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"The Batman": A Look Back

by on April 11, 2008

Anyone who writes for Batman has a lot of potential interpretive leeway. After all, the character has a long history in comics, TV, movies, and cartoons, and has appeared in series whose styles have run from bright camp to gritty noir. No one should be surprised then, that the creators of The Batman were hardly breaking new ground by trying to create a unique approach to the character; nor should we be surprised that, for better or worse, they succeeded.

Of course, just because they had a lot of freedom doesn’t mean they had an easy time. The new series had to live up to older fans’ expectations; worse, they also had to find a way to maintain their hold in a universe where characters and elements were being parceled out to other adaptations. So while the “Bat Embargo” (as it was known by fans) meant The Batman could use certain supporting characters that Justice League Unlimited could not, it also prevented The Batman from using other characters reserved for the movie franchise—which, by the way, is why Ra’s Al Ghul, Scarecrow, and Two-Face never appeared on the show.

Stylistically, the show was quite different from the preceding Batman: The Animated Series and New Batman Adventures. Wayne Manor was a thin, tall building near the center of Gotham City, and the Batcave was filled with hi-tech gadgets and robotics, all linked through a system called The Batwave. Character designs were exaggerated and cartoony. Bruce Wayne himself was given a pointy chin instead of a square jaw. But the series also prided itself on its smooth animation, which allowed for fast-paced fight scenes. An acrobatic Batman executed quick blows and tremendous leaps while deploying explosive batarangs.

The villains also underwent major changes in appearance. The Joker wore a straight-jacket and jumped around barefoot. Bane was a giant red monster. The Penguin had crooked teeth and unkempt hair. The new looks may have been odd or seemly inappropriate to the characters, but they certainly were distinct.

The cast included Rino Romano as Batman and Alastair Duncan as Alfred; villains included Kevin Michael Richardson as the Joker, Tom Kenny as Penguin, Clancy Brown as Mr. Freeze, and Gina Gershon as Catwoman. Adam West, who played Batman on the 1960s TV show, was Marion Grange, mayor of Gotham City. The cast didn’t have quite the punch one would expect for such extreme characters, but they fit the designs well, and, generally, the acting improved over time. The original opening of the series used a mellow theme song by The Edge of U2, set to clips of Batman, his villains, and his gadgets.

The series also added characters never before seen in the Batman universe. Bruce Wayne was given a childhood friend, Ethan Bennett, who was a Gotham City cop partnered with Ellen Yin (who may or may have been based on Commissioner Ellen Yindel from Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns). Although these new characters were a tough fit at first, especially as they seemed to be taking the place of the popular Commissioner Gordon, they did provide good tension in the series. Bennett and Yin had the same goal as Batman—stop the criminals—but they also pursued the Batman, whose vigilante activities interfered in police business.

The Batman did many things to appeal to a younger audience. Batman’s tools were bigger and eye-catching; he even had a mechanical suit called The Batbot to use on occasion. Bruce Wayne was only in his mid-twenties and clearly looked the part. Attempts to make him seem younger and hipper included instances of him eating nachos and listening to contemporary music from an MP3 player while at an opera. The dialogue in the series was also more relaxed, giving characters jokey lines. Some of the humor was juvenile, as viewers were witness to such subplots as Alfred trying to chase a raccoon out of the Batcave.

The Batman‘s debut episode was unimpressive, and the show went on to suffer from a generally weak first season. The most intense moment came at the end, when Ethan Bennett was kidnapped by the Joker, broken down mentally, and exposed to chemicals that transformed him into Clayface. it was a gutsy move on the series’ part to impose such a change on a supporting character, and it worked surprisingly well.

The Batman‘s sophomore season was a slight improvement on the first. Many major villains had already been introduced, so several episodes would use a gimmick to team up two similar or contrasting enemies. It was also notable for introducing what could be considered the series’ two best villains, The Riddler (Robert Englund) and Professor Hugo Strange (Frank Gorshin and Richard Green). Riddler challenged Batman with problems he had to think out, and Hugo Strange, who wasn’t a villain at first, made Batman question the nature of his villains and himself.

