The Batman/Superman Movie (V)

(1997) *** Unrated
61 min. Warner Brothers. Director: Janez Burger.

Though Batman and Superman teamed up in a 1948 radio serial of The Adventures of Superman, they first appeared together in print in Superman #76 (1952). Soon thereafter, the super-team made it a habit in the pages of World's Finest comics between 1954 and 1986, occasionally crossing over into each other's titles or meeting in special one-off pairings. When Superman got his own animated series in 1996, a "world's finest" team-up overseen by DC animation gurus Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, and Bruce Timm was happily inevitable.

If The Batman/Superman Movie feels like three TV episodes slapped together (complete with rhythmic commercial-break blackouts; incomplete with no opening credits or title music), is, though they're three pretty darn good episodes, so who's complaining? Originally aired as the three-part "World's Finest" arc of Superman: The Animated Series, The Batman/Superman Movie invigorates well-worn characters with ingenious action, and mix-and-match plot twists for Batman/Bruce Wayne (Kevin Conroy), Superman/Clark Kent (Tim Daly), Lois Lane (Dana Delany), the Joker (Mark Hamill) and his gal-pal Harley Quinn (Aileen Sorkin), and Lex Luthor (Clancy Brown) and his assistant Mercy Graves (Lisa Edelstein).

Essentially, The Batman/Superman Movie is an action comedy, a superhero "buddy picture," if you will. An ambitious Joker gets wind of a lucrative secret: a "jade" sculpture on display in Gotham City is actually fashioned from Kryptonite, the only substance lethal to Superman. When Joker takes an offer to the Man of Steel's nemesis Lex Luthor, Batman trails him to Metropolis. There, Batman and Superman get on each other's nerves as they try to foil the two supervillains, now tentative partners in crime. As the superheroes pursue leads, they play out a comical romantic rivalry (Bruce Wayne and Lois Lane become a serious item) and work out the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Perhaps the best quality of The Batman/Superman Movie is its pronounced sense of humor, threaded through a nonstop plot (credit the combined screenwriting talents of Stan Berkowitz, Burnett, Dini, Rich Fogel, and Steve Gerber). One minute, Batman stymies Detective Bullock by walking away from a crime scene with state's evidence; the next minute, Lane asks Superman out in a flightus interruptus sight gag. The dialogue is snappy, as well, with Joker sizing up Superman as "More powerful than a locomotive and just about as subtle."

The Batman-Superman team-up pays great dividends in the trusted hands of Burnett, Dini, and Timm, who take pains to prove the heroes are well-matched in crime-fighting skills. In their first encounter, Batman uses leverage and his martial-arts acumen to fling a stunned Superman across a nightclub. "I heard you were crazy," marvels Superman. "I didn't think you were stupid." At first, Superman promises, "I won't have vigilantism in my town," but the heroes develop a grudging respect and share the dawning realization that each can use the other's help. The two swiftly and humorously uncover each other's secret identity, allowing Kent and Wayne to irritate each other in equal measure.

By episodic TV standards, the animation here is exceptional, suggesting the "world's finest" demand a little extra TLC. The limitations of the episodic format show through in the hasty Wayne-Lane romance, but the creators cram the hour full to bursting with tricky encounters. On the whole, this eventful superhero adventure delivers twice the fun.

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