It’s Batman day, for all intents and purposes, with the release of The Dark Knight Rises. With that in mind, I’d like to start a new series. Since finishing my chapter-by-chapter review of The Lord of the Rings I’ve been looking for something else to do the same with. Well this is it. I’ll be hoping to keep this updated semi-frequently, not as strictly as the LotR series, but with enough commitment to see it through.
Batman: The Animated Series, B:TAS for short, is one of the most critically acclaimed pieces of western animation in history. Starting in the wake of Tim Burton’s Batman, B:TAS became the longest running Batman-related media outside of the actual comic books, that spawned 109 episodes, several movies, and was the launching point for several other DC animated properties.
I’ll be focusing just on the episodes, in the style of Mike Amato on Me Blog, Write Good: Listing Director/writers, main themes, continuing with a short synopsis before a brief 500 word review with additional tidbits afterwards. All clear? Let’s begin with the pilot.
On Leather Wings
It only needs one more component to complete the process. It’s in me…
Air Date: 6/9/92
Director: Kevin Altieri
Writer: Mitch Brian
Themes: Transformations, Family Secrets, Playing God, Mistaken Identity, Occupational Rivalry
Villain: Kirk Langstrom/Man-Bat
Synopsis: A mysterious bat-like monster terrorises Gotham, leading to suspicion and a police crackdown on the masked vigilante Batman. Wayne’s investigations lead to Phoenix Pharmaceuticals and a family hiding a dark secret.
Review: So here’s our pilot and we jump straight into the Batman ethos without any origin story for the caped crusader himself. The creative team seem to have trusted in the audience enough to know that it wasn’t necessary (and maybe they were saving it for a movie, as the origin was eventually told in detail during Mask of the Phantasm). We don’t get a whole load of active characterisation of anyone here, and the plot is a very basic monster/transformation story.
That being said, it’s still done quite well. We have a dual threat for Batman in the form of the mysterious “Man-Bat” and the anti-Batman sections of the GCPD headed by the brash Detective Bullock. There is a straightforward but decent plot structure in place, as we get enticing set-up in the form of the Man-Bat’s attacks and the in-fighting at the GCPD, building to dramatic conclusions to both the first and second acts to keep the audience hooked, without recourse to over the top set pieces.
Batman embarks on a crime scene investigation related to the first plot, stumbling, amateur-like, into a police ambush of the second plot, tying them together neatly. After escaping that situation with characteristic skill, he moves on to the main focus of the whole episode, a family mystery angle.
We have the March/Langstrom family that is hiding something clearly, as the Bruce Wayne persona charms his way across the screen in a way that is startling to see in animation. The whole thing with this scientist family is a bluff that is painfully obvious to anyone above the primary target demographic for a Batman cartoon, as we are subjected to the maniacal ramblings of the family patriarch when discussing the treatment of bats. I wouldn’t say it was lazy, just very obvious. The suave-ish son-in-law with a first name and more distinct animation details is clearly a bit important and few are going to be fooled into thinking that Doctor Marsh, protesting way too much, is the actual antagonist.
Moreover, this whole sequence, in conjunction with the noir and 1930’s feel of the series definitively characterises B:TAS in general as a detective show that just so happens to also involve some superhero-elements, not the other way around. This show is about Batman investigating the story of the week using his intelligence, before using his fists in a finale, not throughout the length and breath of the episode.
Batman uses his computers to determine that a fib is being told (leading to the first “glare of death”) and heads back to the pharmaceutical company in his superhero gear. The confrontation with Langstrom has a decent degree of tension, heightened by the fairly horrific transformation sequence, which reminded me of Maleficent of Sleeping Beauty. The outcome of the family mystery angle was always in sight, but the clarity of it is made up for in the monstrosity that Batman is faced with as Act Two comes to an end.
As will become typical of the B:TAS structure, our Act Three is almost entirely the “final fight”. Most of these early episodes will focus on a mini-origin story for every villain, with around two fight scenes, the longest being in the final minutes. I say “fight scene”, but what we get here is more of a modified chase, as the action comes from Batman just clinging to a rope wrapped around Man-Bat’s leg as they swoop through the city. In truth, more tension and interest might be provoked by the clash between Commissioner Gordon and Bullock during these final sequences, with most of the dialogue of the episode going to that “B” plot.
