Monday, July 7, 2008

Batman's been on my mind a lot

and I'm sure it has something to do with the new movie coming out in, holy crap, 10 days! In the time between now and my viewing of the midnight premiere of Dark Knight (in IMAX!) I intend to re-view Batman Begins and Gotham Knight, in order to more fully immerse myself in what fans are calling the Nolan-verse. However, as a precursor to this journey, I couldn't help but look back at what I (and many of my peers) consider the definitive Batman universe... Batman: The Animated Series.

Simply put, this must be one of the best cartoons ever. The series premiered in 1992 and sixteen years later it is still as dramatic, emotional, and exciting as it ever was... perhaps moreso, because B: TAS seems to be one of those series that kids can enjoy but that adults will really get. I know that I sure didn't understand the driving motivations behind Bruce Wayne when I was in third grade, but I still made it my business to watch every damn episode of that show. To quote my friend Marc Fishman, "Batman: The Animated Series was my religion."

An element of the show that I had never really thought about struck me last night, and I think that it was the key to the show's critical, if not commercial, success (because, let's face it, kids will watch ANYTHING that's called "Batman"... for instance, The Batman)--Batman: The Animated Series was HARDLY EVER ABOUT THE TITLE CHARACTER. This is the genius of it. We all know who Batman is, we know his basic story and motives and gadgets and stuff. So it seems that, for the most part, we can forget about him. Bruce Timm & co. seemed to reason that it was much more interesting to do stories that focused on other people... villains, maybe, or just random denizens of Gotham City with a hard-luck story (the first story that is really about Batman in this series, I think, is the movie Mask of the Phantasm, which puts such an excellent twist on Bruce Wayne's backstory that dammit, it should be canon). In doing this, B: TAS gave us a stunning number of incredibly human characters, even if they only appeared for one episode. For instance, my roommate's favorite episode is called "See No Evil," about a petty crook/lab assistant who steals an experimental cloaking fabric just so he can spend some time with his daughter, something his ex-wife would not otherwise allow. I'm reminded of Will Eisner's middle Spirit comic strips, which also liked to spotlight the townspeople. And to make us care about some no-name guy or girl in 22 minutes... that's pretty amazing.

Any time a serious conversation about B: TAS comes up (and it happens a lot, in my line of work), I'm invariably asked to name my favorite episodes. This is really hard, because there are over 100 of them, and almost none of them are bad (I recall not liking the ninja ones as a young'un, but beyond that I can't offer up much criticism). But I think that, if I had to choose, these five would be my "can't miss." They are, in broadcast order:

Beware the Gray Ghost

Even though I just said that B: TAS episodes were seldom about Batman, this episode is partially an exception, as it delves into the youth of Bruce Wayne and shows us his favorite childhood hero, the Gray Ghost. When a series of crimes across Gotham are found out to be straight from the plot of an old Gray Ghost episode, Bruce has to track down his old hero for help, but the man behind the mask isn't exactly who Bruce expected. This is a really touching episode that has some cool moments of male bonding, some good insight on what it means to be a hero and an inspiration, and also some genius voice casting (the Gray Ghost is none other than Adam West, and the villain in this episode is voiced by Mr. Bruce Timm). A classic.

Almost Got 'Im

This one almost goes without saying, and it's on everybody's list, so I'll leave it be, except to say that this was mine and probably a lot of other kids' first serious introduction to telling a fairly mundane story in a really unique way, and for that this episode deserves every ounce of praise it gets.

Old Wounds

Unlike some, I liked when the series moved to the WB, because it opened the show up to a little bit more adult themes, characters, and situations. I kind of doubt this episode, which explains why Dick Grayson quit being Robin, could have been made on Fox, because my favorite scene in it probably wouldn't have flown with the censors: Batman and Robin break into an apartment to get information out of one of the Joker's hired goons, but his wife and son happen to be home too. Batman threatens to beat the snot out of the guy in front of his kid, and, seeing the horrified child, Robin tells Batman to drop it. Batman refuses to back down, and Robin walks out. This scene only lasts maybe a minute, but is one of my favorite moments in all of the Timm-verse. Oh, and the rest of the episode is really sweet too (the other greatest moment: in the heat of the moment, Robin tells off Batman and then PUNCHES HIM. Damn).

Legends of the Dark Knight

This episode, which gives us animated versions of the Dick Sprang and Frank Miller versions of Batman, also probably goes without saying, but it's just so inventive and cool that I have to put it on here. Besides, any episode that takes a potshot at Joel Schumacher has gotta be at least top 10, right?


Picking this episode might be cheating, because technically this is a Justice League Unlimited episode which primarily stars characters from Batman Beyond... but you know what, I don't care. To me, this episode, a love-letter and last goodbye to fans of Beyond, is what Batman is all about. What happens is this: Terry McGinnis, future Batman, learns that he doesn't just wear Bruce Wayne's old costume... he has his DNA. Terry is outraged, assuming that Bruce has set his whole life up from the start just so the world wouldn't be without a Batman, so he goes on a fact-finding mission to get to the bottom of things. This episode masterfully ties together nearly all of Bruce Timm's DC projects (including, at long last,a nod to Mask of the Phantasm!) and hits with a rough emotional punch at the end, as Amanda Waller (pictured above) tells Terry how to step out of the shadow of Bruce: "You want to have a better life than the old man? Take better care of the people who love you. Or don't." To me, this line gets at the heart of the character of Batman... this is his greatest tragedy. And much like I love DC One Million in part because it shows us that in the end Superman gets his happy ending, I love "Epilogue" because it shows us that in the end, Batman doesn't... at least, not Bruce Wayne. He never totally learns to bring others in to his life. But the episode also gives us hope that, even if Bruce can't, maybe his legacy can, all while keeping alive his constant vigil for justice. If this is not an essential Batman story, I don't know what is.


