The success of the recent Batman: The Brave and the Bold series can be attributed to a number of factors, but the one that most often comes to mind is the way its best episodes’ utilize the DC universe's ponderous history, instead of maneuvering around or even reconstructing it. Like the prematurely cancelled Justice League Unlimited series before it, The Brave and the Bold’s main strengths lie in the way it pays homage to its characters’ existing histories together with allusions and inside jokes aplenty.
Which isn’t the same thing as fan service. The humor of fan service-centric jokes is strictly intended for viewers that are already in on the joke. The Brave and the Bold’s foundation is based on new viewers, so the show’s best writers aren't just giving their existing audience what they think they want. Instead, the writers have chosen to take a chance on losing newcomers with allusions that will probably whizz over their heads the first time around. Which is a very good thing: The history of a superhero cartoon's characters should not be treated as an obstacle but rather as an asset.
Newcomers who want to be immersed in a world that they don't already know the rules of may find that the ability to find new corners of an ever-expanding universe is a major source of appeal for all readers, old and new. If anything, The Brave and The Bold hedges its bets too much by not further plunging its audience into the characters' recognizable quirks, as Justice League Unlimited did. That might be because The Brave and the Bold doesn't target an adult audience as much as Justice League Unlimited did. Then again, The Brave and the Bold has caught on largely because it's been able to capture the attention of both adults and children, as opposed to something like the abysmal The Batman. DC Animation knows that in order to succeed, its shows need to straddle a line between kid-friendly and more sophisticated narratives. The Brave and the Bold achieves that balance nicely.
Furthermore, The Brave and the Bold's underlying laissez faire attitude towards jokey allusions makes sense given that the context of the show is the Silver Age of comics. The period from the mid '60s to about 1970 is now largely remembered for its anything-goes flamboyance. Tonight’s episode, “Battle of the Superheroes,” is a perfect example of how the show often capably utilizes that ethos to enrich its stand-alone team-up story structure with a welcome abundance of humor.
The cold opening vignette that kicks off “Battle of the Superheroes” serves both as a perfect rallying point for old fans and a mission statement for new viewers that are unfamiliar with the show. In this scene, Batman and Robin duke it out with King Tut, a villain most famous for being one of the melange of baddies in the Adam West-era Batman series. This fight scene succeeds at satisfying both halves of its audience: Arrested adolescents will get a kick out of the Adam West reference, and everyone else should enjoy the light-hearted but action scene-intensive scene in and of itself. After all, Batman is fighting a bad guy that shoots “Pharaoh Ray” laser beams that zombify their victims, practically the textbook definition of endearingly daft overkill.
Furthermore, the dynamic duo foil Tut’s attempt at robbing a bank by wearing buttermilk-soaked bandages, as buttermilk is apparently the only substance that’s impervious to Pharaoh Rays. Here, the show emulates the matter-of-factness of the Silver Age comics it takes after: Exposition is liberally used to remind us of how over-the-top the already silly scenario is. After that, the episode's first scene ends with yet another reminder of the difference between Silver Age Batman and the Batman of contemporary comics: He and Robin allow themselves to be photographed by reporter Vicky Vale. This Caped Crusader doesn't hide in the shadows but, rather, poses for his public.
"Battle of the Superheroes" then plunges into its A-story, which is a classic Batman/Superman team-up, where the fantastic, out-there sensibility harkens back to Curt Swan-era Superman stories. Series writer Stephen Melching, probably the most accomplished of the show's regular series writers, takes a cue from Grant Morrison/Frank Quitely's All Star Superman by paying homage to the zanier characters and characterizations that fans have come to associate with Swan's Silver Age (Kandor! Mr. Mxyzstplk! Krypto! And of course, Mayor Swan!). For instance, the show's version of Jimmy Olsen is a scrawny kid in a funny green suit that's always trying to get Superman to reveal his secret identity. Jimmy even goes so far as to tell Superman that he's dying in order to find out who the Man of Steel really is. And if that wasn't enough, at one point, the mischievous extra-dimensional imp Mr. Mxyzsptlk transforms Jimmy into several of the different iterations from the more memorable imaginary stories in Jimmy Olsen, Superman's Best Pal. The best of these is, of course, when Jimmy fondly flashbacks to that one time when he transformed into a giant turtle monster and Superman admonished him thusly: "I’ve warned you not to experiment with that growth ray! Now I must remove you from this Earth!”
The episode, which largely revolves around the mystery behind Superman's new belligerent behavior, works as well as it does largely thanks to Melching's canny sense of humor and the show's typically capable voice actors. There are so many instantly gratifying sight gags in "Battle of the Superheroes," like when Lois Lane recounts how she showed up for a picnic with Superman, only to find him entertaining another woman (the lady in question is Lana Lang, of course). Superman rotates a huge skewer of beef over a barbecue and bellows over his shoulder to Lois, “It serves you right after all those love schemes you’ve pulled to get me to marry you." As Lois, Dana Delany's response comes out perfectly, hastily, and she' not a little bit mortified: “I have no idea what he was talking about." Delany's catty verison of Lois was especially on target in tonight's episode, as when she was rescued by Batman and could hardly contain her lack of excitement ("Oh, Batman. Gee. Thanks."). Here's hoping that the rest of season three can live up to the promise of tonight's premiere.