So you may recall that in the summer of 2015, I celebrated getting the complete 1960’s Batman series by spending the summer watching both it and live action movies that ranged from the 60’s to today. I had plenty of fun with that, so I decided to do another version of it. I spent this past summer watching as much animated Batman as I could get my hands on. Here’s what I found…
(BLOGGER’S NOTE: This list includes ONLY the Batman animated series and any movies that spun off from them. It does NOT include stand-alone animated movies, such as the recent adaptation of The Killing Joke. But hey, there’s always next summer, right?)
THE ADVENTURES OF BATMAN (1968) and THE NEW ADVENTURES OF BATMAN (1977)
Both of these came from Filmation, a company that, along with Hanna-Barbera, largely dominated Saturday morning cartoons in the 60’s and 70’s. There’s a ton of similarities between the two. Per Filmation’s apparent creed, they were cheaply produced and made ample use of stock shots (particularly the 60’s series.) In fact, some of the 70’s stock shots were direct re-creations of those from the 60’s series. Both shows featured iconic voice actors. The 60’s version had Olan Soule and Casey Kasem as Batman and Robin. They would go on to voice the characters during the various incarnations of The Super Friends. The 70’s series featured Adam West and Burt Ward returning to the roles. (I would’ve loved to have seen the conversation those guys had with their agents. “What the hell, man? Ten f’n years and all you land me is another Batman series? You gonna finish that sandwich?”)
While no one would describe the 60’s series as gritty, the 70’s version has a decidedly lighter tone. This is mainly due to the addition of Batmite, a tiny traveler from another dimension with a voice that sounded like a cross between Lou Costello and a cat getting ass-raped as it’s being fed through a woodchipper. Apparently, the idea was that kids couldn’t relate to super heroes, but COULD relate to someone whose purpose was to be an annoying little bastard. It’s a mentality that led to s**t like Scrappy Doo.
SCOOBY-DOO MEETS BATMAN (1973)
Speaking of which, long before said annoying little bastard was added, everyone’s favorite mentally-challenged dog teamed up with the Dynamic Duo. This “movie” is actually two episodes of The New Scooby Doo Movies, a Saturday morning series from the early 70’s in which Scoob and the gang teamed up with various celebrities or fellow animated characters. Both of these episodes include The Joker and The Penguin, who are downgraded from super-villains to bumbling dips**ts. The first story involves the two trying to steal a flying suit from a Professor Flaky. The Professor has a tendency to mix up things he says before correcting himself (ex. “It’s The Poker and Jenguin. I mean, The Joker and Penguin.”) It’s fine at first, but after hearing him do it with EVERY line for nearly 45 minutes, I was openly rooting for the villains to kill him…and eat him. The second story reduces the super-villains to dupes being used by a counterfeiter to pass phony bills. That aside, the second story is clearly better, as it involves an actual mystery and has more story. The first is largely an excuse for the Scooby gang’s usual bulls**t hijinks.
The New Scooby Doo Movies was the product of Hanna-Barbera studios. While they didn’t seem to have Filmation’s fetish for stock shots, they didn’t exactly break the bank on the animation, either. Everything generally looks like what Carl Sprang might have drawn if he’d been drinking all weekend. Continuity is treated like a cute idea, as we’re given moments like Batman being barehanded and wearing a ring in one shot and then having his gloves back on in the next (I guess they’re trying to tell us Batman’s a klepto.) Characters have a tendency to freeze in position for awkwardly long periods of time. Batman’s cowl makes no sense, as it’s open at the neck and the mask just seems to stop at his jawline. Robin’s mask is so big in some shots that it looks like he’s wearing an early version of wraparound sunglasses. The voice talent, on the other hand, is solid. As he did with the 60’s animated series and Super Friends, Olan Soule provides the voice for Batman. And Casey Kasem does good work doing double-duty as both Robin and Shaggy. (If you didn’t know in advance, you might have a hard time realizing it was the same actor for both voices.) Ultimately, though, I can’t imagine anybody under the age 40 finding this interesting and even for those who do, only as a nostalgia item.
BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES (1992) and THE NEW BATMAN ADVENTURES (1997)
This is the Holy Grail for Batman fans. Not just in the animated category, but in the whole of Batman on screen (with the possible exception of Nolan’s film series.) Gorgeously animated in the same mix of classic and modern styles that dominated Burton’s films, the series is less quirky, but no less dark. Visually, it incorporated art deco and film noir elements into a setting that also used modern technology, achieving the same timeless feel of Burton’s Batman (which in turn had been influenced by the look of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.) It’s a melange of styles that works even better in animated form than in the live-action films; the elements blending so smoothly that you simply accept that world for what it is.
In terms of the storytelling, the show runs far deeper than any of its predecessors. In fact, there are plenty of times in which I wound up asking myself, “This is a kid’s series, right?” Episodes like “Beware The Grey Ghost” pack a genuine emotional punch, as do episodes focusing on Two-Face, Mr. Freeze and Clayface. The origin of Clayface, as depicted in the series, is genuinely disturbing and at no time do the creators back off the impact of The Joker’s antics. With all of these mature elements in place, it’s small wonder that Fox gave the show a try in prime time (an experiment they pulled the plug on WAY too quickly.)
