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Batman: The Animated Series – “Beware the Gray Ghost”

Beware-the-gray-ghostEpisode Number:  18

Original Air Date:  November 4, 1992

Directed by:  Boyd Kirkland

Written by:  Dennis O’Flaherty, Tom Ruegger

First Appearance(s):  The Gray Ghost, The Mad Bomber

I’m on record as saying “Heart of Ice” is the best episode of Batman: The Animated Series, but “Beware the Gray Ghost” is its most charming. It was presumably a lot of fun to write and produce this one and it’s definitely a ton of fun to watch. Before Tim Burton and before this series, most people knew Batman through syndicated runs of the 1960s television series, Batman. That show, and it’s accompanying movie, is how many fans fell in love with the character and presumably how a lot of the folks who worked on this show fell in love with Batman. This episode is all about meeting your caped crusader idol, and for most people watching in 1992 that was Adam West who returns to the Batman franchise for this episode as the voice of Simon Trent, better known as the Gray Ghost.

When Bruce Wayne was a kid, his favorite show was The Gray Ghost. The Gray Ghost was a vigilante character who resembled The Shadow, and naturally Batman shares a lot in common with him as well. We see young Bruce watching an episode unfold on television while his father looks on. Quick cuts jump us to the present where Batman is watching a bombing take place, the action and setup for each shot mirroring that of the episode of The Gray Ghost taking place in the past. It’s a fun piece of editing and the setup for the episode.

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Young Bruce and his dad taking in an episode of The Gray Ghost.

Several bombings have taken place in and around Gotham lately, and before each one a tell-tale buzzing noise can be heard. Batman recognizes it, but he’s not sure where from. Eventually he realizes it’s from an episode of his beloved Gray Ghost program, and it just so happens the actor who used to play that role, Simon Trent, lives in Gotham. Unfortunately for Trent, playing the Gray Ghost lead to decades of type-casting following the show’s cancellation. He’s broke and can’t find work as a result and has resorted to selling off anything related to the show he once owned to a local toy and collectible shop run by a fellow named Ted Dymer (voiced by and drawn to resemble Bruce Timm). As Bruce Wayne, Batman is unable to locate any old tapes of The Gray Ghost and turns to Trent for help. He visits Trent as Batman, which naturally freaks him out. He wants nothing to do with the character or Batman, but he gives him a film reel of the episode in question which Batman happily takes home and enjoys.

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Simon Trent is a bit down on his luck following his typecasting after Gray Ghost ended production years earlier.

Batman is able to see how the bombings are being carried out by watching the show:  tiny RC cars armed with explosives drive into the target and detonate. Trent, having sold all of his merchandise, doesn’t want to help further, but Batman is seemingly reluctant to let his image of the Gray Ghost as a hero vanish completely and he goes so far as to re-purchase the old costume (among other things he sold off) and gift it to Trent. It’s enough to inspire him to put the old costume back on and he joins Batman on a stake-out of the next bombing target, which The Mad Bomber was happy to share with both Batman and the Gotham PD.

Through the Batman and Gray Ghost team-up, we learn almost everything associated with Batman was inspired by the Gray Ghost. Even the layout of the Batcave is supposedly the same as the lair of the Gray Ghost that was depicted on television. Trent is amazed to see it all, and Batman is more than willing to show it off like a proud child bringing home an A+ report card to his father. They’re also able to foil the bombing and even capture one of the cars. Batman analyzes it for prints and finds the only ones on it belong to Simon Trent. When it looks like Batman is going to have to arrest his hero, Trent realizes who the real bomber must be.

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Batman seems to delight in showing off all of the Gray Ghost-inspired gadgets in his inventory.

The episode wraps rather predictably with Batman and the Gray Ghost saving the day. The mystery of the bomber is not at all hard to figure out, but I’ll withhold it nonetheless for anyone who has yet to see this episode. The final scene of the episode is also great and even a little touching. Trent is seemingly back on his feet after the real-life exploits of the Gray Ghost made the character popular once more and is signing copies of his new autobiography in costume. Bruce attends the signing and tells Trent how the Gray Ghost was his hero and that he used to watch it with his dad all of the time. The words he uses are the exact same he used as Batman when he told the same story to the Gray Ghost. Trent gives a little knowing smile, and the episode comes to a close.

