Monday, September 27, 2010

Batman: The Animated Series Re-Watch: Episode One: On Leather Wings



(I'm watching, by the way, in DVD order, not airdate order.)

Okay, here we go. In this episode, a giant bat attacks a security guard, leading the police to try to arrest Batman while Batman investigates who might be trying to set him up. Turns out it's Man-Bat.


So the first question we have to ask is why Man-Bat? This was intended to be the first episode aired, why not lead with one of Batman's better known rogues, like the Joker, who's in the second episode? Or if you want to go with a villain who wasn't in one of the Burton movies, have Batman's first antagonist be the Riddler, which is how the 1966 Batman series started. (Or Catwoman, which is who the network, Fox Broadcasting, decided should be the first villain. This episode actually aired second).

Because, honestly, I can't think of an established Batman villain less interesting than Man-Bat. Wait, scratch that, I can, Killer Croc, but for basically the same reason, he's just a monster, with no real motives beyond that. To me, even the name "Man-Bat" implies Julie Schwartz got bored half-way through Frank Robbins and Neal Adams pitch meeting.
ROBBINS: So, I'm just spit-balling here, but let's say there was someone who was the opposite of Batman, a "Man-Bat" if you will —

SCHWARTZ: Perfect, Man-Bat, go with that.

ROBBINS: But, that's just —

SCHWARTZ: No, you're done. The kids will love Man-Bat. He'll sell a million copies.
Created in 1960, Man-Bat is Kirk Langstrom, a bat biologist who's experiments temporarily turned him into a giant bat, but then the Bat wanted to be free and began its own experiments to make the change permanent. He's basically a werewolf crossed with Jekyll and Hyde, and every Man-Bat story is the same. "I... can't... stop... the transformation!" And then Man-Bat appears, flies around, and gets beat-up by Batman.

He's no different in this episode. The writers make a feeble stab and throwing suspicion on Langstrom's mentor, Dr. Marsh (played by Rene Auberjonois) but Langstrom being voiced by Marc Singer (aka the Beastmaster) and his wickedly pointed eyebrows kind of give the game away from the beginning.

He'd be a much better Spider-Man villain, (in fact, he is, as that's basically the set of Spider-Man villain the Lizard) but as a Batman villain, he pretty much lacks. The only way he could be interesting to me is if he were truly an inversion of Batman, a tiny bat that dresses up like a man, perhaps in Bruce Wayne's shockingly brown suit. (In true cartoon style, the brown suit is the only one multi-millionaire Bruce Wayne seems to own).

Which brings us back to the question, why lead with Man-Bat? As far as I can tell, three reasons.

One) Using Man-Bat allows the animators to show off some pretty impressive action sequences. From the beginning, when the police blimp rises through the clouds in a particularly Miyazaki-esque moment, to the "chase" at the end, with Batman dragged over skyscrapers and through the construction sites of Gotham, the "camera" moves in smooth and dizzying ways that were a sharp break from the flat (read, cheap) animation style that had dominated the action cartoons of the 80s, like GI Joe and Transformers.

Two) By having the first villain be, for all intents and purposes, a Batman impostor, the series establishes in the first five minutes Batman's adversarial relationship with the authority of Gotham. Commissioner Gordon is a half-hearted defender of Batman at best, unable to stop Mayor Hill from launching a tactical assault on Batman. And Gordon doesn't have a loyal Chief O'Hara as his underling, but Detective Harvey Bullock, who openly undermines Gordon's authority in blatant disregard for Gordon's wishes while taking orders directly from the Mayor. Even a pre-Two Face Harvey Dent, who appears in a one-line unnamed cameo flipping a coin, is happy to work for Bullock (maybe it's because they share a name).

