Neil Patrick Harris, Superhero Sidekick

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.

-Brandon Ledet

Beyond the Time Barrier (1960)

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I honestly don’t expect a lot out of my genre films in terms of dialogue or narrative. The most tepid performances & the most dully hamfisted morality play plot structures are totally excusable to me as long as the film can make up for its shortcomings in terms of style. Something that really tickled me about the time travel sci-fi cheapie Beyond the Time Barrier is that it wholly commits its entire style/aesthetic to a single-minded image: the triangle. According to this film everything in the future is made of triangles: doorways, TV screens, desks, windows, goatees. Even the (too frequent) transitional wipes between scenes are triangle shaped, a choice that dives head first into stylistic overkill. Beyond the Time Barrier‘s anti-nuclear war message wasn’t likely to stand out too much amidst much better films with the same technology-has-gone-too-far-too-fast sentiment: Godzilla, Them!, The Fly, etc. The way it wholly commits to an all-triangles future makes for an interesting, memorable look for such a dinky little cheapie, though, and I have great respect for genre films with that kind of stylistic followthrough.

A US Air Force pilot in the dead center of the Cold War space race flies a newly designed aircraft into the upper atmosphere that speeds beyond the sound barrier, breaking “the time barrier” and landing in the year 2024. After a brief 28 Days Later style tour of Earth’s desolated surface (something to look forward to next election cycle, I guess), he becomes a victim of a surveillance state tasing, gets dragged to an Oz-like “citadel,” and is imprisoned in a bell jar. His new temporal home is a sort of space age variation on the HG Wells classic The Time Machine. Radioactive mutants roaming the wasteland outside the citadel are rounded up & imprisoned underground (behind trangle-shaped jail cell bars, of course). Those not fully mutated were left sterile & abandoned by the humans who escaped to the new colonies on Venus & Mars. They plan to breed their latest captor, the American alpha male pilot, with their last hope: a telepathic mute daughter of their new nobility. She is a strange cocktail of the ideal 1950s macho male fantasy (cheerful, quiet, smart, obedient), but our hero longs to return to his own time anyway, escaping a life as a future-gigolo so that he can selflessly warn the people of Earth that their Cold War nuclear proliferation will lead to a global plague. The variation in the plot here is that the planet never had a chance to be destroyed in a nuclear war because merely testing the bombs poisoned the atmosphere enough to cause a global unraveling, but otherwise it’s not so different from any other atomic age paranoia sci-fi you can conjure. It just happens to feature more triangles than you’re used to.

Does our hero make it back to his own time to warn the people of Earth about the consequences of their evil atomic ways? I’ll bet you can answer that question for yourself. Again, there’s nothing especially radical about Beyond the Time Barrier in terms of narrative, but the film does manage to get by on the strength of its detail. Besides the Mid-Century Modern sleekness of its triangular future world, the film also features some nifty moments of plague-zombie chaos and a cool Twilight Zone reveal about how time travel can drastically affect the way your body ages. Of course, with a genre film this evidently cheap there’s going to be details that are only good for a laugh: Ed Woodian reliance on stock footage, oscillating bleep bloop machines, adorably pathetic aircraft miniatures, brushed off explanations of psuedo-science peppered with phrases like “certain mathematical equations . . .”; you get the picture. A little camp value is more than welcome in a small scale genre picture like this, though. Beyond the Time Barrier is efficient in its omni-triangle futurism, and consistently goofy in its heavy-handed sci-fi browbeating. As someone who watches way too many of these things on a regular basis, I can gladly say that was more than enough to make this one worthwhile. I’ve seen plenty of other films with the exact same basic structure play out with much less entertainment value & far less style, even if all of this film’s style was tossed in one trangle-shaped basket.

-Brandon Ledet

The Iron Giant (1999)

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I was a little surprised last year when Brad Bird’s live action Disney sci-fi epic Tomorrowland failed to find an audience, but I probably shouldn’t have been. For some reason, atomic age sci-fi throwbacks have an iffy history among moviegoing audiences, which has played to the detriment of films like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and The Rocketeer, despite (in my mind) the genre’s easy likability. Given this track record, I guess what should more surprising than Tomorrowland’s lackluster response would be Brad Bird’s past success with making an actually popular atomic age throwback in the late 90s. The problem is that success was entirely critical & the movie financially flopped.

