Welcome to the my Batman: The Animated Series reviews in what will be a weekly column every Friday only at Culture Crossfire! The show, originally created in 1992 with key producers being Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski, came as the follow-up to the smash success of the Batman film directed by Tim Burton in 1989.
The cartoon series was originally produced by Warner Brothers Animation and aired on FOX in most countries. The series quickly built a reputation of its own as one of the premiere cartoons of the 1990s and helped make household names of various voice actors while creating origin stories for multiple characters that would later become canon in the film and comic mediums.
These reviews will be following the production order (also the order of the DVDs) rather than the actual airing order in part for ease and to avoid too much jumping around from episode to episode while also letting you readers follow along if you so desire.
Batman: The Animated Series – Episode 01 – On Leather Wings
Writer: Mitch Brian
Director: Kevin Altieri
Theme & Music Score: Shirley Walker
Animation Studio: Spectrum Animation Studio with Opening Theme animated by TMS Entertainment
Right from the opening, we know this isn’t quite the Batman we’ve been seeing recently under Tim Burton’s thumb. The orchestra given to Shirley Walker helps set the tone with a brooding feel that sets up the action oriented aspect of the animation going on. The utilization of shadows helping the lights stand out from the police blimps and the dark, creepy red night sky helps set up the Gotham Police force as a group that is constantly around the action as well in comparison to the movies.
As the camera pans down over the art deco buildings, we get a glimpse of two figures in shadow outside a bank which promptly explodes. A sudden burst of strings notes the change to excitement and action and then we get the bat mobile from behind with a great shot of it firing up and leaving smoke billowing from its tires. A small detail but helps accentuate that Batman isn’t wasting any time. The long shot of the bat mobile is a near iconic shot alone and the sudden wide eyes of the two crooks on the roof reminds me of the opening scene in Batman with the reactions of the two villains there.
This Batman is not Michael Keaton. He’s got a billowing cape that enfolds around him, a square jaw making him look not only adult but like a tough guy, and his narrowing of the eyes shows off his intentions towards the bad guys. What follows is a perfect little physical action scene with Batman eschewing the guns with a pinpoint batarang toss then physically wiping the floor with both via his hands. When the floodlight lands on the bad guys tied up and bound, the camera slowly pans as Walker evokes Danny Elfman’s classic theme from Batman while the animation delivers a lightning strike showing off a Batman with his logo’d chest, belt, flowing cape, and bad ass looking gloves. Right from the get go, this is not a 1960s style campy Batman nor is it the dark, brooding black outfitted Batman of Tim Burton helping set the show apart.
In the opening scene we have some great direction already of a police blimp going by when the pilot (Kevin Conroy) notices something on his radar screen which ends up being a gigantic bat creature flying just in front of them. His radio partner (Clive Revill) gives us a nice little back and forth of skepticism at what was seen offering another small example that this show will be going beyond what the big screen had offered. Walker’s score helps with a bit of intrigued excitement and cautious curiosity as the man bat creature continues flying, eventually winding up on a shot of Phoenix Pharmaceuticals. The security guard (Richard Moll) puts forth a memorable scene just talking to himself on seemingly another night where nothing’s been going on. The scene, in shadow initially, of the giant bat creature tossing the security guard out multiple stories into the water below is surprisingly dark considering many fans still though of Batman as a 1960s camp character even with Burton’s films fresh in mind.
It’s impressive how quickly Gotham, especially its police force, is conceptualized and realized as a force. Commissioner Gordon (Bob Hastings) and Harvey Bullock (Robert Costanzo) both have clearly been around for a while and even Mayor Hill (Lloyd Bochner) seems to have heard of Batman and thus none of these characters offer any real surprise while retaining traits that would make their characters become key in the show’s run. Bullock’s dislike, even hatred, of Batman as a role in taking down crime is immediately apparent and even Harvey Dent (Richard Moll) is shown flipping a coin and offering to follow up based on what’s offered to him in regards to Batman’s capture.
Batman’s not only a tough, physical fighter as shown in the introduction but he’s technical and savvy and intelligent. He utilizes his bat computer to follow up on crimes already committed, starts to make connections, and even reveals a bit of his Bruce Wayne side when Alfred (Clive Revill in one of just 3 appearances) cancels his date for him. The interplay between them works well and it’s easy to see how natural the writing helps make all these characters as none of them feel stilted or forced into taking on aspects that they don’t seem like they realistically would have. It’s a testament to the writing of Mitch Brian and the overall production involved.
Batman breaks into Phoenix Labs and gets pursued, almost hunted if you will, by Detective Bullock and a squadron of police members. Bullock’s intense focus gets squashed by Gordon, whom reveals another place was just robbed, but turns back to a bit of smugness when he learns, “somebody is in there.” After a fire, Batman ends up not only breaking free but also saving a potential victim despite said victim being somebody that was there to arrest him. It helps showcase Batman as a figure that will do good regardless of the situation and acts as a true hero to anybody involved.
Conroy does a great job separating the voices of Batman from Bruce Wayne, giving them almost two distinct personalities despite being the same one as he visits the Gotham Zoo. Dr. March (Rene Auberjonois) shows off a testy, antagonistic side towards Bruce instantly implicating himself as a potential suspect of note before Francine Langstrom (Meredith MacRae) and Kirk Langstrom (Marc Singer) show up to help sooth Bruce and offset any volatile situation. In a great little piece of animation foreshadowing, we see Francine’s reaction when Bruce plays the ‘sound’ on the tape and Bruce glances over at her.
Batman gets called and goes off to investigate when he realizes that Dr. March lied to him about the ‘bat problem’ he had been having along with the explanation for the sound. The way Conroy says the line, “He’s lying. And I’m going to find out why,” is ice cold chilling and immediately gives the viewer a very reasonable belief to never, ever cross Batman and why Batman would scare most villains and creeps.
Batman comes upon Kirk Langstrom, whom promptly explains his discovery of a new species of creature that’s half man and half bat and how “it” was taking over Langstrom, knowing the chemicals it needed to create itself. The excuse helps set up the dichotomy seen in quite a few of Batman’s villains, a side representing humanity whilst the other side and invariably the side which often takes over, the monstrosity that desires the seedy side of life whether it be chaos, riches, or even death.
Batman hooks himself to the Man-Bat, never officially named, which leads to an exciting final act of a flying chase with Batman eventually using his physicality to try and take down the Man-Bat while Gordon, Bullock, and the police are all in hot pursuit. To really go all out, the show even teases a bloody faced Batman which gets lit up from a police spotlight in a great piece of directing by Altieri. Batman saves the Man-Bat and eventually returns Kirk to Francine, now clean of the formula which was in his system.
The episode really worked well, especially on the animation and direction side. Harvey Bullock managed to be the standout character for me as his animosity towards Batman was palpable and helped him serve as arguably a more important, if not equally dangerous, threat to Batman as a character than the Man-Bat. The Man-Bat served its purpose helping create a physical creature which would be memorable animation wise although the backstory was sorely lacking and was almost glossed over (to put it kindly) out of necessity just to get to the action packed chase scene that ensued.
Next Week: Christmas With the Joker