03 January 2013

"Batman: The Animated Series" Volume Four

Batman: The Animated Series Volume Four
From The New Batman Adventures
Starring the voice talents of Kevin Conroy as Batman/Bruce Wayne, Tara Charendoff as Batgirl/Barbara Gordon, Matthew Valencia as Robin/Tim Drake, Efram Zimbalist, Jr. as Alfred, Loren Lester as Nightwing/Dick Grayson
Date of Release:
MSRP: $44.95
24 episodes/521 minutes
Volume One | Volume Two | Volume Three

As with Volume Three, there was a viewing order consideration to be had here. There was a crossover event uniting Batman and Superman against The Joker and Lex Luthor, originally aired as a single feature called The Batman/Superman Movie and subsequently re-aired in The New Superman Adventures in three parts as "World's Finest." That's how the event is featured in Superman: The Animated Series Volume Two, but the original cut was given its own standalone DVD release and I have that. It aired after the first two episodes presented on Volume Four, but I decided in the interest of convenience to watch The Batman/Superman Movie before delving into Volume Four. As with Batman & Mr. Freeze in SubZero, I've reviewed the standalone film in my Letterboxd diary.

In 1997, Batman was revamped and brought from Fox to the WB Network. There, the series was rebranded for the second time, combined with Superman for The New Batman/Superman Adventures. Each hour long block of programming consisted of one Batman episode and one Superman, with reruns drawing on previous incarnations of the series as well as newly produced episodes.

All characters were redesigned, down to the Batmobile. Dick Grayson became Nightwing, Barbara Gordon was brought into the Batcave as a full-time member of the Bat-team, and Tim Drake joined as the new Robin. Some of the voice cast changed. Most notably, Tara Charendoff replaced Melissa Gilbert as Barbara Gordon, Jeffrey Combs became the new Scarecrow and Brooks Garner succeeded Aron Kincaid as Killer Croc.

The WB Network was much freer about some kinds of content than Fox had been; we see blood in these episodes, for instance. "My God!" is a commonly heard expression of shock, rather than the "My word!" or similar substitute. The new storytelling freedom produced some of the finest episodes of the entire canon, though curiously it also includes some of the worst. "Joker's Millions" reduces the The Joker from a ruthless psychopath to the victim of a prank that would have been bad even in an Eddie Murphy movie.

Even that's more tolerable than "Critters", in which a farmer with massive, anthropomorphic animals terrorizes Gotham City. Several of the middle-of-the-road episodes are also bogged down by skewing toward traditional Saturday morning cartoon humor and gags. Roughly half of The New Batman Adventures is a far cry from the straight, grim melodrama of the earlier Batman: The Animated Series.

The half that's good, though, is outstanding. Here are the highlights:

"Holiday Knights" is an anthology episode, adapted from The Batman Adventures Holiday Special #1 comic book. That comic sold through almost immediately when it was originally published, and it was the last issue I had to find to complete my run of the original volume of The Batman Adventures. Fortunately for me, a friend snagged us each a copy at a comic shop he visited on vacation.

There are three segments here. In the first, Poison Ivy uses her controlling kiss power on Bruce Wayne, who is then compelled to take her and Harley Quinn shopping. It's slapstick, but it's fun. In the second story, Detectives Bullock and Montoya stake out a shopping mall that's been harangued by a rash of thefts. The culprit is revealed as Clayface, who is ultimately stopped by Batgirl. The final act has The Joker make a New Year's resolution to go an entire year without killing anyone...prompting him to try really hard to kill as many as he can before the ball drops. Batman and his new Robin, of course, intervene. There's a great coda to the episode of Batman meeting Commissioner Gordon at a cafe for a cup of coffee that puts this one over the top.

Speaking of the new Robin, it's unclear why his origin story is presented after "Holiday Knights", but at least it's the second episode of the collection: "Sins of the Father". Tim Drake had just come on the scene when I began reading Batman comics in 1989, so he's always been "my" Robin. His animated incarnation has a story that's an amalgamation of Tim's and his predecessor's (Jason Todd). It's not as captivating as Dick Grayson's origin ("Robin's Reckoning"), but seeing the look on Tim's face when he pieces together that his father has been killed and that he's now an orphan is still a very moving image. We feel better this time, though, because we know that he's already found a home.

Tim's finest episode is "Growing Pains", in which he meets a street urchin with amnesia. We learn that she's a part of Clayface that separated from him and became sentient on its own, and that he's spent months searching for her. Try as he might, Tim cannot protect her and has to watch in helpless horror as she's reabsorbed into Clayface. The first half of the episode is one of the better mysteries of the series, and the finale is one of its most compelling tragedies.

