(Continuing my look at the various Batman animated series. Click here for Summer of the (Animated) Bat, Part 1.)
BATMAN BEYOND (1999)
Batman Beyond debuted just as The New Batman Adventures was wrapping up. The series places the Batman mythos in an unspecified future in which an elderly Bruce Wayne has long retired due to a heart ailment. High school student Terry McGinnis, who has recently lost his father AND stumbled on to Batman’s secret identity, takes up the mantle of Batman. Terry’s guided, reluctantly, by Bruce. The show is a mashup of cyberpunk, sci-fi, psychological drama and good old-fashioned superhero yarn.
In a way, it’s similar to The Dark Knight Returns comic book series, exploring both a post-Batman Gotham City and a post-Batman Bruce Wayne. As such, it’s something of a mixed bag. The Dark Knight Returns presents a Gotham City that has once again rotted to the point of needing The Bat, as if it’s own corrupt cancer has come out of remission. We’re never given that sense in Batman Beyond. Terry and Bruce team up more from their own need to fight crime rather than feeling the call of the city (Or course, Dark Knight Returns is clever enough to do both, having Batman think he’s doing it for one reason when he’s really doing it for the other.) As a result, the Batman Beyond Gotham City is a hodgepodge of interesting elements, but never has a strong sense of place.
The character studies are more successful, particularly that of Bruce Wayne. Bruce, sans his Batman persona, has become the very thing Alfred the butler always feared he would become: a lonely, empty recluse with no life outside his single obsession. There’s little-to-nothing avuncular or even likable about this version of Bruce Wayne, but he’s fascinating nonetheless. His dynamic with Terry is less father-son and more marriage of convenience. Bruce has only reluctantly given up his life as Batman and has no desire to accept Terry in the role. Outside of that, things are a bit more uneven. Lip service is given to Terry’s struggles to balance his life as a high schooler and his life as a superhero. His family is barely seen and his girlfriend, Dana, is ultimately useless as a confidant or a potential conflict.
Sadly, the entire series, interesting as it is, feels like a missed opportunity. Through 39 episodes over three seasons, the show seemed content to present weekly stories more than fully explore its premise. It’s a shame that a show with so much potential realized only some of it.
BATMAN BEYOND: THE RETURN OF THE JOKER (2000)
Although here’s a case of the show realizing it’s potential in straight-to-DVD movie form. The Return of The Joker deals with Terry and Bruce investigating the possible return of Batman’s arch-enemy. Turns out such a return would have to be from the grave because Bruce reveals The Joker’s final fate; one that involves the torture of the second (at least in animated form) Robin, Tim Drake.
The highlight (if you want to call it that) of the film is the flashback sequence revealing how The Joker and Harley Quinn kidnapped, disfigured and tortured Tim Drake. I’m not engaging in hyperbole when I say: it’s horrifying. Not The Killing Joke horrifying, but profoundly disturbing nonetheless. While The Animated Series and Batman Beyond didn’t hesitate to go to dark places, they still didn’t prepare you for a gut punch like this. (Batman producer Paul Dini only objected to the original idea of killing Harley Quinn during the sequence, since he created Harley. I’m assuming when asked about torturing Robin, he said, “Oh yeah, f**k that little bastard.”)
It’s not clear where Return of The Joker fits into the Batman Beyond continuity. In point of fact, it came out during the show’s third season, but the events could easily have taken place after the show’s run. If so, Return of The Joker succeeds in wrapping up some important elements of the show, specific to its depiction of Bruce Wayne. Without giving away the store, we’re left with the impression that Bruce is able to finally reconcile himself with the past and is willing to, once and for all, hand the mantel of Batman over to Terry. It’s a satisfying wrap up to the series’ most interesting relationship and provides an equally satisfying conclusion to The Animated Series, The New Adventures and Batman Beyond.
