Review: "Beware the Batman: Shadows of Gotham" - Sleek and Stylish Re-Vamp
Beware the Batman signals what kind of show it’s going to be in its very first scene, as Batman uses smoke and shadows in a dark alley to scare various bodily fluids out of a criminal, and later re-sets his separated shoulder by slamming it into a truck fender. Visually and thematically, Beware the Batman may be the darkest Batman to make it to television so far, and several intriguing creative decisions by the crew mix in just enough bracingly new material to keep the show from feeling like another stale retread of a character who has received more than his share of attention from Warner Bros. Animation. If Batman: The Brave and the Bold was a rejuvenation of Batman as a lighter, more kid-friendly superhero, Beware the Batman revives darker, grittier elements from the character’s original pulp fiction roots. Beware the Batman: Shadows of Gotham collects the show’s first 13 episodes on DVD and Blu-ray, and deliver on the promise of a fresh take on the Dark Knight.
Beware the Batman features a younger, less experienced Batman (voiced quite well by Anthony Ruivivar), still learning the ropes of his nocturnal battle against crime and considered a dangerous vigilante outlaw by the police, especially Lt. James Gordon (a masterful Kurtwood Smith). While many of the basics remain the same, Beware the Batman deviates strongly from most other versions of Batman by veering away from his usual rogues gallery, recasting his crime-fighting partner from Robin to the martial arts master Katana (Sumalee Montano), and radically altering his relationship with the stalwart Alfred (the delightful J.B. Blanc), who shifts from being a classic butler waiting in the sidelines to a bruiser in his own right who is equally responsible for the protection of Bruce Wayne.
In principle, I would have preferred taking a chance on a different property from DC’s stable rather than attempting yet another Batman show, but in practice, the changes all combine to make the series feel fresher and more original than it really should. This is a younger, less experienced Batman, but one who has also clearly been at the vigilante game long enough to know the ropes. That allows the show to adjust Batman’s skill level as the plot requires fairly easily. It’s believable for him to screw up badly or be taken unawares, while equally believable for him to reveal surprising depths of knowledge or ability. I’m also quite pleased with the decision to go with Katana as Batman’s partner, since it places a woman and a minority prominently in a superhero show and crafts their relationship without ever bringing up the prospect of a romantic entanglement between them. The pair’s crime-fighting partnership builds organically over the 13 episodes here, growing from their first stumbles and missteps together to the finely-honed clockwork operations together in the climactic final episode on this set. The show’s new take on Alfred is a special favorite, providing a newer role for an old favorite and making him much more of a player in the show’s central plot than any version has before (even if his introduction on the show unfortunately reminded me of a similar schtick between Inspector Clouseau and his manservant Kato in the “Pink Panther” movies).
That central plot starts small and is gradually revealed across the 13 episodes on this set (the last two of which have not yet aired on Cartoon Network and, as of this writing, have no scheduled premiere date). Without giving too much away, suffice it to say that the heroes of the Batman world aren’t the only ones to get re-visioned for this series, and marathoning all the episodes again from the start reveals a lot of throwaways and reveals that prove the show was playing a long game from the beginning. While the ultimate prime mover in that main plot turns out to be an old favorite Batman villain, Beware the Batman otherwise steps well outside the usual gallery of Batman rogues to find different antagonists to pit against the Caped Crusader. I was surprised that the premiere episode managed to capture the spirit of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s Professor Pyg and Mr. Toad without making them as grotesque or gory as they are in the comics. The show also updates John Byrne’s Magpie from her unimpressive 1980′s comic book origins to a more credible tragic figure akin to Two-Face (greatly helped by Grey Delisle Griffin’s gleefully unhinged performance). Finally, Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle’s Anarky makes for a wonderfully twisted a reverse Batman, fighting for chaos in an outfit that flips Batman’s color scheme and even incorporates the classic Batman utility belt design. Wallace Langham’s vocal performance as Anarky is delightfully hammy and theatrical, perfectly fitting the character’s flamboyant arrogance.
