Though I've had my problems with the medium and its fans in recent years, I remain an unabashed fan of superhero comics in general, and of Batman in particular. And one of my very favorite interpretations of the Batman character is the one featured in Batman: The Animated Series, the stylish and addictive cartoon that launched the DC Animated Universe. So I'm very pleased to be your guide as TV Club Classic begins its exploration of that universe and the many rewards it has in store. Reaction to the DCAU Gateway To Geekery we ran earlier this month was generally very positive, so I hope a lot of you feel the same way about the show and will be joining me as we take this trip. (Tentatively, our plan is to cover at least B:TAS and the Justice League shows, but that may expand or change based on your response, so don't be shy in telling us what you want to see covered.)
Many people have (correctly) observed that Batman: The Animated Series defined the Batman of the '90s, in much the same way that Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns defined the character in the '80s and Christopher Nolan's films defined him in the 2000s. This carries special weight when you consider that it was Tim Burton's films that were meant to fulfill that purpose. But B:TAS borrowed some of the best elements of the Burton movies (their willingness to tinker with iconic villains, for example, and especially their conception of Gotham City as a timeless metropolis where high-tech gadgets coexist with '20s-era Art Deco architecture and post-war noir design) while jettisoning their worst excesses. Another major influence for artist/producer/mastermind Bruce Timm: the Max Fleischer Superman cartoons of the 1940s, with their clean lines, moody Impressionist lighting effects, and clever camera angles.
But one of the biggest influences of all is one that's rarely acknowledged: the storytelling prowess and marketing genius of Marvel's Stan Lee. Just as Lee made a fortune gambling that teenagers and college students would relate to neurotic superheroes with "real-world" problems and give superhero comics a profitable new demographic to replace its prior target audience of children, writer/co-creator Paul Dini felt that animation, a medium at that time aimed squarely at kids and meant only to move plastic toys, might also have grown up. He believed that there was was now an older, more informed audience for superhero 'toons, and he could harness that audience by bringing them a show with more adult themes, more sophisticated stories, and a unique and appealing visual approach that would hook them. He was right, and the result was nothing short of an animation revolution.
Rather than spend the rest of this review on history lessons, though, I'll get right to the debut episode, "On Leather Wings." We'll be presenting one episode a week every Monday, and naturally, I'll be recapping and critiquing it but also using it to talk about the Batman mythos, creative teams, villains, the show's historical influence (and how it influenced future interpretations of Batman), and so on. That'll give us the chance to not only discuss the show proper but the tendrils it sends out into the greater world of comics culture. Not coincidentally, that'll help us get through some of the lesser episodes, which, as good as the show was, are far from rare.
The opening sequence, which we'll see here for the first time, is dynamite. Over a percussive piano variant of Danny Elfman's moody Batman theme, we see all the classic elements of a superhero cartoon: bulky goons in suits, shadowy skyscrapers, and a caped avenger appearing out of nowhere. It's the very definition of a classic show opening, and the Art Deco title cards are also a spiffy touch. (The sequence is also notable for the fact that it doesn't reveal the title of the show.) "On Leather Wings" begins with another element from the opening sequence: the police blimp, an idea invented by Bruce Timm to help fill out the timeless retro-futuristic feel of Gotham. It spots something flitting around in the skies and rises up through the clouds—in a scene that's, I think, deliberately evocative of a scene in Watchmen where Nite Owl's airship does the same—and finds nothing. But a security guard at Phoenix Pharmaceuticals (voiced by the ubiquitous Richard "Bull" Moll, who also plays Harvey Dent and the Bat-Computer) isn't so lucky; he gets taken out by a fearsome bat-like creature.
Of course, living in Gotham, it's not unreasonable to assume that this would be none other than the Batman. Harvey Bullock, characterized here as stubborn, filled with contempt for Batman, and willing to take shorts to get what he wants, but not openly corrupt, as he sometimes was in comics, certainly makes that assumption, though he's opposed by Commissioner Gordon, who knows Batman a bit better. The point is made even clearer when we see Batman himself pursuing a lead in the case, using almost exactly the same tactics as the monster. It's a nice way to give the show some room to play with the moral shadiness of vigilantism, which already puts Batman: TAS far ahead of typical cartoons of the time. Batso may get fancy with the detective work, but his first move is to knock out a police officer so he can work uninterrupted.