It's Bullock who really serves as the antagonist for the episode. He leaks the witness report that implicates Batman to the press, he brings it to the Mayor, he leads the SWAT team, and he's chartering the helicopter that's chasing Batman even as Batman is desperately clinging to Man-Bat high over the Gotham skyline. Capturing Man-Bat is really just a way of getting Bullock off his back. Actually curing Langstrom and returning him to normal life is an after-thought.

Not that Bullock doesn't have a point: Batman IS a nut. Gordon doesn't want a vigilante force on the street, but that's exactly what Batman is. And Batman doesn't do himself any favors either. Even before the cops show up to arrest him, Batman's investigations involve breaking into a crime scene and knocking out the cop on duty (possibly an early appearance of Renee Montoya). The story bible claims that Hill and Bullock have different motives for going after Batman, the Mayor to protect his corrupt friends, Bullock because he feels that brutality in the name of law and order is HIS job, but their motives aren't really delved into. All that's important for this episode and going forward is that Batman and the cops DO NOT WORK TOGETHER. There is not Bat-phone. There is no Bat-Signal. They are rivals at best, enemies at worst.

And three) By having a villain who transforms into a giant flying bat, Batman: the Animated Series established itself as the version of Batman that could have Man-Bat in it. A flying Man-Bat would have been impossible in Batman '66, would be too science-fictional for the Nolan Batman movies, and even the Burton Batman movies would have found it too unrealistic. (I say that, but Batman Returns does end with an army of rocket propelled penguins, so who's to say where the series would have gone had Burton stayed with it).

But budget and realism were not going to be problems for this series. If it takes an anime-style transformation sequence for Batman to be smacked face first into a helicopter, then fangs are a go. Because, if the police blimps and a man dressed in a cape didn't tell you already, Batman: the Animated Series does NOT take place in a real world, or even a world that tries to be real. It's a fictionopolis, a place where any type of story could happen. Sure, they could have started with a Joker episode, and when the Joker pulls out his giant killer robots, (or the Penguin his rocket army), you could dismiss that by saying, "he's a supervillain. They can do these things." But starting with Man-Bat shows that in Gotham, in THIS Gotham, anyone could have a monster inside them.

Other notes from re-watching the show for the first time in fifteen years:

I had forgotten how, if you'll forgive me, cartoony the animation is sometimes. Bruce Timm was coming off Tiny Toon Adventures and it shows in the way the poor security guard reacts in the opening sequence, or the way Bullock bounces as he moves. Bullock even looks like Montana Max.

It's funny that the first thing you see Batman do, after the opening credits, is smile and banter with Alfred. It's also weird to hear Clive Revill as Alfred, since he's replaced after a few episodes with Efrem Zimbalist Jr., who may have the coolest name ever.

The show also establishes the difference between Batman and Bruce Wayne, so that it sounds wrong when "Wayne's" voice comes out of Batman's mouth.

I was also struck by the score. Shirley Walker gets a lot of deserved praise for the music for the series, and even here at the beginning, it mighty impressive. Maybe it's just using a full orchestra instead of a synth, but clever moments like referencing In The Hall of the Mountain King during the transformation, or masking the rising police sirens with the "I'm doing detective work score," or even just the repeated use of horns to announce Batman's arrival, the music gives the show a timeless, classic, and epic quality.

Another thing I learned was that Paul Dini, who is often credited with the series along with Bruce Timm, isn't involved. At all. These episodes are produced by Timm and series co-creator Eric Rodomski.

So, all in all, not a bad start. The plot's a little uneven and Man-Bat is, well, Man-Bat, but most of the main cast is introduced nicely, ongoing conflicts are brought into play, and we got to see Batman fly. It certainly makes me excited to see the next episode, with a villain I actually care about.

What did you guys think? (And also, still looking for your thoughts on WORST episode, in say, the first four seasons of the show, i.e. what I have on DVD.)

*images take from toonzone.net

1 comment:

Eugene said...

Something that bothers me every time I watch an early episode: there's a speck of film dirt or something on Batman's chin in the opening credits. Once you see it, you can't unsee it!