Anonymous said...

WONDERFUL post Eric. Let me counter your 5 with my 5 (and I'll remove "almost got em'"...

In no order:

1. The Clock King
In the Timm-verse, this once dumpy mort villain is revamped into a wonderful foil to Mayor Hill. Mr. Fugit's origin is not only completely believable... it's tragic.

2. Perchance to Dream
"I was willing to give you ANY LIFE YOU WANTED... Just so you would stay out of mine!" Simply put, one of my favorite lines from one of my favorite episodes. This episode puts Bruce Wayne front and center, and shows how shattered his world really is.

3. Mudslide
We see Clayface use one of his fans to seek out normalcy. I love the subtle change to the former actor from man to freak. His psyche, now fully engrosed in self preservation shows his decent from humanity. Plus, he swallows batman into his mud body and tries to sufficate him... freakin bad-ass.

4. Mad Love / Harley's Holiday
A tie here for another Bruce Timm creation. Adding a female sidekick to the joker certainly softens the psycho angle a bit... But these bittersweet episodes show that a) it's easy to fall down the rabbit hole and b) that Harley's fall from grace is just another joke to the former Red Hood.

5. Double Talk
Taken from the last season of the WB twinged show... this episode gives a glimmer of hope to a wonderful C-list villain, Scarface. The ventriloquist faces his demons, and almost finds normalcy... But his former gang pushes him back to madness in a tragic turn.

So, I guess I may love the tragic episodes of the series the most, but damn if they don't still resonate to this day. Great post again Eric.

ITguy said...

No one cares about Batman. Write your top 10 episodes involving Aquaman and how awesome it would have been if the dude from Entourage actually did a movie about him.

Eric Garneau said...

Thanks for your own top 5, Marc! I like these episodes as well... though I would put "Mad Love" quite a bit above "Harley's Holiday," but that's me.

I was thinking about doing another post to extend my top 5 to 10, because there are so many great episodes (one of yours would have probably made it into post #2)... I was also thinking about doing a top 5 villain origin episode post, but those are ALL good so it would really be more like ranking which villains I felt were most compelling...

ANYWAY... anyone else want to share a top 5?

And to other Mark... I'm pretty sure Aquaman wasn't even IN 10 Timm-verse episodes. A quick check of Wikipedia shows he was only in 8... so in broadcast order, my top 10 are:

Superman TAS: A Fish Story
JL: The Enemy Below
JL: The Terror Beyond
JL: Hereafter, part 1
JLU: Initiation
JLU: Ultimatum
JLU: Dark Heart
JLU: Wake the Dead
Justice League OF THE FUTURE: The Dude from Entourage Plays Aquaman VERSING THE EVIL SHARK KING
Your mom: Aquaman Smells

ITguy said...

Well played sir...well played

Anonymous said...

Fantastic post, Eric. But who didn't see me saying that?

Here are my favorite episodes, in no order:

1. Mad As A Hatter
I think that The Mad Hatter was a villain that they never used enough in any Batman media. Dini's writing is in top shape in this episode and I love the whole fantastical element of the mood and just everything about it. Perfect.

2. The Laughing Fish
There is this constant feeling of tension over the entire episode. The script is almost word for word of the original comic written by Steve Englehart (one of my favorite Batman writers). I think it shows how crazy the Joker really is and that fight on the roof in the end is fantastic. I also love how Bullock has a somewhat big part in the story, because I've always loved Bullock.

3. Trial
This episode was always my top favorite when I was little. I love how they join the villains all together to put Batman on trial. All of them put the blame on the Batman and say that he's the reason that they became how they are, and it just turns out they were wrong. I especially love Two-Face in this episode, and Joker reading that Tiny Toons comic book. "Here comes the judge!"

4. A Bullet For Bullock
My favorite Batman stories are usually the ones that have crime and gangsters. I told Marc, my favorite Batman story ever is The Long Halloween. This episode was dark. I mean, REALLY dark. Seeing Batman help Bullock was oddly compelling seeing as they don't really get along.

5. Perchance to Dream
I think that this was the most emotionally resonating episode to me. This just sums up Batman to me. They nailed it. I love how Bruce acts like a little kid talking to his father and you can see the relationship they would have had. Heartbreaking.

This show captured why I like Batman so much; to me, he's the most emotionally relatable character. I've been able to relate to him my entire life.

Eric Garneau said...

Wow, Matt. Very nice. You've got TWO of the rest of my top 10 (The Trial and Perchance to Dream), and Mad as a Hatter is for sure up there for me too. I haven't seen A Bullet for Bullock in a LONG time, so I should watch it again, but I remember I really loved the twist ending.