"BTAS, Vol. 3": Batgirl, Robin and Ra’s, Oh My!
Completing the arc of eighty-five episodes that made up Batman: The Animated Series is the new Warner Home Video release Batman: The Animated Series, Volume 3. Completists, of course, already know that they’ve got to have it.
The latest release is notable in several respects. When ordering a fresh batch of episodes to supplement the original sixty-five, Fox Kids ordered the producers to feature Robin more consistently in the series. (Kids buy toys, you know.) Robin’s greater prominence was reflected in a new series title—The Adventures of Batman and Robin—that many of these later episodes went out under. And if you’re like me, the title sequence on that shows up for these episodes on the DVD will be a surprise. The sequence I remember featured a police blimp and Robin hitting one of Ra’s al-Ghul’s goons below the belt. None of that is in this title sequence; I don’t even remember ever seeing it before. Oh well.
This set isn’t an actual bridge between the early BTAS episodes and the revamped New Adventures, but the effect is much as if it were. Batman was much more of a loner in the early stories, while the revamp put him at the center of an extended crime-fighting group that included Batgirl, Nightwing, and a new Robin. Volume 3 opens with the two-part “Shadow of the Bat,” which turns Barbara Gordon into Batgirl as she tries to clear her father of a frame-up, and concludes with “Batgirl Returns,” which brings her back and introduces an idea that became important in Batman Beyond, that Barbara had a bit of a crush on Batman/Bruce Wayne. I doubt there was a plan to open and close this set with this kind of bookend, but it makes for a serendipitous Jane chord.
The set also gives us the first real introduction to Ra’s al-Ghul, who is featured in four of the twenty-nine episodes: the two-part “The Demon’s Quest,” “Avatar,” and “Showdown.” The latter, in which Batman appears only in a pair of segments that bookend a story set in the Old West, is just one of the many oddball episodes in this set. “Sideshow” is a Killer Croc story set in the countryside outside Gotham; “Harlequinade” features Harley Quinn’s “Say That We’re Sweethearts Again” musical number; “Trial” turns the table on Batman as he is kidnapped and prosecuted by the inmates of Arkham; “Bane” introduces a famous Batman villain into the animated continuity; “A Bullet for Bullock” gives insight into Detective Harvey Bullock. There are also sophomore appearances by villains Mr. Freeze (“Deep Freeze”), Red Claw (“The Lion and the Unicorn”), HARDAC (“His Silicon Soul”) and Clock King (“Time Out of Joint”); the first appearance of the Scarface/Ventriloquist team (“Read My Lips”); and (one of my favorites, obviously) the only appearance of myth-obsessed Maxie Zeus (“Fire From Olympus”).
Different people will pick different favorites on these four discs, though standout episodes would have to include “Read My Lips,” the oddly moving but still horrifying “House and Garden,” and a rare mystery story, “Second Chance.” No prizes will be given for guessing the one real stinker: “The Terrible Trio.” But Warner Home Video is releasing episodes in production order, and the overall quality of the selections on this third release set is an argument that the producers had definitely found their groove by the time they’d reached this point in the production cycle.
Extras are sparse but mostly satisfying. “Read My Lips” and “Harlequinade” come with the kind of relaxed, informative, and amusing commentary tracks we’ve come to expect from producer Bruce Timm and his collaborators. He is joined on both tracks by composer Shirley Walker, a welcome addition, who not only comments insightfully on her musical choices but also picks out interesting visual, aural, and storytelling nuggets. To compose a soundtrack is to marry together music, sound, and image, and her comments suggest an intelligence and talent that extends far beyond the ability to come up with a good tune. Meanwhile, I’m beginning to suspect that Timm is a pretty good mimic. He did a brief but good impression of Mark Hamill on the commentary track to Return of the Joker, and he does a similar take of Kevin Conroy-as-Batman for “Read My Lips.” He and Walker also have a lot of fun talking with and teasing fellow commenters Paul Dini, Michael Reaves, and Boyd Kirkland.
“House and Garden” gets something we’ve not had on the other BTAS DVD releases, a “visual commentary” by Timm, Dini, Kirkland, and moderator Jason Hillhouse. This is basically just an audio commentary with small pictures-in-pictures of the commenters as they watch the show on a pair of monitors. The picture-in-picture stuff doesn’t really work, except to give us a chance to see Timm and Dini pull some funny faces. Besides, if they wanted to put the creators into the frame with the show, why not do it MST3K style and put their silhouettes along the bottom? (That might have been a good idea for a “Terrible Trio” commentary, incidentally.) But the commentary itself is quite good, regardless. Hillhouse is not one of the creators, but that is actually a plus. The creators can sometimes get caught up in minutiae that is not terribly interesting to casual viewers, and, as an outsider and fan of the series, Hillhouse is able to pull the other three back around to talk about stuff that they might otherwise have skipped. He also has a talent for the oddball questions: We find out, for instance, what the “W” in “Bruce W. Timm” is for and why it eventually disappeared from the credits.
The other major extra is a short featurette on Batgirl. It doesn’t add much to what we know about the character, though it does get Timm on record about the Batman-Batgirl relationship. That relationship has been criticized by many fans as “screwed up,” and Timm agrees—that’s why they did it, he explains.
As I say, completists already know that they must have this set. More casual collectors won’t have a stronger reason to pick up Volume 3 than they have to pick up the other two volumes—after all, the entire series is amazingly strong and consistent throughout. But maybe that’s just a backhand argument that even casual collectors should be completists and pick up the entire series.