"Batman: The Brave and the Bold" and the Awesome and the Cool in Season 1, Part 2
It was a question asked by many fans of DC’s recent animated offerings on learning that the follow-up to the short-lived Legion of Super-Heroes would be another Batman cartoon. Didn’t we already have the superlative Batman the Animated Series to Justice League, along with the significantly less well-received The Batman? It was even a question I had the audacity to ask the creators of Batman: The Brave and the Bold in as many words during the pre-release press cycle. While I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the answer at the time, I was quite happy to find that Batman: The Brave and the Bold soon provided its own answer to that question: “Because this one is awesome.” For proof of this claim, I need go no further than the 13 episodes on Batman: The Brave and the Bold Season One, Part Two.
Like Walt Whitman, Batman has embraced multitudes during his long history. Batman was a hard-boiled pulp-fiction hero during his formative years. He suffered science-fiction insanity and bizarre soap opera love triangles in the 1950’s, and high-camp on TV and in print in the 1960’s. He was subjected to even more juvenile camp in 1970’s TV cartoons while returning to his darker roots in the comics. And he acquired the grim, obsessed Dark Knight persona definitively crafted by Frank Miller in the 1980’s that endures to the present day. Batman: The Brave and the Bold doesn’t take the safe route of picking one of those approaches (almost inevitably the last one) and cherry-picking what they want to emphasize. No, this show manages to embrace all those different approaches to the character, sometimes even simultaneously. In embracing all these influences, does the show contradict itself? Very well, it contradicts itself, but the show is not willing to let those contradictions get in the way of a good time. The show happily blends them all together with just enough genre savvy and irony to avoid being juvenile, while tempering both of those traits just enough to avoid snarkiness or camp. The result is a show that kids can enjoy in one way and adults can enjoy in an entirely differently way, but both can easily end up loving it. The last DC animated series that pulled off that impressive trick was Teen Titans, and Batman: The Brave and the Bold shows that lightning can strike twice.
Batman: The Brave and the Bold took a few episodes to really find its footing, finally settling into a solid groove by disc 2 of the previous season one DVD set. By this point, the creators were comfortable enough to take these new shoes and start really running with them, resulting in 13 amazingly strong, high-quality episodes. Everything that the show had succeeded at doing in its first 13 episodes is amplified and improved and dialed up to 11 for these next 13. There are times when I get the feeling that episodes were created by throwing names of all the DC superheroes into a hat, drawing 1 or 2 out at random, adding Batman, and then playing “I Can Top That!” during the pitch and storyboarding sessions. The show’s framework is sturdy enough to support stories, situations, and characters as serious or as silly as the creators want. If Marvel’s Super Hero Squad Show is the Marx brothers playing superheroes for broad slapstick, then Batman: The Brave and the Bold is more like the Coen brothers, with a slightly warped worldview throwing things pleasingly off-kilter even when they’re playing it straight.
I could easily write a full-length review for almost any of the episodes on this set. There aren’t good and bad episodes on this DVD set. There are the really good ones and the ones that go all the way to brilliant. There are more-or-less straight superheroic episodes like “Mystery in Space!”, “Menace of the Conqueror Caveman!”, or “Night of the Huntress!” that add one or two offbeat bits to spice up the mix (and I must pay special note to the last episode for introducing the screamingly funny Mrs. Manface, wife of the already bizarre gangster Babyface and neither of whom I expect to cross over into the DC mainstream no matter how fantastically awesome they are). The show can incorporate magic and the occult with “Trials of the Demon!” and “The Fate of Equinox!” The former teams Batman with the Demon and Sherlock Holmes in 19th century London, while the latter pays off teased hints in other episodes throughout the season with a big, cosmically-scaled conflict. The last episode of the season, “Inside the Outsiders!”, treads similar ground but from the vantage point of psychotherapy rather than magic as it digs into the innermost psyches of the teenaged superhero team introduced in an earlier episode. Batman: The Brave and the Bold can also do science fiction, beating the high-concept of Cowboys vs. Aliens to the screen with “Duel of the Double Crossers!”, which also has the guts to throw Jonah Hex and the weird-even-for-Kirby’s-Fourth-World Lashina together just to see what would happen. “Hail the Tornado Tyrant!” combines a few different robot story tropes, with the title character being a blend of Pinocchio and Skynet. We know from early on how it’s all going to end and the show knows we know, so it plays that up deliberately, turning its foregone conclusion into the stuff of fine tragedy. A horrible outcome is made that much worse when you know it’s coming and nobody involved seems able to stop it despite their best efforts (and, sometimes, because of them).
