Debriefing #14: ‘Batman: The Animated Series’ Vol1 Disk1

Batman: The Animated Series Volume 1 Disk 1
Creators: Eric Radomski and Bruce Timm
Directors: Kevin Altieri, Boyd Kirkland, Frank Paur and Ken Butterworth
Writers: Mitch Brian, Tom Ruegger, Paul Dini, Michael Reaves, Henry Gilroy, Sean Catherine Derek, Laren Bright, Carl Swenson, Eddie Gorodetsky, Jules Dennis and richard Muller

Note: This is a discussion of the episodes On Leather Wings, Christmas with The Joker, Nothing to Fear, The Last Laugh, Pretty Poison, The Underdwellers and P.O.V.

Edgar: And now for a refreshing change of pace. James and I enter the world of Batman on television, but before venturing into the Adam West 60s comedic serial, we explore the most widely recognized, most critically acclaimed animated series which aired in the early 1990s. James, there are a lot of things I think we can talk about regarding this show, which holds a special place in many fans’ heart, including yours if I am not mistaken, but I would like to start with a simple question. Given what you and I have talked about since starting Batcave Debriefs, namely, some pretty dark and violent comic stories and Christopher Nolan’s ‘epic’, dramatic conclusion to the Dark Knight trilogy, do you find Batman the Animated Series, these first 7 episodes at least, to be on par with what hard core Batman fans should expect, or a watered down version for the kids (notwithstanding that all Batman fans are still kids on the inside)?

James: It’s certainly on par with the dark, gritty side of the Batman universe. I’m surprised how much they get away with in this show. Guns are used a lot in this show and while no one ever gets shot, a lot of bullets fly. Perhaps it’s reminiscent of an era before school shootings were so feared, but I can’t imagine you having a kid’s show now where gun violence is such a casual part of the world. Also, I’m surprised by how disturbing some of the crimes might be for kids to see. I mean, The Underdwellers is an episode about child slavery…in a kids show! To me, that’s just as dark as anything Nolan put on the silver screen, So I certainly think it’s a Batman world that doesn’t pull punches, but it also certainly isn’t as explicit or graphic as some of the more mature (in content) Batman stories.

E: Interesting assessment there, James. I think we’ll be in agreement regarding quite a bit in this discussion, for I too felt that the creators of the show showed a lot of respect towards where, tonally at least, the Dark Knight comes from. They pull off a very fascinating trick in the animated series insofar as bringing the world of Batman and his enemies to animated television all the while harking back to the sense of genuine danger those stories held for so many decades. The visual style is, how to put it, simple in that Saturday morning cartoon way, but the colours are extremely dark for the most part and, as you mentioned, several of the stories we watched up until are really dark too. I thought the Christmas with the Joker story was very, very eerie in my opinion. Speaking of visual style, I’d like to know what your thoughts are on the world the animators have presented. Is this supposed to occur in a specific decade or a mish-mash of several styles from several areas? What are your general impressions of the show’s look?

J: I’m glad you brought up the visual look of the show because I think it’s part of what makes the show work so well. One of the interesting decisions they made is that the background is drawn on black paper, which gives you that darker sense to all the colours and makes it feel a lot moodier. In terms of style, it is considered anime in style, and I’m fairly certain it was animated by a Japanese company, but it’s a much more grounded style than most anime, I think that’s why it feels like it has multiple influences because there’s that vein of exaggeration, but also the grounded visual tone in the dark backgrounds and more proportional figures that make it simultaneously fantastical and rooted, which is part of what makes the show so compelling for me. I’m curious, did you find the introduction to this series, On Leather Wings, too fantastical with the Man-Bat?

E: Hmm, it is a curious decision to start the show off with that kind of a story. Then again, it doesn’t take too long for the show runners to show off some rather ludicrous story elements in the following episodes as well. I have to say, I’m the sort of television viewer (and it needs to be stressed here that I watch very little tv, drama tv that is) where I need that first episode to sink my teeth into something. I might not even just sit back and enjoy that first episode because I need it to acclimatize myself to the world the show runners want me to appreciate in the episodes to come. I thought the Leather Wings episode was adequate, especially in how it establishes Batman as a detective. I don’t recall much action in that one. As for the villain, it was alright. I suppose there is a sense of irony to the fact the first villain we meet in the entire series is in fact a man-bat, a literal one-step furrther from what Batman is. How about you?

J: I enjoy how it starts off grounding us in the detective work of Batman, that’s one of the greatest strengths of the series, and I think easing us in that way does a good job of establishing the tone of the show. Man Bat isn’t an amazing villain. He doesn’t seem to have any motivation. There’s certainly an iconicity to his character and having him being mistaken for Batman makes for an interesting sub-plot where Harvey Bullock is trying to get a task force to hunt down The Batman. It’s not a great episode, but I think it’s a strong introduction into the world and what you can come to expect. I would have liked a stronger villain, but I thought everything else in the episode is a good representation of the relationships the show plans on exploring throughout the entire series. What did you think of the presence of Harvey Dent in a couple of these early episodes?

