You gotta feel a little sorry for The Batman. Coming out after Batman: The Animated Series but before Batman: The Brave and the Bold, it suffers from chronic Middle Child Syndrome. “Oh, everyone loves The Animated Series for its dark, sophisticated and groundbreaking storytelling and everyone thinks Brave and the Bold is so adorable with its little pre-title vignettes and all the crazy Silver Age ideas and obscure characters! But what about ME? Everything’s always MARSHA! MarshaMarshaMARSHA!”
Sandwiched between those two wildly different interpretations of the Dark Knight, The Batman certainly does feel a little awkward for it. On one hand, it wants to be a gritty and intelligent look at the psychological aspects of Batman’s adventures with daring plots and grim consequences, but then it also wants to be a fun and lighter take on the character where he eats enchiladas, pilots a giant robot and has kung-fu battles with the Penguin. The Batman wanted to be both kinds of shows and while it did strike that necessary balance from time to time, mostly it was a whole lot of nonsense and Greg Weisman phoning it in while waiting for that Spectacular Spider-Man gig to come along.
Perhaps its greatest hurtle during its initial run, though, was just the fact that it was the successor to the DC Animated Universe and that meant it was going to have a lot of guys in their early twenties who were going to hate it simply for existing. The fact that it ran concurrently with the last season of Justice League Unlimited, resulting in the infamous “Bat-Embargo” surely didn’t help (the Bat-Embargo prevented Batman’s supporting characters and villains from appearing in JLU as The Batman had exclusivity rights to them).
Rastafarian Joker was also a challenge.
But now that both the DCAU and The Batman are but memories distanced by years and a multitude of newer cartoons and straight-to-video animated films clogging our DVRs, I think it’d be a good idea to discard the bitterness of the Bat-Embargo and judge The Batman against its holy brethren of the 1990s, Batman: The Animated Series, a bit more objectively.
Okay, so even objectively, Batman: The Animated Series wipes the floor with The Batman; like Hell I’m here to argue that. Instead, I think the safer activity to pursue is determining what aspects of the Caped Crusader’s mythos The Batman actually succeeded over Batman: The Animated Series in adapting and improving upon. Yes, The Batman did indeed pull some things off better than Batman: The Animated Series, or at least it did in my opinion, so let’s take a look at a few of them.
Grab a parasol ’cause there’s about to be a shit-storm.
Batman: The Animated Series was good at dredging up goofy or forgotten villains from Batman’s history and reworking them with pathos, dignity and whatever word is the antonym for “retarded”. Their reimagined version of Mr. Freeze not only won an Emmy, but it overwrote the source material and has since been adopted by the DC comics. Then you’ve also got guys like the Clock King and Professor Milo, whom I don’t think anyone gives a shit about beyond their episodes of this TV series.
The Batman tried its hand at reviving obscure villains, too. Some were miserable failures (Prank and the Wrath come to mind), but in some cases where both The Animated Series and The Batman put their own spin on Z-listers, The Batman actually came out on top.
There are a few major cases in point, but the lesser amongst them is probably Firefly. The Animated Series (or, more specifically, its rebranded years as “The New Batman Adventures“), in its relentless pursuit of utter darkness and psychological ruin, presented Firefly as not only pyromaniac and serial arsonist, but a depraved stalker, as well. His introductory episode is forgettable and his character equally so; you can’t pull a Mr. Freeze with every character no matter how hard you try. The Batman‘s interpretation fit closer with the show’s dedication to bombastically-choreographed action sequences and action figure-friendly technology and accessories over deep-seeded psychological complexes brought on by childhood trauma and unrequited love.
The Batman‘s Firefly was just a corporate saboteur for hire who flew around on a jetpack and talked with Jason Marsden’s Voice #2 (his generic “hot shot” voice). He facilitated some excellent action sequences and his introductory episode was memorable for being fun; Batman trying and failing over and over again to build a jetpack as good as Firefly’s. Okay, not exactly Emmy material… unless there’s a “Best Jetpack Episode” category I don’t know about (and there really ought to be).
Seriously, Marsden has two voices: Max from A Goofy Movie and Not-Will-Friedle.
The writers got a double-whammy out of him later in the series, as he turned into the show’s interpretation of z-list Bat-villain Doctor Phosphorous. This episode actually provided the smidgen of psychological depth his character had been lacking as his newfound medical condition experts refer to as “Holy Shit My Skeleton Is On Fire” brought with it insanity and his girlfriend decided to dump him.
