Thursday, September 16, 2010

'The Batman' Season 1 (2004)

Starring Rino Romano, Alastair Duncan and Ming-Na
Produced by Jeff Matsuda

How disappointing.  Batman is, by far, my favorite comic book hero.  His tragic background, incredible intellect, fun gadgetry and just the all-around badassery of the character are totally enticing.  He also has an amazing rogues gallery of villains, featuring murderous nutbags like Joker, devious terrorists like Ra's al Ghul and tragic figures like Mr. Freeze.  I've spoken to no end about Bruce Timm's amazing "Batman: The Animated Series" and its stellar cast.  Though I consider this top form for the Dark Knight (followed closely by, well, "The Dark Knight") I'm always curious to explore other interpretations of the character and his universe.

So we come to "The Batman," 2004's animated adaptation that follows early adventures of Bruce Wayne as the Batman, a young man in his 20s still just figuring out how to be a crime fighter.  While the setup for this show is great, and loaded with potential (surely, other times Batman's formative years have been explored have done so to great effect - 2005's "Batman Begins," the "Batman: Year One" and "Long Halloween" graphic novels) the execution leaves a lot to be desired.

Ninety-percent of the fault here lies with the writing.  The scripts are overly simple, and overly jokey, displaying little of the depth of emotion and intelligence of Bruce Timm's series.  I wish I could stop comparing these two series, but that's nearly impossible, since "The Batman" premiered as "Justice League Unlimited" was still going on, and the two couldn't be more different.  Should I forgive how dull and silly "The Batman" comes across because it's "aimed at a younger audience"?  Is that even valid, considering how much sheer fun there is to be had in Timm's series?  "The Batman" seems more concerned with selling toys than telling good Batman stories.

Take Mr. Freeze, for example.  In my review for "Sub-Zero," I discussed how Timm had taken a third-rate villain and given him a tragic background that made for some amazing storytelling. Victor Fries was a scientist trying to save his wife's life when greedy corporate scumbags destroyed him and drove him on a path of revenge.  Mr. Freeze is a figure that makes you feel pity for him while Batman hunts him down to bring him to justice - you know he's breaking the law, but you're not sure if he's really all that wrong.

But in "The Batman," Mr. Freeze is a (sigh) a bank robber who fell into a cryogenic tank and got electrocuted.  Now he thinks Batman is responsible.  Boring.  Totally.  Freaking.  Boring.

How about the Man-Bat?  In Timm's series, Langstrom is a doctor who can't control changing into a hideous bat creature.  He's not evil, even if the creature is doing bad things when it takes over, but Batman is forced to stop him - and takes the time to search for a cure.  In "The Batman," Langstrom claims that he "wants to be feared" and takes the serum and turns into a giant hideous bat creature.


Why should I bother caring about these characters?  None of the have anything interesting to offer.  Penguin walks around quacking and whining about losing all of his money (rather than a freak gangster desperate for status).  Freeze, worst of all, delivers a lot of the same terrible puns that Arnold Schwarzenegger was so blasted for in "Batman and Robin."  Cluemaster is just a fat douche trying to get revenge for being wronged on a TV game show.  There are some shining moments in terms of the villains, like Joker, who comes off as vicious and insane. 

Tragedy and Batman go hand in hand.  And I don't just mean specifically for the Batman character.  So many of the other characters around him have suffered some kind of tragedy to put them where they are; so many of them are cracked mirror images of Batman himself, save that Batman devotes himself to justice on the side of good rather than criminal revenge.  If you remove all those tragic elements, then what do you have?  Nothing, really.  You have a series that goes through the motions, but without any real sense of self or reason of being.

It's a shame, too, because the visual designs of the characters are actually quite good.  The creators weren't afraid to play with the classic looks of Batman and his enemies, which lead to some really intriguing updates, like Joker, Freeze and Firefly.  So why were they so afraid to make any of these visual changes worth the effort?

I'm told this series improves in its second season.  Indeed, the two-part finale shows some promise with the introduction of Clayface, but the majority of this season is dull as dirt.  Each episode seems to revolve around a new gadget for Batman to defeat whatever menace has popped up, each one feeling more and more like a gimmick to sell action figures, especially when it means Batman gets a new uniform or some kind of robot attachment or some such.

I'll stick with it a bit longer to find out, but so far, this is one of my least favorite interpretations of Batman.