Batman at His Gritty and Virtuous Best
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Though all of us have watched Christopher Nolan revolutionize Bruce Wayne and Batman, leavening the character to near-cinematic perfection in the Dark Knight trilogy, previous generations were not so fortunate.
Indeed, prior to 1992, no Batman portrayed onscreen, small or silver, had done the character justice. In the 1960s, Adam West’s Batman was painfully campy, though sensationally if briefly faddish. Hanna Barbera’s Saturday morning Batman proved one-dimensionally unattractive, yet another piece to move on a flat tableau of bland storytelling. Even Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns of the late 1980s and early 1990s were carnival-esque and surrealistically exaggerated, revolving around a deco world more Joseph Stalinist than Calvin Coolidge.
Conceived by Bruce Timm, Eric Radomski, and Mitch Brian, Batman: The Animated Series (B:TAS) brought something radically and profoundly new to the character. Unlike previous incarnations, this Batman was moody, brooding, violent, conflicted, driven, and heroic from his opening moments. He did not carry shark spray, dance with go-go girls, crack one-liners, dress down Robin in moral tones, drive the Batmobile through the express window at the local fast food joint, or hire artists formerly known as Prince to write theme music.
Instead, he applied his many finely honed and inherited skills to saving his metropolis from near-certain doom. Though B:TAS drew much of its character inspiration from Frank Miller’s then-recently published graphic novel masterpiece The Dark Knight Returns, it drew even more upon the Batman as re-conceived in the late 1960s and early 1970s by Denny O’Neil, Len Wein, and Neal Adams. Their Batman—remembered as the Bronze Age Batman—was first and foremost a detective in the noir and gothic traditions, searching alleys, apartments, and graveyards. As with many of the best storytellers of the last half century, Timm also found much to love in the pulps of the first half of the 20th century, especially in Doc Savage and The Shadow.
B:TAS also took inspiration from the extravagant animation of the Max Fleischer Superman cartoons of the pre-World War II era. Additionally, the new team behind B:TAS innovated in terms of animation standards by drawing tenebrous and complex backgrounds on black paper using colored pencils, thus adding a gloomy but perfectly hued moody quality to the deco gothic of Gotham and surroundings. Self-taught, Timm’s characters are triangular in shape and fluid in motion. Along with Radomski’s backdrops, B:TAS’s animation—coming just before CGI became widespread and affordable—reveals just how much good and beauty can be accomplished by the human hand, free of pre-programmed algorithms and standardized color palettes. The team called this new design “dark deco.”
B:TAS also added theater cards at the beginning of every episode, giving each 22-minute story a classic and classy atmosphere all its own. “Going with the overall retro-forties feel we were giving the show,” Radomski remembered, “we wanted to treat the episodes as mini-movies. The title cards allowed us to create great drama in a very subtle fashion.” Each card provides a Hitchcockian feel.
Equally important to these fine touches, B:TAS takes place in a timeless world where all the decades of the 20th century seem to have run together not in chaos but in continuity. The cars and attire appear to reflect the 1940s, while much of the technology—such as computing, chemistry, and genetics—comes out of the 1990s. Massive gray blimps patrol Gotham by day and night, and automobile tires still sport white walls. Somehow the temporal jags and displacements all work together in harmony, presenting an imagined universe as coherent as any other in fiction.
When it came to voice actors as well as music and soundtrack, B:TAS spared no costs. While most of the music was written and performed by the now-sadly deceased classical composer Shirley Walker, well-known stage and movie actors such as Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, Efrem Zimbalist, Robert Hastings, Brock Peters, Adrienne Barbeau, David Warner, Melissa Gilbert, Michael Ansara, and Roddy McDowell served as the characters. To this day, many argue that Conroy’s Batman and Hamill’s The Joker are the definitive versions of each. Though entrusted with this world when still quite young, Timm, Radomski, and Brian sought quality and artistry above everything else, and their attention pays off in every line of dialogue and every scene of the series.
Most tellingly, though, B:TAS refused to compromise when it came to storytelling and heroic virtue. B:TAS’s Batman is a wonderfully intense and serious Batman, dedicating himself fully and somewhat obsessively to bettering the world of American urban grit, crime, and terror. Significantly, he is first and foremost a vigilante, though one with a strong moral and ethical set of self-imposed rules and limitations. He never kills, though he does terrorize when necessary. “Batman does not work directly with the police. He’s not a member of the force or a deputized agent,” the series’ bible insists. Rather he’s “on a one-man fight against crime.”
