"Batman: The Brave and the Bold": The Many Faces of Batman
What with one thing and another, I haven’t been in position to watch Batman: The Brave and the Bold, and haven’t even seen any episodes since reviewing the series premiere. The first half of the second season has just been released to DVD, though, and its reacquaintance is leaving me with ambivalent feelings. It looks as good as ever, and at its best is utterly and cheerfully deranged. But I’m not exactly verklempt at having missed so much of it. Though it’s a wonderful throwback/celebration of the character’s pulpy/cartoony origins, there’s too much vanilla ice cream and not enough chocolate sauce to make a fully satisfying superhero sundae.
If you’ve been watching it, you know what it is: another animated adaptation of the Batman comic book character. By now, of course, he’s had such an illustrious history, and has been through so many iconic adaptations, that a series as retro as The Brave and the Bold feels almost avant-garde. The art style harks back to the cuddly-sinister designs that Dick Sprang drew so well in the 1950s, and the stories are either slickly done adaptations or pitch-perfect imitations of the tall tales from that period. “The Super-Batman of Planet X!”, for instance, puts Batman in space long enough to drop him through a wormhole and onto an Earth counterpart where the details are just a little bit off: The new world’s Batman has a secret life as a newspaper reporter, and balances his secret love for a dashing female reporter with a never-ending battle against a bald, megalomaniacal criminal super-genius. That’s crazy enough, but then the episode gives the Superman-type powers to our-world-Batman, which leaves everyone (including the bemused viewer) with the vague, unsettled feeling that things are listing just a few degrees more toward lunacy than is entirely proper. It’s the best episode on the set (and has to face down some stiff competition to win the title), but it neatly captures the tone of the series as a whole: a really smart show pretending to be kinda dopey, and having a lot of infectious fun while it does so.
But it’s also a hard balancing act to maintain. There must always be a temptation to lapse into camp—to give it the full Adam West treatment—or to surrender to sketch comedy by turning the characters into actors pretending to be Batman and his foes. Self-awareness is the death of innocence, and the series always feels on the verge of curdling into post-modern irony. But the producers are also surely aware that The Brave and the Bold is first and foremost an action show aimed at a young demographic; and if that keeps the series from turning into an Adult Swim type of series, it also keeps the stories safe and bland. That, at any rate, is as close as I can come to understanding (and forgiving) a peculiar dissonance that vibrates through even its better offerings. It’s far better than the junky superhero shows of the 1970s—it looks so much better, for one thing—but its stories are not obvious improvements. Paradoxically, older audiences may find it more fun to laugh at a show like Superfriends than to laugh with a show, like this one, that only occasionally transcends its self-imposed limits.
Still, it does what it does and it does it quite well, and is better more often than not. Besides “The Super-Batman of Planet X,” standout episodes on this 2-disc set must include “Aquaman’s Outrageous Adventure!” and “A Bat Divided!”, which also deftly combine comedy and action. The former, which is a flat-out farce, puts the stentorian King of Atlantis and his family in a Winnebago and sends them across America on a suburban summer vacation. What might be a one-note joke, though, gets depth by gleefully grinding away on Aquaman’s reserves of patience; he’s an adrenaline junkie who quickly and entertainingly goes bonkers with boredom, and the humor actually makes you sympathize with the metahumans who are so cut off from ordinary experiences. “A Bat Divided!” works the other way, redeeming the hoary old “split superhero” trope by pushing each of Batman’s (three!) personalities to amusingly absurd lengths.
The more serious stories are top-lined by “Chill of the Night!”, which brings Batman face to face with the criminal who murdered his parents. It’s a good story, though one that’s better at making you wonder how Batman: The Animated Series would have handled the very noir conceit than at dramatizing the idea itself. It’s very much a comic book idea, moreover, and probably better left on the page; acting it out, especially with these designs, renders the idea very schematic and notional, rather than dramatic. But it is effective on its own terms. Much the same can be said about “The Golden Age of Justice!”, which puts Batman together with his now-aged mentors to fight a re-emergent threat. Again, you can clearly see and appreciate its themes—the value of experience and the withering insecurities borne of living in someone else’s shade—but it’s undercut by a few too many “old coot” jokes.
I’ve not much to say about the other entries, except that they are pleasant and professionally done, and each one comes with a twist that is halfway between old-timey stupidity and set up for satirical riff. “Death Race to Oblivion!” is an automotive showdown pitting heroes and villains against each other in a free-for-all. “Long Arm of the Law!” features Plastic-Man, which makes any extra jokes redundant. “Clash of the Metal Men!” left me expecting a momentary cameo by Rusty Venture. “The Power of Shazam!” feels like a Justice League Unlimited pitch that got resurrected from the story files, which leaves the aesthetics and the plot elements fighting each other like cats in a sack. “Gorillas in Our Midst!” is fun while you’re watching it, but steals from your memory like a soft-footed orangutan once it’s over.
If I sound unenthusiastic, it’s not because I didn’t enjoy most of the above. (The only one I really didn’t like was “Revenge of the Reach!”, probably because its hero winds up being the hero only because the story says he’s the hero and not because of anything special about him.) They are fun, diverting, and candy for the eyeballs. Voice work is topnotch too, especially from Diedrich Bader, who gives Batman a cheery gruffness that doubles as characterizing mannerism. His Batman is a canny crime-fighter who knows that acting is at least 10% of his job (his costume is part of the act, after all) and is putting on a show that will unnerve the bad guys while also reassuring the good guys. Bader gets solid support from such stalwarts as Dee Bradley Baker and Corey Burton, and great support from the more occasional John DiMaggio. The producers are also very good at stunt casting, bringing in Adam West, Julie Newmar, Kevin Conroy, Clancy Brown, and Dana Delany for star turns in great roles.
Batman: The Brave and the Bold is not exactly a show for everyone. It’s more accurately described as a show that has at least one thing for everyone. (Probably it also contains at least one thing that will bother everyone, too.) But that’s more than can be said about most shows, and it’s got a one-of-a-kind appeal that nothing else can match.