A Beautiful Gory Display, Batman

A Beautiful Gory Display: The Animated Batman (Jul 16)

The new direct-to-DVD animated release, Batman: Gotham Knight, features six interconnected stories, each by a different creative team. Set in movie continuity, it bridges the gap between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, picking up plot points from the first movie, and introducing supporting characters from the second. Batman, of course, has a lengthy and distinguished career in animation, ranging from batting an evil baker to teaming up with an elderly version of himself to fight a time traveler.

Batman’s first animated appearance came in 1968. While the Adam West series was a hit for ABC, back in those pre-multimedia days, the producers failed to retain animations rights. Thus, CBS snapped up the rights for their Saturday morning lineup. Produced by Filmation, a long-time giant in TV animation, Batman’s adventures were paired with Superman cartoons for The Superman / Batman Hour. Only seventeen episodes were created, but they ran for years in various iterations, sometimes as a standalone series, sometimes paired with Aquaman cartoons.

These cartoons included most of Batman’s supporting cast, most of them voiced by Ted Knight. The actor played the Joker, Penguin, Riddler, and Commissioner Gordon, and also narrated each episode. That’s a lot of Ted Knight. Radio personality Casey Kasem provided Robin’s voice, which he would continue to do in various series up until 1986.

Batgirl and Alfred also made regular appearances, which was played much straighter than the live-action series. It was still pretty silly, but the villains were occasionally presented as legitimate threats, and Batman didn’t dance or surf. I loved this series as a kid, largely because occasionally all of the major villains would team up. True, they were all kind of written with the same personality, but still, Joker and the Penguin! Together! Having tracked down some clips and episodes online, well, it’s hard to get through.

As mentioned, the villains all have the same personality. Everybody’s broken down to their basic gimmick, and some of them are absolutely dire. The Scarecrow appears in several episodes, and it appears that his animated incarnation has the power to kill people with boredom. And if you happen to catch this series on Boomerang, and the Mad Hatter makes an appearance, for your own safety, leave the room. Don’t even get me started on Simon Pieman, who is only slightly less threatening than Strawberry Shortcake’s adversary.

Still, it was surprising to see Batman hit people. This series came just before the networks forbade that sort of interpersonal violence in animation. It’s not a shocking level of violence or anything, but I didn’t expect Batman to deck Mr. Freeze in a 1968 animated network series. Punching villains is always satisfying, frankly. Basically, I’m not actively angry at my younger self for liking it, but I didn’t get a warm feeling of nostalgia either.

Batman (and Robin) made their second cartoon appearances in 1972, on The New Scooby-Doo Movies. This was, if you recall, the Scooby-Doo series where the Mystery Inc. gang teamed up with various celebrities. You know, celebrities the kids of 1972 loved, like Phyllis Diller and Jerry Reed. If you can find episodes of this run, you should definitely watch them, because seeing Shaggy and Mama Cass together will blow your mind.

The Dynamic Duo made two appearances on the series, with the Joker serving as the villain both times. Weirdly, he’s a counterfeiter in the first appearance, which is consistent with, well, nothing that the character has ever done in any incarnation. (Though this does provide an opportunity to deduce that the five-dollar bills are phony, because “Abraham Lincoln never wore a turtleneck sweater.”) The Penguin also shows up for the second episode, in which he is captured by a deflated balloon.

These episodes are exactly as good as you’d expect, which is to say, not very. When Batman needs Velma to help decipher a clue, it’s not the Dark Knight’s finest hour. I do, however, recommend the episode where the Harlem Globetrotters appear, largely because there’s a scene where the entire team shares a bed.

Just one year later, Batman began his longest-running animation gig. Super Friends ran off an on from 1973-1986 with no less than eight different titles. The original series featured a team made up of Batman, Robin, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman, with their sidekicks, Wendy, Marvin, and Wonder Dog. Over the years, they picked up additional members, including Black Vulcan (original to the cartoon), who’s most notable for joining the cast of Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law, where he introduced the catchphrase “In my pants”.

Super Friends began during that dark period when the networks wouldn’t allow violence. This mean that the greatest superheroes ever spent most of their time talking mad scientists into seeing the error of their ways. The series was notable for the sheer number of characters it featured, especially the Challenge of the Super Friends incarnation which introduced the Legion of Doom (A team which included Batman enemies The Riddler and Scarecrow).

This was another largely bland series, but Batman did serve as the brains of the team. In general, this meant he was the one who learned facts about science and geography from the Justice League computer, but that’s more than Aquaman got to do. We also heard a lot about his martial arts abilities, but since Standards and Practices wouldn’t let him hit people, those abilities never actually came into play. Other than Superman, Batman was the most consistently featured menu, appearing in almost every episode for the entire run. (Oddly, he doesn’t appear in the only episode to feature the Penguin.)

For most of the series, Batman was voiced by Olan Soule, who provided his voice for The Superman / Batman Hour and The New Scooby-Doo Movies. For the last two seasons, though, Adam West replaced him. These seasons were more and more consumed by toy tie-ins, so Batman appeared more prominently at the beginning, when Kenner had Batmobiles to sell. As they went on, more obscure characters like Firestorm and Cyborg dominated the show, because they were in the newest set of action figures.