Dr. Hugo Strange is one of Batman’s oldest recurring villains, having been created in the 1940s (he was then promptly forgotten about for thirty years before being revived by Steve Englehart in the 70s, but that’s beside the point). Alas, he’s never really qualified as an A-lister alongside the ranks of the Joker or Two-Face or even a B-lister chillin’ with Mad Hatter and Scarecrow or even a C-lister picking up unemployment checks with Mr. Zsaz and Calendar Man. The only thing keeping the guy from being bathroom buddies with Killer Moth is the fact that every fifteen years or so a writer uses him for a quick story arc or miniseries that’s totally awesome and then everyone forgets about him again.
He disappeared for 30 years because Batman punched him off a fucking cliff.
Strange appeared in all of one episode of The Animated Series; a rather brutalized adaptation of Englehart’s Hugo Strange story from the 70s. He was a one-shot villain with no real charm or gimmick; if you weren’t familiar with him in the comic you’d almost think he was a generic bad guy the writers made up and then discarded like, I dunno, that dude who ran the crooked planetarium that hypnotized people.
The Batman, however, saw the potential in Hugo Strange to not only be a threatening, major, RECURRING villain, but a villain worthy of being built from the ground up and slowly introduced into the series; an honor shared only by Clayface in that series, I believe. Strange was initially brought in as an administrator of Arkham Asylum with a decided interest in Batman, his identity, what makes him tick and so on. It took several episodes for him to really be transformed into a “super villain”, but instead of being a physical threat his menace was purely psychological. The episode “Strange New World” is a series highlight, being one of The Batman‘s smartest episodes with a really bitchin’ twist.
Hugo Strange wouldn’t be treated with such grandeur again until the Arkham City video game and it’s still an irritation of mine that he’s yet to be adopted by the comic as a headlining member of Batman’s rogues gallery. If a show like The Batman can prove what potential he has, then what’s everybody else’s excuse?
Batman: The Animated Series is the most criminal waste of Adrienne Barbeau since the Swamp Thing movie (DC comics hasn’t been too good to Adrienne Barbeau).
The mistake I felt The Animated Series made was that it focused too heavily on the wrong aspect of Catwoman’s character: her ecological agenda. Coming out at the same time as Captain Planet and the Planeteers, I almost got the feeling the writers felt obligated to have at least one stuffy environmentalist in the show (or one that wasn’t Poison Ivy, anyway). Nearly every episode Catwoman starred in revolved around her battle against eco-terrorists Red Claw or simply her obsession with protecting wildlife habitats and thwarting vivisection labs. She was only a “cat-burglar” because she wanted to steal riches from evil industrialists to finance her war on deforestation.
Give her a Russian accent and suddenly she’s Linka.
Catwoman’s supposed to be fun and flirty and energetic with a slightly skewed moral compass and a preference for feline company over homo sapien. Yes, she cares about ecology and animal preservation (which The Batman acknowledged from time to time), but it isn’t the end-all, be-all of her character. Sometimes the girl just steals jewels for the thrill of it.
The Batman‘s Catwoman retained the bubbling sexual tension between the characters and the “she’s a villain but not that bad of a villain” characteristics, but every conversation didn’t end with a lecture on corporate fat-cats (that pun was an accident). She was all about the adrenaline and the challenge involved in stealing certain rare artifacts (her three-way scuffle with Batman and Ragdoll in the mechanisms of a clock tower is one of the best action sequences in the whole series) and her every appearance wasn’t ruled by some network mandate regarding ecological awareness to get the kiddies to give a shit about panda habitats.
Stepping away from spotlighting character improvements, I think the most admirable and inarguable virtue The Batman held over Batman: The Animated Series is that the animation quality of the series was far, far more consistent.
Now, I’m not talking about preferences toward art style, such as Bruce Timm’s character designs vs. Jeff Matsuda’s or even an argument about which show had the best backgrounds and environments (The Animated Series pioneered a style called “dark-deco” while The Batman pioneered a style called “why the fuck is the sky green?”). No, I’m talking technical and congruous quality in the actual animation of the series from episode to episode.
If you subjected yourself to my recent retrospective on Tiny Toon Adventures, you might recall that I mentioned the show’s habit of outsourcing animation to six different overseas studios, each with their own wildly different takes on the character designs, animation framerates, action staging, storyboard adherence and so on. Well, Batman: The Animated Series had precisely the same problem. While the dark-deco aesthetic remained constant across the whole series and really helped to mask the unique quirks of the many different studios, a more discerning eye can tell when one episode has been drawn by somebody else. Even as a child, I could tell when one episode had been done by “the good studio” and others had been done by “not the good studio”.
