Superhero stories are modern myths, and like the characters of ancient folklore, they are interpreted differently by whoever controls the narrative. No character has changed quite as much as Batman, who began his life as a down-to-Earth urban vigilante before getting sucked into a world of goofy camp when his TV show hit the air. He moved to the complete opposite end of the spectrum when Frank Miller took over Batman in the 1980s, and has largely remained in that grim-and-gritty mode. The creators of Batman: The Animated Series and The New Batman Adventures have tried to combine various elements from all these different interpretations into one definitive version of the Caped Crusader, but they’ve also done episodes that pay tribute to specific issues and styles. “Legends Of The Dark Knights” puts the DCAU Batman side by side with Dick Sprang and Frank Miller’s visions of the character, and while this show doesn’t go the extremes of Sprang or Miller’s work, this episode shows how the DCAU finds a great middle ground.
Bruce Timm’s story for “Legends Of The Dark Knight” has three kids talking about the different rumors they’ve heard about Batman, an idea that Timm swears is original although it’s basically the concept of Frank Robbins and Dick Giordano’s Batman #250. The children say what they think Batman is like, and their imaginations are brought to life in the style of a signature Batman comic-book creator. Well, two of their imaginations, because Nick’s story about a giant pterodactyl beast Batman with fangs and talons doesn’t get animated. Nick’s version is ideally what Gotham’s criminal element thinks when they hear the name Batman, an otherworldly monster that flies out of the darkness and rips flesh from the bones of evildoers. Or he’s a guy that runs around museums of oversized props with his boy sidekick, defeating villains by sticking them inside saxophones.
Matt takes control of the story once Nick is done and tells about his uncle’s encounter with Batman and Robin at the Walker Music Center, where the Joker tried to steal priceless sheet music until he was stopped in the goofiest way possible. You can tell that the artists storyboarding each of the homage sequences have a deep love for the source material, and James Tucker creates a delightfully silly fight sequence in the style of Dick Sprang that uses giant musical props and has the sloppiness of the ’60s Filmation Batman cartoons. The stiff animation has characters quickly dropping into scenes and the figures are minimally shaded, giving it a retro feel that is enhanced by Shirley Walker’s score, which hastily moves from theme to theme without many transitions.
This isn’t just a tribute to Dick Sprang, it’s a tribute to Adam West and Filmation, and the creators are able to capture the spirit of that era without poking fun at it. It helps that the voices are so exquisitely cast, with Michael McKean and Gary Owens giving the Joker and Batman the sort of exaggerated vocals that would be right at place on an old radio show. The final animation the producers received for this episode was very underwhelming, so they had to spend a lot of time cutting and editing to get the energy they wanted. That helps contribute to the cruder quality of the first homage, and makes the second look like a moving comic book done in the awesome hybrid style of Bruce Timm and Frank Miller.
The last storyteller is the only girl of the group, a redhead who looks a lot like Carrie Kelly, the Robin of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. I remember seeing this episode as a kid and being floored by the burtal tone of the Miller-inspired sequence because I was unfamiliar with the source material; I can’t even imagine how exciting it must have been for TDKR fans to see Carrie on screen and know that a Miller homage was coming up. Darwyn Cooke storyboards this sequence, and it has some of the most dynamic images TNBA ever produced, showing off a futuristic style that would carry over to Batman Beyond. Cooke’s work with perspective for shots inside the Bat-tank gives the vehicle a much different feel than the Batmobile, and there’s a general emphasis on a more graphic, stark color palette in this sequence. (The shot of Batman getting out of his tank, lit by sections of bright red, is particularly stunning.) It’s a gorgeous sequence that ends with a devastating hand-to-hand brawl between Batman and the mutant leader, pushing the limits of how much violence can be shown on a children’s cartoon.
Everything is harsher in Carrie’s world. The lines between good and evil are clearly drawn, and the mutant army that Batman and Robin fight is a group of faceless villains (except for Rob and Don) that are just waiting to get cut down by the Dynamic Duo. This sequence is incredibly faithful to Miller’s original work, pulling lines directly from his script to show just how intense those words are when spoken aloud. A lot of comic book dialogue doesn’t work when read because it’s so exaggerated, but Miller’s voice has a confidence that turns that exaggeration into a natural reflection of the character’s state of mind. His Batman is over-the-top, but it’s an interpretation that is so popular because it’s something that could very well happen to the character if events transpired in a certain manner. The writers don’t water down this version of the hero for his animated debut, leading to the high point of the episode when Batman and the mutant leader mud wrestle. Unfortunately, there’s still more episode left, and it can only go downhill from there.
These stories are all tied together with an overarching plot involving a series of arsons committed by Firefly, building to a fight between Batman and the villain in an abandoned movie theater while the kids watch. In the commentary, the creator laments how they have all these fun homages and then they show their version of Batman and it’s the most boring one, but there’s only so much they can do with little time and a really lame villain. The writers should have realized that Firefly was a bust after his first story, and bringing him back to close out an epic episode like this one is a disappointing move. That said, it’s easy to just forget the last part and enjoy the first two sections for the reverent, highly entertaining pastiches they are.
- Batman Beatdown: In one of the best beatdowns on this series, Batman destroys the mutant leader in a giant pit of mud, ending with an incredible close-up of rain washing the grime off of Batman’s face as he says, “This isn’t a trash heap, it’s an operating table. I’m a surgeon.” So much badass.
- Fans of the old Batman TV show will be pleased to know that DC is releasing a new Batman ’66 comic by Jeff Parker and Jonathan Case, telling new stories set in that universe. Parker is a great writer and Case has the look of the series down, so I’m pretty excited, especially with both Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt appearing as Catwoman.
- The writers gets exceptionally bitchy this week with a little scene where the kids meet a flamboyant fourth party named Joel in front of the Shoemaker’s building, who loves Batman for his muscles, rubber armor, and flashy car that drives up walls.
- Robin straddling that bow and Batman blowing into the saxophone he’s wrapped his legs around are images that could have been pulled from “The Ambiguously Gay Duo.”
- “Strings never were my section, I’m much better on the keys.”
- “Not much of a dancer, are ya? Now you got the beat!”
- “Roll, Robin!”
- “Well done, old chum.”
- “Kids these days…no respect.”
- “Rubber bullets. Honest.”