Visually, the show seems to mix the original Bob Kane/Bill Finger comics and the Christopher Nolan live-action movies. While Batman the Animated Series pulled off its “dark deco” look by basing its animation on black backgroundsrather than the usual white, Beware the Batman achieves its look and feel through assorted lighting and rendering tricks in CGI. The results are quite striking, since the show can be rendered much darker than would be possible in hand-drawn animation. Batman’s “black-on-black” costume would likely fade to invisibility without the texturing and lighting techniques available to computer graphics, and there’s a beautiful sense of weight and “hang” to his leathery cape. The prominent ears on his cowl are what evoke the Bob Kane influence the most strongly, as does the gritty urban crime feel of the show and even the symbology and typography in the show’s logo. CGI also allows Beware the Batman to exploit much more camera movement than many earlier hand-drawn Batman series, which pays off in giving Gotham City a real sense of height and depth (even as it comes at the cost of having it much less populated than it should be). That camera movement is also exploited creatively in the show’s many action sequences, which favor very fast, brutally short fights with sudden, surprising reversals and counters. The fight choreography is definitely not as flashy as earlier series like Justice League Unlimited or even something like Justice League: War, but the sleeker, more streamlined sensibilities are rather fitting for the show’s aesthetic sensibilities.
For all the praise I have for Beware the Batman, there are a few niggling nitpicks. While I love the new tough-guy Alfred, his updated backstory raises a lot of questions about the overall timeline, especially once the details of his relationship with Katana are revealed in episode 2. Given their seeming veteran status with military forces and spy spookshows, both Alfred and Katana seem like they should be much older than they are. I’m also not completely convinced that Batman would have as much to teach Katana as he does once the two finally partner up. Finally, there are uncomfortable questions raised in episode 4, when Batman forbids Katana from taking a life by saying, “Once you cross that line, you can never go back.” It’s possible to have a long career as a soldier and/or a spy without killing someone, but at the very least, basic training is intended to prepare you to kill people in combat and it becomes far less plausible that Katana and Alfred haven’t already crossed that line when it’s revealed what kind of work it was that they did as spies. As the show wears on, their studiously non-lethal combat feels more and more like BS&P diktat than something believable. However, it’s a strange compliment to say that the stronger points of the show meant I’d consciously suppress these and other, even smaller nitpicks, rather than let them get in the way.
Warner Bros Home Entertainment has split the release of Beware the Batman: Shadows of Gotham, pushing the two-disc DVD set to retailers everywhere but reserving the single-disc Blu-ray as a burn-on-demand disc at the Warner Archive store. We received the Blu-ray for review, which I’d recommend if you’re capable of playing it. The extra resolution ensures that the show’s dark color palette won’t get smeared into obscurity. No matter how dark the show gets (and Batman’s costume is definitely not the only time the show goes for a black-on-black color palette), the Blu-ray is always sharp and clear. There is some very minor color banding occasionally, but these moments are few and far between in an otherwise excellent transfer. Sound is a Dolby Digital 2.0 that keeps dialogue, sound effects, and soundtrack nicely separated and all perfectly clear. It is disappointing only for not being a 5.1 high-definition sound transfer instead. Unfortunately, neither DVD nor Blu-ray come with any bonus features. There aren’t even the usual forced trailers on disc insertion with the Blu-ray. On the other hand, the minimalist release also means that the disc menu is one of the most responsive and usable interfaces I’ve ever seen on a home video release. It’s fast, simple to use, and has no endlessly looping background music. It’s an odd thing to compliment, but I really appreciate how little sits between me and what I want to watch on this disc, and wish more home video releases would adopt the same sensibilities.
As of this writing, Beware the Batman‘s fate seems up in the air. The final two episodes on this set have not aired on Cartoon Network yet, and do not even have an expected premiere date. Some on the series crew have said online that they were wrapping up the last episodes of the first season earlier this year, but the fact that episodes 12 and 13 hit on home video before broadcast is not something that inspires confidence that we’ll see the back half of this series very soon. It’s a shame, because Beware the Batman is an excellent show that nicely brings something new to the table for a DC Comics property that has had more than its share of exposure on TV. Beware the Batman: Shadows of Gotham is an excellent ride, and I’m looking forward to the back half of this season, no matter how it gets released.