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Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Week of Review - Batman, The Animated Series

Edited by Robert Beach

In talking about Batman on TV there are essentially 2 shows you have to bring up. 2 shows that everyone, even none Batman fans, know about. The first one was the Adam West Batman show I talked about on Monday, and the other is today’s topic: Batman the animated series, even the very name of this series bares the weight of its importance. This isn’t just any Batman animated show; it’s THE animated series, and that’s forever how it will be known.

Name changes be damned, but we’ll get to that. In case you’ve somehow lived your life in blissful ignorance of this show, well, chances are you've probably been touched by it and didn’t even know it.  If you liked the Arkham video games, you have Batman the animated series to thank; if you liked Harley Quinn or Mr. Freeze, you have Batman the animated series to thank. Hell, if you’ve enjoyed any DC Comics animated adaptation or any of Mark Hammil’s post Star Wars work, you’ve got Batman the animated series to thank.  So, let’s discuss all its worst elements. 

I realize that might be a bit of a strange introduction point, so let’s take things slow. The series, started in 1992, was part of Warner Brothers fast-paced effort to capitalize on the monster success of 1989’s Batman. Given that tight connection, the Batman animated series tended to be run almost as a direct response to the management of the films. When it first premiered, run by animator Bruce Timm and writer Paul Dini, the mandate from DC was to give the show very free reign to be much more mature than nearly any other show on the air at the time. The thinking here came down to that same peculiar alchemy that informed the success of Ghostbusters 5 years earlier. Basically put, it’s painfully obvious DC/WB didn’t expect kids to be as big into Batman as they were, hence why the film is full of so much violence and adult content. Seeking to copy that success, the folks at Warner Brothers decided the show could be much more adult and much more creator driven; the same call they made with Batman Returns. 

Eventually, the show slipped into a moderately lighter tone in the third season wherein the name was changed from simply Batman to The Adventures of Batman & Robin. This was in direct response to the 1995 premiere of Batman Forever, which served to redefine the Batman brand, taking it in a more family-friendly manner. The Adventures of Batman & Robin era isn’t exactly bad so much as it’s bizarre, but we’ll get into that in a bit. The show’s 4th season came with a top-down visual redesign and took the show back to its moodier roots, though elements of the outlandishness of season 3 persisted. This was the season entitled The New Batman Adventures and was produced in direct response to the failure of Batman and Robin in 1997 as well as the developing DC animated universe.  

Overall, the show is a masterpiece: a perfect collision of extremely talented voice actors, wonderfully well-written scripts, beautiful animation and a great respect for the audience. Each season has something to offer. Seasons 1 and 2 are very character and story driven with a major psychological bent. Season 4 is a fun blend of Saturday morning cartoon mechanics draped up in Batman paraphernalia, and season 3 featured a lot of well constructed, if zany, adventures and set pieces.  However, what I think is really responsible for Batman the animated series’ unassailable reputation are the bad episodes. They are the perfect bad to fool your brain into thinking they’re great.

Each era of the show had its own unique bad episode. Seasons 1 and 2’s misfires all sprung from the show still finding its feet. Mainly, these episodes ended up largely boring or just generally off, owing to the plots being more toned down to try and match the late ‘80s action vibe of the film. Additionally, the show always had trouble with the Penguin character. They were under strict orders to portray him in a much lighter and more child-friendly style than any of the other villains, thanks to the outrage generated by Danny Devito’s portrayal of the character in Batman Returns. What saves these bad episodes is essentially what saves all the show’s worst installments: imagination. 

Take for instance ‘Prophecy of Doom,’ a tedious slog about Batman fighting a ridiculous false prophet named Nostromo. For the most part nothing happens, Nostromo is a dull villain. Then, the episode ends on a climactic battle through a giant-sized model of the solar system that actually moves and works. Even though the rest of the episode is a malingering mess that amazing set-piece finale completely saves it. A lot of these more tedious installments are saved that way, and those that aren’t are so boring they basically just fade from memory.  

On the flip side, there are the season 3 bad episodes. In the case of season 3’s mistakes, the issue was never dull storytelling, but rather complete lack of focus. As I said, season 3 was more oriented around weird action-adventure concepts than the broody, horror-noir aesthetic of the first couple seasons, so the third season episodes never lacked for creativity. In fact, it’s quite the opposite; season 3’s biggest problem is usually that the showrunners end up so dedicated to a crazy idea they don’t care if its not held together by any kind of well structured narrative. Stuff like ‘Silicone Soul’ that is based around the simple and compelling idea of a robot Batman while the plot careens completely off the rails going through what feels like 5 different plots in a row. 

That kind of completely unfocused plot but complete conceptual dedication ends up saving the episode because it’s still an enjoyable time because the emphasis isn’t on the narrative, it’s on the idea.  Honestly most of the show’s “worst” installments are like this, stuff like ‘Tyger, Tyger’ in which a mad scientist kidnaps Catwoman to take her to his private island and make her into a literal cat woman so she can mate with his tiger-man.  Again, the episode is completely ridiculous without anything even close to logical flow or reasonable motives but it sticks with you in a good way because of how insane the concept is.  These kind of episodes even extended into the surrounding seasons like ‘Christmas With The Joker’ from season 1 or ‘Critters’ from season 4, which featured giant mutant farm animals.  

None of this is to say that Batman the animated series is some overrated classic or anything. I love the show and its rightfully earned its place as the standard by which all other animated superhero series will be judged. It’s just worth noting that part of the reason the show remains an eternal classic and a bench mark for superhero animation is because it mastered the art of failing well. 

There are 4 additional Batman animated shows I’ll be looking at as part of week of review and none of them manage this bizarre slight of hand trick where even objectively terrible episodes can come out looking like real winners the longer they stay in your mind. 

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