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Saturday, September 19, 2015

Week of Review - The Batman

Edited by Robert Beach

By the mid-2000s, the superhero multimedia landscape had decidedly reversed fortunes. DC was still dominating the television landscape with monster hits like Smallville and the twin animated powerhouses of Justice League and Teen Titans; however, in the world of film, Marvel had more or less supplanted DC’s previously held stranglehold on the superhero genre. After Batman & Robin’s major failure, DC had spent nearly 7 years rebuilding its brand image while Marvel had cranked out adaptation after adaptation. By the year 2004, we had Blade 1 through 3, X-Men 1 and 2, Spider-Man 1 and 2, The Punisher, Hulk,and then Daredevil, Elektra, and Fantastic Four waiting in the wings. 

By this point, it was obvious the superhero genre was not only back from the dead, but it was enjoying an unprecedented boom in adaptation and success. Quite surreptitiously, DC began plans to reintroduce their most successful hero back to the big screen. Plans that culminated in 2005’s Batman Begins. Before that, DC first worked to get Batman back on TV in his own solo show, and thus we got The Batman

Two Bat-Verses 

One thing that certainly can be said for The Batman is it was certainly different. This was the first new Batman show starring Bruce Wayne as Batman since the demise of Batman the animated series 7 years earlier, so the creators were making a conscious decisions to keep from just being a series revival. At the same time, Kevin Conroy’s Batman of the animated series era was still on TV at the time thanks to Bruce Timm’s Justice League show, which just secured a follow-up series in Justice League Unlimited. 

I’m not sure if this level of competition was necessarily a good thing, but it certainly forced The Batman to be creative about its adaptation, with very mixed results.A big part of this new series was an emphasis on action over story as well as a serious break with a lot of the source material of the comics.  

None of that is meant as a criticism, given the circumstance surrounding it, for making such a major break with previous Bat institutions was probably a good call. Additionally, it helped the series zero in on an often-overlooked aspect of Batman’s identity: his martial arts training. It’s generally accepted Batman is an excellent fighter to be sure, yet that fighting prowess is used more as an excuse to see him just punch crime in the face till it stops moving. 

On The Batman, his fighting skill is straight-up martial arts and the animation seriously reflects that; he looks like if Bruce Lee had played Batman.  It’s a smart decision, and one thoroughly helped by the character design work of Jeff Matsuda, the same artist who helped develop the Jackie Chan Adventures. Where things get weird is the decision to extend this martial arts emphasis to the villains as well.

Villain Reboots

This made The Batman’s villain redesigns one of its more infamous aspects, though I personally really like the array of differences they envisioned for the series. Probably the most notorious of their recreations is the Joker: changed from lanky madmen to a sort of acrobatic master of Kung Fu kicking. It’s a weird idea and doesn’t really work. Seeing something new instead of just a phoned-in attempt to copy Mark Hamill’s Joker again. Of course, this approach doesn’t always work and the show did end up really butchering a lot of the core Batman villains. 

No animated show has ever done The Penguin well, and while I like Tom Kenny as a voice actor, his bizarre fat martial artist Penguin just doesn't work. Additionally, Robert Englund was a menacing presence as the Riddler, but his whole karate hacker shtick didn't felt like it could sustain more than a few appearances. Also, Dan Castellaneta played an absolutely horrendous revision of the Scarface puppet playing as a stereotypical urban gangsta, which comes off supremely uncomfortable and racist. 

Where The Batman actually really shone was in adapting and re-imagining some of the more C-list bat foes. They do an adaptation of the Terrible Trio in the style of Batman Beyond-esque splicers that was absolutely great and their iteration of Clayface was weird but engaging; however, their best adaptation had to be Cluemaster, a D-list Riddler knock-off here re-imagined into a crazed, morbidly obese trivia obsessive with an army of little person acrobat henchmen. 

It was a completely insane adaptation, but it worked with how gung-ho the show was about it; how well the sleazy and out-there nature of it fitted into Batman’s unique wheelhouse of genre aesthetics. The show also did some very interesting revisions on Mr. Freeze, shedding his tragic origin for something closer to a Spider-Man villain, basically imagining him as a common thief who gains Godlike powers.  

Silver Age Influence 

The individual episodes were a mixed bag, as was to be expected with the ranging quality of character adaptation. I’ve also heard it rumored that the show came under producer mandate to include an inordinate amount of gadgets, vehicles, and alternate costumes in order to coincide with the toy line DC/WB were eager to develop. I’m not sure if that’s true or not but, having seen both the show and the toys there is a lot of overlap. 

Where animated series Batman had maybe about 2 outfits total on the show, The Batman does take every opportunity to throw Bruce in some new outfit, including ice climber Batman. Believe it or not, I’m actually not too opposed to that idea. It actually strikes me as a Silver Age idea; those comics contrived a reason for Batman to bust out some new costume or gadget pretty much every week. 

Additionally, the gadgets actually have a modernistic bent to them that helped The Batman feel like a more contemporary show rather than the animated series time displaced mash up of black-and-white TVs with high-tech computers. For instance, rather than the bat symbol, Bruce is alerted to crime thanks to a special program he’s installed on his PDA called the Batwave. It’s kind of funny now seeing them talk about PDAs and such, but honestly, it plays like a weirdly predictive look at what apps would become in a few years time.  

Eventually, at the end of season 4, they introduced non-Batman heroes to the show as well. Starting with The Martian Manhunter, The Batman expanded out to the entire Justice League. That particular shift signaled Jeff Matsuda’s departure from the show, leading to season 5 being punctuated by a ton of superhero team-up episodes. The success of the multi-hero approach more or less decided The Batman’s fate as the show ended with season 5 to be replaced by a series with a greater crossover aesthetic. 
At the same time, 2008, the show’s final year, was basically the moment when Batman retook control of the pop cultural axis. It’s easy to forget this, but in the 10 years between Batman & Robin and Dark Knight, Batman had languished in the backdrop of pop culture. With the release of Dark Knight, suddenly Batman was back, and the momentum didn’t end with the film. It extended to games like Lego Batman and Batman: Arkham Asylum and the comics with Grant Morrison’s incredible Batman R.I.P.  

Bat-Man Out of Time

In the face of all that, The Batman just felt like the relic of a previous age. It came up in a time when Batman wasn’t really anywhere, so the whole ethos behind the show was just to put Batman on TV. It wasn’t produced to facilitate someone’s bold new vision or blaze a new path with the character; the studio slotted it on TV because business logic dictated there must always be Batman media. It was a placeholder show more than anything else, and 2008 was its expiration date. 

It’s just a shame that even though the networks and producers (and, honestly, Batman fandom when you get right down to it) considered the show to be disposable the creators still wanted to make something creative and different. In the end, The Batman was a show made by talented people that wanted to make something creative only for the entire world to treat their show like it was disposable, so disposable is all it was ever allowed to be.

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