Hark to the tale of Charlie Brill and Mitzi McCall, a married couple who did standup comedy back in the ’60’s. They’d made it big. They were about to perform on the Ed Sullivan Show, with millions watching. It was one of those one-time, once-in-a-lifetime chances to make a big impression, and they were not planning to waste it. Yep, things were lookin’ good.
Except that the act just before theirs was the Beatles.
Nobody remembers Charlie Brill and Mitzi McCall for any other reason today.
Here’s the thing, though – by all accounts, they were good. Even though their audience had just had their minds blown by the Fab Four themselves, they still managed to give a good performance and get some laughs. Had they come on at the beginning of the show, the names of Brill and McCall might really have come to mean something. It was simply a matter of bad timing.
You may have guessed by now that I’m bringing this up for a reason, and you’d be right. Batman: the Animated Series is without doubt the ‘Beatles’ of animated superhero TV. It definitely blew some minds back in the ’90’s, and continues to do so today. It is, for many, one of the best and most faithful depictions of the Dark Knight, onscreen or off. Any immediate follow-up to it was obviously going to get at least a little bit Brill/McCalled.
Enter The Batman, which promptly got savaged by the fans. They hated it. It didn’t look right, it didn’t feel right, it wasn’t what they wanted. It did ultimately stick around long enough to get a bit of a following, but it’s still mainly remembered as B:tAS’ ugly stepchild, as it were.
Yet did it deserve this treatment? Let’s take a look and find out.
Disclaimers first. (I disclaim because I care.) Obviously, a Batman show of any length is going to have a lot of characters and plots and whatnot to wade through, so in the interest of length and sanity, I’m not going to go into too much detail about such things, except where the logic of the article demands it. Nor shall I be factoring in The Batman VS Dracula or The Batman Strikes! spin-off comic here; the series will be estimated strictly on the merits of its episodes. Understood? Great.
I suppose I should start off by addressing what are, as I understand it, two of the main gripes viewers had with the show – two characters, in fact. (This would be that ‘logic of the article’ stuff I just mentioned.) Specifically, the Joker and Mr. Freeze.
As I understand it, it’s mainly because of the look. In place of the dapper Crime Clown we’re used to, we get a wild-haired maniac with bulging red eyes and teeth like a can-opener. He goes barefoot all the time, he leaps around like a monkey, and when we first see him, he’s wearing a custom straightjacket instead of a tailcoat (although he ditches that look pretty quickly).
Fair enough, all those things are weird. But they’re also all purely surface details. What about the actual character of the Joker?
Well, I can only speak for myself, but I liked him. Now, true, this is not the Joker most people are used to, either in appearance or in style – he’s more gleefully chaotic than anything else. At times, he’s little more than a petty thief with some funny gadgets.
But you know what? I don’t really care. I’ve seen more than enough of him as the Apocalypse Clown, thank you very much. I’ve also seen plenty of the B:tAS version – I like that Joker, sure, but frankly, I see no reason to play the comparison game. Provided that his basic personality remains intact, I could care less about who plays him or which version is ‘superior’. The Joker’s the Joker, people – as long as he’s still recognizable as the merrily maniacal malefactor we’ve come to know and love, I’m happy.
Besides, while he may be a smaller-scale Joker than we’re used to, that’s not to say he doesn’t have his moments. Kevin Michael Richardson’s deeper, raspier vocals are a decided contrast with the more high-pitched voices we’re used to for the character, but that actually works in his favor – his voice sounds damaged, like someone who’d gone through a chemical bath might indeed sound, n’est ce pas? And story-wise, he gets several very strong episodes that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to any Bat-fan. Sure, he’s a bit overexposed; sure, there are some things that I’d do differently, but overall, I like this Mistah J.
On to Freezy-boy. This one’s real simple to explain; B:tAS’ Freeze was and is adored to the point of idolatry, was swiftly adapted into comics canon, everyone thinks of him as that version now, and – this was not that Freeze.
Why? Simple – just about everything that could be done with him in animation had been done with him. His story had a beginning, a middle and an end, spanning two different shows and a whole lot of spin-off comics. Any attempt to achieve the same effect with a different version would inevitably have seemed like a warmed over rip-off. So they didn’t. I respect that.
And really, it’s not like TB Freeze is a bad character. He’s not a great character; there’s not a whole lot to him, but he’s well-utilized, has an interesting design, and Clancy Brown’s performance gives him a darkly sardonic edge that actually makes the inevitable cold puns kinda work. I’m fine with him.
