Beware the Batman

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As a general principle, I applaud risk-taking. I think it’s an excellent idea.

Not, mind you, that I’m suggesting everyone run outside and play chicken with garbage trucks – I’m talking creative risks. Sticking strictly to a formula can be the death-knell of creativity if you aren’t careful, and many works now heralded as masterpieces got their start when someone decided to say ‘screw the rules’ and follow the advice of their muse.

Of course, a risk isn’t a risk for nothing. Often it will fail, sometimes catastrophically – but even then, the results are usually worth taking a look at. As I’ve said before (probably pinching it from someone else in the process), I’d rather have a spectacular failure than a mediocre success.

So what the hell am I supposed to think about a show that’s both? And sometimes neither?

Well… I’m working on that. But in the meantime, let’s take a look at Beware the Batman.

As is standard for Batman shows, this one starts out in medias res. Bruce Wayne (Anthony Ruivivar) has been wearing the cape for an unspecified amount of time, and Alfred (J.B Blanc) is worried that he’s been taking too many risks. There’s no Robin in this version of things, and he feels that if his boss/surrogate son is going to keep doing this, he should at least have someone to watch his back in the field. So he calls in one Tatsu Yamashiro (Sumalee Montano), an ex-CIA agent and old friend, to act as Bruce’s bodyguard – and, ultimately, his sidekick as Katana. That, minus… well, quite a few details, is the series in a nutshell.

Now, if you’ve read any of my reviews, you’ll know that I usually start out with the bad stuff, then counter with the good stuff (or sometimes the other way round) in order to make my point – but, for reasons that should become clear soon, I’m not going to do that here. It would be too confusing. Instead, I’ll just go back and forth as need be, and hopefully manage to wrap things up in a reasonably coherent manner.

Let’s start with the show’s overall look. And to do that, I’m going to have to tell you a little story.

A number of years ago now, I was taking voice acting lessons in San Francisco. They were fun and informative, and, while they haven’t paid off yet in terms of my actual career, they might some day – who knows?

The only trouble was, I don’t live in San Francisco. I live several counties north of San Francisco. So in order to attend classes and not rack up the world’s most gigantic gas bill, I had to drive to the bus depot in Santa Rosa, ride the bus all the way to the end of the line (which, thankfully, was only a block or two from my destination), then, on my way back, do the whole thing over again in reverse.

All of this took a long time, and since the classes were usually in the early evening, I often found myself making the return trip at unusual hours – more than once, I got home after two in the morning. I don’t know how many of you have driven along a country freeway that late at night, but personally, I found it a rather surreal experience. While during the day it was packed with cars zooming back and forth, at night, after everything had closed and most people were home in bed, I usually found myself almost entirely alone. It was just me, the car, and the road in my headlights – mile after mile of empty tar and asphalt, with maybe a scant handful of other drivers encountered along the way (and they were far from guaranteed). If it weren’t for them, and the occasional lit-up urban area off to the side, it would have been very easy to convince myself that the rest of humanity had somehow vanished, and that were I to pull over and stop the motor, I would find myself all alone in a world of silence and darkness.

Every time I watch an episode of Beware the Batman, I find myself getting uncanny flashbacks to that stretch of freeway.

Now, of course I’m exaggerating a touch. But there’s no denying that the show’s version of Gotham City seems just a wee bit underpopulated.

I credit this to its 3D computer graphics, much-ballyhooed at the time. There was a lot of bragging about how many subtleties of light and shadow they could play with, and how every building and landscape feature would effectively be built like a set in-computer, thereby bringing it that much closer to actual live-action moviemaking – and yes, I will admit that, once you’ve gotten used to the overall feel of things, the show doesn’t look half bad in that regard.

But the downside of building and casting a world like in the movies is that in the movies (the live-action ones, anyway), some things are relatively simple. You want to create a world that feels genuinely lived-in and populated, just hire a bunch of extras and put them here or there as needed – which is easy enough, if you’ve got the cash, because you’re dealing with actual people, and there are plenty to go around.

