On July 27, Warner Bros. animation continued their revamped DC Animated Movie Universe with the release of what is ultimately one of the best ever on-screen adaptations of the Caped Crusader: Batman: The Long Halloween, Part 2. The film is the second in a two-part adaptation of the iconic 1997 graphic novel of the same name—written by Jeph Loeb and iconically illustrated by Tim Sale.
The Long Halloween takes place before Bruce Wayne is particularly good at the whole “hero” thing. It’s really the first time the Dark Knight has needed to put on his detective’s cap. The film finds Gotham City terrorized by a mysterious serial killer known simply as “Holiday.” It falls to Batman to bend the rules and break the case as only he can—with some help from his friends, Jim Gordon and Harvey Dent (at least things always work out well for that guy).
Thematically, however, The Long Halloween represents a power shift within Gotham’s underworld. Buttoned-up mobsters like the Falcone and Maroni crime families give way to the colorful, costumed baddies that make up the Bat’s peerless rogues’ gallery. In the two-part Long Halloween story arc, the text reflects the subtext. That shift in power is also allegorical of the DCAMU’s shift in storytelling from grounded and gritty to a stylized and vibrant, almost whimsical celebration of their heroes.
Despite the Warner Bros. live-action DC films being a mixed bag thus far (though not if The Suicide Squad has anything to say about it), DC’s iconic roster of heroes and villains have long thrived in the realm of animation. DC animation has quietly built a massive, compelling narrative arc across more than 15 films. These films took inspiration from the the comics’ “New 52” continuity (all of which are currently streaming on HBO Max), which has culminated in a splashy, epic team-up unique to the DCAMU. King Shark is a shark, and Justice League Dark: Apokolips War (2020) is a monumental timeline-resetting animated feat that set the stage for a new, improved version of the DC Animated Movie Universe.
Beginning with 2013’s Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox, the James Tucker-led “New 52” adaptations are famous for their inoffensive, anime-esque art style. The art and character designs feel fairly basic. This isn’t to say they lack in quality, just that they’re reluctant to make any kind of bold artistic choice. They aren’t overwhelming or underwhelming… just kind of whelming. After more than 15 movies, the style begins to feel generic and samey. Heroes often look angry and serious regardless of the situation—even during moments of levity—which causes a lack of tonal diversity that feels inconsistent with the spirit of the source material. Following the events of Apokolips War, however, the DCAMU continuity reset. The films’ vibes and art style updated to coincide with the new continuity, beginning with 2020’s Superman: Man of Tomorrow.
Man of Tomorrow, which you can also stream on HBO Max, marks a large tonal shift in DC’s animated superhero fare. The shift, characterized by a new, more stylized art direction and stories set early on in each hero’s career, unmoors DC animation from the “edgy,” “grounded” adaptations that characterize the pre-Apokolips War films. They lean into a more confident form of animated storytelling.
The new style’s most obvious difference is in the bold, heavy line work outlining each character. A thick black silhouette makes its characters pop, accenting them from backgrounds making them more emotive and weighty. In an interview with CBR, Man of Tomorrow and The Long Halloween director Chris Palmer explained the intentions behind the artistic change: “For the line art, it was to try something new, just definitely give a big stamp on it that this is a different world from the previous [pre-Apokolips War] films.”
Palmer went on to explain how “[the team tried] different things, like line weights. People have said it evokes more of a comic book kind of feel,” and he agrees.
This “comic book kind of feel” found in the most recent DCAMU fare contributes to a level of self-aware, self-referential joy that didn’t exist in the previous films. While the new art direction premiered in Man of Tomorrow, it especially shines in the two-part Long Halloween. The charm and style is in more than just the art direction, however. The choice to set both Man of Tomorrow and The Long Halloween, Parts 1 and 2 early in each respective hero’s career allows audiences to enjoy Superman and Batman in ways they aren’t commonly presented.
Neither Batman nor Superman are the nigh-omnipotent, omniscient demi-gods that other media so often portrays them. That adds to the new films’ charms. In The Long Halloween, Jim Gordon repeatedly picks on Bats when his detective skills aren’t up to par. It’s rare for audiences to see Batman portrayed as anything other than “the world’s greatest detective.” Batman’s humbling rookie character arc is particularly effective in a noir-inspired crime thriller like The Long Halloween.
Similarly, one of the most charming sequences in Man of Tomorrow is when Clark decides he wants a cape for his Superman costume. Why? Because he saw a newspaper story about Batman and thought the cape looked cool. (Who among us can’t relate?) They play the moment for laughs because it acknowledges the absurdity of grown men running around in tights. That whimsy is part of what we love about them.
The fact that these stories come from comic books is a tradition these filmmakers should embrace rather than attempt to hide away. Comics and superheroes are inherently a little goofy, and it’s okay to not take them so seriously all the time.