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Thursday, September 17, 2015

Week of Review - Batman Beyond

Edited by Robert Beach

In 1999, DC and WB were staring down what could’ve been the end of their television dominance. Throughout the ‘90s, they had dominated awards shows and ratings with hits like Batman the animated series and the Superman show; a powerhouse combination that was easily able to compete with Marvel’s plethora of animated offerings at the time. As the ‘90s dwindled and both Batman and Superman capped off their individual runs, DC needed a new way to stay in the television game and maintain their grip on the cultural landscape. 

It’s worth remembering this comes 2 years after Batman & Robin basically torpedo DC’s movie holdings and only 1 year after Blade burst onto the scene to prove Marvel had movie capital to expend as well. DC set out on a number of attempts to reassert themselves. They produced the Gotham Girls web series I touched on a couple days ago and eventually settled into their epic Justice League series while on the live-action side they produced Smallville in 2001; however, the first of these attempts came in 1999 with Batman Beyond

Batman Begins 

In case you’ve never encountered the show before, Batman Beyond could best be described as the Star Trek: The Next Generation of Batman. Set nearly 50 years in the future after Bruce Wayne retired from crime fighting, another crime fighter takes the mantle. Luckily for him, most of Gotham’s super criminals are either dead or inactive, and their legacy has essentially become urban kitsch (as witnessed in the roving street gangs of Jokerz who’ve adopted the visuals and aesthetics of the clown prince of crime). 

The hero of the series is young Terry McGinnish; a 17-year-old high schooler whose father is killed when he became embroiled in the corporate espionage schemes of Derek Powers, a business mogul who absorbed Wayne Enterprises into his private company. After a series of coincidences and run-ins, Terry ends up donning the bat suit in order to avenge his father only to end up keeping the costume, protecting the city as its new Batman while Bruce provides guidance and logistical support from the bat cave.

Producer and animator Bruce Timm, the Godfather of the entire DC animated universe, has recalled the show was designed to be a more kid-friendly Batman show than the animated series was, and that certainly shines through. Terry is a fun protagonist and his quasi-antagonistic relationship with Bruce Wayne is the heart of the show, but the design of a lot of episodes feels like it deliberately skews younger, at least more relatable. A lot of this comes from the setting of Terry in high school leading to plots about stuff like bullying and steroids. Ironically though, the stuff that actually is driven by those core concepts ended up as some of the show’s best installments. 

Episodes ‘Golem’ and ‘Hidden Agenda’ are actually kind of unnerving in that they play out almost like superhero versions of school shootings. Both episodes revolve around students at Terry’s high school being pushed to the brink in some manner before taking violent action against their classmates; it’s all very affecting. Also, I’d be remise if I didn’t mention my absolute favorite episode ‘Sentries of the Last Cosmos’ in which a billionaire game developer sends a group of insane super fans on LARPing missions to assassinate his writing partners.

Senile Bruce 

There are also a handful of episodes relating to Bruce’s old enemies though that plot point doesn’t come up as often as it really should have.  The show does a feature the first animated appearances of obscure Batman foes Spellbinder and False Face (a one-off villain from the Adam West Batman show). That’s one of the show’s biggest problems watching it as an adult now. It wants to maintain continuity with the broader Batman mythos and the animated universe, even having the Justice League appear later in the show, but it doesn’t actually explore how superheroes might’ve shaped this new reality. The most depth we get is an exploration of how Bruce and Barbara Gordon’s relationship developed and eventually the two were romantically involved. Eventually, we learned Tim Drake’s fate in Return of the Joker while Dick Grayson was just never addressed in the series.

What’s more, it’s almost comical how much Bruce doesn’t mention about his past experiences, even when Terry is fighting incredibly similar foes. For instance, there’s an episode where Terry is fighting a cult of “splicers” ½ human ½ animal hoodlums. Even though Bruce’s rogues gallery included Killer Croc, Manbat, a werewolf, and a tiger-man, he just decided to keep all that to himself.  Probably the best iteration of the show’s attempts at broader world building and continuity is ‘Out of the Past’ which brings back Talia and Ras Al Ghul. It’s a great episode owing mainly to the writing work of Batman legend Paul Dini, though the return of David Warner as the voice of Ras Al Ghul is always great. What really sells the episode though is the opening in which Bruce and Terry go to a Batman musical in which Kevin Conroy does do the singing.  

Batman 2099

The show’s weakest point however comes from its reoccurring villains. It’s sort of an unspoken truth of Batman Beyond that it was…shall we say heavily inspired by the 1992 comic book series Spider-Man 2099, which transposed the wall crawler to a cyberpunk future. While the influence is negligible in the design of McGinnis himself, it’s practically unmissable in the series' core reoccurring villains.  

There was Inque, a sentient black goo with a white face ripped off from Venom; Stalker, a crazed hunter seeking to hunt Batman as the ultimate prey ripped off from Kraven; Blight, an evil businessmen who turned into a green Halloween monster and had a scheming son because he was a transparent Green Goblin knock-off. There’s even a very bizarre episode where the villains are a basically just the Fantastic Four. What’s worse is that all of the multi-episode villains are incredibly boring while more often than not the one-off foes were compelling and unique. Inque, who has no identity beyond just “criminal,” got 3 episodes while someone like Earthshaker, a vengeful geokinetic living corpse fossilized by toxic waste, only got 1.

Overall, rewatching Batman Beyond as an adult, not having gone back to the show since I first watched it as it happened, the show still holds up; however, I can’t help but think it could benefit from a soft reboot with a more expansive focus. Using the show as a way to zero in on the various plot points and characters that actually proved interesting, you could create a very engaging and well realized vision of the future with a greater sense of set-up. Even if such an idea never comes to pass, the original show is still a great watch and highly recommended.   

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