In a computer, however, there aren’t. You want people, you have to make them yourself, and, as I understand it, there aren’t many shortcuts. Every ‘person’ you see onscreen in BtB, every car and bike and… moving object, is a puppet made of light and code that the animators had to create specifically for that purpose – and since their focus was naturally on the main cast of characters, that meant that a lot of other things wound up getting short shrift. (Not to mention, of course, that all this stuff takes time – a computer-animated movie of any quality takes years to make, during which, of course, all these details get filled in. I’m pretty sure the turnaround time on BtB episodes was a lot less than that.)

As a result, Gotham feels… empty. Even taking into account the fact that most of the action takes place late at night, it just isn’t convincing as a real city. Real cities, as has famously been noted, never sleep – even in the wee hours of the morning, there is life and motion. In contrast, BtB‘s city feels like, well, a film set – a film set for a film with a tiny budget that can only afford a small handful of extras at a time. You need a big crowd? Here’s a dozen people. You need a bustling metropolis with people’s lives being put in danger by dastardly criminals? Here’s two dozen and five cars – just make it work. Gotham City has occasionally been referred to as a playground for heroes and villains, but in this case, it feels like school is out for the summer.

Even if you ignore all that, there are certain aspects to the art style that just look weird in a computerized format. For instance, most animated versions of Bats himself seem to have large chins, often exaggeratedly so – it’s just one of those design elements that seem to have stuck. Here, though, the increased 3D-ness of it all makes you overly aware at times that, you know, humans don’t generally have chins like that – which is a bit of a problem, since there are lots of them in this series. When it’s animated traditionally, it’s a caricature that your mind accepts; when it’s not, it… well, your mind still largely accepts it, but every now and then there’s a sudden realization that most of the main cast have faces like the business end of a hammer, and that’s the sort of thing that you can never really unsee afterwards.

And don’t think the ladies get off easily, either – sure, their faces look better, but with (very) rare exceptions, no adult female in this world is ever seen wearing anything other than high heels. And I don’t mean little demure high heels, either; uh-uh – I’m talking about those exaggerated fetish-wear heels that are something like five inches long and constantly make their wearers look like they’re en pointe. And for some reason, the truly ridiculous sets of footwear are saved for the ladies who spend most of their time leaping over rooftops. I know this sort of thing is rampant in superhero stories anyway, but I can forgive it when it’s done sparingly – one of my favorite female characters, for instance, is the Blonde Phantom, and she pulls off the high heels look like gangbusters. I have more trouble forgiving it when it’s apparently part of the dress code as soon as a girl’s passed puberty.

So since I’ve brought up character design, let’s get on to characters – or one of them, at least. And since we were just talking about the ladies, let’s talk about a lady – specifically, let’s talk about Katana, which we should do anyway, since to a largish extent, this series is focused mainly on her – and for the life of me, I can’t figure out why.

Don’t get me wrong – I like Katana. As a character, she’s engaging – she’s headstrong, cynical and snarky, with a fiery temper, and has a pretty good line in sardonic quips and commentary. She can be fun – but why she’s in this series is quite a fair distance beyond me.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first. As Batman’s sidekick, Katana makes absolutely no sense at all. She fights with a sword, and does so in a series that doesn’t allow her to use it properly. (This is why she’s normally more of a team player – in a group, it’s easier to deemphasize that sort of thing.) On more than one occasion, we get the whole ‘Batman lectures someone about not killing, and how there’s always a choice, and blah blah blah’, and meanwhile all I can think of is ‘you’re talking to a woman whose entire MO is based around a lethal bladed weapon! She’s even named herself after it! Why are you surprised that she wants to use it in the manner to which it’s intended?’ And yet, of course, she can’t, so we get an entire series full of her flashing that thing around for virtually no purpose. It’s more than a little bit silly. (As is the fact that she has exactly one outfit, which she wears constantly in both identities. I can forgive that with Launchpad McQuack, but in a show that’s attempting seriousness, it’s a bit more dubious.)

