07 December 2012

"Batman: The Animated Series" Volume One

Batman: The Animated Series Volume One
Starring the voices of Kevin Conroy as Batman/Bruce Wayne, Efram Zimbalist, Jr. as Alfred Pennyworth
Date of Release: 6 July 2004
MSRP: $44.98
28 episodes/625 minutes
Volume Two | Volume Three | Volume Four

It's astounding to me that 2012 marked the 20th anniversary of this series. I can still vividly recall the excitement it generated. I came to Batman in 1989 amid the marketing frenzy surrounding Tim Burton's Batman. By 1992, I'd become caught up on the then-current comic book arcs and I'd seen the original 1966 TV show and movie starring Adam West. I could wrap my head around various incarnations of Batman, but The Animated Series was something different. Because I wasn't already a fan when Burton's first film opened, I always had a sense that I didn't have the same kind of claim on that film as other fans.

The Animated Series, though...that was my Batman.

I love Burton's original film - it's been #1 on my Flickchart for an entire year now - but when I think about Batman, this is the version I think of first. Batman sounds like Kevin Conroy, The Joker sounds like Mark Hamill and they both look the way Bruce Timm designed them. Gotham City has red skies and a lot of art deco architecture. It's a place where the police use a blimp and the TVs are all black and white. This isn't just the definitive animated Batman; it's the definitive Batman. Period.

I can vividly recall even now watching "On Leather Wings", the first weekday episode, at my grandmother's apartment. The consignment shop she ran with my mom was closed on Sunday and Monday, and periodically after school on Mondays we'd go my grandmother's apartment for an early dinner. I was thankful that everyone else indulged me and let me watch the episode without interruption. Then again, maybe I was just so totally engrossed that I was oblivious to whatever anyone else may have said or done. It's hard to say.

The most important aspect of Batman: The Animated Series was that it was sophisticated. I grew up a child of the 80s. My generation watched "cartoons", not "animated series". In cartoons, guns shot laser beams that only ever stunned people. Everyone always escaped exploding planes in parachutes, people always landed on awnings when they fell from buildings. "Good" characters were all good because it was just their natural default state, whereas antagonists were always intrinsically bad without any obvious motive save unadulterated greed.

The modern viewer, then, may not quite appreciate how striking it was in 1992 when the villains in Batman: The Animated Series used guns that fired actual bullets. True, they never killed anyone on the show...but Batman had to bend over backwards sometimes to keep it that way, which was in keeping with his philosophy against killing. Instead of "They'll make Batman save that guy, ho-hum", it was more a matter of "What kind of hoops will Batman have to jump through to save this jerk?"

Another little thing that I didn't consciously appreciate at the time was that, unlike our cartoons, this series featured an original score written for each episode, played by an actual orchestra. We were accustomed to a handful of stock synth tracks endlessly recycled. The Batman: The Animated Series composers wrote scene-specific music to accompany the story at hand; much more effective and engaging. Plus, the music was interesting to hear. I think my favorite was that harmonica-based score for "The Forgotten" that Shirley Walker wrote.

Batman: The Animated Series did not pander. Yes, there was plenty of action, but we see Batman spend as much time investigating, collecting and analyzing evidence and doing basic detective legwork as we see him throwing punches. Fans may have favorite lines and moments, but the show's writers never created catchphrases; certainly not intentionally. No "By the power of Greyskull!" or "Yo, Joe!" here. Furthermore, the writing assumed a certain vocabulary size and stuck to that standard. No one ever translated $5 words for viewers who might not know them. You were expected to come to the show; the show was not going to come to you.

What struck me most about revisiting these first 28 episodes was that they showed a tremendous amount of confidence in storytelling that got away from traditional superhero vs. supervillain fare. Eight of these episodes don't even feature anyone from the rogues gallery! The Joker (four appearances) and Scarecrow (three) are the most prominent of the recognizable villains, but they're matched by Rupert Thorne and Roland Daggett, respectively.

Episode Highlights

The sense here is that flashy supervillains are still something of an aberration in Gotham City. Organized crime is the order of the day, best showcased in one of my personal favorite Batman stories of any medium, "It's Never Too Late". Thorne is putting on the pressure to consolidate his power grab against aging mob boss Arnold Stromwell, whose teenage son is missing. Stromwell is certain Thorne is responsible, only to discover instead that his son has been comatose after overdosing on drugs procured from his father's underlings. It's melodrama at its finest, and it gets me every time. No one had told us stories like that in our cartoons. They did in this sophisticated animated series, though.

Often with TV shows, the early stuff is harder to get into because it was made before the show found itself. Not so with this DVD collection, which features some of the finest gems of the entire series. "Heart of Ice" gives us the origin story of Mr. Freeze. Prior to this episode, Freeze was a fairly marginal, gimmicky character. It's all but forgotten today, but Freeze was considered so irrelevant that The Joker actually killed him in the mainstream comic books a year before The Animated Series debuted. Then "Heart of Ice" completely redefined the character and made him into a compelling and tragic figure, and a year later, he returned in Detective Comics #670.

