Original Air Date: October 4, 1997
Directed by: Toshihiko Matsuda
Written by: Paul Dini, Stan Berkowitz, Alan Burnett, Rich Fogel, Steve Gerber
Animation: TMS – Kyuokoichi Corporation
Running Time: 61 minutes
Also Known As: Superman: The Animated Series episodes 39, 40, 41 “World’s Finest: Parts 1, 2, and 3”
When Warner Bros. launched its own network, The WB, in 1995 it had a bit of a conundrum on its hands. Warner had been in the business of producing hours upon hours of content, but it was all aired somewhere else and would be tied down by licensing agreements for yet a while longer. And in the 90s, most of those properties were airing as part of the Fox Kids Network and included the likes of Tiny Toon Adventures, Animaniacs, and Batman: The Animated Series. Warner needed to focus on parts of its portfolio that hadn’t already been licensed to Fox and it sure is nice to have a character like Superman to utilize as a fallback. While Fox held the broadcast rights to Batman, Warner essentially ceased taking episode orders for that show and instead tasked the team of Bruce Timm and Paul Dini that had done so well with Batman to do the same for Superman. Superman: The Animated Series was born, and unlike Batman, it was a brightly lit, modern styled, depiction of the classic hero. It was not quite as successful as Batman, but for a generation of comic book fans, this depiction of the man of steel is about as definitive as it gets replacing for many the character we saw on the big screen played by Christopher Reeve.
Following the successful first season of Superman, Warner once again had the broadcast rights to Batman and commissioned a new season. Re-titled, The New Batman Adventures, the caped crusader and his comrades would receive a makeover to bring it in-line with Superman while also accomplishing the goal of simplifying the models for overseas animation. The WB, which had launched its own children’s programming block called Kids’ WB, would air these new episodes of Batman alongside Superman creating The New Batman/Superman Adventures, an hour and a half block typically consisting of one Superman, one classic BTAS, and one New Adventures of Batman. To commemorate the union of these two titans of comics, a three-part episode was created for Superman called “World’s Finest” that would take-up the whole Batman/Superman block on October 4, 1997. These episodes would then be collected and released on VHS and DVD as The Batman/Superman Movie.
Given how long these two heroes have been around and in Warner’s portfolio, it’s actually rather incredible the two weren’t paired-up for a movie until 1997. This one is a bit of a cheat since it’s three episodes of an animated series, and Batman and Superman have shared space on the small screen for decades. They have since shared time on the big screen as well in one of the most love it or hate it film universes imaginable. In 1997, and even today, there is still a neat “geek” factor to the two teaming up, though I personally wish it could have happened sooner as come 97 I wasn’t watching much network television. I can recall catching bits and pieces of this story, but I don’t think I ever sat down and actually digested it. Since concluding the years long look-back at Batman: The Animated Series, the cross-overs with Superman were basically the few remaining missing links I had yet to look at, so I figured I would rectify that with a look at this pseudo movie.
“World’s Finest” is anchored by a pretty simple premise: How would Batman and Superman work together when their arch enemies team-up? It’s the type of thing any young, comic book, fan probably would have dreamed up as a starting point for a team-up as we have Joker (Mark Hamill) offering his services to Lex Luthor (Clancy Brown) to kill Superman (Tim Daly) for the not unreasonable sum of one billion dollars and it’s Batman (Kevin Conroy) who first sniffs out the scheme. It’s an interesting premise to see Joker turn himself into a hitman-for-hire, and especially interesting that he would be so arrogant that he would think he can take out Superman when he’s failed to do the same with Batman for years. Perhaps it owes to him not viewing Superman as his great rival as many have wondered if Joker really ever aimed to kill Batman, instead preferring to play with him like a cat and a ball of yarn, only in this case the ball of yarn always comes out definitively on top. There’s also a bit of shock factor to see Joker so nakedly offering to kill someone for money, but it is a nice callback, intentional or not, to Joker’s roots in this universe as a mob hitman as seen in Mask of the Phantasm.
Why is Joker offering to kill Superman for Luthor? For the simple fact that he needs money on account of Batman always foiling his plans and because he’s come across a rather large sum of kryptonite. Early in the film, Joker pulls off a heist in which he and Harley (Arleen Sorkin) snatch a dragon idol thought to be made of jade, but Batman knows otherwise and makes the move to Metropolis. It’s there he masquarades as Bruce Wayne, who has a business venture underway with Luthor, and makes acquaintances with both Lois Lane (Dana Delany) and Clark Kent. Lane is quite smitten with Wayne right out of the gate and the two start seeing quite a lot of each other, much to Clark’s disappointment.