Also, there’s no getting around the fact that, on a basic level, this is not Katana. I mean, of course every adaptation of a character changes them a bit to fit their needs, but basically the only things that this Katana has in common with the original are A: she’s female and Asian, and B: she has the Soultaker Sword in her position (although that’s not a constant, and really doesn’t affect her character much past a plot point or two). In point of fact, my initial impression on hearing about the character’s inclusion in the series (and having now watched it, this has not changed) was that what the creators had really wanted to do was use the Cassandra Cain version of Batgirl, but since the character was more or less blacklisted at the time (for reasons I still don’t understand), they chose another female Asian character as ‘the next best thing’. I don’t know if this is literally true or not, so I won’t go into a rant about the implicit offensiveness of this notion, but suffice it to say that… yeah. That ain’t great, people. By that logic, you might as well have made his sidekick Dr. Light. (Uh… the second Dr. Light, I mean. Not the original. That would not have worked.)

What’s also not great is the storyline she ushers in. This brings us to one of those aspects of Beware the Batman that sounds like it should work on paper – namely, the choice to focus on continuing storylines instead of primarily stand-alone episodes.

Again, sounds perfectly reasonable, doesn’t it? I mean, comics have been doing that for decades now, and it’s not like TV shows doing the same are any kind of novelty – if anything, quite the opposite. For better or for worse, the days of the syndicated, watch-in-any-order show have mostly gone the way of the dodo – so why shouldn’t BtB follow suit?

Well, no reason, particularly – if it had worked. But it didn’t.

See, there’s a virtue to keeping superhero shows primarily episodic: they take a lot of world-building. Sure, you don’t have to explain everything, but even if you can confidently assume that everyone knows who your hero is, the same is not true for the rest of your assembled players – there’s always someone who doesn’t know who Bob McUsefulguy or Fiendish Q. Villainfella is, even in these days of everything’s-on-the-Internet. And, of course, most creators will want to add at least some original elements/characters to the mix, and there’s no shortcuts there. Setting all this up takes time, and it’s not easy to give the task its proper focus while simultaneously focusing on a complex, continuing story – which, of course, is what was tried here.

The result can go either way – and in this case, unfortunately, it went in the direction of a straight-up flop. By trying to slowly and carefully introduce Katana, her backstory, and her connections to the inevitable big, climactic threat, they wound up with a series of episodes that barely do anything. Remember, these things are only twenty-two minutes long – if you try and stuff them full of gradual plot development, you wind up with a lot of the actual meat of the show getting shoved off to the side.

This means that a good deal of this first arc is flat-out boring, and it’s most of what we get. BtB ran for a single 26-episode season; the first arc takes up fifteen of them. I did start to enjoy the show more during the final eleven episodes, but that still doesn’t change the fact that, before reaching that point, I spent most of my viewing time tapping my fingers and growling.

Even going purely on the basics, though, a number of the earlier episodes are plainly and simply not well-made. They’re too rushed; it’s all action scenes with nary a pause between them – nothing is allowed to obtain any dramatic weight, so when the drama beats do land, they do so as lightly as a feather, and with just as much impact. Again, this does get much better as the show goes on, but still, it’s no surprise to me that it initially got yanked off the air (and subsequently returned in a different time slot) after a mere three months and eleven episodes – maybe four of those episodes are actually worth a damn.

And speaking of said episodes, here’s one thing (albeit a small one) that annoyed me – the episode titles. Skim over the Dark Knight’s televisual history, and you will find no end of snappy episode titles. For instance, the ’66 series had two-parters that rhymed (Fine-Feathered Finks/The Penguin’s a Jinx), B:tAS often used common phrases which caught the imagination (Heart of Ice, Mad as a Hatter), and Batman: Brave and the Bold hawked its product like a carnival barker, each title promising breathless Silver Age excitement as sealed with an exclamation point (The Super-Batman of Planet X!). All have their charms.

What does Beware the Batman have? Words. Single words. Solely and unvaryingly single words – and extremely generic ones, at that. Broken. Darkness. Choices. Instinct. Twist. Can you tell the difference – between any of them? Very annoying.

