Monday, January 5, 2015

Review: Batman: TAS "On Leather Wings"

There has never been a bad Batman cartoon. (Though there are bad episodes.) A controversial statement, but one that I'll stand by. Before you start typing angry comments, let me elaborate.  Obviously, we're all entitled to our own opinion. Maybe you don't like a certain show for whatever reason. That's absolutely fine. We can agree to disagree.

The face that halted a thousand filibusters after I said I wasn't a fan of Razer.
Let me put it this way. There's a difference between movies that some people don't like (Man of Steel) and movies that are objectively bad (Superman 4).

And before you bring up your trump card and inform me about what must be the worst Batman cartoon ever, let me pre-empt you by quickly addressing the most commonly claimed-to-be-terrible Batman shows in no particular order.

Claim number 1.
While it did start off being fairly lackluster, it nevertheless ended up being an interesting and unique take on Batman and the Outsiders.

Claim number 2.
You mean the respectful and well-researched love letter to DC's Silver Age?

Claim number 3.
The Batman may have been a toyetic merchandise-mover, but it was still an imaginative take on the source material with more than a few classic episodes in there. Like "The Clayface of Tragedy," "The Laughing Bat," "Artifacts," "Riddler's Revenge," and more.

Claim number 4.
That was never actually made and you know it.

Anyway, I can now continue with my original point. There has never been a bad Batman cartoon, but this is something special. There was never a Batman show like this before or since. All the shows before were full-on camp, and the later ones did their best to be different from this one.

Batman: TAS was... It's hard to describe. It could be somber and serious, but it could be lighthearted and fun. It could be moody or ridiculous. It basically distilled Batman down to his core. This is the Batman that everyone knows. Bruce Wayne, Alfred, the Commissioner, Batmobile, Joker. No vast reimaginings, no huge creative liberties. This show took all the elements that made characters and stories work and used them in their purest form, with only a few exceptions.

Batman: TAS was a masterpiece. And that's immediately apparent in this first episode.

Themes
There's a very subtle theme here about dual natures. Yes, there's the obvious bat theme, but it goes deeper than that.

This is an episode about a man whose passion drives him past the normal limits of what a person would attempt. And once he goes over that line and becomes something new, every day becomes a struggle to keep that side in check. The man he once was is merely a front to hide his new, ruthless persona that he believes is necessary to eliminate the worst of humanity.

And there's also Man-Bat.

It's never explicitly spelled out, but the parallel is there. And this theme isn't even really the point of the episode. It's just there adding depth to the episode. It's quite a mature and incredibly subtle subtext to the story that elevates it above the usual superhero angst. Arguably, no Batman show ever did this theme as well ever again.

Plot
A monstrous Batman doppelgänger is wreaking a bit of havoc. Pretty simple, but it's a good start to the series. It's a situation that lets the characters be introduced organically into the plot instead of stopping the plot to introduce new characters.

The "monster" angle also allows the audience to quickly accept the rather outlandish science in this series. Mind control, monsters, plant people, whatever. It's established in the first episode that Gotham's got some nutty science.

Most interesting of all, it's not an origin story. Because, let's face it, we all know who Batman is and this show's not going to rehash the same old story everyone knows for the five people living under a rock. And even if some kids didn't know who Batman secretly was, they could find out by watching and paying attention.

Characters
Bruce Wayne/Batman
Well, he's your classic Batman. We get to see him strut his detective skill as well as his fake playboy persona. Actually, his "Bruce Wayne" is remarkably laid back compared to your Michael Keatons and your Christian Bales. It's more like Adam West's performance in that regard; he might have hammed it up as Batman, but his Bruce Wayne was actually pretty mellow.

This show's now-legendary voice actor, Kevin Conroy, is often seen as the best voice for Batman. And I can easily see why. I mean, not only is Kevin Conroy the first actor to give Batman and Bruce Wayne distinctly different voices, but he does it without sounding like he's an out of breath Clint Eastwood.

He even gets a vocal cameo as one of the blimp pilots, because more Kevin Conroy is always a good thing.

Alfred
Loyal to a fault with an ever-present wit. Classic Alfred.