OK, major nitpicks handled. Let us embark into the review proper, and to do that, we must first zoom out considerably.
The first thing that you should know about The Batman is that its marketing is a lie. How so? Simple – it is consistently depicted as one show. In functional reality, it is two-and-a-half shows.
I shall demonstrate just how this is the case via a basic overview. (No direct spoilers here, but if you’re the sort who likes to go in absolutely fresh and discover things for yourself, you might want to skip this part.)
In Season One, we meet the Batman. We also meet some of the standard rogue’s gallery, along with the cops, who at this point don’t like him very much. They’re not the standard GCPD members we’ve come to know, either – in place of Renee Montoya and Harvey Bullock, we have Detective Ellen Yin and her partner, Ethan Bennett, the latter of whom is Bruce Wayne’s best friend. In place of Commissioner Gordon, we have the blustering Chief Angel Rojas, who views the Dark Knight in much the same way that J. Jonah Jameson views Spider-Man.
All this carries over into Season Two. Bennett (via a plot twist that is far too good to spoil) more or less leaves the picture, and Yin gradually transitions from the Batman’s antagonist to his ally and occasional partner. There is a definite progression here.
THEN! Then then then. Season Two ends. In fact, just about everything we’ve seen up ’til then ends. In one episode, everything changes. Commissioner Gordon is introduced to the series (well, sort of; we do get a brief glimpse of him earlier, but it’s very brief), and that slams the lid on TB Show #1.
At that point, you can wave goodbye to Yin and Rojas. They’re never seen again – Yin gets a throwaway mention later on, but otherwise, that’s it. Are they still doing their jobs? Were they reassigned, fired, driven out of town? Beats me.
It doesn’t matter much, either, because if you hadn’t seen the first two seasons, you’d have little reason to suspect they existed. Enter TB Show #2, where we’re suddenly dealing with a much more standard Batman show. Even the theme song is now completely different. There’s a Bat-Signal in the sky, the cops are Batsy’s allies now, and Commissioner Gordon is a full-fledged cast member – and with him, his daughter, Barbara. You know who she is, right?
Yep, Batgirl. She makes her debut, gets reluctantly accepted by Batman as his sidekick, and from there it’s off to the races. This Dynamic Duo lasts until the beginning of Season Four, when it becomes a Dynamic Trio with the addition of – guess who? Yep, Robin.
So merrily they roll along, and all is peaches and candy until suddenly – Bam! End of TB Show #2, and the beginning of TB Show #2½ with the fifth and final season.
What happens to kick this off? The Justice League happens. Out of freaking nowhere the Justice League happens, and… that’s the season. It’s ‘Batman teams up with people’, until the whole thing ends on… well, basically a bog-standard Justice League episode.
And that, my friends, is that. (Well, there’s also The Batman VS Dracula, but like I said earlier, that one doesn’t count for these purposes.)
What you have no doubt just gleaned from the above (or what you should have, anyway) is The Batman‘s two main problems: pacing and insecurity.
I’ll tackle the former later, but for now, let’s deal with the latter. What do I mean by ‘insecurity’?
In this case, I mean a reluctance to stick to your guns. A tendency to be swayed by others. Low self-esteem, I suppose.
Now, obviously any show that lasts for any length of time is going to change and evolve, and according to the creators, that’s exactly why The Batman shifts around so much. It’s a natural evolution, they claim, one that was planned from the beginning, a matter of Batman’s own character changing and priorities shifting.
Consider this – from its very start, the major bugbear about The Batman was its oddness, its off-kilterness, its uniqueness. It was viewing the characters from a very different angle than we were used to, and given some of the reviews I’ve read, I can only imagine that the show’s creators were under a great deal of pressure to change that. So they did. Several times.
I mean, look, I can buy that they always planned to introduce Commissioner Gordon and Batgirl and so on from the very first – but considering how very abrupt their introduction was (and, for that matter, how inconsequential the elder Gordon turned out to be; he gets zero interesting moments in this show), I can’t help but see it as the result of ‘panicking under fire’, as it were. The first two seasons are very methodical in how they go about things – the relationship between Yin and Batman, for instance, takes multiple episodes to set up – and by and large, so are the other three, but when changes come, they come like they’re being hurled at the screen. ‘BAM! There’s the Commish; he’s Batman’s pal now just like you always wanted! And there’s Batgirl – BAM! – and we’ll get to Robin just as soon as DC will let us! BAM! BAM, BAM, BAM! Changes, OK? It’s just like it was back when you used to like things! Happy now? Stop bugging us!’