(Oh yes, and one final little thing. I know why all the guns in this series look like plastic toys – the Dark Knight Rises theater shooting was still big in the news, and they were trying to appease the folks who thought the show would promote gun violence – but that doesn’t make them any less silly-looking. Come on, guys, The Batman had to get around the censors that way, too, but at least their guns still managed to come across as actual weapons instead of something handed out at a birthday party. ‘Whee! I’m gonna shoot you, Batman! Pew pew pew, heeheeheehee, pew pew!’)

OK, OK, let’s not get relentlessly negative here. So far, I’ve focused mainly on the risks taken that I didn’t like; let’s move along to some of the ones I did like – which is, mainly, the characters.

Except there, too, I’ve got to add a caveat, because while there are some first-fifteen episode characters I actually thought were great (and I’ll get to them), most of the others were… well, they were really, really bad, you guys.

Let’s start with the villain designated as ol’ Batsy’s ‘arch’. Normally, of course, that’s the Joker, but here, it would be Anarky (Walter Langham).

What do I have to say about Anarky? Well, to start with…

*clears throat*

RrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR

RRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRAAAAAAAA

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRR

RRRRRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGHHHHHHH!!!!!

In so many words.

Yes, all right, he’s not quite that bad, but still, I did not like this Anarky. In fact, I flat-out hated this Anarky. I hated him more than I hated The Batman‘s version of the Penguin, and if you’ve read my review of that show, you’ll know that’s no mean statement.

Why? Well, first and foremost, it’s a severe – and I do mean severe – misuse of the original character. For those of you unfamiliar with him, Anarky is one Lonnie Machin, a child prodigy who espouses what is essentially a radical version of anti-authoritarianism (it’s a little more complicated than that, but if I tried to explain it in detail, this would turn into a sociology lecture). He’s been described as an ‘anti-villain’ – he’s more or less what you’d get if you took your typical super-idealistic kid frustrated at not being able to fix all the world’s problems, and gave him a genius intellect and a willingness to resort to criminality to achieve his ends. He goes too far, but it’s impossible not to sympathize with him, at least a little bit.

BtB‘s version takes the absolute bare bones of that character, and tosses out the rest. This Anarky isn’t Lonnie Machin; in fact, we never find out who he is. He’s an adult, not a kid, and could care less about… well, just about everything Anarky usually cares about. He’s set up, essentially, as an anti-Batman, a twisted mirror image, a concept which can indeed have legs – but not here, because it’s done abominably. This Anarky is just a crazy guy who wants to take down Batman because he’s Batman, with a secondary motivation of blowing up Gotham real good, presumably because that’ll mean he wins somehow.

Does any of that sound familiar? It should. If the character of BtB Anarky sticks with you in any way after seeing the series, it will most likely be as a shameful – shameful – ripoff of the Dark Knight Joker. Gosh, let’s see – obsessed with chaos and destruction? Check. Sees himself specifically as an “agent of chaos” (in fact, I believe that exact term is used) to counter Batman as an agent of order? Check. Chuckling pasty-faced loon who loves big explosions and mind-games? Check, check, check and check. There’s even a direct reference to the ‘bombs on the ships’ sequence – and not a good one, either!

Basically, BtB Anarky is what you’d get if you took the DK Joker, ruthlessly eradicated all the charm, humor and frightening charisma that Ledger contributed, gave him Moon Knight’s wardrobe, and slapped an ‘anarchy’ symbol on his chest. He’s Anarky minus everything Anarky-ish, plus the Joker minus everything engaging! At least TB Penguin was still more or less convincing as a Penguin; this guy is only convincing as what he’s not! Why on Earth would anyone do something like that? It’s horrible!

Ahem. Anyway, moving on before I pop a blood vessel.

The actual movers and shakers of the first fifteen are the League of Assassins/League of Shadows (I’m pretty sure the terms are used more or less interchangeably). The two characters used here are Lady Shiva (Finola Hughes) and Ra’s al Ghul (Lance Reddick), and while they’re not quite as badly-handled as Anarky was, I doubt fans of either character will come away particularly happy.

