Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Recap/Review: B:TAS "Legends of the Dark Knight"

Remember the last recap I did? I’d like to bring your attention back to this quote I’ve repeated over the NewtCave:

Bat-Mite: "Batman's rich history allows him to be interpreted in a multitude of ways. To be sure, this is a lighter incarnation, but it's certainly no less valid and true to the character's roots as the tortured avenger crying out for mommy and daddy. AND BESIDES, THOSE EASTER BUNNIES LOOKED REALLY SCARY, RIGHT?!"

What Bat-Mite was getting at is that there is no “definitive Batman.” Since the 30’s, Batman has been reinterpreted over and over and over. Today, I’m here to recap and review an episode of Batman: the Animated Series that set out to say something along similar lines, “Legends of the Dark Knight.”

Now before we begin, let me set the stage for this version of Batman: He’s Batman. 

Well, that’s all you need to know! Seriously, this show has probably the most generic Batman ever. That’s not a criticism, but an observation, and I’m not saying this in a negative way. I’m just saying that this version of Batman is probably the easiest to jump right into because it has the most familiar elements for the average person with a passing familiarity with Batman, but it doesn’t add too many of its own quirks to the mix to confuse newcomers.

It’s pretty refreshing when compared to versions like Beware the Batman that like to invent their own additions to the mythos. And with that, let’s begin!

Aw, yeah, here we go!
After the intro, the episode proper opens on an establishing shot of a newspaper vendor, with the headline reporting on a rash of suspicious fires. Three kids walk up and begin to read the article. The kids all begin to get excited when they see that the article’s picture has a glimpse of Batman. The girl of the group, a bespectacled redhead with a pixie cut, begins to leap around and talk about the many ways in which Batman is awesome. One of the boys there, with brown hair and a black coat, begins to join in, saying that he heard that Batman wasn’t even human, but a “giant pterodactyl beast, with big fangs and talons” who carries away the bad guys. The girl tells this kid, identified as “Nick,” that his interpretation’s not very realistic.

I would like to note that this is a world where an albino gorilla is a sophisticated criminal mastermind, and a non-albino one was the leader of most of the super villains on Earth for a good while. I’m not saying, I’m just saying.

The final kid, with a red jacket and black hair, claims that his uncle knows Batman. Much to the shock of everyone, he also says that Batman is… a nice guy! Oh, man, there are so many Bat-fans who want to have a go at this kid, especially when he continues that Batman and Robin are “real funny.” The other kids don’t believe that one bit, but red-jacketed boy begins the first of our tales this episode, about his security guard uncle who works at the Walker Music Center.

As he begins telling his story, the picture fades away to a colorful music museum not unlike a Silver Age Batman story, complete with oversized instruments and 40’s big band background music. Even the animation style has changed. Instead of the minimalistic art-deco designs of Bruce Timm, everything looks like it popped right out of the comics as drawn by Silver Age legend Dick Sprang.
....
Stop laughing at his name.

As the security guard naps at his desk, the radio behind him statics out before switching to the sound of Joker’s laugh. Eerily enough, it sounds more like the laugh from Batman: the Brave and the Bold (done by Jeff Bennett) than Mark Hamill’s regular one. But as you’ll see, this episode gets even weirder in hindsight. On the radio, the Joker begins to recite a modified nursery rhyme about stealing stuff, and the security guard remarks that he’d better stay on his toes.

Nick: “’Better stay on my toes?’ He actually said that out loud?”
Boy: “Well, I don’t know, this is how my uncle tells it.”

The girl, identifying the kid as Matt, tells him to keep going, and he does. The guard runs through the Center, making sure that everything’s locked up, but someone throws a jack-in-the-box into the room in the area above the door. It cranks itself until the Joker’s face pops out and gasses the security guard. In a blind, coughing panic, the guard rushes at the door for some air, but is knocked down by a gas-masked Joker entering. Joker thanks the guard for getting the door, and takes off his mask as the air dissipates. Again, the Joker is designed to look like the one drawn by Dick Sprang. Seriously, stop laughing. But what’s really interesting is that in its animated form, it looks like the Joker from Brave and the Bold that would come out around a decade later. In fact, this whole sequence looks like an episode of TBATB as animated by the Korean backup animators. (No offense meant, but the series is notorious for, shall we say, animation of uneven quality.)