This is one of three episodes where the character is voiced by Clive Reville, the original voice of the Emperor in The Empire Strikes Back. He would leave the role for other acting commitments. But he got the last laugh by also voicing the radioman at the very beginning of the episode, making his voice the first one heard in the DCAU.

Harvey Bullock
When people say "I hate cops," this is the guy they have in mind. He's a fat, lazy jerk who does the right thing for the wrong reasons. Cops like him are the reason that Batman is necessary. He's not a villain, per se, just an officer who doesn't like vigilantes cleaning up his mess.

Harvey Dent
The DA. He only has one line, so all we know is that he likes to flip his lucky coin. I'm sure he'll never be seen again....

Commissioner James Gordon
Probably the only honest cop in Gotham. Sure, he might not like Batman too much, but that's only because he believes in law and order. Including the part that says vigilantism is illegal. And when Batman apparently starts attacking people, he'll do everything within reason to stop him, while Bullock will try to stop Batman unreasonably.

Dr. March
A perfect bait-and-switch villain. He's a little grumpy scientist with anger issues, angry passion, and a name that sounds like a thing. He's also voiced by a recognizable TV actor (Rene Auberjonois, aka Odo from DS9, aka Dr. Burton from Batman Forever). Making him not be the villain is a good little twist.

Dr. Kirk Langstrom
A nicely non-traditional mad scientist. He's more of a Henry Jekyll than a Lex Luthor.

Animation
Oh, how I wish I could skip talking about some of this. The animation is... okay.

Batman: TAS was never particularly well-animated. Episode production was farmed out to multiple Asia-based studios on the cheap, so oftentimes things would look rushed or off-model. Not to mention a buttload of misspellings. Including this episode's mention of a "buaglary." But this episode had a lot of effort put into it, and it shows with definitely above-average animation for this show.

What minimizes the impact of the uneven animation is the DCAU's unique style. Broad shoulders on men, curvy women, exaggerated villains, simply designed yet realistically shaded backgrounds.... It still holds up to this day. My God, they painted the backgrounds to this show on black paper instead of white just to set the right mood. Did you know that? It's so different from anything else ever seen. I absolutely love it.

All in all, this is a solid first outing. It's not the full blown extravaganza or origin story that we've come to expect from superhero shows these days. But this is just the calm before the storm. Before you know it, Gotham's streets will be crawling with criminals and freaks.

See you then.

1 comment:

  1. I do find your opinions on the above shows share my views quite well. Though I do have some problems with the three;

    1) BTB was a pretty good mash-up of Nolan aesthetics and Batman comics, but I do find the voice acting didn't convey much emotion and it came off as boring. Not helping is the fact that outside the absence of Alfred in the later half of the series, Batman himself was pretty boring character. I can't really find anything new that show wanted to add to his personality, his partners, allies and villains were much more interesting than he could be (Its a shame Lance Henrikson couldn't be Ra's Al Ghul on Arrow). If it went on for a second season, I would've introduced Hugo Strange (voiced by John Noble) as Bruce's former shrink and figure it out on his own that Bruce is Batman, taking it upon himself to help Bruce stop this double life, a well intentioned man who walks a razor's edge from ally to enemy. If had to choose between this or GLTAS, I'd likely pick the later.

    2) BTBATB: Is likely my favourite Bat-series next to the DCAU but when the third season came around, it didn't feel as fun as it did. The plots came off as a bit lazier as if the writers were getting tired of the show and Batman seemed too invincible, like he barely needed the help from other heroes. The worst example of this would be "Day of the Batmen" episode.

    3) I do actually quite like this one a lot, especially that each season got progressively better with the introductions of Batgirl and Robin (now that I think of it, Batgirl makes me think of Birdgirl from "Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law" with their similar personalities) but I hate how this and Young Justice make Mister Freeze a thug with freeze gun/powers. I didn't much care for the JL based final season either, I find JLU, YJ and this suffered from too much emphasis on guest stars.

    4) I don't know if this show would've been any good, been bad, enjoyable bad or annoyingly average. I read a show synopsis that sounded good but the execution might have failed. Though, if it was done in the style of "Sky High" or "Clone High", this would've likely been a great show.

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