First off, Lady Shiva. I was actually quite interested to see what they’d do with her, since she’s one of the more fascinating characters in DC’s roster when used right – the deadliest martial artist on Earth, who operates entirely on her own ambiguous logic and morals and can be either friend or foe depending on her mood.

What did they do with her? Absolutely nothing. She’s a bog-standard evil martial arts chick with a plummy British accent who acts as Ra’s’ second-in-command when he’s indisposed, and is neither better nor worse at kicking Batman’s posterior than any of the other approximately six million martial artists in this show. The most distinctive thing about her is her inexplicable belly shirt. As for Ra’s himself, you can forget about everything that makes him interesting. Take his immortality, his environmentalist agenda, the Lazarus Pits, his daughter, and all the rest of it, and toss them out the window – and replace them with yet more groveling at the feet of the Nolan series (his basic scheme is shamefully reminiscent of Bane’s in DKR), except minus everything that made that Ra’s interesting, either. Basically, this Ra’s al Ghul is just a Bond villain with a vaguely mephistophelian streak and a bunch of ninjas at his command – he’s not utterly terrible as villains go, but I’d recommend almost any other version of the character over him.

Oh, yes – and before I move on, I should quickly mention Magpie (Grey DeLisle-Griffin). Magpie is a… missed opportunity. As written, she could have actually had a fair amount of depth to her if she hadn’t fallen prey to the pacing/writing issues I mentioned earlier. Apart from that, let’s just say that A: when writing a crazy person, it’s generally a good idea to pick one psychosis and stick with it (I’m pretty sure she’s got at least three), and B: just having someone say ‘shiny, shiny’ a lot does not a kleptomaniac make. Nuff said.

So, yeah – that was quite a caveat, wasn’t it? I felt it was necessary, though, since those were (almost) the only characters in the show that I truly disliked, and I wanted to make sure they got their hour in the sun. Their hot, humiliating hour, with me pointing and yelling at them.

It all comes back to the risk business, you see. Those four characters were an example of (in my opinion) unnecessary, unsuccessful risks. This show, however, is kind of like the “little girl who had a little curl” – sure, there’s that “horrid” business, and horrid little girls… er, shows… get spanked – but let us not forget that “when [it] was good, [it] was very, very good”.

Because here’s the thing – where Batman shows, from the very beginning, have always shone is the character-based episodes. Whenever you take that little bit of extra time to probe the inner workings of a villain’s mind, you are bound to uncover something of interest – and when Beware the Batman is not suffering story setup overload or focusing on sub-par villains (often in the same episode), it mostly does character-based stuff. And it’s mostly pretty good.

Here, you see, is where the willingness to take risks paid off. Instead of featuring the standard crew of Arkham inmates, BtB chose instead to largely focus on lower-level, less well-known rogues – and while I deeply feel the lack of a Joker in this show (’cause boy oh boy, was Anarky not a good replacement), I think, overall, that was a wise decision. Because few of their audience would be super-familiar with these characters, they could take them in different directions and put their own spin on them – and while, yes, several of those spins spun right off into disasterville, a number of others actually managed some pretty nifty pirouettes during their brief time in the spotlight.

The most shining example of this, I think, would have to be the duo of Professor Pyg and Mr. Toad (Brian George and Udo Kier). This, I feel, is one of those rare cases where an adaptation actually improved a character (or characters, in this case) considerably.

To explain why, let us first take a look at the original Pyg and Toad. In the comics, Pyg is… well, he’s really, really nuts. Nuttier than a fruitcake. Nuttier than an entire supermarket aisle filled with mixed nuts – that nuts. (And no, the peanuts do not count – they are legumes.) Grant Morrison, his creator, describes him as “one of the weirdest, most insane characters that’s ever been in Batman” – and yes, to be fair, he certainly is that.

