Thursday, September 30, 2010

Batman: The Animated Series Re-Watch: Episode Three: Nothing to Fear

The Plot: before he can stop the Scarecrow's terror campaign against Gotham University, Batman must overcome his own fear of failure and horrifying visions of his late father.

As a psychological study on Batman and what makes him tick, Nothing to Fear is a great episode. When dosed with the Scarecrow's fear toxin, Batman sees his worst fear, that being Batman is a disgrace, a failure in someway to live up to his father's example. It puts into question the premise of the character, that maybe it's a mistake to respond to personal tragedy with vigilante justice.

The show resolves this internal conflict with two moments of catharsis. The first is when Alfred reassures Bruce that of course Thomas Wayne would be proud of him, because "I'm so very proud of you." This, in a line, both cements being Batman as a morally responsible choice (as Alfred is the voice of sanity in the show) and establishes Alfred relationship to Bruce: Alfred is Bruce's surrogate father. Once again, the point is made that Batman, Robin, and Alfred are not just partners in crime, but a real family.

The other moment of catharsis comes when, hanging from the edge of a burning zeppelin, in the face of a giant, skeletal vision of his father, Batman recites lines that would forever be burned into the hearts of young Batman fans (and forever be parodied by Darkwing Duck), "I am vengeance. I am the night. I AM BATMAN!" Alfred may have given Bruce the perspective and support he needed, but Bruce is still plagued by his fears until he accepts his mission, "vengeance," his method, "the night," and his true identity, "Batman."

It gets at the heart of why Batman fears he's disgracing his parents. In order to be their vengeance, he has to be Batman, and he has to stop being Bruce Wayne. Wayne becomes a shell, a mask, the petty playboy so despised by Dr. Long. The vision of his father calls him both "Bruce" and "a disgrace," and in order to do his job, Batman has to reject both of those titles.

The weakness of this episode is the Scarecrow himself. There are a lot of good interpretations of the character out there, from his first appearance in 1941 to Cillian Murphy's portrayal in Batman Begins. A villain who uses fear as a weapon should make an excellent foil to Batman, who preys on "a superstitious and cowardly lot." And this episode makes a couple of nods at that, a dry remark from Alfred and Batman's use of the fear gas on Crane at the end. But mostly, the Scarecrow's pretty boring.

His motivation is mundane. When he explains to his two dim-witted thugs, incongruously named Nigel and Anthony, why he's attacking the school, we hope that there's some complicating factor. But, in fact, the Scarecrow likes to scare people, he got as a job that allowed him to scare people, Dr. Long fired him for scaring people, and now he's going to scare people until they allow him to scare more people. Dr. Long, played by professional cranky old man Kevin McCarthy (who recently passed), may be a jerk, telling Bruce Wayne "I don't like you and your dead father wouldn't like you either," but he hardly deserves to have his university destroyed for firing a sadist.

And the Scarecrow's plan is pretty boring too, a terror campaign to cripple the school and scare people away from attending. There's hints of how much more interesting the Scarecrow could be.In one scene, he uses fear to drive a crowd of people to mob Batman. The idea that he could use fear to manipulate people presents a lot more interesting plot and character potential, which the writers will play with in later episodes. But here, he mostly uses the gas to incapacitate his victims.

The Scarecrow's visual design is uninspired, like a cheap Muppet knock-off, and Henry Polic II just isn't an engaging voice actor. In the end, he's not as much of challenge for Batman as the fear gas itself is. Once Batman overcomes the gas, the Scarecrow himself goes down easy.

The fear gas allows the animators a lot more room for creative moments, from a great representation of claustrophobia as a shrinking jail cell, to the face in the flames, the Fantasia-inspired winged demon at the end. A lot of the mood is also set by Shirley Walker's score, who pull out allusions to Psycho and Night on Bald Mountain to move the audience.

Special attention should also be paid to the voicework of Richard Moll, aka Bull from Night Court. He'll get a lot more attention later, as he voices Harvey Dent, but in this episode, he's doing fantastic yeoman's work as the Scarecrow's two hoods, the Bat-Computer, and especially the haunting, chilling voice of the late Thomas Wayne. Again, it's the vision of Thomas Wayne who's the real antagonist here, and Moll captures that character perfectly.

Other things to note:

We finally learn Summer Gleeson's name and occupation in this episode, though she does little else than deliver some exposition and call Batman a loser (in a vision).

Two episode after sending the SWAT Team after him, the police have eased up on Batman. Only Bullock is still openly antagonistic, but without any support, he moves from being Batman's Javier to being his Lestrade. Not that Batman has earned their trust, really, since he totally withholds evidence from them (that maybe they could have used to track down the Scarecrow faster) and for the first time, pull off his signature move of disappearing from a conversation the moment Bullock turns his back.

When Scarecrow sets a trap for Batman by releasing his fear gas at the door, Batman enters already wearing his gas mask. Thus establishing that Batman isn't just smart, he's usually a step ahead of his opponents.

Both thugs fall from the zeppelin and Batman fails to save either of them. Fortunately, Gotham seems to be full of soft landing zones.

And finally, while the memory of his dead parents is a driving theme of the episode, it is NEVER said how they died or how their deaths were directly responsible for Bruce becoming Batman. Maybe it's because everyone in America knows what happened, and maybe it's because how they died isn't as important in this episode as the fact that they are gone, and Bruce Wayne can't get them back.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Batman: The Animated Series Re-Watch: Episode Two: Christmas with the Joker

From one of Batman's worst villains to one of his best, fantastic.

In "Christmas with the Joker," The Joker takes over the airwaves with his own version of a Christmas special, complete with surprise guest hostages and a wild goose chase around Gotham for Batman and Robin.