The film wastes little time in establishing that Batman and Superman are going to be uneasy allies. Batman is setup to be Superman’s opposite. When we first see Batman inspecting the crime scene following Joker’s theft, Detective Bullock (Robert Costanzo) puts up a minor protest when Batman takes a piece of kryptonite left behind as tampering with a crime scene, but Commissioner Gordon (Bob Hastings) somewhat jokingly laughs it off suggesting to Bullock he be the one to stop Batman from doing what he wants. It’s played for laughs, but it’s kind of scary that Gordon essentially revealed he feels helpless when it comes to telling Batman what to do. Of course, we know he welcomes Batman’s aid in an unofficial capacity, but this scene seems to exist to remind the viewer that Batman operates outside the law. When he eventually crosses paths with Superman for the first time, Superman refers to him as a vigilante and that there’s no place for such in his town. Superman is our goody-two-shoes, the one who operates within the confines of the law, while Batman happily exists outside it. He’s also played as a jerk, as Batman introduces himself to Superman by arm-tossing him over his shoulder. It’s definitely beyond what we’re used to seeing out of the character previously in BTAS, that very patient detective working alongside Ra’s al Ghul and tolerating his subordinates slights is long gone. It’s somewhat in-line with the character we’ll see more of in The New Batman Adventures, but it’s definitely a change.
The Batman/Superman dynamic is the main anchor of the feature, but also entering the fray is the Lois Lane situation in which it’s clearly spelled out she’s attracted to Superman and Bruce Wayne, but turned off by Clark Kent and Batman. There’s also multiple scenes in which Joker and Luthor are pitted against each other, mostly via tense negotiations or dealing with the fallout of a Batman or Superman encounter. They’re actually quite entertaining and this is the best Joker we’ve seen in awhile. It would seem the time off between the end of the second season of BTAS and this feature did Dini and his crew well as this Joker feels fresh and exciting. As does his main squeeze Harley and the two actually work quite well together in this one with less signs of abuse on the part of Mr. J. It does mean the story basically ignores how we left off with the pair and we’re just left to assume that Harley eventually came crawling back. It’s a pretty entertaining story, albeit one that only runs a mere 61 minutes. It does follow a predictable arc, and I dislike that the ending basically has zero consequences long-term, but I definitely had a good time following along. There were some segments that were a bit too liberal with the notion that every bad guy in these shows is a terrible shot. Batman should have probably died ten times in this thing, but it’s just accepted that our hero is never going to get shot no matter how improbable the situation.
Being that this movie exists within the Superman show, it follows the same visual style as that show and The New Batman Adventures. There are no additional effects applied like we saw with a true feature in Mask of the Phantasm, but that doesn’t mean this one doesn’t look nice. Warner at least opened up its wallet for TMS to handle the animation. TMS was once upon a time a semi-regular in Warner animation, but come the mid-90s the studio’s reputation was beyond reproach and their services were essentially beyond Warner’s television budget. The studio wasn’t even called upon to handle the second BTAS feature, SubZero, so it was a bit surprising to see them utilized here. It certainly pays off as “World’s Finest” looks terrific. The animation is so smooth and so consistent frame by frame and it pays off as there’s plenty of action. There’s even a classic “Superman saves an airplane” segment probably just so they could have TMS animate such a sequence, because it’s otherwise a scene that’s completely unneeded for the plot. It’s certainly fun though, so I’m not complaining! The only drawback the film possesses from a visual perspective rests with the character designs. I really don’t like the redesign on Joker, and it’s so apparent in the scenes he shares with Luthor. Luthor looks like a person, while Joker looks like he belongs in a different series, something far more toony. That’s a problem I have with The New Batman Adventures as a whole though, not one unique or born from this arc.
The Batman/Superman Movie is probably not the spectacle the pairing deserves, but if I’m being honest, I’d rather watch this than the live-action one that would follow years later. Despite the short duration, it doesn’t cry out for additional material. If it had been a true feature we probably would have just been treated to more of Wayne and Lane’s romance which does move quite fast in this one (she appears poised to move to Gotham at one point) so that’s probably not realistic, but billionaires certainly have a knack for getting their own way despite logic and reason. I suspect some might not like the portrayal of Batman in this one as he really is just an asshole towards Superman. One has to wonder if he’s only interested in Lois to stick it to Superman. And given that their relationship progressed far enough for Lois to talk about moving, I’m going to make the assumption that she and Bruce slept together and if Bruce slept with her just to make Superman jealous or angry then that’s some pretty lowlife behavior on his part. Even without that piece of head-canon on my part, I felt pretty bad for Lane at times in this one as she’s just being used left and right. Bruce uses her to get info on Superman, Joker uses her as Superman bait, and all the while she thinks she’s met someone she’s ready to run away with. It’s quite a ride for Lois, and I wonder if Dini contemplated tossing Barbara Gordon into this whole mess, but thought better of it.
“World’s Finest” was just the first cross-over event between Superman and The New Batman Adventures, and not the last. There were two more in Superman, “Knight Time” and “The Demon Reborn.” There was only one in Batman, “Girl’s Night Out,” which I covered some time ago. Since I’ve covered so much of Batman: The Animated Series here, I would like to some day talk about those additional crossovers, but I also have no plans to at this time since I don’t own Superman: The Animated Series. Perhaps that will change one day, but the availability of this movie is what made this possible. If you want to check it out for yourself, you can do so either via Superman which is available on DVD and streaming on HBO Max, or you could buy the stand-alone movie which is quite affordable. I picked up a copy at a secondhand media store for a mere $2.97. For less than 3 bucks, this is a rather nice piece of entertainment.