This is from The Good Studio. Trust me.
While episodes by Tokyo Movie Shinsha were routinely gorgeous (“On Leather Wings” and “Feat of Clay, Part II” are incredible), most episodes were not done by them. Some episodes were done by studios with outrageously spastic styles evident in the bouncy and elastic character movement (try to sit through “Day of the Samurai”). Others were just dull and failed to “pop”, offering nothing beyond the dark-deco design to catch the eye. Instances of downright ugly or incompetent animation were rare, but they still happened from time to time (look at the Hanna Barbara-esque scene where Batman chases Two-Face down a hallway in “Two-Face, part II”).
Now, complain all you want about Jeff Matsuda’s unorthodox character redesigns, but you cannot argue that The Batman‘s quality of animation between Episode 1 and Episode 65 was not only consistent, but consistently good. It had the luxury of being animated from start to finish by a single solitary studio: Dong-Woo, one of the most popular animation studios in Korea (and they happen to be really damn good, too). There are no weird moments where a character is supposedly trying to drink a glass of juice but because the animator can’t convey that sense of movement, the character looks like they’re staring awkwardly into a beaker of orange cel paint. And best of all, the quality doesn’t fluctuate from episode to episode between glorious highs and catastrophic lows. It’s a stable B+ all the way through.
THE BATGIRL-ROBIN TEAM-UP
Batman: The Animated Series really didn’t do the most that they could with the relationship between Batgirl and Robin. When Batgirl was initially introduced in the series, she hardly interacted with Dick Grayson at all (I think they both went to the same college and were unaware of each other’s secret identities) and was only in three episodes before the series was rebranded as The New Batman Adventures. She became a major character by then, but Grayson had become Nightwing at that point and abandoned the Bat-family and the majority of the history of his relationship with Barbara was shown in a flashback in one episode. They had an on again/off again romance going on, but it was fairly shallow. Meanwhile, I can scarcely think of any stand-out interactions between Batgirl and the younger Tim Drake-Robin of the show, either; most of Batgirl’s best moments were in solo adventures or with Batman.
Pictured: Best Moment.
With its third season, The Batman decided it was time to start introducing the sidekicks to the show, but found themselves getting a taste of their own medicine: Teen Titans had its own “Robin Embargo” and the character was not available. Thus, they introduced Batgirl first. Robin would come a season later when Teen Titans ended.
The fact that they introduced Batman’s gunfire decoys in reverse order actually enhanced their dynamic in the series. Batgirl was Batman’s first sidekick, but then Robin shows up as Batman’s adopted son and now there’s a big competition between the two. Their verbal sparring was fun and typically good-natured and they had an almost “Statler and Waldorf” way of heckling the henchmen and villains of the series that was genuinely amusing; way more amusing than Robin’s often irritating lone wisecracks. The bit where they piss Black Mask off by trying to guess how ugly his face is was pretty great.
I never really got to experience the Barbara Gordon/Dick Grayson dynamic in the comics, as Dick had already become Nightwing and Barbara had already become Professor X by the time I got into the books. Of course, the considerable age gap kept them from retaining their romantic angle in The Batman, but their humorous competition more than made up for it.
Really? Only five things? I thought there’d be more than that.
To The Batman‘s credit, though, even when it couldn’t outdo its older sibling that didn’t mean its interpretations of characters or stories were terrible. Their Marilyn Manson-like, Robert Englund-voiced take on the Riddler couldn’t have been any more different from The Animated Series’ refined, John Glover-voiced, suit-wearing version, but both were great in radically different ways. It had a phenomenal voice cast (thanks to Andrea Romano’s voice direction; she also did The Animated Series) and when it really, really wanted to, some episodes could be as cerebral and/or emotional as the best The Animated Series had to offer; “Seconds” is a high-concept tear-jerker while “The Laughing Bat” is one of the best Joker stories ever written for any medium.
It squanders some of its best ideas (Clayface has nowhere to go after he’s created while Officer Yin vanishes without a trace when Gordon shows up) and has plenty of stupid episodes (you will learn to hate the Penguin and Tom Kenny alongside him), but the five seasons and that movie where Batman fights Dracula for some reason all average out to a good series. And I think we can all appreciate it a bit more now that the DCAU is dead and our butt-hurt has healed.
Yeah, Batman: The Animated Series was better, but it’s time to move on with our lives, people!
But making Poison Ivy a teenager was kinda fucked up.
Want to decide for yourself? Pick up The Batman: The Complete Series (Seasons 1-5) from Amazon.