim Rash (“Community”) as The Riddler; Andy Daly as Two-Face; and James Adomian as Bane. Diedrich Bader reprises his version of Batman from “Batman: The Brave and the Bold.” Once you get into the whole “Clerks” vibe of “Harley Quinn,” it’s a show where you feel like any DC character can show up, and probably will.