Styles from Left to Right:  B:TAS standard,  B:TAS Matt's Story,  Dick Sprang,  B:TBATB
Anyway, Joker begins to loot the place as he cracks jokes left and right, until Batman and Robin (again, Dick Sprang style and reminding me of TBATB) show up, telling the Joker that they’ve cracked the clue that he left for them, and they figured out that he’s after the original sheet music for the musical Pagliacci.

This looks like a job for Dirk Hardpec, and his trusty sidekick, Peter Pantsless!
Batman and Robin swoop in as Joker’s mooks open fire, and the duo begin to take out the mooks with ease using the oversized instruments as Joker runs off and hides. But the mooks end up turning the table on the heroes, and the Dynamic Duo end up knocked out as the Joker gloats over them. After the commercial break, the tied-up security guard comes to as the Joker’s mooks begin to set up the oversized piano as a deathtrap. Batman and Robin are placed on the strings as Joker begins to play. The two heroes manage to roll across the strings to avoid the incoming hammers and escape. They throw Batarangs at the mooks and take them out with a giant violin bow. Joker runs off, but Batman leaps into action and traps him in a giant harp. Batman tells the guard to call the cops, and tells Robin, “Well done, old chum.”

Nick: “’Old chum?’ You gotta be kidding!”
Girl: “The whole story’s bogus! Your uncle was asleep half the time!”
Matt: “Well, like I said, that’s how he tells it.”

As the kids walk off, another kid (putting a feather boa on a mannequin in front of a store) perks up, because he hears them talking about Batman. The kid, named Joel, goes on for a second about how he loves Batman.

Joel: “All those muscles, the tight, rubber armor, that flashy car! I heard it can drive up walls!”
Nick: “Yeah, sure, Joel.”

Given the fact that JOEL is in front of a sign that says “SHOEMAKER,” this is certainly a playful jab against the Joel Schumacher films, Batman Forever in particular. In that one, Batman wears a sculpted rubber Batsuit (complete with the infamous Bat-nipples), and drives his Batmobile up a wall. Well played, show.

Anyway, the three kids notice the remains of an arsonized coffee shop across the street, and Joel flips his hair and remarks that the fire was “fabulous.” (Joel Schumacher’s openly homosexual.  If that’s not enough for you, “Joel” is wearing pink.) The three kids run over, leaving Joel in their dust. The girl takes out a flashlight and begins looking for clues, like she’s in Scooby-Doo, or something. Nick suggests leaving, but she insists that Batman wouldn’t run away. When they ask her how she knows, she sets down the flashlight, stands by the wall, and gives her take on Batman.

Girl: “First of all, Batman’s real old; like, about fifty. And second, Robin's a girl.”

Put those green panties on a girl, it's a "sexist costume."
Put them on a boy, they say, "Batman must be gay for Robin."
Get rid of them, people complain that they changed the costume.
Kobiyashi Maru situation, huh?
And with that, we segue into her story, where Robin bears a striking resemblance to the girl telling the story. (No big shock, there.  The girl’s designed after the Carrie Kelley Robin from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. And guess what comic story the show makers adapted for the story this character tells? You guessed it. As a side note, I’m going to start referring to “Girl” as “Carrie” now for this very reason. It’s kind of hard to keep saying “Girl says this” and “Girl says that.”) As the art style shifts to a blockier Frank Miller-style, Robin sidles down a hallway, with visor-and-leather-wearing delinquents around a corner.

One of the thugs grabs her, and the other points a gun right at her and demands information on where “the Bat” is. “The Bat” then breaks down the wall behind the machine-gun-toting thug, and drags him through screaming. The one holding Robin freaks out.

Thug: “Back off, man, I’ll waste ‘er! Believe me! I’ll do it!”

Batman responds by crashing in from the ceiling and tackling him.

Batman: “I believe you.”

Robin dusts herself off, and Batman takes off the thug’s visor.

Batman: “Your leader….”

And with that, we segue into said leader giving a rousing speech to his street gang, the Mutants, at the city dump.

Mutant Leader: “We are da future! We are da LAW!”

No, Dredd is the law. At this, the other mutants start cheering and raising up their weapons. The Mutant leader announces that he, himself, will kill “the fool Batman,” along with eating his various body parts. Suddenly, the torch he’s carrying explodes, and off in the distance, something appears. The Mutants ready their weapons as a vaguely bat-shaped tank starts rolling up. Inside, Batman and Robin are at the controls. Batman admonishes the Mutants, even saying “Kids these days,” and opens fire on them, knocking them out with rubber bullets. Robin climbs out as the Mutants fire back, and she uses her slingshot to take out some of the heavy artillery. Eventually, the Mutant leader runs down and stares down the Bat-Tank, challenging Batman to a one-on-one. Batman gets out and accepts.

