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Sunday, September 20, 2015

Week of Review - Batman: The Brave and The Bold

In the history of Batman the character has had three major flashpoints wherein he achieved mainstream prevalence and wide scale importance.  The first was in 1966 with the Adam West TV show, the second was in 1989 with Tim Burton’s Batman, and the third was in 2008 with the release of Dark Knight.  I’ve often referred to the 4 year period from 2007-2010 as the definitive years of the 2010s and the explosion of popularity Batman enjoyed over that period is integral to understanding the superhero dominated landscape that we now live in.  Obviously enough Batman had been present outside the comics in the previous years of the 2000s be it through the Justice League show or his The Batman cartoon but 2008 brought Batman to a mass audience like never before.  Dark Knight represented a moment of transcendence for Batman in a way he never really achieved in the mainstream before; it was the moment people realized Batman didn’t have to be meaningless. 
Batman ’89 and Dark Knight Returns had established Batman wasn’t just for kids but Dark Knight showed the entire world that you could tell a Batman story that was driven by a defining ethos and ideology with a point behind it.  Couple that with the success of Iron Man’s winning combination of fidelity, continuity, and character introspection and the ensuing cocktail of geek cinema in 2008 basically set the stage for everything that would come after.  So, when DC chose to capitalize on this success with a new Batman cartoon it only makes sense they’d go lighter and more kid friendly than ever before.  

I honestly don’t know the actual reasoning behind the show taking a lighter tone but for whatever reason I’m glad they did.  As pleasing as it was for Dark Knight to introduce mainstream audiences to the idea that superheroes could be “about stuff” the cost of that realization was the ugly stripping down and sterilization of the a lot of the key weirdness that makes so many comic book characters unique and worth adapting in the first place.  There’s nothing wrong with Nolan’s bone thin, ultra realistic take on Batman it’s just an aesthetic sensibility that’s very easy to get wrong and is far too often used as a crutch to imply meaning without actually developing it, like in the recent and awful Fantastic Four film. 
In any event Batman: Brave and the Bold was a decidedly lighter incarnation of Batman drawing more from his silver age roots than any previous incarnation of the character, even more than Adam West’s Batman if we’re being honest.  Adam West’s Batman is very much what Batman: Brave and the Bold drew influence from though the style was a little bit more family friendly and the animated format affords it a greater range of capability.  Each episode is formatted into two sections: a brief opening adventure followed by the main story of Batman teaming up with another superhero.  The show tended to favor more obscure heroes or at the very least eschewed indulging in the A-listers for the predominance of its run.  

The peculiar thing about Batman: The Brave and the Bold is that I think its lightness has actually been greatly exaggerated.  It’s still a lighter tone of show but it’s got more than its fair share of darker elements and story lines, to the point that it featured major, unquestionable character death within the first 10 episodes.  My contention is that the show’s perceived lightness, though present, wasn’t the main thing that led to its mass popularity.  The same way I acknowledge the series incredibly fidelity to silver age comics, often recreating storylines whole sale from the classic comics, I don’t think that’s core to understanding why Batman: Brave and the Bold wasn’t just good but important.  Batman: The Brave and the Bold became a lasting and cherished adaptation of Batman because more than the comedic tone and affectionate fidelity it’s a show that was truly aware of who and what Batman is.
This ties into something I brought up all the way back in the Batman ’66 review but I’ll reiterate it again here.  Within the comic fan community there’s a major cult of personality that’s formed around Batman and at the heart of that obsession are a group of things I call the myths of Batman.  I’m not referring to key elements of iconography or plot points of his origin, rather false contentions that people hold up to prove Batman is what they want him to be rather than what he truly is.  Myths of Batman are things like he could defeat anything or anyone if he “had time to plan,” or that Batman was always meant for adults and people just got it wrong.  The most quintessential myth of Batman, however, is that he works alone.  This more than anything defines the knee-jerk love of Batman that everyone has.  When you ask people why they love Batman and they say it’s because he has no super powers that’s not really why they love him because there are dozens of other heroes without powers who aren’t anywhere near as big.  People like Batman because, in the Myth of Batman, he does it alone, he doesn’t need any help.  

Obviously that’s not true, Batman has always needed help from his very inception, Batman was never alone. Batman doesn't work alone, Batman needs help every night, Batman can't do it all by himself, this is the fundamental truth of Batman nerd culture has been denying for decades, and it’s the central truth that Batman: The Brave and the Bold completely embraces.  That awareness of the truth of Batman extends to breaking the mold on nearly all the other central myths of the character.  This isn’t Batman, the brooding loner who fights murderers so that adult fans can feel less insecure about buying comic books; this is Batman, kid’s hero.  This same contention even extends to the show’s structure, as the framing usually casts Batman as a supporting character, there to facilitate the heroics of his comrades.  That kind of self-awareness affords the show a sense of both confidence and tongue-in-cheek fun.  Wearing its identity right on its sleeve the show is able to come at things like Batman having a laser sword in his bat shaped spaceship with the same level of gravitas and seriousness that it affords Batman hunting down the man who killed his parents.  It’s a fine line that balances purposefully indulging in outdated dialogue and verbose diction as a means of mocking it while also paying sincere homage to the time said dialogue and diction originated in. 
Even without all of the more compelling deconstructions of the Myths of Batman, Batman: Brave and the Bold is still an amazing show in its own right.  The voice acting is absolutely great, Diedrich Bader is one of the all time best Batmen, easily standing alongside Conroy, West, and Keaton.  In fact, there’s an especially great episode that features voice work from Adam West, Bader, and Kevin Conroy all together and the three actually have amazing chemistry.  Additional voice acting is all solid too, with special mention going to John DiMaggio’s Aquaman who was a real breakout character for the show.  The artwork is heavily stylized but it works very well for the show’s stylistic approach.  Most of all though, the show radiates with energy and passion from everyone involved which really elevates it from just another Batman cartoon to a really fun and engaging experience. 

Ultimately Batman: The Brave and The Bold was the right show for the right time, an incredibly subversive and comical look at the dark knight that ran so counter to the mainstream interpretation of the character it would come off as transgressive if it wasn’t so accurate to the source material.  There’s a tendency to write this version of Batman off after the recent Lego Movie version of the character, voiced by Will Arnett, delivered a similar take but where Arnett’s Batman was a cynical, satirical dressing down of broody edging Batman Brave and the Bold is a celebrating of Batman’s more legitimate identity.  It’s a smart, funny show that whispers a harsh truth in your ear while making you laugh, one of the best Batman shows we’ve ever had.   

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