"Over the Edge" is, in my estimation, the single best episode of the entire series and second only to the feature film, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm as the best story of the entire canon. We open with Commissioner Gordon leading a raid into the Batcave, hunting Batman and Robin relentlessly. We don't know why, but the gig is up and Gordon is a man obsessed. This episode is chock full of OMG! moments, never breathing or letting us get our bearings.

During an altercation with Scarecrow, Batgirl has been killed - falling from atop a skyscraper directly onto the police car carrying her father, the police commissioner. Her dying word is, "Dad", and when he unmasks his daughter, his rage consumes him. We've seen the police chase Batman before, but never like this. We've never believed they could actually catch him until now.

In the end, of course, we discover that the entire episode has been Batgirl's nightmare, generated by the Scarecrow's fear toxin. Ordinarily, this would cheapen the entire story but the final scene doesn't just rescue "Over the Edge"; it's what puts it over the top. Consumed by guilt at keeping her alter ego secret from her father, Barbara sits down to tell him her secret. Recognizing what she's about to say, he stops her and very coyly insinuates that he already knows...and approves.

Over 22 minutes, "Over the Edge" manages to create an entire nightmare - not for Barbara, but for us. Instead of coldly telling us, "It was just a dream", though, the episode hugs us and tells us that it's okay. For spanning such a range of intense emotions, and for spinning the single most thrilling tale, "Over the Edge" is the best episode of the series.

Conceptually, there's no episode more perfectly suited to appeal to me than "Legends of the Dark Knight", in which kids share with one another different interpretations of who Batman is and what he's like. It's another anthology episode, only this time each segment is an homage to a different incarnation of the Dark Knight. The first sequence is a callback to the goofy 50s work by folks like Dick Sprang, and the 1966 TV series starring Adam West. The second is a straight adaptation of a sequence from Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns in which an aged Batman fights the leader of a gang of mutants in a mud pit. The finale takes place in the "real" world, where the kids are caught by arsonist Firefly and rescued by Batman.

Not only did they create different animation for the Sprang and Miller sequences, but they also brought in different voice actors to complete the effect. It's great fun to see the Sprang homage, and as a longtime fan of The Dark Knight Returns, it was a particular thrill to see that bit. Of course, they've now made an entire direct-to-video adaptation of Dark Knight but in 1997, this mud fight was the most we expected we'd ever see put on the screen. Plus, the casting of Michael Ironside to voice Miller's Batman was genius. (Naming the episode after the anthology series that I love so much didn't escape my attention, either.)

Being a huge fan of Batgirl, it should also come as no surprise that I loved "Girl's Night Out", in which she teams up with Supergirl against Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn and Livewire. The dynamics of their relationships with one another are fun to watch, from Harley's resentment of Livewire to the gal pal power of Batgirl and Supergirl high-fiving their accomplishment.

As with "Holiday Knights", "Mad Love" is an adaptation of a comic book originally published as a Batman Adventures special issue - written by Paul Dini and illustrated by Bruce Timm. It's the origin story of Harley Quinn, though it's much more tragic than funny despite focusing on Harley and The Joker. There are several truly dramatic moments that are among the most affecting of any episode. Not the least of these is The Joker's therapy session, in which he recounts trying to make his dad laugh...and being beaten for it. Perhaps most chilling of all is when Harley, showing her actual face, drops her silly voice and pleads earnestly for Batman to help her stop The Joker.

The DVD Box Set
By the time of Volume Four, there wasn't much left to say apparently. Disc 1 includes "Interactive Arkham Asylum", in which various creators discuss each of the rogues gallery and how they were created and evolved. Each of the eleven clips runs nearly two minutes, plus there's an introduction so the whole thing is the equivalent in run time to an episode. There's no Play All feature, though, so you have to manually select the clips individually. There's not a lot of eye-opening insight to be found, but it's kind of neat to hear the varying levels of enthusiasm each creator has for the assorted characters.

We also get three commentary tracks. Producers Bruce Timm and Paul Dini, art director Glen Murakami and storyboard artist James Tucker discuss "Over the Edge", and are joined by director Dan Riba to discuss "Critters" and "Legends of the Dark Knight". Timm explains in his opening remarks on the "Critters" commentary that they selected that episode precisely because it was so reviled by fans. The thinking was that they wanted to pick a "bad" episode but that they had a hard time demeaning the work of others by designating any given episode as such, but that "Critters" was so universally hated that it was a safe choice. It's a great commentary track, actually, and I applaud Timm for having the creative sense to recognize the value in commenting on a bad episode.

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