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"Batman: The Brave and the Bold" Is Like a Blast from the Past

by on November 14, 2008

Apparently the world can’t get enough of Batman. Certainly Warner Bros. can’t.

Batman: The Brave and the Bold is the latest animated iteration of the famed comic book character. Depending on how you parse the DC Animated Universe, it is either the third or the seventh (or somewhere in between) series to feature the character in a recurrent role since Tim Burton launched the Dark Knight’s cinematic resurgence in 1989. Those expecting the new series to take its cue from the recent Nolan/Bale films—and who haven’t seen the promotional art work—will be in for a shock, but the rest of us will likely find its campy-retro look a delight.

The series promises to be a quasi-anthology, as the Caped Crusader teams up with various other DC heroes to save the day. In the series premiere, for instance, Batman and the Blue Beetle are transported to the far side of the galaxy, where they help a planet of overgrown amoebas (who manage still to be teddy bear cute for all that) turn the tables on space pirate Kanjar Ro. Future episodes, we are promised, will feature such guest stars as Aquaman, Plastic Man, and the Green Lantern Corp. The tone, we are also promised, will vary from story to story, depending upon the character of the guest lineup. Those who find the premiere too light-hearted may take comfort in that.

The most immediately striking thing about the show has to be its look, which manages to inhabit the same general world as Batman: The Animated Series and The Batman while still planting its heels on that planet’s distant antipodes. It is produced by James Tucker, who first came to prominence (in the eyes of many fans) for his design work on the Joker segment of “Legends of the Dark Knight.” Tucker has a real and obvious love of the old, 1950’s Sprang style, as well as a more than passing admiration for Kirby and Toth and other giants of that era, and, visually, The Brave and the Bold is like a fond valentine to them. Those more used to the lithe, blade-like Batman that Bruce Timm designed (and who harbor a prejudice against 1960s-style camp) may eye with mild dismay Tucker’s version of the character, who is chubbier and cheerier than we have seen the Dark Knight since the days of Adam West. I don’t mean that he sports West’s spare tire, but his chin does seem closer to the ground than we’ve ever seen, and he is rather built like a fireplug; when he throws out his chest, you expect to see it deflect artillery shells. But it’s a handsome design that keeps the character solid and believable while still being engagingly cartoony.

This retro style is amplified by clever staging and storyboarding. “The Rise of the Blue Beetle,” at least, is chock-a-block with dynamic posing that, in freeze frame, looks like it could have been lifted from old period comics: characters crouched or leaping with arms and fists raised, or even just bent toward and dominating the screen with a grimace. But doesn’t rest on or gloat over these poses, as anime (or anime-influenced series like Teen Titans) sometimes do. Instead, in an interesting reversal on that style, it uses these strong poses to start, end, or punctuate the action, rather than substitute for it. It contains, perhaps, less action of the sort we remember from the shows that Bruce Timm produced: fewer full-body shots or choreographed set pieces. Instead, the energy comes from quick cutting between the aforementioned poses. It’s not a technique I think I’ve seen used before—or, at least, not used this much. And if it feels a bit like a cost-saver—and if it sometimes cheats us of a look at those good-looking designs—there’s no denying that it gives the fight scenes punch.

Those who prefer a more modern look to their cartoons, though, will not find the old-timey feel completely permeating the show. Tucker and his crew may have started with a Sprang/Toth/Kirby base, but they’ve filtered it through a contemporary sensibility; many of the players, especially those out of costume, are rounded in a way that resembles the recent Spectacular Spider-Man series. This style—characters that look like they’ve been glued together from springs, balsa wood, and rubber balls—help give the show some of its bounce. Characters are ably voiced by a fine voice cast, led by Diedrich Bader; the latter gives Batman the gruff cheer of a soldier who takes his job seriously while still enjoying it.

Visually, the show seems to have arrived fully formed; future episodes may bring refinements, but there is no obvious room for improvement. The same cannot be said of the stories, if “The Rise of the Blue Beetle” is any indication. It’s a very Silver Age story to go with the very Silver Age look—lots of interstellar silliness and head-pounding moralization. That by itself is not a flaw. Nor is it necessarily a flaw that no one says or does anything really interesting (aside from a few semi-absurdist throwaway gags, such as a passing, and jaw-dropping, reference to the filthiest joke ever perpetrated by the wit of man); or that the one-liners are inexcusably lame when they aren’t just stillborn. Bad dialogue is also to be expected of the era that this series winks at. The show is clearly pitched at a younger audience; there are no problems with that, either. Yet the episode’s parts come together in a way that is diminishing. It is not impossible, but it is very hard to write a creditable story that appeals naturally and easily to children without insulting the mind or grating on the ear of an older audience. So I hope it won’t seem a terrible criticism to remark that traversing the story is like walking barefoot across a tile floor sprinkled with Legos: something to be done with a sense of trepidation and tolerance.

Yet, for all that, the episode is breezy and energetic, and possessed of a not-wholly-misplaced sense of self-confidence. And there are still those very appealing designs. So long as the latter doesn’t leave you looking askance, “The Rise of the Blue Beetle” contains nothing that will frighten away first-time viewers, and much that will tempt them to return to Batman: The Brave and the Bold for more. It appears to promise much fun.

Batman: The Brave and the Bold premieres on Friday, November 14, at 8:00pm on Cartoon Network.

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