THE BATMAN (2004)
The Batman takes the Bat back to his early days, beginning around the time Bruce Wayne was 26. The series ran for five seasons and seemed to work around a theme each season. Seasons 1 and 2 were largely devoted to the Gotham police force coming to accept The Batman’s help. Season 3 introduced a sidekick in the form of Batgirl. Robin was added for season 4 and various members of the Justice League in season 5 (the series self-confessed Brave and the Bold season.) The look of the series is much more cartoony than The Animated Series or Batman Beyond. This has both its pluses and minuses. The look of Gotham is never as interesting as it is in The Animated Series, but it’s not unwatchable. The editing is quite strong, giving the episodes a nice visual flow, and the villains are made to look more grotesque than in other installments.
The actual storytelling in the series is problematic. While the Bat’s universe expands greatly over the course of five seasons, there’s no sense that a continuing story is being told. Important characters tend to come and go with little rhyme-or-reason. Detective Lin, an antagonist-turned-partner, disappears after season two and is only mentioned once more in the series. Similarly, Police Chief Angel Rojas appears to be running the Gotham police force for two seasons and then goes away entirely. Commissioner Gordon largely takes Rojas’ place at the end of season two. Does Gordon get a dramatic arrival? An outside troubleshooter? An honest cop elevated to the position? No, turns out he was around the whole time. They just forgot to mention him. Due to the Robin character being used in Teen Titans, Batgirl becomes the official Bat sidekick before Robin. That feels weird, but you get used to it pretty quickly. However, once Robin DOES show up, Batgirl slowly gets pushed to the side (leaving us with the sinking feeling that the Bat’s world is a “boys-only” club.)
The use of the rogue’s gallery is a tad hit-and-miss. Yes, we get all the usual suspects, but we also get dips**t characters like Gearhead, Maximilian Zeus, The Ventriloquist and The Toymaster. The series also pulls off something heretofore considered impossible: it uses The Joker too much. You don’t want large gaps of time to pass between Joker visits, but during some stretches, he showed up literally every other episode. You get to the point where you’re waiting for Batman to greet the appearance of his arch-nemesis with an exasperated, “Ah jeez, THIS f**king guy again?”
While The Batman didn’t aim as high as The Animated Series in terms of its visual presentation or depth of storytelling, it WAS an enjoyable series for what it was. You just wish the creative staff and done a better of collecting the various ideas they were throwing on the table.
BATMAN VERSUS DRACULA (2005)
Batman Versus Dracula was a straight-to-video spinoff movie from The Batman. As the title suggests, Dracula’s corpse is brought back to life (or undeath, however we classify these things) and begins to slowly turn Gotham City into an army of undead bloodsuckers. Only Bats stands in the way, pitting literature’s two great bat-themed antagonists against each other.
The movie’s a tad darker than the TV series and plays more like a zombie movie than a vampire movie (although there have been so damn many permutations of those concepts, I can’t even tell the difference anymore.) It makes good use of Batman’s rogues gallery, turning Penguin into a Renfield stand-in and The Joker himself into a vampire follower of Drac’s. The character of Vicky Vale makes her one appearance here and is a decent enough companion to The Bat that you wish they’d found room for her in the series. The voice cast is strong, particularly Peter Stormare as the by-turns suave and vicious Count Dracula.
The movie’s not perfect. A scene in which Drac crashes a Bruce Wayne party and introduces himself as Dr. “Alucard” (think about it) is as dumb as this description would indicate. In another scene, the vampire version of The Joker swills the contents of a blood bank and analyzes the contents like he’d analyze wine. It’s intended to be funny, but it’s actually kind of nauseating. And the pace of the film drags in places. But the darker tone and the use of the Vicky Vale character puts it a cut above most episodes of the series.
(BLOGGER’S NOTE: due to time constraints, I didn’t get a chance to watch a lot of the last two series. Hey, up yours, I DO SO have time constraints. Largely. At any rate, I didn’t get a chance to THOROUGHLY examine the last two series, so take that for what it’s worth.)