Mr. Freeze became a new breed of antagonist. If we accept the concept of the antihero, then Freeze is surely an antivillain. Prior to Freeze, no one dared give us a modicum of sympathy for an antagonist in our cartoons. Just imagine if someone had tried to make the case that Cobra Commander was simply misunderstood! We were kids. We couldn't be trusted to suss out when people deserved our compassion or wrap our heads around there sometimes being understandable reasons why people sometimes do bad things. Then came Paul Dini's take on Mr. Freeze and all of a sudden, there was a third dimension to storytelling that hadn't been there before.
Remember, kids: this was all done by hand.
There's also "Two-Face", the two-part story of how Harvey Dent became the titular villain. We had already met Dent in "On Leather Wings" and then watched as Batman fought to save his life from Poison Ivy's toxin in "Pretty Poison", so we've already become invested in Dent when he falls. That two-parter is worthy of an entire blog post of its own, but the particularly noteworthy part is that this wasn't just about giving Batman a new supervillain to fight. This was a truly Shakespearean tragedy, complete with Dent's shattered life costing him his betrothal to a woman actually named Grace. It may be ham-fisted symbolism on paper, but it works brilliantly in the episode. If there's one medium where melodrama can actually work, it's animation.

I didn't think much of "See No Evil" at the time, but it's a perfect microcosm of what made this show so unique and impressive. This is one of the eight episodes in the DVD box set without a member of the rogues gallery. An ex-con has stumbled into an invisibility suit that lets him carry out a rash of lucrative robberies, and that part of the story is a bit ho-hum.

What makes it so captivating, though, is that it's really a domestic drama. Lloyd Ventrix isn't just robbing Gothamites for kicks. His incarceration has estranged him from his now-ex-wife Helen and their young daughter, Kimmy, and he wants to reconnect with his daughter. It's misguided, of course, but watching the episode as an adult I found it actually very moving. It's also another example of the kind of storytelling that no cartoon had dared to explore. There's nearly an entire minute and a half in the middle of the episode in which Lloyd watches Helen drop off Kimmy at school and then he approaches Helen during her lunch break at work. Batman isn't part of any of that, and it doesn't matter because their story is interesting enough on its own.

"Beware the Gray Ghost" is an overachiever of an episode. The premise is that someone is running a bomb extortion scam taken from the plot of an old pulp-style TV show, The Gray Ghost, that Bruce Wayne watched as a young boy. The story itself is actually fairly solid, but it's the fact that Adam West voices Bruce Wayne's boyhood idol that's of interest. There's a sort of "aw, neat!" factor there that's irresistible.

Again, though, I have to give credit to the storytelling maturity of the series. In a cartoon, Batman would have teamed up with The Gray Ghost outright. In Batman: The Animated Series, though, that's not sufficiently thoughtful. Instead, "Beware the Gray Ghost" focuses on Simon Trent as the actor who played the Gray Ghost. Now typecast and unable to find work, Trent lives alone in a shoddy apartment and has to pay his rent by hawking the last of his Gray Ghost memorabilia.

The novelty of the Gray Ghost being voiced by a former Batman is admittedly pretty cool, but what elevates the episode is that Simon Trent isn't just our hero's hero. He's a sympathetic character himself. He's just an out of work actor trying to get by in a world that won't let him be anything but the Gray Ghost. That's the basis for an outright drama - and a compelling one at that.

Perhaps the strongest episode of the entire collection is "Appointment in Crime Alley". Roland Daggett wants to get his grubby paws on some new commercial property. Stymied in his efforts to just buy the slums, he hires an arsonist to create an explosion to be blamed on a gas line. Not only are there innocent, downtrodden people still living there; this is also where Bruce Wayne's parents were murdered and where Dr. Leslie Thompkins still lives. Leslie helped look after young Bruce in the wake of his parents's murder and is as dear to him as is Alfred.

The episode is based on a Dennis O'Neil story, "There Is No Hope in Crime Alley" (Detective Comics #457), one of several in the series to draw from comic book tales. I won't lie: I nearly teared up during the final shot of the episode, of Batman laying a pair of roses on the sidewalk for his parents, with Leslie Thompkins kneeling down and just holding him. Powerful stuff.

The DVD Box Set

One nice thing is that Warner Bros. actually created four discs for the content in each of their Batman: The Animated Series volumes. Other shows such as Superman: The Animated Series and Batman Beyond featured double-sided DVD discs often called "flippers" since you have to flip over the disc to get to the rest of the content. I hate flippers.

There's not much in the way of bonus content. Two episodes feature commentary tracks: "On Leather Wings" (producers Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski) and "Heart of Ice" (Timm and Radomski, joined by writer/story editor/producer Paul Dini). They're well worth listening to, and my only complaint is that there should have been a commentary track of comparable value for every single episode!

"Batman: The Legacy Continues" is a collection of interview comments from various people - either people who worked on the show or are in the comic book industry - discussing the impact of the series. It's a solid overview and a nice primer for newbies but longtime fans won't really learn anything from it.

"The Dark Knight's First Night" presents the original test footage that Timm and Radomski whipped up to get the job of producing the series, along with their individual recollections about the origins of the series. It's really cool, but only lasts five minutes.

The "Tour of the Batcave" is one of those things where you click on different screens to bring up clips from the show and text bios of characters and gadgets, etc. On a computer, that kind of thing might work but on a DVD I don't really want to have to keep navigating just to read such obvious information. The fourth disc's bonus content is simply a trio of trailers for other DC animated DVD releases (The Challenge of the Super Friends, Justice League: Starcrossed and Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman).

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