I can't tell which one's flexing or gritting harder.
The two hulking figures begin to duke it out in what is actually a very brutal fight for this show. You can hear things crunch, break, and snap, like when Batman crunches the leader’s nose to bits. After a devastating kick, the Mutant leader knocks Batman down into a mud pit, where he strangles Batman until air bubbles stop coming up from the mud. Robin springs into action and hit him in the back with rubber bullets from her slingshot, which distract him enough to let go of Batman. Batman rises up from the mud and begins to turn the tables through brute force.

Batman: “This isn’t a trash heap. It’s an operating table. And I’m the surgeon.”

And with a sickening snap and scream of anguish, it begins to rain, washing the mud from the victorious Batman’s body.

Robin: “Gotta love ‘im!”

And with a bolt of lightning, the picture fades back to Carrie finishing up her story. Nick and Matt think her interpretation’s the best thing since sliced bread. It is the 90's, after all. Matt checks his watch, and notes that he’s late to be home. All the kids file out of the burned building and begin to head home when they see what looks like the actual Batman swooping across the cityscape overhead. They come across an old theatre and go inside, trying to see if he went inside. They end up spotting him in the main theatre hall… setting up bombs.

"Firefly set us up the bomb!" And now I can check that meme off the list. Wait...
As the figure steps into the light, it turns out to be Firefly (an arsonist for hire) rather than Batman. He sets up the bomb, and the kids decide they need to alert Batman. One of them tries to use his flashlight like a Batsignal, but the batteries die.

But Firefly overhears them talking, and demands that they show themselves, shooting a flare up into the air. The kids raise their hands and stand up. Firefly gets noticeably annoyed at the kids being there, but shrugs it off, as the place is going up soon no matter what. In fact, explosions suddenly happen as Firefly flies up in the air… right into Batman’s fists. Firefly gets knocked to the ground as Matt squees that Batman got his signal. Batman exposits to Firefly that he found his location by interrogating those who hired him, as Matt’s face gets a bit glum. Firefly and Batman come to blows, and Firefly pulls out a flaming lightsaber that Batman quickly extinguishes.

Batman:  “Sorry I put you out.”

Matt noticeably cheers back up at the wordplay as Batman captures the escaping Firefly with his bolas. After cuffing him, more explosions happen, and Batman saves the kids from the fires by using a Batarang to blow up a wall to make an exit. The kids escape and the cops and Fire Department show up after a while. They go to retrieve Firefly, and Officer Harvey Bullock wonders who called in the 911. In answer, the camera cuts to the three kids by a payphone. And with that, the kids walk away, with each kid demanding that they were right about Batman as the episode ends.

Final Thoughts/Review
Great episode! It pays homage to several creative teams (giving them thanks in the opening credits, too), and references at least four interpretations of Batman beyond the show's standard one, and once again reiterates that when it comes to many characters, Batman included, there’s room for everyone to have their preferences.  Campy or gritty? It’s up to you!

And it does something very hard to pull off: an episode of a show with very little of the titular character. It took even Doctor Who a couple tries to get that one down. I really can’t say much more about this episode. The voice acting is always top notch for this show, and the animation was pretty good, especially considering the thing was animated in three different styles. The Rashomon-esque Batman story would later be done in one of the Gotham Knights shorts, but this is the original, so it holds a special place in many people’s hearts, including mine.

Will I be doing more B:TAS in the future? We'll find out when we get there. See you then!

3 comments:

  1. I remember that story. One of the prime examples of what would happen if you some how kidnapped Akira Kurosawa and forced him into a blender with the script of the recent episode. It's got a Rashomon thing to it. Next thing you know the kids are gonna remember Batman as a lung cancer voiced loud screaming maniac that likes to overreact to every question. "WHERE WERE THE OTHER DRUGS GOING!?" "WHERE ARE THEY!!?" "WHERE'S THE TRIGGER!!"

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    1. Well, hopefully if Ben Affleck gives us anything as Batman, it'll be a less mock-able voice.

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    2. Or as a complete psycopath (Did I write that right?) that makes Robin eat rats and says stuff like "I'm the godamn Batman"

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