ComicsAlliance Finally Reviews ‘Batman Unlimited: Animal Instincts,’ The Movie Where Batman Befriends A Robot Wolf Motorcycle
2015 was a year that brought many changes to the world of superheroes, especially where Batman is concerned. We got Jim Gordon running around in a robot suit as the new Batman, a small army of Robins on the streets, Batgirl tearing up Burnside, and Dick Grayson using the overwhelming power of handsomeness to further his career as an international super-spy. But it's also the year that Warner Bros. Animation decided, for whatever reason, to really get behind Batman Unlimited and give us not one, but two animated movies about Batman fighting crime with his robotic animal friends.
Despite having what is a genuinely great premise, it doesn't seem like anyone really talked about them, and as we close out the year, it's time to change that. As the World's Foremost Batmanologist, I feel I have a responsibility --- a duty --- to keep up on this sort of thing, so join me now as we watch Batman Unlimited: Animal Instincts and see if a movie where Batman teams up with a robot wolf that can turn into a motorcycle is actually as amazing as it sounds.
So before we get to the movie itself, a little explanation of how it came to be. As I understand it, and I might have this wrong, the Batman Unlimited toy line is an extension of an earlier line that came about because Mattel's licensing deal specified that the toys had to be "kid-friendly," and since the all-ages Brave and the Bold had ended and left the PG-13 Christopher Nolan movies as the only major media property to tie into, the toys they were making for that didn't quite qualify. Thus, we got this weird line of Batman figures that weren't really based on anything, complete with a slightly off-mode logo that made them look like something you'd pick up at a dollar store under the name DARK HERO.
But as we all learned from everything that happened in the '80s, it's easier to sell toys when you have a cartoon to go with them, which is how we ended up with the debut of two movies based on Batman Unlimited this year.
So let's start with the designs.
Batman as a character has never exactly been short on elements that lend themselves to Action Features and Playsets, but this thing, by its very nature, takes that to an entirely new level. Batman himself goes through four costume changes over the course of the show, each with various accessories and color schemes, and Killer Croc has a straight up Trap Jaw from Masters of the Universe metal jaw. That, I honestly have no problem with, but I swear to you that there is a scene where the Penguin uses his Techno-Monocle to look at the facade of a convenience store and figure out that he can press a button on a pipe that will cause a spring-loaded mechanism to drop loose bricks on a gang of toughs.
I want to stress that this convenience store isn't, like, the Penguin's hideout or anything. It's just a straight up normal 7-11, which raises so many questions. Why are there spring mechanisms designed to drop loose bricks on thugs outside? What kind of business practice is that? If it was installed for the benefit of customers or employees, who would probably be the people most likely to want to drop bricks on loiterers, then why would you only be able to activate this feature from the outside of the store? And, perhaps most pressing, why did they go through all this trouble when there is not, as of this writing, a Gotham City Convenience Store playset available to recreate this weird-ass scene?
But again, I expected the toy stuff --- I knew going in that we were going to get to the point where Batman was riding around on a wolf that was also a motorcycle, taking pot-shots with a batarang launcher. What I did not expect was that everyone in the cast would have weird Final Fantasy hair, up to and including Commissioner Gordon.
There are varying degrees of animeness (animesity?) at play in the hairstyles here, but Nightwing is a full-on friggin' unicorn.
Which brings us to the plot.
You know how on Batman '66, the crimes that the arch-villains were committing in the first season were needlessly complicated and hugely theatrical, but they were still just basically heists and robberies, but by the third season, they were doing stuff like trying to conquer Gotham City by becoming King of the Surfers, or stealing dinosaur eggs and trying to hatch actual, living dinosaurs? Well, this story is like something that they would've gotten around to in season six.
It meanders through a bunch of different set pieces, including being an origin story for the Penguin, but the basic idea is as follows. The Penguin, having been spurned by Gotham City's high society due to his looks, has assembled a team of animal-themed supervillains called the Animiliita: Killer Croc, the Cheetah, Man-Bat and Silverback, a gorilla that is also a robot. At the same time, he has also used his legitimate businesses to manufacture a bunch of robot wolves, tigers and birds for what appears to be a defense contract --- he gives a presentation at a dinner party that includes a video highlighting their combat applications, and it's like something out of RoboCop --- but he's mainly using them for crime.
The crime? A series of reverse heists where the Animilitia are planting force field generators around his new skyscraper so that they can crash an asteroid made of solid gold into Gotham City, thereby killing everyone and making themselves rich at the same time.
Also, it takes place in the future. I'm not sure how far in the future, or if Unlimited is setting itself apart from other DC animated projects by carving out a niche as a sci-fi take on Batman, but everything's vaguely cyberpunk, with people just pulling out personal hologram projectors and cops driving around in flying cars.
That's never addressed or explained, but back to the part with the solid gold meteor and the Penguin's plan to murder literally everyone in Gotham City. It is amazing.
For one thing, it gives Roger Craig Smith --- who I believe is the only living actor to play Batman, Captain America and Sonic the Hedgehog --- the opportunity to growl his way through lines like "include all possible crimes committed by robotic animals," which I think would be all crimes. For another, it is increasingly clear as the movie goes on that the Penguin has spent millions of dollars and years of his life --- the movie actually specifies seven years on the construction of the skyscraper with the built-in tractor beam, so we can assume that's the bare minimum of what he's been doing, not counting R&D on robot tigers and wolves --- trying to set up this plot without ever thinking about what happens ten seconds after it works.
Like, I don't know a whole lot about extinction-level events and I'm certainly not an economist, but I'm pretty sure that you don't just crash an asteroid into a major American city and then emerge into a world where your giant pile of molten space gold is still very useful.
Then again, you can probably forgive most Batman villains for never actually planning out the part where everything works, and this case is no exception. Batman, along with Nightwing, Red Robin, Green Arrow, the Flash and Man-Bat (he switches sides) manage to foil the plan by putting up a big enough force field that this massive city-destroying asteroid just bursts harmlessly into dust with no ill effects. And also, you know, hack a bunch of the robots so that Batman now has a robot wolf that turns into a motorcycle named Ace.
On the one hand, that's a lot of pretty amazing stuff to cram into a single movie, but on the other, at only an hour and 17 minutes, it still manages to drag for most of its runtime. But that doesn't mean that I'm giving up hope on Batman Unlimited as a franchise. I mean, the second movie was a Halloween special that included a robot T-Rex, and there just aren't a lot of ways to screw that up.