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: Secrets Of The Caped Crusader (published November 10th, 2004) are also available.
"Imagine that, sir. A man dressed in a frightening costume, running around scaring people. What will they think of next?"—Alfred
He is so well known and popular that the opening credits need not even give the show's title. Instead, we are treated to evidence of his power. See how easily he slips out from the shadows to capture those bank robbers. See how tall he stands on the roof of that building, as lightning flashes around him. He is the Dark Knight, the Detective. He is vengeance and justice.
He is Batman.
I do not think I have to introduce you to the story of Batman. If you are reading this, you have likely read a Batman comic, or seen some of the movies, or watched one of the television versions of this character. In keeping with his status as archetypal hero for each generation, Batman has taken so many different forms over the decades. One of the more successful incarnations has been Batman: The Animated Series, which began in 1992 as an attempt to translate Tim Burton's neo-noir version of the Dark Knight to kid's television. But producer Bruce Timm, writer Paul Dini, and company quickly established their own look for the series. Visually, they borrowed elements of 1940s design (blocky vehicles, zeppelins, sharp modernist angles) and expressionistic shadowing (often painting backgrounds on black cels in order to give the feeling of omnipresent night). In storytelling, they often focused more on the psychological traumas of their characters than in prior television versions (like the 1960s Adam West show or the bland Superfriends Batman). Although they battled the network censors almost continuously during their initial 65-episode run, the team managed to make Batman: The Animated Series capture the dark energy of its tortured hero and his world.
Warner Brothers packages the first five episodes of Batman: The Animated Series on DVD, in a package that does not seem quite sure of its target market. For kids, the disc offers a five-part "Life on the Edge" game, which shows clips from the episodes as rewards for solving fairly arbitrary puzzles. A "Get the Picture" segment shows a sketch artist drawing Batman's head in fast motion, too quickly to provide an actual art lesson.
But for the grown-ups, each of the five episodes on the disc is accompanied by a brief interview segment with producer Bruce Timm. He candidly talks about the successes and failures of each episode. The episodes themselves are offered in full frame with 2.0 audio mixes. Not effort seems to have been made to spice anything up here, but the prints themselves seem in decent shape. Oddly, there are no chapter breaks within the episodes.
These episodes are listed as the "first five," which refers to their production order, and not the order in which the series actually aired. Like most television shows, Batman: The Animated Series had its ups and downs. Many episodes were very good, but it had a few clunkers. And you can expect that some of those clunkers came early in the show's run, as it was still finding its artistic bearings. In that light, this "Legend Begins" disc from Warner Brothers hardly represents the show at its peak. There are some fine moments, and none of the episodes are real stinkers. But only one truly shines.
"On Leather Wings": Batman is discredited when a giant bat-like monster rampages through Gotham. Detective Bullock and District Attorney Harvey Dent are delighted. But the Dark Knight is quickly on the trail of a mad scientist named Kirk Langstrom. This first episode, focusing on the underused lycanthrope Man-Bat, feels unfinished: it ends rather ambivalently and too many plot threads are left unresolved. In his adjoining interview segment, Bruce Timm discusses the team's strategy for starting the show off with a more atmospheric episode in order to distinguish their Batman from the other incarnations of the character in movies and television. But he never addresses the key mistake in this particular episode: all the atmosphere in the world cannot save a middling script. In any case, this episode actually ran second on television, after the first part of a two-parter with Catwoman. So much for marketing strategy.
"Christmas With the Joker": The best part about this first Joker story is getting to hear the killer clown sing "Jingle Bells, Batman Smells" while creating his usual havoc in Gotham City. The Joker's pranks, directed at giving Batman and Robin (who seems to pop in and out of the series with no clear pattern) a lousy holiday, defy plot logic: he has broken out of Arkham less than a day and he manages to convert an entire observatory into a cannon without anyone noticing. If I were Batman, I'd hook up security cameras to every abandoned toy factory and chemical plant in the city. Those places seem to swarm with supervillains.
Bruce Timm hints in his interview that the team never got a handle on the Joker until midway through the first season, when Paul Dini created Harley Quinn. He also hints that the network censors took the edge off the character's antics. This episode does have some cute gags, and the "Joker hosts a television special" bit allows for a nice central hook, but overall, the whole business is a bit silly considering the noir tone the overall series was shooting for.
"Nothing to Fear": Another character Bruce Timm admits the team had difficulty pinning down for a long time is the Scarecrow. While his costume needs some refinement (he looks like he has a paper bag over his head) and I find his voice miscast (the overly mannered tone does not match the character's visual design), the Scarecrow does serve a useful purpose in this episode. His fear gas does give Batman a little psychological development, as Bruce Wayne is haunted by feelings of failure and the specter of his dead father. In retrospect, such character-driven moments might have made this particular episode a better candidate for the pilot show than the meandering "On Leather Wings."
"The Last Laugh": April Fool's Day. Guess who? Bruce Timm describes this one as a Superfriends episode, and he is not far off the mark. He chalks the inconsistent tone up to creative differences among the writing staff. Yes, the Joker is silly here—and I do not mean that in a good way—robbing Gotham while spreading laughing gas. Yes, Batman has no sense of humor. There is not much story here, apart from an extended battle on a trash barge and then a junkyard. Is there a message from the writers in all that?
"Pretty Poison": Harvey Dent's new fiancé is no wilting flower. Pam Isley is beautiful to be sure, but she has the kiss of death. Unfortunately, Harvey is dying from that kiss, and his best friend Bruce Wayne has to find the cure. This episode, which introduces Poison Ivy to the series, is easily the best-written story on the disc. There is a bit of action, some strong detective work, and best of all, Bruce Wayne gets almost more to do than his alter ego. Batman, like most superhero shows, is at its strongest when it develops characters rather than caricatures. Even the clownish Joker should have some psychological motivations if we are to buy into the plot. As Bruce Timm points out, Poison Ivy's "noble motivations," namely her environmentalism, gives her the requisite complexity to make her interesting. And Batman and his rogues' gallery are certainly driven by all sorts of psychological traumas. Perhaps this is what has made the characters so appealing to contemporary audiences, and above all, what has made this franchise successful in its myriad incarnations.
Warner Brothers might have been better off packaging a "best of" DVD collection to start off with. Cartoon Network has been running the choice episodes of late, and even Bruce Timm implies in his interview segments on this disc that these first few are not among the finest the series has to offer. Only "Pretty Poison" ranks with the show's best moments—and would probably end up on a "best of" collection anyway. But the rest of these could have waited, in favor of a stronger batch. Besides, since these episodes were never shown in their original production order, why even bother to package them as if they did, with the whole "legend begins" pretense?
Warner Brothers is sentenced to Arkham Asylum. Someone over there must be insane for packaging an inconsistent bunch of episodes of a usually good show. "Pretty Poison" is released, but the rest of these episodes are sent back for rehabilitation.
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