As for the whole Justice League bit, that’s even more transparent. Just as The Batman was starting to wind down, JLU was coming to a close – and with it, the DC Animated Universe as a whole. Clearly, someone – maybe even the big bosses – wanted to associate the two as closely as possible, to get a just a little bit more of that sweet, sweet DCAU street cred before it was gone forever. I can’t honestly see how it could possibly have gone any other way, because if you think Gordon and Co. came out of nowhere – hoo! Good grief! Up to that point, we’d never even gotten a hint that there were other heroes, and suddenly, there they are. ‘Yeah, we’ve been watchin’ you for a while, Bat-Dude; sweet moves, bro. How’dja like to join the club?’
This is especially jarring because the series as a whole never leaves Gotham. There are occasional brief glimpses of other places, but they’re very brief – as in most standalone Bat-media, Gotham City is essentially the world. But all these other heroes don’t live in Gotham City, which means that out of nowhere we’re getting references to all sorts of other places that we’ve never seen, never will see, and therefore have no relevance to us. And this is over half the season – there are thirteen episodes in Season Five, and eight of them feature team-ups. It’s crazy.
If I may go off on a little mini-rant here, this also highlights one heckuva missed opportunity. If you wanted to show Batman’s personal growth by making him more sociable (and according to the creators, that is exactly what they wanted), why didn’t you have him team up with other Gotham heroes? There are plenty who could have been brought in. There’s the Creeper, the Huntress, the Golden Age Green Lantern, Ragman, maybe the Question if you want to stretch a point – lots of ’em! It could have been so cool! Arrrgghh!
Err, hm. Getting back to reality, let’s zoom back in a bit and consider problem #2: pacing.
When you think of a good show, what do you tend to think of first? Usually the characters – and this is particularly true of a Batman show, because it’s one of the most character-rich franchises in comics. And to The Batman‘s credit, it did indeed feature quite a few of them. Sort of.
You see, while it took pains to introduce plenty of characters, it was not so great on the follow-ups. Take Harley Quinn, for example. Did you know Harley Quinn was in this show? You might not have, because she was introduced at the end of Season Four just in time to become essentially irrelevant. She got two episodes plus a cameo with no lines, and that was it.
Or take Bane – you probably do know about this version of him, because he has such a distinctive look. Bane is introduced in episode two, at which point he vanishes. He’s not so much as mentioned again until Season Three, and while he appears in a handful of episodes following that, he gets one speaking line and maybe a combined five minutes of screentime in the lot of them.
It goes on. Killer Croc – introduced in Season Two, henceforth appears in (I think) three more episodes, in all of which he’s part of a larger group. (Heck, at least he gets lines.) Poison Ivy – Season Three, two-part introduction, one other episode and a few cameos, during most of which she stays dead silent. The Riddler? Two episodes, plus a team-up and a few cameos here and there, all the while we’re evidently supposed to think of him as the major recurring villain he usually is.
Now, some villains, of course, are designed to be one-shots, and they’re lucky if they return at all, but when you’re talking about characters who are clearly supposed to be the big guns of the rogue’s gallery, they should be treated as such. If you can’t do justice to your cast of characters in the amount of episodes available to you, then either scale it back or cut down on a few repeat appearances by the big names. I enjoyed all the Joker episodes, for instance, but I’d have been willing to part with a few if it meant I got some good Ivy or Killer Croc stories out of the deal.
Now, normally this would be a good thing, because I like the Penguin. I like him quite a bit. I do not, however, like this Penguin. In point of fact, he’s the one character in the whole series that seriously gets on my nerves.
How to sum him up? Well, picture Danny DeVito’s Penguin from Batman Returns, except minus all the good stuff, and with the obnoxiousness cranked up to sixteen (and a rather odd martial arts angle that doesn’t wind up getting that much focus). Tom Kenny gives him this grating blare of a voice that is obviously supposed to evoke DeVito and Burgess Meredith’s harsh-voiced versions, but winds up actually sounding like a parrot that is trying to peck through your eardrums. On top of that, he has no redeeming features whatsoever – he’s loutish, arrogant, impatient, hot-tempered, childish, and overall just makes you want to punch him in the snoot.
Now, I could reluctantly accept all this – after all, villains are supposed to have negative characteristics, aren’t they? – if it weren’t for the fact that he’s also a blundering incompetent. He is downright stupid at times, and even when he does get a good idea, he’s seldom able to carry it out properly. Add to this the fact that he’s frequently depicted as a coward, and you have a completely useless character that is basically the series’ punching bag. And he’s in fifteen freakin’ episodes! That’s over a full season’s worth!