When listing influences for the show, Dini and Timm mention a lot of earlier cartoons like the Max Fleischer Superman shorts, but never, say, the Simpsons. Yet, here is the Joker singing the same version of Jingle Bells that Bart Simpson did in the Simpson's Christmas episode (that is, before jumping on a rocket tree and flying out of Arkham Asylum).

And yes, it's THAT version of Jingle Bells, which comments on Batman's body odor and mechanical trouble for his car, which also demonstrates the Joker's meta-awareness, the fact he seems to know that he's a fictional character in a TV show, like when he provides his own title card for the episode, or tells us the show will be right back after a word from the sponsor, right before the commercial break. Is he crazy? Or is he hyper-sane?

Outside of Batman himself, the Joker is probably the best character in the Batman mythos, and definitely the best in the cartoon series. The Joker first appeared in Batman #1, and has had many different interpretations over the last 70 years; crime boss, serial killer, colorful bank robber, terrorist, anarchist, nihilist. Like they did with Batman, the producers of the series drew on all of these versions, but instead of synthesizing it down to one cohesive whole, they just left it all in, hodge podge, creating a character that veers wildly from clown to killer between episodes, and even within them.

All of which is brought forward by Mark Hamill incredible voice work: his manic laughter, enthusiastic deliveries, underlying malice and his mercurial mood shifts from delight to hatred to boredom to actual fear to sheer delight again. Hamill's Joker actually seems to be having a good time. (Something I think Nicholson's Joker didn't have, and Ledger's Joker sometimes had).

Each Joker episode focuses on different aspects of the character. This one focuses on Joker the showman, the attention whore. The one that cuts into every transmission in Gotham so he can broadcast the show "no one wants to see but everyone will watch." When no audience shows up in his studio, he builds his own, and when he gets bored, he blows up his audience.

This episode also establishes that, while Joker wouldn't mind killing Batman, he'd much prefer to keep him alive and focused on him. At two points, the Joker basically wins, and so he must give Batman a hand. When Batman is lost and cannot find the Joker's base, the Joker gives him a clue where to find him. When he has Batman at his mercy, instead of blowing Batman up or dumping him in acid, he throws a pie in Batman's face. So from his first episode, we see that the Joker could never really kill Batman, or he'd lose his favorite audience member. And God help anyone else if THEY managed to kill Batman (but that's an episode we'll get to later).

The Joker serves another purpose, the ever-present threat. The first third of the episode, where Robin tries to convince Batman to stay home and watch It's a Wonderful Life because no one commits crime on Christmas, resembles a Batman short story, "The Silent Night of Batman," where Batman spends the night singing with the police choir as the people of Gotham basically sort out their own problems for once.

But in the Animated Universe, Batman still can't take the night off to practice his vibrato, because there will always be the Joker. Even the final moments, with Batman admitting life might not be wonderful, but "it has it's moments", is undercut by the fact that the Joker, wrapped in a straight jacket in a bare cell, is still singing carols and laughing and having a grand old time, and could escape on a rocket powered decoration at any time!

Robin is also first seen in this episode, but like the Joker, he isn't introduced as much as assumed to have always been there. To be clear, this is Dick Grayson, the first Robin, though he's wearing Tim Drake's uniform, long pants, black cape with yellow interior.

His relationship to Batman, however, is firmly established. In the field, he's junior partner. Batman gives the orders, but trusts Robin completely to carry them out. They even have established plays they can call in the field. (Though it seems "Operation Cause and Effect" means "stop whining about the Joker robots and blow up the cannon like I told you.").

At home, however, Robin is family. When later episodes establish Dick is attending college, we realize he's home for Christmas, and that's why he's disappointed to spend it with Batman "at the office." The show brings up that the Joker doesn't have a family twice, to contrast it with Batman, who though he may not realize it, does.

This episode places the show in a very odd place, time wise. For the most part, we're supposed to be seeing Batman's early career. This is his first encounter with most of the villains (other than the Joker and the Penguin), the police don't trust him, and Harvey Dent is still good looking. But his line, "it's never easy with the Joker," implies that he's fought the Joker many many times.

Robin's age also implies Batman's been Batmanning for a while. Assuming Batman didn't adopt Dick right away, and seeing that they are practiced partners by now, we have to assume he's been at it for four or five years at this point. Which makes it somewhat odd that the police still don't trust Batman, and Batman STILL doesn't work with the police.

Other things to note: even more than with Man-Bat, the show has left realism far behind. Any questions on how the Joker built a rocket into a tree, or found giant robot nutcrackers, or turned a telescope into a cannon, can be left at the door.

Besides the Joker and Robin, this episode also introduces reporter Summer Gleason, a low-rent Lois Lane knock off, as one of the hostages, but she's not named and surrounded by Gordon and Bullock, it'd be easy to assume she was cop as well. We'll get to her a bit more in the next episode.

That Batman hasn't seen It's a Wonderful Life, the story of how much good one man can do for a city, because he couldn't get past the title, is fantastic character work.

The animators are also zeroing in on the period setting. The television sets are still in color (later they'll be exclusively in black and white), but the hoods are now using tommyguns and the cameras look like something from the fifties.

And finally, I have long argued that Batman has one of the best dressed Rogues Galleries of any superhero. It'd be easy to wear tights and battle armor, but most of Batman's villains wear suits and tuxedos. It's a shame the first episode with the Joker doesn't have his purple zoot suit, but the green turtleneck under the orange cardigan (with optional breakaway hands) IS delightfully festive.

And so, in all, a great introduction of Batman's chief antagonist, their ongoing struggle, and Robin to boot. A Christmas miracle!

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

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).