E: Yes, Harvey Dent does show up twice if memory serves me. He’s there for the briefest moment possible in that very first episode, Leather Wings, saying something along the lines of being available to help out if the police need to catch Batman (flippin his soon to be infamous coin, no less) and then again, a a true supporting role, in the episode which introduces us to Poison Ivy. Well, there isn’t a whole lot to say about him as of yet. You and I have read a fair amount of books in a short time span which presented the charater, before and after the Two-Face transforrmation.  I don’t know of any interpretations of the character in which he is this chummy with Bruce Wayne. I guess that will make their inevitable antagonism all the more dramatic. I find it interesting that so many of the new authors that take over or in this case show runners feel the need to kick off Two-Face before he becomes the villains. He’s often still Harvey Dent when the stories begin. There must be something inherently rich about that character’s downfall which appeal to writers and filmmakers. How about you?

J: I love that Harvey Dent and Bruce Wayne are such good friends in this interpretation. It makes me hard to enjoy other interpretations because, to me, they reason Two-Face works so well is because he’s the villain Bruce Wayne cares about the most. Establishing Harvey Dent early on goes a long way to selling that relationship and making Two-Face one of the most sympathetic villains in the series. And while speaking of Batman’s rogue’s gallery, what do you make of this version of The Joker?

E: Granted, the precious few episodes I had seen of the animated series prior to this past weekend were the few that WB puts as bonus’ on animated film blurays, but that didn’t prevent me from knowing, first, who does the voice of the character and, second, how apparently beloved this version of the Joker is. I must admit, he didn’t disappoint. Most of all, I feel he was radically different from any interpretation I had seen before. Forget Heath Ledger of course, that was way out there, but he isn’t really Nicholson’s Joker. They find this amazing sweet spot between The Joker being really funny (the ‘so I stole a family!’ line in the Christmas ep had me laughing out loud) and being really, freaking creepy and dangerous. There is something weirdly flamboyant about him too. I liked him a lot and I feel this show really gets why he is Batman’s greatest foe. He’s so well connected! I think I know what your thoughts are, but go ahead and spill the beans.

J: Mark Hamill’s Joker is unequivocally my favorite version of The Joker. He’s able to bring an enthusiasm and malicious glee to the character that I don’t think any other performer has come close to capturing. He can make you laugh, but he can also make a chill run down your spine. He has these moments when his voice suddenly switches to a much more sinister tone and you realize how messed up this character is. And that laugh. I can’t think of a more memorable laugh in any audiovisual medium. So yes, I’m a big fan. What did you think about Scarecrow and Poison Ivy?

E: Before Batman Begins came out, I really wasn’t familiar with the character of Scarecrow. But since then, I’ve become a huge, huge fan. He is practically my favourite Batman villain at this point. Granted, his plots often involve the same damn thing, perhaps he isn’t used that often, but I love him. Here, in the animated series, I think the creators do him enough justice. I love the look of the costume, I liked how they stay true to how, when Crane is wearing the mask, it looks like the mask is alive. I love that! The effect of his gas on Bruce is really compelling as well. Whereas everybody else sees bugs or rats or whatnot, Bruce’s fear is the posssibility that his father is frowning in him for his caped crusading. I liked that too. Poison Ivy was a little bit our there, what with the gigantic jaws equipped plant in her garden. I also felt her motivation was kind of silly. They use her in a neat little way to get close to Harvey Dent, which I liked, and visually the character looked good, although I can’t say I was amazed. Maybe that character needs a couple more episodes to really win me over. Your thoughts?

J: Scarecrow is one of those character that I think plays well off of Batman, especially because of how they use fear but to a different extent. I do like his introduction here and how he serves as a way to mirror Batman’s tactics, but in a much more brutal method. However, like you said, he’s a character where there doesn’t seem like you can do a lot with him, so it feels like this episode does just about all they can do with this character…although I have a feeling he’ll be back at some point. Poison Ivy is one of those villains I’ve never been crazy about. She has that initial femme fatale vibe, but, like you said, her motivation is weak. I like her best when she’s got a plan that goes beyond just avenging nature and we don’t get that here. While we’ve talked about a lot of episodes with iconic villains, there’s one episode that deals with a new villain, The Sewer King. What did you make of him, and that episode?

E: It’s so tough coming up with new villains in the Batman universe. After decades, literally decades of the Joker, The Penguin, Riddler, etc, what do you do to come up with something fresh and threatening. I will give the show credit for this: they come up with something fresh, if a little silly. The Sewer King or Underdweller or whatever poses no literal threat to Batman, not as far as I could understand it, but what he does do, inadvertently though it may be, is hit Bruce Wayne in a very personal way: by using orphaned children for  nefarious purposes.. Bruce was orphaned at a young age but was privileged enough to have the right money and people (namely, Alfred) around him so he came out okay…all things considered. The Sewer King takes advantages of the small children with nowhere to go and no one to rely on and uses them as his band of thieves without ever really respecting of caring for them. I can see how Bruce is enraged at this. So, in that sense, the episode is quite touching, even though I thought the villain himself looked a bit silly and I didn’t like his speech pattern. That was annoying. You?

J: I agree with most of what you said. I like him more for what he brings out of Batman and less because he’s an interesting character. You get that moment at the end where Batman essentially says he’s tempted to kill him for what he’s done, and this after he’s saved the likes of The Joker. It’s something that hits close to home for Bruce Wayne and I think that’s what makes the episode stand out to me as a bold episode, but I do wish The Sewer King was a more interesting character. There’s one last episode we haven’t touched on yet that has nothing to do with any traditional batman villain, in fact, it doesn’t have much to do with Batman. What did you think of P.O.V.?

E: Ah, P.O.V. I figured we’d have to discuss that one at some point  You know, as a film fan like yourself, it isn’t hard to understand what the possible inspiratoin for the episode was. The concept is nice, but I can’t say I liked it too much. Two things. First, I didn’t appreciate how they handled Harvey’s (which a confusing name. Seriously? They have a cop named Harvey as well?) testimony. They drew a story in which he screws everything up but his voice over narration tries to make Gordon and the other bloke believe Batman actually messed things up. Not very subtle. Maybe I hoped fo too much. Secondly, the second half of the story forgoes that Roshomon storytelling device altogether. I was hoping it would be resolved in that room with Gordon and the other guy, Batman only making appearances in the flashback stories of the cops. So, I was left disappointed. Good concept, mediocre execution. James, how about you?

J: I thought this was the best episode of the lot. Unlike you, I didn’t have a problem with the shift in technique because I think it shows that Bullock is a detective who doesn’t play by the book and can be quite deceitful while Montoya is a lot more honest and has integrity. I think it shows that there’s tension within the police force and I also like how it develops the characters beyond Batman in a compelling way. Also, dealing with an average crime that, for all intents and purposes, is ancillary to what the story is about demonstrates that there’s more crime in Gotham than just the high profile villains that Batman spends most of his time chasing. To me, it was an episode that demonstrated how refreshing and distinct this take on Batman is and the power the TV show has to explore an idea for an episode and give us something new and different from episode to episode.

E: As I wrote, it’s a good concept, and as a concept it does exemplify courage and some outside the box thinking on the part of the writers, which should be commended. I think I have a bit of  a problem with the Bullock character all around. Everything the show does with him is so on the nose. There’s another episode, the Scarecrow one I believe, where he basically yells at Gordon, saying he’s willing to give up his badge and bet that Batman is in cahoots with the bad guy and, guess what, Gordon points to the villain all tied uup and delivered by Batman under Bullock’s nose. I get the whole idea of tension in the department, but I feel that’s the one area where it does feel a little too kiddy for me. As for Batman dealing with other criminals, smaller ones than the famous rogues gallery, that might be new to the kids who tuned in to the show, but not for long time fans like you and me, so that didn’t mean anything me. There is something I’d like to touch on before we finish up though, something I alluded to earlier but we didn’t really get into to it very deeply. There are a bunch of contradictory visual cues in the show. Blimps are everywhere (wasn’t that like a big vehicle in the 1940s?), the cops and the crooks where film noir type trenchcoats, even the radio Bruce listens to in one episode looks like something from another era. At the same time, the show evidently takes place in our time (early 90s ‘our time’, but you get what I mean). Did you like that effect or was it not at all an issue?

J: I think it works as a homage to the heavy noir vibe that the show has visually and narratively, and I also think it speaks to the fantastical nature of the show. It’s a world in which there are still something as anachronistic as blimps and old time radios around, but also some more futuristic elements like Batman’s gear. It never bugged me, it’s not something I tend to even notice when I’m watching most episodes.

E: I couldn’t help but notice it, and I will admit to finding it a bit confusing at first. I literally asked myself ‘When is this supposed to be taking place?’ After a while though, I got used to it and even appreciated it. There is a sense of homage that the creators want to pay to the origins of the character, and I’m all for that. Anything in particular you’d like to tackle?

J: I could spend all day talking about this show, but we’ve got to end the discussion at some point and most of the talking points I’d want to make I think are better exemplified in future episodes so I think we should hold off until we get further into the show. This first batch of episodes have some rough edges, I don’t think it all quite comes together yet, but it shows the promise of a strong series and lays the foundations for some fantastic stories in the future.

E: I’d say so far so good. It’s really solid, I also don’t think everything is super smooth and a couple of episodes didn’t blow me away. But, assuming the show gets better and considering it’s already pretty good, I have high hopes.


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