Mind you, he does get a bit more tolerable as the series goes on, and I don’t hate everything about him. He’s got an interesting look, I suppose, and I do like his minions the Kabuki Twins; they evoke a bit of the weird magical realism aspect I enjoyed in Batman Returns (although I’ve yet to figure out what exactly they have to do with birds). But overall – no. I can tolerate him, but I cannot like him, and that’s a sad thing to say about a character who is in most other incarnations one of your favorite Bat-villains.
So that’s the broad view – necessary when you’re talking about five season’s worth of episodes. From that perspective, it’s… well, to say the least, messy. As each ‘show’ transitions into the next it leaves behind a dangling fringe of plot threads and character arcs that either aren’t followed up on, or aren’t developed to their full potential. It ends on a note that, while certainly ambitious, is far too closely based on another, more popular show, and in any case would have really required another season to wrap up properly. Structurally speaking, it’s a heinous mishmash of missed opportunities. It is not a well-thought-out series.
And yet, now that I’ve finished it, I look forward to watching it again. Indeed, I relish the fact that I own it on DVD now, and can watch whatever bits of it I want, whenever I want.
Here’s the thing – there’s a difference between the overall impression of a series, and the experience of actually watching it. Yes, The Batman, taken as a whole, is sloppy as hell – but if you were to ask me which episodes were my favorites? Ooh, that’d be a challenge. Where would I start?
You see, while there might be plenty of legitimate gripes you could make about the show, the main one that people tend to make is actually, from my perspective, its primary strength – it’s different. It’s interesting.
I mean, never mind the nitpicks; take a look at this Gotham. Really look at it. It’s freaky-weird! It’s this bizarre funhouse mirror of a place with swirling, technicolor skies and vaguely European architecture (apparently, it was partially designed after Prague). The cops dress in olive-drab like soldiers, and wield these strange, futuristic guns – it’s kind of off-putting, but in an interesting way; like ‘these are supposed to be the good guys, but they may not be completely on our side’, especially since, as the show starts out, we’re missing much of the usual supporting cast. All is unfamiliar and new.
And that’s just the regular stuff. The villains of the show are one motley collection of freaks. I’ve already touched on crazy-monkey Joker and the Kabuki Twins, but then there’s Mr. Freeze, essentially a set of evil red eyes staring from the center of a chunk of ice; Man-Bat, a freaky albino chiropta-titan who drinks blood and spits goo at you; Bane, a towering mountain of bright red muscle when he’s not a slim, eerie commando in what looks like military S&M gear – and that’s just a sampling. Even the more regular-looking ones still tend to have exaggerated proportions or odd designs.
It all goes a long way towards creating an anything-can-happen sort of atmosphere, and one which I personally find very appealing. It’s like the basic concepts behind the franchise are being filtered through the brain of an insane underground cartoonist with a taste for manga, then censored for broadcast and turned loose – you’re always wondering just what bit of oddness will have squirmed its way past Standards and Practices this time.
So long as The Batman preserves this particular brand of uniqueness, a brand that was going full steam ahead during the first two seasons, I have few gripes with it. That’s not to say, however, that I therefore hate the later seasons – on the contrary, they have some of the strongest episodes of the show. I do like Batgirl, I do like Robin, and I like how their banter brings a new, snarky element to things (although I frankly think that the latter character’s introduction was unnecessary – iconic or not, Babs was already filling his role, and had more than earned her place as primary sidekick by the time he was introduced. At the time, it felt like she was getting short shrift). And heck, I like regular Bat-stuff just fine, so I’d be a bit of a hypocrite if I said I didn’t enjoy those parts too. Really, the oddball aspect is always there to some degree; even at the show’s most copycat-ish, we’re still recognizably talking about Not Your Father’s Batman.
That being said, Not Your Father’s or not, how is Batman himself? Pretty good, I’d say. This is, in the creators’ words, a ‘Year One’ version of him – he’s made a good start to his career when first we meet him, but is still relatively new to this whole crimefighting business, and has to scramble to catch up at times. I like Rino Romano’s performance quite a bit – his Bruce Wayne is a bit younger than most versions, a little brasher, and has more of a sense of humor. Which is not to say that when he puts on the cowl he doesn’t take things seriously – he can intimidate with the best of them, and out-scowl most of them, judging by his trademark expression. (It’s also a nice touch that this Batman has already proven his worth – by the first episode, he has gotten so good at busting normal crooks that Gotham’s crime rate has plunged to almost nothing. It’s only when the supervillains start making appearances that he truly has to step up his game.)