Bullock presses the mayor and the district attorney (one H. Dent) to go after Batman, resulting in a scene where his hand-picked goon squad pursues our hero into a factory to flush him out. The attack goes awry and leads to a raging fire, in a well-done scene drawn straight from Frank Miller's excellent Batman: Year One comic. Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne, in civilian mode, does some snooping at the Gotham Zoo, consulting bat expert Dr. March (Rene Auberjonois), whose snide manner and aggression makes him an instant suspect. His assistant, Dr. Kirk Langstrom (Marc "Beastmaster" Singer) and his wife, Francine, are much more helpful, but their cheery demeanor doesn't fool the world's greatest detective. Bats soon susses out that Langstrom is the "Man-Bat", as the result of a serum he invented that combined human and bat DNA and to which he quickly became addicted. This leads to the episode's exciting action set-piece, a chase scene where Batman, lashed to Man-Bat's ankle, flies through construction sites (and in a nice callback to the beginning of the episode, over a police blimp) before bringing him down.
Man-Bat may not have been the best choice of villain for the first episode; the character, always a bit absurd, has recently been a laughingstock for some fans. But the best Batman foes are the ones that reflect some aspect of Batman himself, only curdled and turned. This is no exception: Langstrom is a man whose obsession with his pet project turned him into a monster, and he becomes dangerous because the people who know about him try to protect his secret instead of getting him help. By abetting and enabling him, they allow him to thrive. Sound familiar? It's also worth remarking that while Batman: TAS isn't a serialized narrative, it does have a lot of recurring struggles and character elements, and it's astonishing how neatly these are all set up as early as the very first episode: Bullock in his adversarial role; Harvey Dent compulsively flipping his coin and keeping an eye on his conviction rate; Alfred (played here by stage veteran Clive Revill, who does a fine job but would soon be replaced) wising off to his risk-taking employer; and Kevin Conroy using different voices as Batman and Bruce Wayne, an idea that was, at the time, a bit of a departure.
All these things are in place literally from the first frame, and listening to the audio commentary with Timm and producer Eric Rodomski (which I highly recommend), what's even more astonishing is that they're elements that were almost all intentional and envisioned by the show's creators very early on in the process. Not all the early episodes would be as good as "On Leather Wings," but it unmistakably establishes that this was no kludged-together production. It was a show made by men and women with a vision, who knew exactly how they wanted it to look and feel, and set out to make a show that stayed as true to that vision as possible.
Program note: Since the various networks on which Batman: The Animated Series aired had a pretty slapdash approach to ordering the episodes, I'll be going in order of production, not by original air date. This will not only make it easier for you to follow along at home (it's also the order they appear on the DVDs), but it will honor the creators' intentions more closely.
- The animation here is remarkably kinetic and exciting, even more so than in later seasons. Timm and Rodomski note that a lot of this was risk-taking on the part of director Kevin Altieri, who improvised ideas (such as the great-looking chase along the surface of the police blimp) they didn't think would work.
- Another huge strength of the show as a whole is composer Shirley Walker, and the fact that she was given a full orchestra to work with. This was rare enough at the time and has become even more so as studios get more and more budget-conscious, but it really pays off in terms of making the whole production seem more cinematic and adult.
- The Batmobile featured in TAS is a departure from both the '60s TV model and the high-tech Burton movie version. It's designed after the 'roadster' one used in the comic book in the 1940s. I was surprised, though, to learn about the origins of a similar vehicular visual element: the bizarre-looking police van that houses Bullock's goon squad, with its huge front sliding door, isn't an invention of the creators, but is based on a real police vehicle, a prototype made but never widely marketed by General Motors in the 1930s.
- The producers faced a lot of headaches putting Batman: TAS together. They fought the network to be able to show blood (and won); they fought the network to have characters use real guns instead of the abstract ray-gun style of the '80s (and won); they fought to bring in a lot of the more adult elements they wanted to make the show appealing to grown-up audiences. But apparently their biggest struggle was about how (literally, not tonally) dark the show was; FOX felt that, with the animation done on black paper and the color palette being very limited, viewers might not be able to even see what was happening. It's a fair enough objection, but looking back, it seems unthinkable that they'd consider sacrificing the noir shadings and vintage color scheme that helped make the show so visually attractive.
Next week: A timely holiday theme and the first appearance of Mark Hamill, in "Christmas With The Joker."