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Monday, September 21, 2015

Week of Review - Beware The Batman

And so we come to the end of the first ever Week of Review and the final time Batman was on TV prior to Gotham.  If you’re interested in my thoughts on Gotham I already reviewed the entire first season and will be reviewing the premiere as well all for Front Towards Gamer so just follow the link right here.  For now, however, we’ll be focusing on the shockingly short-lived CGI Batman show from 2013 Beware the Batman.  In 2013 Batman: The Brave and the Bold had been off the air for about 2 years after the disastrous year of 2011.  While 2008 had redefined the superhero landscape 2011 showed that this wasn’t going to be a static game as DC saw its dominate market share slip with the awful Green Lantern and realized that there was legitimate competition thanks to smash hits like Thor and X-Men: First Class
More than anything, 2011 was the year that sent DC/WB scurrying back to the safety of the Batman umbrella and confirmed to them the importance of sticking with dark, brooding, quasi-realistic heroes.  By 2013, they’d more or less expended that particular capital in films with Dark Knight Rises concluding the Nolan Batman trilogy the year before so the decision was to pull the lighter and more accessible Green Lantern: The Animated Series and replace it with a dark, brooding new Batman show; Beware the Batman.

Cards on the table, of all the Batman shows I’ve talked about in this long run Beware the Batman is my least favorite and easily the most frustrating.  There’s a lot of stuff I actually quite like about Beware the Batman in theory, it’s just that in practice the show squandered more good ideas than Joe Quesada and Steven Moffat combined (that’s sure to win me fans.)  The defining thesis of the show was that it was going to be a Batman show with an emphasis on more obscure villains and supporting characters.  I like that idea as I’ve always maintained there’s no such thing as a bad Batman villain, just Batman villains who need a bit of a tune up so throwing real unknowns like Professor Pyg or Phosphorus Rex into the mix seemed like a cool approach.  Additionally the show cast Katana, a relatively obscure DC hero, as Batman’s ally in the show making it the only animated Batman show to feature a non-white main character.  I even liked the redesign of the Batman outfit and gadget designs on display, taking the visual look of Batman back to the style of the 1989 film while the gadgets were predominately yellow in look.  All noises were good, then the show happened and it all went horribly wrong.

Firstly it turned out CGI was way better suited to the expanse of space rather than grim and dark Gotham city.  This is most likely due to the limited budget afforded TV shows as recent film offerings like Big Hero 6 completely nail the city environment despite working off of 3D animation.  Regardless the Gotham City of Beware the Batman falls incredibly flat and comes off more like the cardboard cut outs of a city than an actual place.  Not only did it not feel like this Gotham existed past the boarders of the screen, what we did see of the city lacked anything close to an actual soul or identity.  That kind of emptiness can slide on Batman: The Brave and the Bold where the show jumps around in location or Batman ’66 where the emphasis was on comedy and unreality but Beware the Batman doesn’t have any such shield to hide behind.  

However, whatever problems the environment might have are dwarfed by the truly awful villain re-workings.  Even though the show is utilizing more obscure villains like Humpty Dumpty and Anarky as its central antagonist pretty much all of them have gotten a major redesign, both visually and in terms of personality and emphasis.  In and of itself that’s not a bad thing, as I said Batman villains tend to be decent concepts just waiting for the right manner of execution that preserves their uniqueness.  Additionally some of these characters, like Professor Pyg, are probably too dark to work for a kids’ show. 

All of that is fine, what’s not fine is the show stripping out the unique elements of these characters and just draping their visual iconography over pre-existing villains.  It turns out that when the showrunners announced they wanted to focus more on obscure villains they didn’t actually mean they wanted to explore villains with new or different personalities or focuses, what they actually meant was they wanted to do the exact same villains as previous Batman shows only with a name and costume switch to give the illusion of innovation. 

So, Professor Pyg goes from an insane circus leader who turned people into mind-controlled dolls into an eco-terrorist angry at mankind for exploiting mother nature, so basically just Poison Ivy but now a fat British man.  Mockingbird, originally low-level gang leader whose central gimmick was her tragic dissociative personality becomes a quasi-evil thief and semi-love interest for Batman, so basically Catwoman but bird themed.  Anarky, an anti-hero whose crusade against the government walked on both sides of the moral divide, becomes a chalk white, chaos obsessed mad man who’s convinced he and Batman are destined to be opposites, or as I call him: the Joker.  It’s just such an infuriating approach to characters because it actively drains the uniqueness and interestingness out of these create villains.  Professor Pyg was already a compelling villain; he didn’t need to be turned into discount Poison Ivy to be engaging.  It’s especially infuriating because of how clearly the showrunners just chose the villains at random without learning anything about them.  Professor Pyg is an animal rights obsessed eco-terrorist even though he doesn’t even have anything to do with animals; his name isn’t even Pig, it’s short for Pygmalion.  

That kind of sloppy disregard for the source material is infuriating but could’ve been forgivable if they were doing something worthwhile with the characters but they really weren’t.  All the storylines are essentially just recycled from Batman the animated series only without the tight writing, strong voice acting, or impressive animation.  That kind of comparison is inevitable when doing Batman work but Beware The Batman actually seems to take deliberate steps to be closer to Batman the animated series while bringing exactly nothing to refute the direct comparison or improve upon BTAS’ weak points.  Even the Katana stuff ended up disappointingly circuitous and long winded, only really coming to fruition in the later episodes of the series.

Speaking of which, the show actually never really finished its first season run.  After the first handful of episodes failed to find an audience the show was shelved for a time, broadcast briefly on Toonami, and finally broadcast to its conclusion on Australian television.  That’s actually a bit of a shame because the show did improve as it went on.  The villains were still boring, devaluations of more interesting characters given the short shrift by the lack of creativity but the supporting cast of heroes actually became pretty interesting. 

The show brought in Metamorpho, initially acting as a lame Clayface retread before becoming an actually interesting monster hero type character.  They also brought in a more heroic version of Man-bat who was pretty well realized and Barbara Gordon took up the role of Oracle on the show.  In the final episode the various heroes all banded together as the Outsiders to fight Deathstroke, here re-imagined in a pretty creative way.  It makes me wish the Outsiders had been the show’s focus from the start rather than building up to it over so long as the writers were clearly far more comfortable writing heroes than they were villains.  

Eventually Beware The Batman was quietly cancelled and more or less disappeared from the minds of the few people who ever bothered registering its existence in the first place.  Ironically the show was more important in its failure than in its actual run.  The quiet collapse of Beware The Batman coupled with the public distaste for 2013’s Arkham Origins really helped catalyze the growing discontentment among casual fans for the new era of Batman that had been kicked off with Dark Knight.  It’s this disenfranchisement that The Lego Movie would capitalize upon in 2014 with their seething critique of the character. 

Additionally, comments by the showrunners about Beware The Batman’s failure to perform called into question whether the show failed because it wasn’t good or because there just wasn’t a place in today’s TV landscape for a straight action show rather than an action-comedy.  While there may be some modicum of truth that supposition Beware The Batman wasn’t some unfortunately timed genius release that could’ve been iconic if only we’d given it a chance, it was just never that good.  It was a mediocre show whose sloppy approach to source material and lazy adaptations only served to identify it as another tired attempt to cash-in on the Batman brand before we all grew tired of it. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the show faded away right around the time CW’s Flash came around, Beware The Batman’s short shelf live is just the result of the identity it chose for itself. 

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