Furthermore, there have been a few clever changes made to his trademark paraphernalia. (Not needed changes, mind you, but still, they work.) The Bat-Wave is a useful all-purpose sort of invention that feels modern enough to fit in, but just futuristic enough so that they don’t have to explain how it works. The Batmobile looks cool, and I really liked the whole concealed-tunnels-all-over-the-city thing – it’s been hinted at in the comics, I believe, but this is the first time I’ve seen it onscreen. Also, while this is purely aesthetic, I liked the ‘claws’ on his gloves – they fit his creature-of-the-night aesthetic. It’s not all good – I didn’t really get the ‘up-and-down poles’ in the Batcave (yes, I get that they’re a reference to the ’60’s show, but still, they’re weird), and I found the glow-edged Batarangs to be a bit much – but overall, they’re pretty nifty. After all, this is a younger Bruce Wayne who needs every edge he can get; it makes sense that he’d focus a bit more on ‘those wonderful toys’.
Yeah, I like this Batman. For that matter, I like most of these characters. Really, the reason I was so grouchy about the lack of follow-ups back there is because, by and large, their debuts are amazing. Bane’s, for instance – that’s the second episode, and, no lie, it’s probably the best onscreen treatment of the character I’ve seen so far. Yeah, he looks kinda weird, but he’s smart and strong, the voice is spot-on, and he layeth the almighty smackdown on the Bat – what’s not to like? Same with Harley, same with Ivy, same with Croc – really, I could spend an awfully long time blabbering on about them if I hadn’t already promised I wouldn’t.
For that matter, The Batman seems to specialize in introducing characters who you really wouldn’t expect to see. It features the onscreen debut of Black Mask, for instance (who is pretty awesome here), as well as Rag Doll and Gearhead. It also makes very good use of Hugo Strange, who actually winds up becoming one of the show’s top villains – a pleasant surprise, to be sure. Those are small potatoes, though, compared to the freakin’ Wrath. They used the Wrath! How many people had even heard of that character up ’til then except obsessive nerds like me? Not many, I’ll bet.
The original villains are good, too. There weren’t as many as in B:tAS, but I liked Cosmo Krank, I liked the Everywhere Man, I liked D.A.V.E – they’re not all spectacular, but they’re at least consistently entertaining. Really, there aren’t any bad characters that I can think of – except the Penguin. He blows.
So, yeah. Characters. Characters good. But characters aren’t worth much if they’re just parading around in front of a blank background (unless you’re into repertory theater, I suppose). You need backgrounds, you need sound… stuff; you need all that jazz. How is all that?
Well, I’ve already mentioned the weird day-glo-sky world TB is set in, and talked about the art style and so forth, so never mind that. Sound next, I suppose, which, effectively, means music – which, given that the show does not have the sort of big-budget orchestration B:tAS did, means the theme song, or rather songs.
And for what they are, they both work fine. I did dearly mourn the loss of The Edge’s cold, shivery chords at the dawning of Season Three – seriously, that theme is awesome; one of the best Batman themes I’ve ever heard. Listening to it was almost therapeutic – it’s intense enough to perfectly communicate what the show’s about, yet also strangely calming. I could listen to it for hours.
However, the second theme is also good, even if it’s in many ways the polar opposite of the first – it’s energetic and jangling and gets you pumped up. Also, I have to give props to the composer for managing to work elements of the ’60’s theme into the background; that was really unexpected, and a nice tribute. I still prefer the first, but the second one grows on you.
Am I done? I think I’m done. I could say more – I haven’t said anything about this version of Alfred, for instance, or Catwoman, or the whole Clayface issue – but really, what would it serve? You’re better off discovering the little details for yourself.
And they are worth discovering. The Batman is far from a perfect show, ’tis true, and it’s not the groundbreaking achievement that B:tAS was, but – so what? Sure, it’s flawed, but it’s generally been my policy to focus on what something does do as opposed to what it did not, and what it does do, it does quite well. After all, it wasn’t trying to be just like B:tAS; it was trying to break away from it, to make a name for itself on its own merits, and it succeeded at that. If you’re put off by the art style and such, I suppose I can’t blame you, but it also has some terrific character moments, great animation, enjoyable humor, an intriguingly off-kilter atmosphere, and generally good stuff. B:tAS may be objectively better, but don’t give up on The Batman before you’ve checked it out. It’s not the Beatles, but it does manage to pull off a credible Brill/McCall.