Season two also brought to a head the conflict between Batman and the police. After Yin lost Bennett, she gave up her pursuit of Batman and actively partnered with him. The season two finale, “Night and the City,” pitted Batman against the warring Joker, Penguin, and Riddler and also put him up against Chief Rojas and the Gotham police, who were intent on catching him once and for all. The season ended with Jim Gordon being brought in as commissioner. He and Batman come to an understanding and forged a relationship that would last throughout the rest of the series. Gordon’s new place as Batman’s police partner resulted in both Chief Rojas and Detective Yin being dropped from the show.

Before the start of the third season, The Batman spawned a direct-to-video movie, The Batman vs. Dracula. The DTV showed what The Batman was capable of, improving on the overall quality of the series. The action was more intense, the stakes for Batman were higher, and there was even some blood. It used Joker and Penguin from the series, but brought in the legendary vampire Dracula as the main adversary. Comic book love interest Vicky Vale was also introduced in the DTV, though she never crossed over into the series.

Besides Commissioner Gordon (Mitch Pileggi), season three introduced his daughter, Barbara (voiced by Danielle Judovits), who became Batgirl in the two-part season premiere. Deviating from previous incarnations of the character, Pamela Isley was introduced as one of Barbara’s teenage friends. Their adventures ultimately created a villain in Poison Ivy and a hero in Batgirl. The latter appeared many times throughout the season, helping Batman and trying to gain his approval as his official partner. She managed to prove herself towards the end of the season, but at the time he didn’t reveal his identity or show her the Batcave.

It was another bold move to introduce Batgirl before bringing in Robin. Fans may not have enjoyed her youthful quips and pestering Batman to train her, but her presence did create a positive side effect for the series, and it produced a more aged and experienced Batman. Contrasting him with Batgirl made Batman come across as focused and competent, and seeing Batman through Batgirl’s eyes made him look in control while retaining a hint of mystery.

The season brought other changes, including a new opening theme. It also introduced villains Gearhead, Maximilian Zeus, and the played-for-laughs cop Cash Tankenson. Hugo Strange’s study of Batman and his rogues gallery resulted in the creation of D.A.V.E., a computer program that emulated all of Gotham’s villains. In the season finale, Batman squared off against D.A.V.E. and had to outthink the program to beat it.

Season four was, arguably, the strongest of the entire series. It premiered with “Matter of Family,” which was Dick Grayson’s (Evan Sabara) origin story. The episode didn’t pull any punches in showing what Dick went through with the death of his parents and his discovery that Bruce Wayne was Batman; and in something of a callback to the Bruce Timm series Kevin Conroy played John Grayson and Mark Hamill played Tony Zucco. Unlike Batgirl, Robin was immediately taken under Batman’s wing and became a main fixture on the show and (except for “Attack of the Terrible Trio”) appeared in every single episode for the rest of the series. Batgirl, however, still had a place on the show. In the second episode of season four, Batman revealed his identity to her and showed her the Batcave. Although Robin became Batman’s primary partner, Batgirl would continue to make frequent appearances.

The episodes themselves took a different and more interesting turn. Rather than introduce new villains or partner them up, they broke away from the formula and came up with interesting concepts. Batman encountered a zombie virus he couldn’t figure out, for instance; and the Riddler was given a sympathetic back story. Paul Dini introduced Harley Quinn to The Batman‘s continuity in “Two of a Kind.” “Artifacts” carried a glimpse of Batman’s future, showing a Dick Grayson/Nightwing eager to take over the role of Batman from an aging Dark Knight, and an older Barbara Gordon as the first animated Oracle. Season four showed viewers what the universe of The Batman really had to offer.

There were other, smaller but telling changes. Bruce Wayne’s pointy chin was replaced with a square one, for instance, and the opening sequence gained a clip of Robin bursting out of an “R”, an homage to the cover of his first appearance way back in Detective Comics #38.