BATMAN: THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD (2008)
While ostensibly a different series, The Brave and the Bold pretty much picks up where The Batman left off, in that it’s devoted to Bats teaming with various characters from the DC Universe. It doesn’t take long to realize that the tone is decidedly lighter. The look of the character is more akin to the Silver Age version, the theme song sounds like a ripoff of the 60’s Batman series and Deidrich Bader, best known for a variety of comic roles, voices the not-quite-so-Dark Knight. Unlike the 5th season of The Batman, though, Brave and the Bold focuses on some of DC’s lesser lights, including Plastic Man, Blue Beetle, Booster Gold, Red Tornado, Jonah Hex and Green Arrow (well, he was a lesser light at the time.) Unlike The Batman, the series makes no attempt at establishing story arcs or running secondary stories. With few exceptions, they are stand-alone plots featuring our guest star of the week.
Those who prefer the Dark Knight version of the character won’t find much to like here. On the other hand, there IS more to the Batman mythos than a damaged half-psychotic in a dark suit. Throughout its history, the comic book series has had a lighter tone at least as often as a dark one. The Brave and the Bold comic book series (which serves as the inspiration for this incarnation of The Bat) certainly focused on the lighter side. And the grim purposefulness of the character provides decent fodder for comedy. A steady diet of depression can get rather tedious. So The Brave and the Bold is very much worth checking out because it’s–dare I say it–FUN.
BEWARE THE BATMAN (2013)
This series ran on Cartoon Network for a few months back in 2013 before being pulled without an official explanation. It’s 3-D animation in the style of Green Lantern: The Animated Series and is the umpteenth flashback to The Bat’s early days. In this version, Alfred is a former MI-6 op who’s helped train Bruce Wayne for his life as a crime fighter. He also brings in his goddaughter, Katana (from the superhero group, The Outsiders) to be Bruce’s bodyguard and The Bat’s sidekick.
Like a lot of computer animation, Beware The Batman is a mixed bag, visually. The ability to move through a scene as if you’re a fly on the wall is quite thrilling and electrifies the fight scenes. The architecture of Gotham City is stunning; not quite as stylish as The Animated Series, but in the neighborhood. And I loved the idea of Wayne Manor sitting on a bluff across the bay from downtown Gotham (it presents a cool visual and reinforces the idea of Batman standing guard over Gotham City.) On the downside, the characters have the same dead-eyed look that infests every computer-generated character who isn’t The Gollum in Lord of the Rings. Since the series DOES go for the emotional and angsty moments, the inability to convey these emotions through the characters undercuts what they’re trying to do.
The approach to the series is a bit of a mixed bag, depending on your point of view. Personally, I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of Alfred being switched from a suave, mildly sarcastic butler to a rough-edged former spy. Also, I’m never thrilled with the idea of Batman having a sidekick that isn’t Robin. But while the idea of going back to Batman’s early days feels very played out, it does take the novel approach of highlighting B-List villains such as Magpie, Anarky, Professor Pyg and Mister Toad. Nary a Joker, Penguin, Riddler or Catwoman in sight. However, the depictions of the villains are compelling and after The Batman completely overused the more popular members of the Rogue’s Gallery, things feel fresher with a different set of villains. The series also unfolded as a series of overlapping stories, but with a sense of cohesion that was better than The Batman.
In the end, Cartoon Network put the kibosh on Beware The Batman after only a few months, saying only that the series was a “financial failure.” (I’m guessing the ratings didn’t compensate for the expense of the 3-D animation.) This is frustrating because the visuals and the storytelling were solid enough to make the series more intriguing as it went along. Killing it before the end of the first season was a case of Batus Interruptus. While the series was by no means perfect, you have to laud to it for doing something different. And wish it had been given a chance to fully develop.
NEXT SUMMER: I take a look at the slew of Batman-related animated movies, including The Killing Joke, Under The Red Hood and Bad Blood.