Judge Sandra Dozier celebrates the series that made noir kid-friendly.
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: Secrets Of The Caped Crusader (published November 10th, 2004), and Batman: The Animated Series: The Legend Begins (published April 23rd, 2002) are also available.
"You know, there's just one thing bothering me about your story, Sid. No body! No 'battus delicti,' so to speak."—The Joker, in "The Man Who Killed Batman"
Read the quote above to learn a fundamental truth about Batman: The Animated Series—it's the writing that makes this series a winner. Battus delicti is not only howlingly funny; it's a joke that doesn't faze kids but appeals to adults, thereby bridging the gap between the crowd the series is marketed toward and the crowd that has adopted it as their own. The writing is sophisticated, but simple; witty, but fun. You get a sense that the writers, particularly head writer Paul Dini, grew up with the comics and know what they are doing with the characters in that universe. This is a series that adults can unashamedly feel passionate about. Give me the choice between this and the live-action movies, for instance, and I'll choose The Animated Series every time.
Facts of the Case
The Dark Knight goes it alone for most of Batman: The Animated Series, but occasionally Dick Grayson returns from college to join him as Robin. This collection of episodes also features Barbara Gordon's introduction to the animated series (in "Heart of Steel") and the first appearance of Talia, daughter to Ra's Al Ghul (in "Off Balance"), who will become a conflicted contender for Batman's affections later on.
Even an animated show has seasons, but the Volume Two DVD release, like Volume One, groups shows according to production number rather than air date. The shows included on this four-disc set are as follows:
In addition to the episodes, there are three featurettes. "Robin Rising" talks about how the characterization of Robin in The Animated Series evolved, "Gotham's Guardians" profiles the supporting characters who help Batman in his fight against crime, and "Voices of the Knight" (a featurette also included on the separate release Batman: The Animated Series: Secrets of the Caped Crusader) checks in with the voice actors who give the characters their souls.
Batman has been a DC Comics staple since the early thirties and has gone through numerous incarnations to be the man he is today. Personally, my favorite was the dark loner, the tortured vigilante who took justice into his own powerful hands and worked without a net. There is something fractured and magnificent about Batman that no super-powered superhero can touch, and when I see a walking, talking version of him, I want to see that essential humanity brought to the character. So when I heard they were making an animated show for kids, I threw up my hands in disgust, expecting a sanitized, hobbled Batman to come leaping onto the screen with Robin, Batgirl, and Batdog in tow, a cheesy smile permanently fixed on his face as he socked the bad guys.
Thank goodness I was wrong. Batman: The Animated Series doesn't do the full-on alienated version of Batman, but it does the next best thing: a truly dark knight who is driven by his grief and guilt to take a more active hand in fighting crime in his community. A man intelligent enough to know that he stands on the edge of despair every night he dons that cape, and passionate enough to do it anyway. This Batman is not utterly alone, but he is a loner. We love him because he continues his fight even when things seem hopeless. This struggle is a theme that will come up repeatedly in the second season, as Bruce Wayne falls deeper into his alter ego of Batman and eventually loses himself in Batman's obsession to do what is right even when he feels his control over the crime in Gotham slipping away. He will gain a new ally in the unlikely form of Catwoman, who hasn't quite given up her catsuit but has at least stopped thieving for the time being. Still, he barely has time to enjoy this success before he is haunted by past fears and challenged by present frustrations.
In one episode, "The Man Who Killed Batman," he will even drop out of sight and be presumed dead, which prompts the Joker, who feels robbed that he was not the cause of this event, to touchingly eulogize his fallen foe and greatest enemy, a personality holdover from the comics that I was glad to see. There are many such goodies for crossover fans to enjoy, where more subtle character attributes that were established in the comics are referred to or incorporated into the animated storyline. For instance, when Barbara Gordon appears, she makes use of her compact to improvise fingerprint dust—an in-joke that refers to the campier days of the Batman comic, when Batgirl disguised utility-belt items as everyday cosmetics. We even see the origin story for the Bat Cave's giant penny in "Almost Got 'Im."
That The Animated Series manages to stay kid-friendly (no killing or gore) while still staying true to the characters involved is a credit to the solid writing done for the show. Script supervisor Paul Dini wrote many of the best scripts of the season and guided the overall tone. While colorful, the villains are never romanticized to the point that we forget their intrinsic badness, even in the tempting case of the Joker, one of the juicier rogues in Batman's gallery. Despite his perky sidekick Harley Quinn lightening things up, we are always reminded that beneath the laughing exterior lies the heart of a sadist. In the excellent season closer, "Harley and Ivy" (written by Dini), the Joker kicks Harley out of the gang when she upstages him, and when she doesn't come back with her tail between her legs, he hunts her down and takes her back by force. While most of the menace in this plot will go over the heads of younger kids, adults will feel the chill of Joker's slippery persona and psychopathic tendencies.
And while there are always going to be a few episodes in every batch that don't stand out, very few in the entire series can truly be called "duds." I would not classify any of the episodes in Volume Two this way, despite the lackluster "Eternal Youth," about a day spa run by Poison Ivy as a cover to lure environmentally unfriendly businesspeople to their doom, and the equally ho-hum "What Is Reality?" about the Riddler's attempt to trap Commissioner Gordon, Batman, and Robin in a virtual-reality world. More often than not, there are excellent episodes like "The Mechanic," which gives us a peek into Batman's support network in the form of his mechanic, Earl (voiced by the late character actor Paul Winfield, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan), whom Batman employed after Earl tried to blow the whistle on his employer's dangerous car design. Or consider the charming "Almost Got 'Im," which doesn't actually feature Batman in costume but centers on a clandestine meeting between the principal baddies and their discussion of the Caped Crusader.