However, the simple fact that Pyg is a raving nutcase does not automatically render him compelling. I’ve read some of the comics he’s in, and the main impression I’ve formed of his character is ‘man in pig mask who gibbers’. He’s got this weird obsession with turning people into ‘Dollotrons’, freaky surgically-altered living zombies with creepy doll-faces, and none of it is ever really explained except by saying ‘he went crazy, and now he’s crazy, and does all this bizarre and horrible stuff because he’s crazy’. I suppose in a ‘what’s he going to do next’ sort of way, he can be interesting at times – watch Professor Pyg dance! Listen to him as he shrieks and gurgles! – but until someone gives him some sort of backstory and personality beyond ‘argleblargleblooblehblehbleh the colors’, he’s rather severely limited in terms of story possibilities; he pretty much only exists to create hordes of mindless horror-goons for Batman to fight. (As for Mr. Toad, he’s just one of his flunkies.)

Considering all that, the BtB Pyg is an immense step up. No longer is he a babbling, disheveled nutcase in a pig mask, now he’s a very articulate, well-groomed nutcase in a pig mask, thank you very much. Specifically, he and Toad have been reinvented as a proper Edwardian gentleman and his servant, who are… well, they call themselves ‘Eco-Terrorists’, but functionally what they are is more like animal rights activists, albeit right at the bleeding edge of extremism. Forget tossing paint on fur coats, these guys would skin the furriers and wear them as coats – or they would if they weren’t in a cartoon, but what they actually do isn’t much less extreme.

These were two of three excellent decisions made regarding the characters. It may sound awfully shallow, but when it comes to supervillains, surface details really are important in terms of grabbing one’s attention – and in this case, the surface details are pretty darn nifty. Pyg sounds like Alfred Hitchcock and dresses like Professor Moriarty! They drive a ’20’s-styled roadster armed with cannon! Mr. Toad has a blowtorch-cane! And the animal rights thing really does tie it all together – it probably could have been handled with a bit more delicacy as a subject, but the idea that this aristocratic pair of ‘animals’ are out hunting humans is rather delightfully twisted.

As for the third decision, that would be to feature the two of them as an inseparable team. George and Kier have great chemistry with each other, and make for an inspired comedy duo, constantly tossing quips back and forth and seeming to genuinely enjoy each other’s company. This interplay makes for some of the best dialogue in the show, and provides us with some of the more quotable lines (“Oh, phooey and fiddlesticks!” “A cape in June?” “That’s frightened for ‘yes’.”). It all makes them vastly more interesting characters, and if I could bring one thing from the show back to the comics, it would be this treatment of them. I know it’s probably not going to happen, but dammit, I want more dapper Pyg who waffles on about proper etiquette and the state of Batman’s health while trying to slice him in half with a bone saw. He’s fun! What’s wrong with fun?

(I do have one small nitpick, however, and that’s regarding Mr. Toad. We never find out exactly what he is – I mean, I don’t exactly have a problem with him being an anthropomorphic toad who belches sonic fury, but at least in the comics we had the explanation that he was from a freak show – here, we don’t get anything. I would accept a silly explanation; it doesn’t have to be realistic, but at least give us something! Is he a mutant? A lab experiment? What?)

The second best character treatment would be Humpty Dumpty (Matt L. Jones). This one doesn’t improve the character, exactly, but it does offer a rather fascinating alternate take on him. In the comics, he’s got a relatively simple and logical theme – Humphrey Dumpler is a gentle, naive innocent whose psychosis involves an obsessive desire to fix things he deems broken. Unfortunately, he’s not really very good at it, especially when his ‘things’ are actually people.

BtB‘s take on the matter is similar, but differs in certain key details. Here, Dumpler himself has been ‘broken’, thanks to getting caught in the middle of the war between the cops and the mob. As such, he seeks revenge on both sides, and plays elaborate ‘games’ with his hated enemies, usually involving fanciful storybook imagery.