Brad Bird’s directorial debut, The Iron Giant, has earned a glowing reputation in the years since its release, but it bombed hard in the theaters, losing more than half of its production budget. I don’t know what it is about atomic age sci-fi that lends itself to slow-building goodwill instead of immediate success. Perhaps the era’s clean-cut suburban earnestness suggests a hokey aesthetic people associate with microwave popcorn on the couch VHS rentals instead of large group family outings to theater. Whatever the cause, Bird’s two stabs at the genre have both proven to be gambled-and-lost endeavors financially for major studios who’ve backed him. The difference between them is that The Iron Giant has had a consistently strong critical reception since its release, one that’s only grown as the children who did happen to catch it in the VHS rental era of their lifespan have grown up remembering it fondly. No word yet on if Tomorrowland will enjoy a similar kind of longevity in the public imagination, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

The Iron Giant is an animated tearjerker about two out-of-place misfits who form an all-too brief friendship in the face of a world hellbent on tearing them down. One friend is a loner nerd middle school student who fills his days with adopting strange pets & his nights with watching 50s sci-fi schlock on television broadcasts. The other is a seamless combination of those two interests: a physically damaged space alien robot with the mind of a child. The unlikely pair form a sort of dual coming of age story while hanging out in a beatnik’s junkyard & evading persistent inquiries from the NSA. The human boy learns to take on responsibility & to adopt a “Who cares what those creeps think?” attitude towards his bullies. The gigantic robot learns to hate the very thing he’s designed to be (war & weaponry) & to exercise free will in a way that allows him to overcome his nature. Their greatest enemy is a warmongering G-Man just drooling to see the alien “invader” destroyed & their story plays out against a Cold War suburbia backdrop that contrasts the innocence of carefree youth with details like a duck-and-cover nuclear bomb scare film titled ATOMIC HOLOCAUST. Perhaps the film’s greatest accomplishment is how it provides a satisfying arc for both the boy and the robot, as well as an emotionally taxing climax, all while feeling like a relaxed hangout film about two buds being buds.

There’s a lot of interesting technical aspects to The Iron Giant that suggest Brad Bird came out of the gate as a strong directorial talent. First of all, the film knows the source material it’s evoking quite well, cobbling together plots from other sci-fi fare like Superman comics, giant robot stories, and alien invasion features into a single, The Day the Earth Stood Still-style parable that makes great use of its various influences. The film also looks like a feature-length adaptation of a toy raygun, perhaps the most accurate evocation of the era’s style since Joe Dante’s Matinee. I’m not a huge fan of CG animation, but the way The Iron Giant‘s computer graphics mix with its hand drawn style actually serves the mechanical nature of its subject matter quite well. Even the sound design is on point, pulling great period setting authenticity from The Coasters song “Searching” & utilizing a rusted metal vocal performance from a Groot-mode Vin Diesel as the titular robot without overworking the gimmick. Bird’s first feature is an amazingly balanced work that impresses both in its narrative & technical proficiency as well as its ability to inspire a genuine emotional response. It’s downright bizarre that it didn’t immediately strike gold at the box office, but it’s also no wonder that it eventually found an enthusiastic audience once it hit home release.

Having only seen The Iron Giant & Tomorrowland once a piece, I can confirm that the former is the better work & totally deserving of its reputation as such. I’d like to think that there’s enough room in the world’s heart for both atomic age children’s epics to earn long-term success, though, and I hope Tomorrowland eventually joins The Iron Giant’s ranks as an initially-overlooked crowd favorite. If nothing else I’d just like to see its esteem grow so Brad Bird could maybe, just maybe, find funding for a third product within the genre, despite its reputation as box office poison. He’s damn good at making these things & I honestly believe his two entries in the genre are his best, most personally distinct work to date (no offense to the diehard Pixar crowd who’d likely stand up for The Incredibles or Ratatouille in that regard). We don’t have many directors working who still understand the appeal of the genre as Brad Bird & it’d be a shame to let something as pedestrian as money stop him from making more.

-Brandon Ledet