The show also happily pays tribute to its inspirations in a trio of episodes that amount to giant love letters from the staff. “The Color of Revenge!” begins with a pitch-perfect homage to the 1960’s Adam West/Burt Ward Batman TV show, and then plays out the rest in a brilliant blending of those sensibilities with the darker, grittier, more modern Batman to strike a happy medium between the two. In a wonderful demonstration of exactly how far ahead of his time he was, two of Jack Kirby’s more outré creations (OMAC and Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earth) turn out to fit perfectly with Batman: The Brave and the Bold‘s sensibilities when played almost completely straight in “When OMAC Attacks!” and “The Last Bat on Earth!” Indeed, it’s actually a little upsetting to see how well Kirby’s dystopian nightmare future of OMAC fits the modern world without modifications.
However, the two of the most talked-about episodes on this set are also the one that take the biggest risks and push the boundaries the farthest. Penned by Paul Dini at his most demented, “Legends of the Dark Mite!” flings the crazy around with wild abandon by injecting a magical pest claiming to be the Caped Crusader’s biggest fan. After torturing the deadpan Dark Knight for a while, the show leaps into an insanely creative tour-de-force that could only be realized in animation as Bat-Mite’s imagination literally runs away with him. There’s also a brief digression where the staff happily thumbs their noses at the nosensahuma fanboys complaining that all this silliness “isn’t Batman.” However, the real tour de force on this set comes from “Mayhem of the Music Meister!”, the (in)famous musical episode of the show which introduces a new musically-themed villain (played with wonderful theatricality by Neil Patrick Harris) who provides a perfect excuse for anyone and everyone to burst into showstopping song and dance numbers periodically. How can you not love an episode that has a musical tribute to the ubiquitous supervillain deathtrap, or has Black Canary warbling a torch song full of unrequited emotions (quite superbly done by Grey Delisle, by the way) while she’s beating the stuffing out of a rooftop of thugs? This episode leaves me with an ear-to-ear grin for hours afterwards, and if there’s no room for this kind of Batman in your worldview, you really need to expand your worldview.
I could go on and on about all the other things this show does well: The way it made Aquaman cool again, thanks to an oversized personality and a superlative performance by John DiMaggio. The gloriously cartoony character designs that firmly break from the emblematic BTAS designs in favor of a hybrid of Dick Sprang, Jack Kirby, and Alex Toth. The fabulous retro music by Michael McCuiston, Lolita Ritmanis, and Kristopher Carter. The perfect casting and voice direction (as if we would expect any less from the legendary Andrea Romano by now). The wry deadpan Diedrich Bader lends this particular Batman and how well he can play off the many different heroes and villains on the show. The peppy title sequence and its gloriously catchy theme song. You get the gist. Perhaps the greatest compliment I can pay to Batman: The Brave and the Bold isn’t the speed with which it became one of my favorite superhero shows, but how often it can make me forget Batman: The Animated Series.
It seems that Warner Home Video has finally come to its senses and abandoned the “soccer mom” single-disc releases for this show. This set is every bit as good as the first, with a crisp anamorphic widescreen image and a solid stereo soundtrack. There are an ample number of chapter stops within each episode, as though they knew that it’s one of those things I constantly obsess about. The only complaint I have is the ongoing absence of any special features; we only get a trailer for Hot Wheels: Battle Force 5 that I couldn’t bear to sit through long enough to learn if it was for the TV show or an upcoming DVD. Watching it after these episodes was like trying to scarf down Jack in the Box after dining on a Peter Luger porterhouse steak.
“Why do another Batman show?” While I still feel that an overly conservative senior management at DC and Warner Bros. is relying too much on milking their existing cash cows rather than expending the effort to come up with the NEXT Batman, I also now recognize that the right answer to that question is that there’s no reason not to do another Batman show, as long as that Batman show is awesome.
Batman: The Brave and the Bold is completely awesome, and I present the 13 episodes on this DVD set as Exhibit A in my argument.