Review: "Beware the Batman" Premiere: Mr Toad's Wild Ride!
Batman and Spider-Man are the evergreens of superheroes. While other members of the DC and Marvel stables seemingly require a cosmic alignment to get a project going, the Dark Knight and Web-Head always seem to have something on the go. So it’s no surprise that yet another animated Batman TV series was announced in the form of Beware the Batman.
However, as opposed to Spider-Man, there are a much larger variety of ways to tackle an animated Batman project. This fact was summed up perfectly in the previous Batman: The Brave and the Bold series by the character Bat-Mite relating how the character has had interpretations ranging from self-aware high camp to self-indulgent grimdark. As such, is it really possible to do Batman wrong?
It’s a question on which Beware gives me pause. CG animated in a similar style to the recent Green Lantern series, Beware the Batman returns to the early days of Bruce’s career when “the Batman” is an emerging legend feared by the criminal underbelly of Gotham. Our actual introduction to our hero is pretty good in this respect, as we see him foil a heist with his trademark mix of cunning, athleticism and scare tactics. A particular treat involves Batman weaving through the shadows, revealed only briefly by the light of panicked muzzle flashes.
However, an unfortunate element of this sequence is the design of the firearms used by the crooks. It was publicised that due to the tragic massacre that occurred last year at a Dark Knight Rises screening, the firearms of Beware would be redesigned to look less realistic. They still function the same way but end up looking like Super Soakers. It’s an unfortunate but understandable choice and at the very least they kept their function rather than opt for the long time standby of everyone having access to bottomless laser pistols.
Being set early in Bruce’s tenure, the show tries to communicate that he isn’t quite perfect yet, but in a way I couldn’t quite buy into. A central subplot of the premiere is a conflict between Bruce and Alfred, here owing very much to the Michael Caine incarnation of the Christopher Nolan movies. Keeping Bruce on his toes with surprise combat drills, Alfred feels he should be the partner of both personas for his master’s safety. Maybe it’s just because I’m not a fan of the ultra-realistic Nolan take on the mythos, but I found myself wishing for a more “traditional” take on the character. Certainly I much prefer Alfred as the snarky but loving pseudo-father figure seen in the likes of Batman the Animated Series and The Batman.
The subplot actually overshadows our main character to the point I felt the pilot would have been better titled “Beware the Butler.” I’ve spoken in the past how I don’t like premieres to exhaust the extent of a character’s personality and leave later episodes nothing to reveal and explore, but I would have welcomed more time spent with Batman. We do get to see moments of the well-read “World’s Greatest Detective,” but his yet-to-be ironed out flaws are poorly realised: more a script construction to allow the devices it wants rather than feeling like a natural part of the character. I’m not asking for the ridiculously perfect Batman of some works, nor am I trying to unfairly compare this premiere to nostalgia. But I did grow up with Batman the Animated Series, where I generally feel any given episode could communicate a more consistent depth to Bruce/Batman.
One idea I can get behind firmly is the choice to ignore the overused players of Batman’s rogue’s gallery in favour of underused ones. In this case the mad doctor Professor Pyg and his lackey Mr Toad. Their “animal rights revenge taken to dark extremes” shtick is goofy but not exactly far removed from more famous villains like Poison Ivy. Brian George puts in a fine turn as the Professor, though the script is peppered with a daft amount of fake-Brit speak. Most interesting is that Bruce’s investigations into their crimes do seem to plant the seeds for a larger story arc to continue across the season. If so, I’m definitely curious to see where the writers take it.
Anthony Ruivivar does a fine job with the lead character, offering a performance that actually sounds like a younger Kevin Conroy whilst of course defining his own version of the role. J.B. Blanc likewise works well but falls short for me over the misgivings of the show emulating the Caine version; in turn, his attempts to sound badass made me feel I was suddenly watching a Guy Ritchie film. Kurtwood Smith offers a hopeful turn in a brief cameo as Lt. Gordon.
The actual animation is about on par with the current standard of American television CG, reminding me of the likes of TMNT. Although in the current time it’s hard not to notice the marked difference between TV and feature film CGI, the premiere actually does try to push things. A high speed chase between the Batmobile and Pyg’s car in particular carries a great sensation of speed and masterfully picked camera angles. Character animation is ok though I noticed in an amusing quirk that the style and tone of Batman’s lips sometimes made him look like he was talking with a Clutch Cargo-style mouth.
There’s a lot of negativity in this review, but by my own admission I’ll point out that a lot of that is over things that are done differently and don’t have enough time to be explored deeply enough to pique my interest. Obviously, to judge the show based off a single establishing episode would be grossly unfair and it may turn out that Beware the Batman blossoms into a rich and memorable incarnation, much like critics before lambasted previous ones. If it does, you can expect me to become one of its loudest supporters. But for now, I think there are regrettably other reasons to Beware.