Sunday, September 26, 2010

Batman: The Animated Series Re-Watch: The Beginninging

... Hello? HELLO? Is anyone still here?

So... it's been a while since I last posted (like, a year). There's been reasons, mostly work related, which I'll tell you all about when the time comes.

But lately, I've been considering re-watching the Bruce Timm and Paul Dini Batman: the Animated Series (or BTAS, as the kids are saying) and writing up my thoughts on the show. Looking back, the show was remarkable on a number of fronts. It's good superhero adventures, good kids cartoon, good noir, good television, heck, it's just plain good storytelling. And thanks to a sale on Amazon (still going on, as of September 26th) I finally own all four seasons.

So I decided to dust off of the old web-log, fire up the atomic turbines, and let a rip. Be warned, though, after Twittering for a year, I'm looking to start writing long again, in complete sentences that flow into other sentences to create whole paragraphs and articles that are coherent and complicated. So unless you're looking forward to 10,000 words on the importance of being Man-Bat, you may want to look away.

But before we get to the least-cleverly named Batman villain, let's take the overview. I consider Batman: the Animated Series to be the defining portrayal of Batman in the modern age, more than the movies (even Christopher Nolan's) and more than the comics. And this is intentional, because Dini and Timm (according to their story bible, which I'll be referencing a lot, so you might want to give it a read) set out to create a series that synthesized the Batman in comics, the Batman in the Tim Burton movies, the Max Fleisher Superman cartoons from the early 40s, and a style they referred to as "Dark Deco," into one defining product.

And I think it worked. For me, Kevin Conroy is what Batman sounds like. And I know plenty of people who consider Mark Hamill's portrayal of the Joker to be, not just the best work Hamill has ever done, but the best version of the Joker ever. Dini and Timm managed to pare down characters with, at the time, 50 years of history to most basic elements and create the "truest" version of each character. (Usually. Sometimes, like with Mr. Freeze, they completely re-wrote a character to make it work in the show, and as such redefined the character forever.)

That's not to say that some influences aren't stronger than others. Burton's second outing, Batman Returns, which came out the same year the cartoon premiered, weighs heavily on the series, providing the atmosphere, a mix of 40s fashion and architecture, the evocative Danny Elfman score and the general tone; dark, more serious than funny, but with an strong dose of the fantastic. If anything the series is more fantastic than the movies, with its man-beasts, immortal assassins, and transforming mounds of clay, and yet somehow less surreal.

And though it was a cartoon aimed specifically at children, Batman: the Animated Series broke from the mold in some very specific ways. For one, the criminals fired actual guns. After years of GI Joe, where two armies fired lasers at each other, and never seemed to hit anything, it was shocking to a twelve year old Steven to see crooks shooting bullets, and sometimes even hitting people with them! This was mitigated, somewhat, by the fact that they were firing Tommy Guns in what was nominally 1992, but still, actual violence and the threat of real death. The show also dealt with, sometimes subtextually, sometimes explicitly, domestic abuse, stalking, guilt, corporate malfeasance, police corruption, torture, and seduction. Heady topics for a lead-in to Animaniacs.

So the plan is to see if that still holds up, almost twenty years later. Everything I've heard says that they do, though I must admit it's been awhile since I've seen an episode myself. I'll write up each episode, skipping the summary and heading write into the analysis, what this episode is about, what inspired it, and how well it worked. As most episodes are villain oriented, a lot of these posts are going to be as well.

Since each episode is 22 minutes long, it shouldn't be THAT hard to go through them, so expect fairly regular posting, if not one a day then at least three a week. Reader participation is of course encouraged. If you've got more to share, an interesting tid-bit to offer, or an opposing point of view, just add it to the comments.

I'll start off the first discussion with a question, what's the WORST episode of Batman: the Animated Series? I look forward to hearing your answers, and your reasoning. (Also, when I get to that episode, I'll give you a shout out).


Eugene said...

Before I can answer your question, can you define what you mean by Batman TAS? Are you excluding Gotham Knights and the later WB incarnation? Easy to pick some stinkers in there.

Also, you mentioned this was specifically targeted at kids, but you should also remember that the series originally premiered in prime time on Fox, which was a hint that it would be suitable for older audiences.

If my DVDs weren't in storage, I would try to re-watch these along with you, but I lool forward to reading your insights on the series.

Steven said...

Well, right now I'm committed to watching the four seasons collected on DVD, which includes "The New Batman Adventures" that used the Superman animators, (through Judgement Day on this list

I haven't decided what to do about ancillary material, like Mask of the Phantasm, or later series like Batman Beyond or Justice League.

I had forgotten they ever aired in prime time. But reading the story bible, it's clear that their primary audience was still the Saturday morning cartoon crowd. No one dies, there's not much blood, Batman never investigates a murder. Yes, the show is enjoyable for older audiences, but it's like Sesame Street doing a Mad-Men parody, it's important to remember who the show is actually for, then note how remarkable it is for appealing beyond it.

And yes, everyone who can should watch along.

Eugene said...

Well, out of the original run I'm going to pick "Tyger, Tyger" as the worst, though "The Cat and the Claw" has never been my favorite either. Most of the last season was terrible, with a few exceptions.

I'm not sure how they decided which episodes were Superman and which were Batman in that last season, but some of them ended up on the Superman TAS DVDs. I hope you won't skip "World's Finest".

Erik said...

The Just Say No episode, that had a werewolf villain who had his own electric guitar theme.