Neil Patrick Harris wears a daunting number of hats in the show business racket: Broadway entertainer, game show host, sitcom star, children’s book author, etc. He’s one of these well-rounded, over-employed entertainers where you’re never sure how they fit all their various projects in a tenable schedule. One of his regular gigs is voiceover work for various animated projects wildly varying in target demographic, but often hitting that one common denominator in all age-specific marketing: superhero media. NPH has had regular voice acting gigs in the superhero pantheon over the years, even voicing the title role in a long-running animated Spiderman series. He’s only voiced characters in two animated superhero movies, though, both of which fall under the DC Comics brand. That’s maybe not that surprising to most people, as the DC Universe Animated Original Movies brand has dozens of feature-length cartoons under its belt to date. What is surprising, though is that someone as talented & recognizable as Neil Patrick Harris has only played supporting characters in both instances of his movie-length collaborations with DC. Likely a reflection of his busy, no time to dally schedule, NPH’s animated superhero movie specialty seems to be punching up a side character’s dialogue with wry, cocky wit, making them appear more fully developed than they’re written to be. As with many of the projects NPH applies his time to, he’s good at his job.
In our current Movie of the Month, 2010’s Batman: Under the Red Hood, NPH’s sidekick role plays as entirely intentional. He’s cast as just one of two ex-Robins, raised under the Caped Crusader’s tutelage in a movie that’s all about Batman’s struggle with the other. NPH appears in the film as Nightwing, an early adopter of the Robin persona who has since branched out to fighting crime on his own, but still desperately needs fatherly approval from a standoffish Batman. Nightwing is an outsider to the central plot involving a second, younger Robin, but he’s also an essential parallel of it. This requires him to be present, but without enough time to develop his persona. It’s a paradox that’s easily fixed by having NPH on hand to instantly sell the character’s sarcastic, performatively confident personality. It’s the same role he fills as The Flash in the earlier DC animated feature The Justice League: The New Frontier, through for entirely different reasons. The Flash is a sidekick to no one and his storyline is one of the driving plot threads in New Frontier, yet NPH is afforded just about the same amount of screen time & character development there as he is in Under the Red Hood. This is because the film is overstuffed with the backstories & character introductions of a long line of superheroes in the film’s cast, who all divvy up the runtime until there’s barely any left to go around. It’s a frequent problem for anyone who’s familiar with the trajectory of modern live-action superhero franchises, especially the DCEU. It’s also a telling contrast to the intimate story told in Red Hood.
As busy & overcrowded as The New Frontier can feel, it does have an excellent central gimmick. Set in the Atomic Age 1950s, the film feels like a better world where Brad Bird made his animated superhero media in traditional 2D instead of with Pixar. Telling the story of an ancient disembodied force that vows to destroy humanity because of its dangerous nuclear proliferation, The New Frontier is decorated wall to wall with the visual kitsch of a 1950s diner with a sci-fi theme. By setting the clock back to that setting, though, it also requires the Justice League to be a uniformed group of disparate superheroes who spend the entire runtime coming together as a team (and joining efforts of an untrustworthy military) for the first time. Characters like The Flash, Superman, and Wonder Woman already have detailed backstories in place, while more character development is afforded the origin stories of lesser characters like The Green Lantern & Martian Manhunter. It’s likely no accident that more seasoned, well-established voice actors are afforded to the three more static characters (NPH, Kyle McLachlan, and Lucy Lawless, respectively), since their personalities need to be more immediately recognizable than the ones who’re developed through origin stories. The Flash is key to the film’s plot, especially in establishing superheroes as McCarthy Era Others (“What’s with that red costume? Red’s for Commies,”) but he’s afforded almost the same amount of screen time as Nightwing in Under the Red Hood: very little. He’s a well-established superhero reduced here to Superman & Wonder Woman’s de facto sidekick.
From a technical standpoint, the more intimate, self-contained story of Under the Red Hood is more effective as a piece of writing, while the overly busy, origins-obsessed plotting of The New Frontier is indicative of the worst impulses of superhero media storytelling. I enjoyed both films very much, though, believing New Frontier’s narrative shortcomings to be far outweighed by the beauty & charm of its Atomic Age aesthetic. Neil Patrick Harris is employed in self-contradictory roles in both pictures. He is both central to the themes & plots and reduced to glorified cameo roles as sidekick & afterthought. NPH does a great job of making both roles memorable, informing both characters with a punchy, wry sense of humor without fully tipping them into wiseass Deadpool territory. Like The New Frontier, the man’s career is spread into an impossible number of directions and it’s impressive the amount of quality work he produces despite that myriad of obligations.
For more on May’s Movie of the Month, the animated superhero thriller Batman: Under the Red Hood, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s profile of its Caped Crusader voice actor, Bruce Greenwood.