Now, you could probably make a decent argument that this doesn’t make much sense – I mean, all the original Humpty Dumpty did was fall off a wall – but in terms of creating a compelling villain, it works wonders. Every iteration of Batman seems to need someone bent on playing mind-games with him, and in this case, they’re particularly interesting ones, something like what you’d get if you combined the Riddler with the villain from the Saw movies (albeit considerably less grotesque). Furthermore, this is all done without actually changing Dumpler’s basic nature much – yes, he’s certainly not the simple-minded character he usually is, but he’s still essentially an innocent; he didn’t want to become the way he is, but he feels he’s got no choice now. His primary motivation is still ‘fixing the broken things’, only here it’s more in the line of redressing an injustice. Sure, he goes too far in the name of that, and maybe he enjoys his work just a little more than an innocent man normally would, but, well, he is crazy, after all.

As I mentioned earlier, both these villains (or all three, if you count Mr. Toad) are introduced during the infamous first-fifteen, but the show makes much better use of them as it goes on – along with several other characters that you probably never expected to see in a Batman series. Just for a start, there’s the ruthless tycoon Simon Stagg (Jeff Bennett), which means, of course, if you know your comics, that Metamorpho (Adam Baldwin), cannot be far behind (and incidentally, while I won’t spoil anything, there are such strong hints that a ‘Batman and the Outsiders’ show could have spun off of this one. Such strong hints. All I’m sayin’). There’s the Key (J.B Blanc again), unusually far removed from the Justice League; Deathstroke (Robin Atkin Downes) winds up being an important character near the end – heck, there’s even a partial adaptation of the classic Goodwin/Simonson Manhunter run from back in the ’70’s, which I really was not expecting to see. (Honestly, if they were going to use that anyway, I kind of wish they’d just used it as the basis for the first storyline instead of the whole League of Shadows business, since Manhunter’s enemy Dr. Mykros would have worked far better as a villain for that sort of story. Oh, well.)

Now, if you’re thinking ‘this all sounds pretty far removed from Batman’s usual cast’, well – you’d be right, obviously. But I think the creators themselves might have realized that things were starting to get a bit unbalanced, because they did try and fit in a few of the regulars near the end, the most prominent probably being Killer Croc (Wade Williams) and Two-Face (Christopher McDonald) – or rather, Harvey Dent, since the closing storyline is meant to act as his origin. Croc is probably the best one – he’s both brutal and refreshingly competent, and Williams gives him a smooth Cajun purr that just oozes menacing charm – while Harvey is… the worst. Sorry, definitely the worst. We never quite get to see what he would have been like in full-on villain mode, but as plain ol’ Harvey, he’s a raging jerk with all the charisma and intelligence of a squashed fly, which completely misses the point of the character. In order for him to work as Two-Face, he’d have to develop a good side, not a bad one (which would, I’ll grant you, be an interesting twist).

OK, so, quick run-down on (some of) the remaining heroes, starting with Bats himself. BtB‘s Batman is… not great. The character has always had a tendency to play the straight-man for the villains, regardless of his current incarnation, but there are certain episodes here where that’s taken to ridiculous extremes; he might as well be replaced with a brick. He does get a bit more personality as the show goes on – it’s mentioned that his analytical nature is more of a curse than a blessing at times, as he effectively can’t function as just a normal person – but still, I could sum him up in three words: ‘stern and obsessed’. Which, you know, is almost every Batman. (Also, I’m not sure I can get behind his oddly pouting lips, or the way his Batsuit seems to be made out of plastic. A shiny Batman just looks weird.)

I’m also not wild about this version of Alfred. It’s not that I have any particular problem with him being a man of action – after all, he was ex-MI6 in B:tAS, too – but I just don’t see any of the character from the comics in this guy; he may be a good man to have at your back when you’re wading through enemies, but I find it difficult to buy him as the acerbic jack-of-all-trades that Alfred is supposed to be (and the fact that he looks like an aging prizefighter doesn’t help). As for the rest, Kurtwood Smith makes for a nicely gruff and suspicious Jim Gordon, while Tara Strong is pretty good as his daughter Barbara (which is hardly a surprise, given that she’s practically made a career out of voicing her). I did find her kind of annoying at first (although that’s more the writing’s fault than Strong’s), but she improved quite a bit as the series went on, and I liked that she was clearly being groomed more for the role of Oracle than that of Batgirl (which may have something to do with my they-originally-wanted-Cassandra-Cain theory).