Interestingly, in the final season, an episode called “The Fear” featured the Scarecrow forcing Batman to relive the murder of his parents. It’s a surprisingly strong episode, especially considering they weren’t even allowed to suggest a gun or death, but it still gets the point across. It’s the first time Batman’s origin was portrayed outside of the comics, and it was written by Alan Burnett, who will become important later on.

During the run of Super Friends, Filmation produced a new Batman cartoon, The New Batman Adventures. From 1977-1981, two competing animated versions of Batman were airing on different networks. They did, however, have to split up the villains, which explains why the Joker never got to join the Legion of Doom.

Adam West and Burt Ward reprised their roles (in animated form) for this series. Sixteen episodes were produced, which ran for several seasons, often paired with other features to create an hour-long show. Despite the occasional presence of a magical imp named Bat-Mite, this was an almost respectful version of Batman and his supporting cast. Once again, violence is off the table, but this series was more creative about it than Super Friends. Most of the fight scenes feature Batman dodging various obstacles and then lassoing villains with a Batarang, but at least he doesn’t talk people out of evil.

The plots range from dopey to mildly clever, and Batman actually does some detective work on occasion. It’s actually surprisingly good for a 1970’s adventure cartoon. I’m not saying you should buy the DVD’s or anything, but it didn’t have me cringing all the way through. And I remember being quite traumatized as a kid when Clayface managed to get into the Batcave. I was seriously upset by that.

After a long break, Batman returned to TV in 1992’s Batman: The Animated Series. Boasting a streamlined style, a cool Art Deco influence, and top-notch voice talent (including Kevin Conroy, who nails the gruff Batman voice), this series was a legitimately high-quality enterprise, presenting the best version of Batman yet. Produced by Bruce Timm and Alan Burnett (Remember? He wrote the one good episode of Super Friends), the series assembled an all-star lineup of writers, including several who had written for the Batman comic books.

Originally airing on FOX, Batman: TAS benefited from much looser Standards and Practice guidelines. Basically, as long as nobody was actually killed onscreen, they could get away with it. (And some of those people Joker gassed looked pretty dead, if you ask me.) The series hit its stride early on with Heart of Ice, scripted by Paul Dini. Presenting the origin of Mr. Freeze, the episode was so widely acclaimed that the character’s comic origin was retroactively altered to match the TV show. The revised origin was also used in the live-action Batman and Robin, only they found a way to make it suck.

Running for 109 episodes on two networks (including a brief primetime run on FOX), Batman: TAS was consistently well-written and beautifully animated. The series revitalized forgotten villains like the Mad Hatter, who was interesting and tragic for the first time in 40 years, and introduced characters who latter became important parts of the comic continuity, like Harley Quinn (the Joker’s girlfriend) and Detective Montoya. All told, the series presents my personal favorite version of Batman. Adam West even made an appearance, this time as the actor who portrayed “The Gray Ghost”, a young Bruce Wayne’s favorite TV show.

The success of the series led to the theatrical release of the excellent Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. Set in the same continuity as the series, the movie was released with limited marketing in December of 1993. It wasn’t a theatrical success, but sold incredibly well when it came out on video. (Remember when they used to make those?) The movie featured the Joker (voiced by Mark Hamill) and new villain Phantasm, and is miles better than any Bat-film that is not directed by Christopher Nolan.

As the series neared the end of its run, the creative team produced a spin-off, Batman Beyond. Set 40 years after Batman: The Animated Series, Bruce Wayne is an elderly recluse whose failing health makes it impossible for him to continue his mission. Teenaged Terry McGinnis takes up the mantle in a modified, hi-tech Batsuit. Bruce Wayne (again played by Kevin Conroy) serves as his mentor, and he’s the best part of the show.

Batman Beyond aimed a little younger, going for fast-paced science fiction over the more psychological style of the previous series. Beyond still occasionally achieved excellence, and was at the very least, consistently good. Still, McGinnis was never as compelling as Bruce Wayne, and I reject the idea of anybody besides Wayne being called “Batman”. Still, it’s exciting and well-done, and elderly Bruce Wayne whacking thugs with his cane is fantastic, no matter how you look at it. Batman Beyond had a spinoff of its own, The Zeta Project, but since it was entirely free of Batman, we can move on.

In 2001, the Batman: TAS producers and writers re-teamed for Justice League. In this series, the already-established version of Batman (Kevin Conroy once again) formed a team with Superman (fresh off his own series from the same creators), Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkgirl, and the Martian Manhunter. Despite a superficial resemblance to Super Friends, the storytelling and quality was much more in step with The Animated Series.

Generally, Batman didn’t appear in the episodes featuring visits to alien worlds or encounters with mythological pantheons. In fact, he insisted throughout the series that he wasn’t a full-time member, but he tended to dominate the episodes in which he did appear. Batman needs to be portrayed as hyper-competent in order to justify his inclusion in a team that includes Superman and a guy with a magic ring. Generally, this means outthinking the rest of the group, and occasionally using his scary-guy persona to intimidate everybody. His more powerful teammates defer to him because Batman is always right. The series is a lot of fun, with a strong portrayal of Batman consistent with what we’ve come to expect.