The voice talent was highlighted by Kevin Conroy (as The Batman) and Mark Hamill (as The Joker). Conroy was solid, providing the perfect amount of gravity and differentiating subtly between his depictions of Batman and Bruce Way. Hamill was a revelation as The Joker (though only a slight one to the few who’d seen his work as The Trickster in the 90’s Flash TV series.) He was able to be both funny and loathsome (often in the same sentence.) Hamill’s ability to make you laugh at, but never be charmed by The Joker puts his work up there with Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger as the best portrayals of the character. The series had a raft of talent providing guest voices, including Ron Perlman (Clayface), Roddy McDowell (The Mad Hatter), Ed Asner (Roland Daggett), John Vernon (Rupert Thorne), Kate Mulgrew (Red Claw), Helen Slater (Talia) and Marliu Henner (Veronica Vreeland). A particular favorite was Adam West as the washed-up TV star Simon Trent, formerly The Grey Ghost.
The Animated Series is most noted for introducing the character of Harley Quinn, a former Arkham Asylum psychiatrist whose mind is warped by The Joker. She becomes his sidekick and girlfriend, though the relationship is tempestuous at best. (Shocking, really. One would imagine The Joker to be a more caring and giving lover.) Voiced by The Animated Series‘ voice director Arleen Sorkin, the character quickly grew from walk-on to sidekick to member of the Rogue’s Gallery to full-on member of the DC Universe. Sorkin’s by-turns hilarious and demented work played no small part in that, as she’s clearly become the template for all future portrayals of Harley Quinn.
The New Batman Adventures aired on the WB (later CW) Network a few years after Fox cancelled The Animated Series. It was put together by the same creative team and voice talent. Word is that creator Paul Dini wanted the call the series Batman: Gotham Knights, perhaps intending to position it as a new series altogether. Warner Brothers shot the idea down, deciding they could package DVD releases of the new series with the previous one, thus giving the impression that The New Batman Adventures was a continuation of The Animated Series. Sadly, The New Batman Adventures was less a continuation of the old series and more a pale imitation of it. The animation style was less rich and the art deco elements were toned down, thus removing the sense of style that dominated The Animated Series. The focus also moved to the supporting cast, particularly Batgirl, Robin, Nightwing and Nightwing’s mullet. The writing and voice acting remained strong, but the altered look of the series made it seem like a continuation in name only. Not bad, but not a revelation, either.
BATMAN: MASK OF THE PHANTASM (1993)
Mask of the Phantasm was a direct-to-video movie spun off from The Animated Series. It presented a new villain in the form of The Phantasm, a vigilante whose killings of various mob bosses are actually blamed on the Bat. It also explored, in flashback form, a young Bruce Wayne’s doomed love match with a woman named Andrea Beaumont. As could be expected, the two storylines are not unrelated, coming together in a way that forces Bruce to question his commitment to being Batman and what such a thing stands for.
The film makes use of the rich visual style found in The Animated Series. While the backstory involving Bruce and Andrea is interesting, it’s curiously muted. The attempts at emotion fall a tad short because there’s never been a defining love of Batman’s life, ala Lois Lane and Superman, Iris West and The Flash or even Mary Jane Watson and Spider-Man. As a result, one of the story’s defining qualities falls a tad flat and the film never feels like much more than a 75 minute version of the TV series. The voice cast, though, is stellar. Series regulars Kevin Conroy (Batman), Bob Hastings (Commissioner Gordon), Efrem Zimbalist Jr. (Alfred) and Robert Costanzo (Harvey Bullock) are all here, along with Mark Hamill (and his always-stellar take on The Joker), Dana Delaney as Andrea, Abe Vigoda as an aging mob boss and Stacey Keach as Andrea’s father.
Like the 1966 live-action Batman film, Mask of The Phantasm had the problem of existing concurrently with a running series. However, unlike the ’66 film, it doesn’t feel like this one, in terms of visual style, character development or plot, takes us any place that The Animated Series hasn’t already gone.
BATMAN & MR. FREEZE: SUB-ZERO (1998)
Originally intended for release in 1997 but pushed back to create distance from the live action Batman and Robin debacle, Sub-Zero was, as I noted in last year’s blog entry, a better take on the Mr. Freeze story than Joel Schumacher’s abomination. The plot deals with Freeze and a sleazy doctor kidnapping Barbara Gordon (Batgirl) for the purpose of harvesting one of her organs to save Freeze’s comatose wife. (Believe it or not, in Batman continuity, this was not the worst thing ever to happen to Batgirl.) Batman and Robin rush to the rescue while Freeze struggles with his own conscience and the forces that have driven him to become a super-villain.
Timing-wise (and it appears continuity-wise) the film falls between The Animated Series and The New Adventures. Visually, it’s in the same boat. The animation isn’t as rich as The Animated Series, but not as stripped down as its successor. The visual flow of the story is similar to Burton’s films; almost as if the animated movies were determined to provide what the live action movies were f**ing up. It adds some computer animation to heighten the excitement and it works quite well, particularly in a chase scene where Barbara is kidnapped. The voice acting is great, as always, though I found Michael Ansara’s Freeze a tad hokey.
Ultimately, Sub-Zero succeeds because it finds an emotional element to the story that’s largely missing from (and when present, poorly executed by) Batman and Robin. Freed from the dictum that as many terrible yuks as possible must be added to the film, Sub-Zero is able to focus on the complexity of its villain; how such a villain is often just a hero turned sideways by circumstance. If only Joel Schumacher had been interested in such a thing…
COMING IN PART 2: The animated Bat enters a new century…and Beyond.