Hmm… must be something else… Well, I mentioned the theme song in my last animated Batman article, so I guess I might as well mention BtB‘s. It’s… not terrible, but unfortunately, that’s about as much as I can say about it. It does stick in the head, but that’s mainly because of the distinctive way that the singer pronounces ‘beware’.

So… final thoughts?

Oy.

In case it wasn’t already, let me make this abundantly clear – at first, I hated this series. I found it boring, predictable, irritatingly paced, and guilty of handling certain characters beloved to me with all the delicacy of a chainsaw. At most, I would have had to grudgingly admit that there were a few episodes here and there that were decent. I was fully prepared to give Beware the Batman an absolutely scathing review.

But then I kept watching, and suddenly, things started to improve. Dramatically, even. Oh, it still wasn’t perfect; the things I didn’t like about it were still there, and they even introduced a few new ones, but right alongside them were new things I did like, and things which I suddenly realized I had liked all along; it’s just that they were finally getting a chance to shine. The latter never quite outweighed the former, but at least they were easier to ignore. Quoth Paul McCartney: “I’ve got to admit, it’s getting better” – and it was.

Basically, what I wound up getting was a series that never quite managed to hit its stride, but was starting to approach it at the point when its luck ran out. It stumbled badly coming out of the gate, there’s no question about that, but it did a few things competently enough, and even managed the occasional moment of excellence – for better or worse, it was very much its own beast. I’m not surprised it got cancelled, but I do think that if it had managed to survive, it might have managed to pull a few rabbits out of its hat and maybe even transform itself into a full-on, no-kidding, genuinely good show. It’s been dead for five years now, though (as of this posting, of course), so such speculations must, alas, remain purely in the realm of the hypothetical.

So would I recommend it? Well… I suppose so. With reservations. While ordinarily I might simply suggest that you cherry-pick a few choice episodes and ignore the rest, the ongoing nature of its stories would render that problematic – there’s too much good stuff introduced in the middle of the bad stuff for that to really work. So I suppose if you’re at all interested, you should just grit your teeth and plow right through it, which will allow you to pick out the bits that you like for future viewings. It might be a little arduous, but hey, it ain’t that long, and I suspect you’ll ultimately find it worth your while.

It could be worse. Diamonds in the rough are better than nothing. Ask Aladdin.

And if nothing else, it’s definitely something prospective risk-takers should watch for future reference. It’s a pretty good source of examples both good and bad.

Not to mention, uh, freeways. Empty freeways. At night.

11 comments

    • Haven’t read the book, so can’t comment on that – but yeah, I enjoy night driving, too, so long as it’s in the country. Driving through a town at night I HATE, since it’s so disorienting – I mean, it’s OK if I know the place well enough to navigate from memory, but driving through a strange, or even a moderately unfamiliar town at night? Let’s just say I have had some bad experiences.

      The country at night is cool, though. So long as you know where you’re going, you can just relax and drive. Just you, the road, and whatever’s on the radio – great way to unwind.

      • I am reminded of the time I was driving through New York City after midnight. I think I passed at least one brewing fight + cracked-out junkie, both in the middle of the street. Fun time.

      • Well, admittedly I’ve never gotten into THAT sort of situation while night driving – probably because I don’t live near any major cities. My problems have mainly been of the ‘missed the turnoff, got hopelessly lost’ variety. Those are bad enough, though.

    • Probably pretty soon, actually. It has, I agree, been far too long since I’ve posted, but I’ve been focusing on YouTube lately, and that has come with its own set of problems which have been distracting me. They seem to have been mostly worked out for the moment, though, so as soon as I get the opportunity, I’ll start posting again. I have a number of different reviews/articles on my desktop in various stages of completion, so I’ll have plenty to work with.

      Thank you for the reminder, though. I do sometimes need to be yanked out of my own head and given a boot up the rear to get me going.

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