At the end of the season, Batman teamed up with Martian Manhunter to stop the Joining, a species of alien invaders, and all of Gotham—vigilantes, cops, and villains—battled the monsters. A longtime supporting character from the comics, Lucius Fox, was introduced as an old friend of the Waynes who knew that Bruce was also Batman. Inspired by his portrayal as an expert in cutting edge technology in Batman Begins, this Fox humanized Batman a little bit more, as he and Alfred reminisced about a young Bruce Wayne. The end of the season’s last episode skipped ahead a few months and showed Martian Manhunter visiting Batman after Gotham was rebuilt. The Martian then took Batman to a space station whose exterior resembled the Hall of Justice and introduced him to the Justice League, consisting of Hawkman, Green Arrow, Green Lantern, and the Flash. Batman revealed he was already aware of them, had hacked into their system, and was eager to join the team.

After introducing the Justice League at the end of season four, the fifth and final season showcased Batman interacting with individual heroes. The season opened with a two-parter that teamed Batman and Superman. Reprising their roles from the DCAU shows were George Newbern, Dana Delaney, and Clancy Brown as Superman, Lois Lane, and Lex Luthor, respectively. Batman went head to head with a mind-controlled Superman and, in a fun reversal, ended up teaching him the value of teamwork. Green Arrow, Flash, Green Lantern, and Hawkman all got individual episodes where Batman joined them on a case and fought a member of their rogues gallery. These team-ups took up about two thirds of the season’s episodes, with the other third having Batman going against villains such as the Joker, an upgraded Firefly going by the name Phosphorous, and the Terrible Trio.

The final non-team up episode of the series had Batman and Robin facing off against Wrath and Scorn, villains whose motivations paralleled the heroes’; and the two pairs mirrored each other so closely that they came to figure out each other’s identities, which let us see how Batman would readt to the possibility of having his identity come to light. It was fairly good as a last Batman and Robin moment to go out on. The series finale itself was a two-parter that had Batman, Robin, and Batgirl helping the entire Justice League (Superman, Green Arrow, Hawkman, Flash, Green Lantern, and Martian Manhunter) stop another invasion by the Joining, who had enlisted Hugo Strange and taken the special abilities of all the powered members of the Justice League and put them into robotic bodies. As in many of the team-up episodes, it was Batman’s ability to assess the problem and strategize that saved the day, proving that even in a team of super-powered beings, a man with Batman’s skill is highly valued. Batman took Robin and Batgirl up to the Justice League satellite with the others, and the final shot of the series had the trio looking down on the Earth below.

The Batman got off to a rough start, but viewers willing to stick with it were rewarded for their loyalty. What came across at first as a kidified Batman eventually added layers to the character and his universe. The action remained fun to watch while the character designs, dialogue, and plotting improved. The series may have reached its peak by season four, but The Batman became a better series in general as it went on. By the end, the only disappointment was that the finale had so many heroes that fans didn’t get a good last look at the friends, allies, and city that Batman had gained and affected throughout the course of the series.

Although history may not remember The Batman as fondly as the previous Batman cartoon or the movies of the same era, The Batman did blend well with what came before it in DC Comics. It’s interesting to note that The Batman followed a specific timeline. The first episode established that Batman had been operating for three years and taken out the last mob boss in Gotham. He spent the next couple of years encountering villains and getting better at it, going so far as to be able to beat more than one at the same time. As he aged, younger partners showed up and looked to him for guidance. After getting a firm grasp on handling crime in Gotham, he expanded his world by joining the Justice League, working to keep the entire world safe. He was able to adapt to whatever challenge he faced, and the five seasons did an excellent job of showing him do more and more to fight crime.

The Batman appears to have been inspired by a Silver Age interpretation of the characters, using Barbara Gordon and Dick Grayson as Batgirl and Robin, and Justice League members from the early years of the comic. The show also seems to have borrowed slightly from the Adam West Batman series, going so far as to give him a Batpole to slide up and down. There were also references to comic book storylines such as The Killing Joke, The Dark Knight Returns, Kingdom Come, and Infinite Crisis.

The Batman had a healthy run of 65 episodes, one DTV, a tie-in comic book called The Batman Strikes, and tons of merchandise, from action figures to cans of soup. The show also won the Annie Award for Best New Animated Television show in 2004 and a Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Achievement in Sound Editing and Outstanding Special Class Animated Program in 2006. The series wasn’t much to look at initially, but there were plenty of moments throughout the series that felt like they spoke true to the character. Years from now, we may see fans who grew up watching The Batman and were introduced to the character through it speak about the show with as much respect as fans do now about BTAS.

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