While a billionaire, as in the traditional telling of the Batman story, Wayne is more concerned with technique and the art of deception than he is with endless gadgets. He has honed his abilities—in fighting and in perception—to the height of human capability. Gotham as a whole never knows exactly what to make of Batman, unsure of his intentions and his methods, viewing him as neither a patron saint nor a guardian angel.
Equally critical, the villains in B:TAS represent evil, not mere wrongdoing. “Our stories will be hard-edged crime dramas with villains who play for keeps,” says the series’ bible, which describes the bad guys as “wild, dark, and sinister.” Yet, importantly, the writers never made the bad guys absurdly evil. Instead, the best of the B:TAS writers, such as Paul Dini, recognized the necessity of endowing motivation as well as depth to each. “I think the villains are really consumed with personal pain and that pain sort of stimulates a sense of the theatrical and wicked in them,” he told an interviewer.
Though the B:TAS team ultimately made three standalone movies to accompany the series, the recently released deluxe set strangely only includes two of them: The Mask of the Phantasm and Subzero. Missing is the very well done Mystery of the Batwoman (2003), as well as Return of the Joker (2000), which is more tied to the offshoot series Batman Beyond. While both movies are excellent, The Mask of the Phantasm is the better of the two. Many fans believe it to be the best Batman story ever brought to the screen.
Within the B:TAS universe, The Mask of the Phantasm explains the origins of Wayne’s desire to become the Batman, including his first flawed runs as a black-suited ninja. Even more impressively, Wayne finds himself in love for the first time in his life. The feeling of happiness, not surprisingly, confuses him, and he finds himself torn between what he perceives to be his duty to his parents and what he might commit to with his newfound love interest, Andrea Beaumont. “I didn’t count on being happy,” he laments over the grave of his parents. Andrea, however, is more complicated than he or the audience first realize. Truly, the mask is a phantasm and the phantasm is a mask. Amidst Wayne’s struggles run mobsters, corrupt politicians, greedy businessmen, questions of societal progress and regress, and, of course, the chaos of the Joker. Wayne ultimately succumbs to becoming the Batman, though not without regrets. “Vengeance blackens the soul, Bruce,” his mentor and guardian Alfred Pennyworth cautions him. “I’ve always feared that you would become that which you fought against. You walk the edge of that abyss every night, but you haven’t fallen in, and I thank heaven for that.”
When Warner Brothers first previewed The Mask of the Phantasm in 1993, though slated to be a direct-to-video release, the company was so impressed that it released a quickly edited film in movie theaters across the U.S. on Christmas Day. However hastily distributed, The Mask of the Phantasm earned as much as it cost in its theatrical release. It has since appeared in DVD and Blu-ray formats, and has probably earned the company a very tidy sum. After all, the movie has become a cult classic and not just to superhero fans. One hip Austin company and gallery, Mondo, has even sponsored high-end art inspired by the movie. Some of its artwork is simply stunning. To celebrate the release of the new deluxe edition Blu-ray set, Warner Brothers again released a remastered version (the one found in this set) to theaters for a one-day-only viewing on November 12.
As to the new deluxe Blu-ray set, the audio and visual quality of the remastered shows is simply stunning. In no way would one believe that the first episodes originally appeared in September 1992. All of the cell debris and dust (typical for any pre-CGI animated show) has been cleaned, and the visual quality is crisp, with the new sound equally so.
Warner Brothers released close to 70,000 of these deluxe sets, so they’re not as precious and rare as the title would suggest. They also come with some lenticular cards, a heavy cardboard storage packet for the disks, and a few tiny Funko action figures.
Aside from the missing movie Mystery of the Batwoman, the outer packaging is a sorry box thing made of a thin cardboard material with a slight coating of wax. Mine arrived ripped and crumpled. It’s so poorly constructed that I decided to keep the whole thing, as any replacement would be just as nastily constructed. One other complaint. The deluxe package comes with the downloads, too. But be warned, the only downloads are the episodes themselves, absent of all special features, commentaries, documentaries, etc. Frankly, this is a form of fraud. But who is going to complain enough for Warner Brothers to make good? Oh well. I’m willing to put up with a few missing things, some ratty packaging, and some false advertising when it comes to Batman.
“I am vengeance. I am the night. I am Batman.” Well, even a 51-year old man can dream.
Bradley J. Birzer is The American Conservative’s scholar-at-large. He also holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College and is the author, most recently, of Russell Kirk: American Conservative.