In the third season, Justice League became Justice League Unlimited, bringing dozens of new heroes to the team. Even on a team with more than fifty members, Batman still came to dominate several episodes, notably taking on the entire US Government in a multi-episode arc, and his logo is, in fact, the last image of the final episode, ending a five-year run of Justice League and a fourteen-year run of the creative team’s version of the Dark Knight.

The Justice League Unlimited episodes didn’t feature any of Batman’s villains or supporting cast. The team eventually came to include such luminaries as Vibe (a breakdancing themed hero), but no Robin. And this means that the Joker once again missed a chance to join the Legion of Doom. This was because, for the second time, two different studios were producing simultaneous and contradictory versions of Batman.

The Batman began in 2004 on The WB. Starring voice actor Rino Romano (only the fourth person to voice Batman since 1968), the series aimed at a younger audience by making Bruce Wayne younger and hipper. This wasn’t entirely successful, since Batman’s too cool to be hip. References to raves and blogs didn’t make Bruce Wayne more relatable; it just made him seem slightly out of date.

The design of Batman was based on the Bruce Timm version, but slimmer and less appealing. The villains really fared poorly, as many of the classic characters were contorted beyond recognition. Rastafarian Joker, Goth Riddler, and Karate Master Penguin didn’t fit the established characters, and the new versions didn’t add anything worth justifying the changes. Despite some nice voice work from Tom Kenny and Ron Perlman, the series was mediocre and a disappointment after the stellar work on Batman’s previous series.

The final season, which ended in March of 2008, featured Batman teaming up with a different hero in almost every episode. This relegated Batman to the role of supporting character on his own show. As much as I like The Flash, it’s not his name on the door. It might have worked better if it hadn’t been the final season, and if it hadn’t been every episode. It made it seem as if the writers had gotten bored with Batman, which took away all of the fun. Despite some last-minute tweaks to the mythology and some story help from Alan Burnett, The Batman started out weak and never really picked up.

Batman made a brief appearance in the enjoyable direct-to-DVD feature, The New Frontier. Set in the late 1950’s, it features largely period-accurate versions of the main DC characters. The story focuses primarily on Green Lantern, but Batman (voiced by Jeremy Sisto) shows up to take down a temple full of cultists, prove the existence of extraterrestrial life on Earth, and develop a way to destroy a Lovecraftian horror from the depths of the Earth. Keep in mind, Batman does all of this in a story where he’s not the star. Batman gets the job done, people.

Finally, we have the new DVD release. Batman: Gotham Knight is an interesting experiment. Besides the anthology format and the adherence to movie continuity, each installment is done in an anime style. Unfortunately, I hate Japanese animation. The storytelling conventions don’t make sense to me, I can’t follow the action, and the faces freak me out. As soon as I see a giant oval mouth or spiky hair, it’s time to turn off Adult Swim and go to bed. However, my love of Batman is greater than my desire to punch people who won’t shut up about how I’m not sophisticated enough to understand Akira.

Since each segment has a different director, each portrayal of Batman is different. Some resemble the movie costume, a couple use an anime version of the Bruce Timm designs, and one makes Bruce Wayne look like that guy from Pokemon. My eyeballs rebelled at a lot of the animation, mostly any scene that had people talking, but there were some nice action scenes, and the muted color palette worked out better than I expected. And even better, Kevin Conroy returns as the voice of Batman. That always makes me feel like I’m watching the real Batman.

Not all of the six segments are completely satisfying. One features a group of kids telling stories about Batman, and all of their accounts present a different version of the hero. First, that exact plot had been used by Batman: The Animated Series. Second, in a format that presents multiple Batman designs, a segment confirming that there are indeed multiple ways to view Batman is largely unnecessary. The second segment is much better, follows up from the end of Batman Begins, with Gotham Police transporting an escaped prisoner back to Arkham Asylum. This short, written by longtime Batman writer Greg Rucka, introduces gang boss Sal Maroni and Detective Ramirez, both of whom appear in The Dark Knight.

Segment three is done in a full-on anime style, which makes it hard for me to review, since my eyes were bleeding. It was plotted well, but the script was clunky. The fourth segment, written by Dark Knight co-writer David Goyer, features the Scarecrow. This story was solid, and definitely the most exciting. Next up was my favorite short, with a grievously wounded Batman trapped in the sewers. It features a flashback to Bruce Wayne’s younger days traveling the world, and fits the movie portrayal surprisingly well. Finally, Alan Burnett scripts a tale about Deadshot, an assassin hired to kill Batman. This segment boasted a couple of great monologues, and a stylish fistfight atop a subway train.

While not perfect, or even particularly necessary, Gotham Knight is enjoyable and a worthy addition to Batman’s animated canon. It doesn’t measure up to The Animated Series, but it’s certainly on the high side of the curve.

And that’s Batman’s animated career. I didn’t realize until I started writing this that 2008 marks the 40th anniversary of Batman’s first appearance as a cartoon. Clearly, some kind of celebration is in order, possibly catered by a certain evil pieman… Or not.

Share Button

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *