Judge Sandra Dozier thinks the big secret about this DVD is that the original working title was either "Batman Lite" or "Batman's Sampler" before the marketing guys got a hold of it.
Our reviews of Batman: The Animated Series, Volume 3 (published June 30th, 2005), Batman: The Animated Series, Volume 4 (published January 25th, 2006), Batman: The Animated Series, Volume 1 (published July 28th, 2004), Batman: The Animated Series, Volume 2 (published February 10th, 2005), and Batman: The Animated Series: The Legend Begins (published April 23rd, 2002) are also available.
Defending the streets of Gotham City, Batman stands as a beacon of justice, a crusader for good, a one-man crimefighting force.
Warner Bros. has selected four episodes from Batman: The Animated Series, included a couple of relevant extras, value-priced the DVD, and shipped it to market. This sampler set, as I have come to think of it, includes the first two-part episode with Catwoman (from 1992), a Mr. Freeze origin episode, and an episode featuring an invisible man (who is not a recurring character or well-known villain). I also like to think of this set as "Batman Lite," since these episodes have very little (if any) violence or lone-wolf vigilante justice. On the plus side, these episodes are heavier on the detective side of Batman's character, and in the expert hands of the show's creators, this is always a treat.
Facts of the Case
Four episodes from Season One are featured on this disc:
•"Cat and Claw" (Parts 1 and 2)
•"Heart of Ice"
•"See No Evil"
In addition to the episodes, a trivia track for "Heart of Ice" reveals some Batman history and background for The Animated Series, and a featurette on the voice actors offers a behind-the-scenes perspective on bringing the characters to life. I enjoyed both of these extras, and learned a few things from the trivia track, which had some obvious bits of trivia but did a generally good job of filling in background and series detail. The extra with the voice actors for Joker, Catwoman, Batman, and Alfred is excellent, giving a good inside peek at the creation process and the role of the voice director, as well as the creative inspiration individual actors get for their voices. This is a fairly beefy extra, but it does not linger over-long on this subject, either.
Until The Animated Series debuted in 1992, Batman had not had a good time of it outside of the comic book format. Although the comics got it right, with a generally even portrayal of Batman as a crack detective, justice-minded vigilante, and all-around badass, his small- and big-screen appearances were a letdown for fans. The sixties television series, with its deliberately campy take on the Dynamic Duo of Batman and Robin, was fun but laughable, and the more recent movie franchise…well, that's just an Excedrin headache in the making.
Fortunately, the likes of Paul Dini (script writer) and Bruce Timm (director) came along and changed all that with Batman: The Animated Series. Finally, Batman ruled the airwaves, and fans tuned in to bask in the soft glow of electric awesomeness.
The Animated Series took characters seriously, giving them complex backstories and arcs that were interesting, moving, and entertaining. One of my favorite characters, Victor Fries (Mr. Freeze), was given an entirely new treatment that was surprisingly touching in its depth and simplicity, and helped to create a new generation of fans. The Joker was recast as a trickster with a dark side, doing a much better job of scaring me than the straight-up psycho from the movie franchise ever did. Catwoman went from being merely a hottie with a feline fixation and a knack for stealth to being a tough (yet conflicted) master thief who challenged Batman morally and emotionally. Even sidelined characters were reintroduced with a classic, comic-book-style treatment. A good example of this is The Penguin, who appeared as a gentleman robber and all-around moneygrubbing con man (rather than the well-intentioned but absurd movie incarnation).
Batman: Secrets of the Caped Crusader gets the villains right, with multilayered characterizations that don't get watered down, even though the show was under strict restrictions about what it could and could not show in the way of violence or lapsed morality—series creators were still able to create powerful, memorable stories surrounding these characters.
The strength of this particular DVD is that it acts as an inexpensive sampler for those who don't want to invest a chunk of change on the first-season collection. However, I was disappointed by the transfer, which is merely average and shows age-related wear and artifacting during each episode. The Mr. Freeze episode probably looks the best out of the group, which is interesting since it was only the third production episode from Season One. Sound quality fares much better, with an excellent surround track that makes good use of multiple channels for sound effects and dialogue. Despite the average transfer, the casual viewer should be happy enough with picture quality, but videophiles may want to seek out the collected first season instead.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
For all the praise this series as a whole deserves, I'm still not sure why these four episodes were chosen as representatives. No Joker? That seems like an oversight too large to ignore. The excellent "The Last Laugh" from the first season, which was based on a popular story from Batman comic book lore, would have made a worthy addition to this set, perhaps as a replacement for the more generic "See No Evil." I can see no rhyme or reason for the episode selections here, other than the common theme of less physical violence that they share.
This particular DVD also commits a couple of transgressions that I find annoying: no decent chapter stops (going to the next chapter just jumps to the end of the episode, or the next episode when using the "play all" feature), and no ability to shut off subtitles via in-episode remote once they are turned on—you have to return to the main menu, choose "Languages," and shut them off. Then, restart the episode and fast-forward until you get back to where you want to be. While this is unlikely to be an issue for many viewers, this type of sloppy encoding makes the DVD feel rushed and rinky-dink…certainly not up to the standards of a studio that has more than enough resources to produce a better product.
This is a good DVD for anyone wishing to dip their toe in the water of Batman: The Animated Series, or for parents who want kid-friendly fare that will keep kids occupied for 90 minutes, but I can't see it appealing to anyone outside of this select group. At the relatively low asking price of around $15, these four episodes can be had fairly cheaply, but so can the first-season collection on DVD, which is a better value overall (just over twice the price for 28 episodes). Unless you want a completely de-fanged version of The Animated Series (which is careful to avoid gore and scary violence, anyway) save your pennies and go for the complete set.
Held on probation in consideration of more bang-for-your-buck value options.
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