It is all wrapped up very quickly as Batman overcomes Langstrom and returns him to his wife. Man-Bat seems to have been chosen as the first villain – over someone more traditionally associated with Batman, like the Joker – because of the contrast it created. The creators wanted to introduce us to a world where Batman is still a new force and the authorities are jumping at every shadow and dubbing it the vigilante. Lots of opportunities for that with a bad guy like Man-Bat, who has the added bonus of being something new to entice early audiences with. It would have been easy to go with the Joker, or Penguin or Riddler, but that’s not what the Bruce Timm-led production team went with. They weren’t interested in an easy ride, and that trend would continue. Still, Langstrom is not weighed down with fleshed out good aims and motivations which severely weakens him as a villain, or as a sympathetic figure by episodes end.
-The very first scene established the bluff angle that the episode would take, as the police get confused between a sighting of Man-Bat and the possible involvement of Batman, mirroring Bruce Wayne’s mistaken assumption that Professor March was the bad guy in the main plot.
-The security guard who gets thrown out a window by Man-Bat is a great example of limited but effective characterisation in animation: in just a few seconds of him recording himself on tape, we learn that he’s a goofball, has a bad sense of humour and is pretty terrible/uncaring about his job.
-The scientist couple making out in the hallway is a little bit similar, in that it is fairly unimportant to the overall plot but establishes a living, breathing universe.
-The Mayor’s office scene introduces us to Gordon, Bullock and Harvey Dent, and makes do with ”show” rather than “tell”. Bullock is the polar opposite to Gordon – messy hair, creased clothes, loose tie, toothpick in mouth, overweight, slamming his fist in the table. We can learn a lot about Bullock from just that, over anything he actually says. Harvey Dent on the other hand, is calm, well dressed, casual, almost uncaring about what is being discussed in his stance and demeanour. B:TAS is good at this kind of characterisation.
-Batman reading out loud the headline of the newspaper is pretty groan inducing.
–B:TAS quickly sets itself apart from the grimmer interpretations of the Batman character by having Wayne joke casually with Alfred in the batcave about his entanglements with women in his public persona. I really like these simple touches, which show Wayne letting the walls down a bit around his closest friend.
-As the Batmobile goes off into the city for the first time we get the first swelling of the famous B:TAS main theme, which is all kinds of awesome for setting the tone.
-The creators take their time to show Batman as the detective, not just the crime fighter, which is important to establish as early as possible. He’s a walking forensics lab and knows how to find clues, extrapolate their meaning, and follow them up.
-Connected to that, and illustrating some intelligent plot structure, the stupid joke recording the security guard made early on is found and becomes a vital piece of the unfolding mystery. These kind of links are important.
-The two action scenes revolve around the ingenuity and athleticism of the dark knight, not outright violence, which is almost refreshing to see considering the more modern way of portraying superheroes in animation. Batman barely throws a punch here, but he still comes off as a very dangerous individual.
-The divide between Batman and Bruce Wayne is achieved by more than just a change in voice tone. Wayne smiles, wears plain pastels, jokes and puts the charm on everybody, a really good playboy act. Him eyeing up the stereotypical hot scientist girl might be more than just an act though.
-Rene Auberjonois (Odo from DS9 and loads of other stuff) voices some of the SWAT guys and Professor March, the first of many roles that he’ll wind up playing. He does a good job too. Nothing compares to Kevin Conroy as Batman/Bruce Wayne though, who stepped into the role as easily as he is still doing today.
-The tiniest thing like a brief pause in one of Kirk Langstrom’s lines is enough to implicate him in the mind of the audience, and make useless the attempts to throw us off with March’s crazy rants about bats.
-As Batman confronts Kirk Langstrom, the scientist passes behind a lab beaker that distorts his face momentarily. It’s obvious “Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde” imagery of a hidden monster, that whole sub-plot exemplified by Man-Bat’s shamed reaction to his wife’s presence after his transformation. It screams cliché.
-The flyby that Man-Bat and Batman undertaken around and over the GCPD blimp is a gorgeous bit of animation.
Overall, a solid but not especially spectacular opening episode that defines our key players, tone and style in simple enough terms.
To see the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.