You can sometimes tell a good series by the voice talent it attracts. In addition to the heaven-sent casting of Kevin Conroy as Batman (a voice so perfect I immediately forgave them for not casting Miguel Ferrer), the producers scored again with the unlikely voice of Mark Hamill as the Joker. No one thought the guy who played Luke in Star Wars would pull it off, but his boundless energy invigorates the role. Of course, if you ever have the chance to see Hamill as the Trickster on the early nineties live-action television series The Flash, it doesn't take a big leap of faith to imagine him as the Joker. Next, there is the smoky-voiced Adrienne Barbeau as Catwoman—purrrrfect casting there (sorry, I couldn't resist). Guest stars include a list of science-fiction alums like Michael York, David Warner, the late Roddy McDowell, William Sanderson, Matt Frewer, Diana Muldaur, and Robert Picardo, just to name a few. Melissa Gilbert lends her voice to Barbara Gordon, and Ed Asner puts his distinctive growl to work as Roland Daggett, as well.
Backing up the fine selection of episodes are four commentaries and three featurettes. The commentaries tend to be heavy on the technical and creative aspects of the show and will probably appeal more to adult fans who want to know what was going through the writers' heads when they conceived the story. In the commentary for "Robin's Reckoning," for example, they talk openly about how Robin wasn't anyone's favorite character at the start of the show but was developed so that he was integral to Batman's character arc, and how they worked in ways early on to turn him into Nightwing later. At other times, the commentators will get lost in the episode just like the rest of us schlubs, such as for "Almost Got 'Im," when they laugh over a joke involving Croc talking about his best moment with Batman. "I hit him with a rock!" he says proudly, and the others are forced to just stare back, stone-faced. "It was a big rock," Croc clarifies, and the guys crack up—it's like they sat down in your living room to watch with you.
The featurettes are slick and involve interviews with the creators and actors. These are a little more family-friendly, with a slower pace and behind-the-scenes anecdotes that both kids and adults can sink their teeth into. "Robin Rising" spotlights the Boy Wonder and the creators' decision to make him much hipper than Batman, and also college-age, saving the choice to bring in a young Tim Drake/Jason Todd Robin after Dick becomes Nightwing. "Gotham's Guardians" takes a look at supporting good guys who fight alongside Batman and support his efforts. It was nice to get confirmation on a deliberate effort to make Bullock, Commissioner Gordon's top cop, "soiled" but not dirty. In some ways, his character is more interesting because he truly wants to uphold the law, but wants to do it his way, which isn't always judicial. Finally, "Voices of the Knight" features the voice actors, giving faces to the villains and heroes everyone knows and loves. Barbeau gives a humorous perspective on getting used to the "sound effects" of voice acting, such as what sound to make when Catwoman gets kicked in the head or lands on a roof after a fall. Overall, these are enjoyable featurettes, mostly from the perspective of being able to see the people who worked on the series and hear their own words.
As far as video and sound, I was mostly pleased with this release. The image quality varies from episode to episode, according to source material. Some episodes show hardly a scratch or blotch on the print, but some (especially "Heart of Steel") have quite a bit of grain and fuzz on the picture. Overall, though, colors are strong and even, with quite a bit of richness to night scenes in particular. The lovely animation, right down to the film noir overtones, is faithfully reproduced here and looks very clear. The sound quality holds up well, too, with a lively 2.0 surround track that makes good use of front channels for the symphonic soundtrack and ambient noise. The sound is quite clear and free from interference—every laugh the Joker utters comes through brilliantly. The packaging itself is quite nice, with an embossed Batman leaping out of the front cover of the cardboard box jacket, and a fold-out insert that holds the DVDs securely on a plastic face. Behind each clear plastic face is printed dozens of episode stills screened in blue for an old-fashioned look. The spine of the box jacket also has the embossed Batman, and the packaged-up volume is both compact and handsome looking on the shelf.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Mostly, my only complaint has to do with episode navigation. There are no chapter stops, only the ability to skip to the start of the next episode. I'm sure chapter stops were deemed unnecessary due to the short episode length, but when watching several episodes together, it would be nice to skip past the opening credits to the title card. I don't have a lot of hope that this will change in future volumes, however, since Warner Bros. is known for not including stops on their half-hour-long shows, and everyone complains about it.
One thing that may put people off is the unevenness of the image quality, which varies due to source and age-related wear such as dust and scratching on the animation cels themselves, a problem that isn't such a concern for television broadcast but shows up with crystal clarity on DVD. Although the colors are very good, one might wonder why there was no image correction prior to release. Part of this is probably that the series looks fine enough as is and doesn't need major restoration, so it wasn't cost-effective. Another reason is hinted at in a commentary—it may have been a conscious choice, since image correction tends to bleed colors together, especially the dark tones so prevalent in Batman's world. Personally, I was not bothered by the image spotting that I saw in the episodes, and I appreciate the color clarity.
Any series that can make us feel excited to see the cowl come down over Batman's face again deserves all the praise I can heap on it and more. With 28 episodes, commentaries that satisfy the hardcore fans, and featurettes that are family-friendly, this attractive boxed set makes an excellent library addition for any animation fan and especially for any fan of Batman.
We couldn't hold Batman even if we tried—the Dark Knight is free to go.
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