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Toy collector and enthusiast Ted Dymer is essentially Bruce Timm, and is voiced by him too.

Having Adam West gust star on Batman: The Animated Series is a true delight. It was a lot of fun for me as a child because I actually picked up on who the guest star was. I would often hear my parents remark that a character sounded like a certain actor, always noticing before I ever made the connection. To me, the voice simply belonged to the character onscreen. Not so with Simon Trent though as Adam West was a big part of my childhood as Batman and his voice was unmistakable. His little arc through-out the episode is fun, and even a bit emotional. It in some way mirrored the real-life struggles of West and other actors typecast following a big role like Batman and I wonder if it was cathartic in a way for West to play the part. He’s great as Trent, so he’s not just a novelty here, and brings a lot to the character. As a kid I always wanted to see more of the Gray Ghost in a future episode, but I think as an adult I’m happy he was a one and done thing. This episode is a love letter to the old Batman show and a big “thank you” to West and the other actors, writers, and directors who made that show so memorable. In a time when people were starting to thumb their nose at the old, campy show it was nice to be gifted an episode like this one. Batman can be a lot of things to a lot of people, but throughout every age he’s always a hero.

R.I.P. Adam West (1928-2017)

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Batman: The Animated Series – “Heart of Ice”

Heart_of_Ice_(Batman-_The_Animated_Series)Episode Number:  14

Original Air Date:  September 7, 1992

Directed by:  Bruce Timm

Written by:  Paul Dini

First Appearance(s):  Mr. Freeze

Production episode number 14 was actually the third episode of Batman: The Animated Series to air. It’s also the first written and directed by the two individuals who receive the most credit for the success of the show, Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, respectively. And wouldn’t you know, it’s also probably the best episode of the show and maybe the best episode of television based on a comic book.

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“Heart of Ice” isn’t just the debut of Mr. Freeze for the show, but the start of a whole new life for the character.

Prior to this episode’s airing, its star villain Mr. Freeze was a bit of a joke. Dead in the comics, viewers most knew him from the campy 60’s TV series where he was just some old guy with an affinity for the cold. He was a nothing character and a throw-away villain for Batman to dispatch when a little variety was needed. After this episode, Mr. Freeze was suddenly a star villain in Batman’s rogues gallery and is now probably among his top adversaries in terms of notoriety. He was resurrected in the comics and his backstory was retconned to closely mirror the events of this episode. Freeze isn’t the only instance of the show influencing the comics, and it’s probably debatable which contribution from this show is most important:  Freeze or Harley Quinn. Regardless, this episode is my personal favorite from the show and one that stuck with me when I first saw it back in 1992. Prior to seeing this, I’m not sure if I had ever really empathized with a superhero villain on such a level and it really created a unique viewing experience for me as a child.

The episode opens in a foreboding fashion with a shot of a ballerina dancing in place. It’s a figurine encased in a snow globe and Mr. Freeze (Michael Ansara) is gazing at it longingly remarking how this is how he’ll always remember “you.” His character model is partially obscured by shadow and is illustrated like a background from the show clearly done on black paper. His mouth is the only thing that animates until his red, glowing eyes open. The eye bit makes no sense, since we’ll soon see that they’re goggles, but it does add a nice dramatic flourish which is something we will also see again.

Cut to a TV report from Summer Gleeson and the episode becomes a more conventional setup. Someone armed with an ice gun has been knocking off GothCorp locations and making off with some tech pieces. Batman, via his magic computer, is able to figure out what these pieces of equipment are being acquired for (a giant freeze canon) and knows what the next item targeted will be and where it’s manufactured. He’s able to arrive as Mr. Freeze and his henchmen hit the scene and Batman has his first encounter with his new adversary. Mr. Freeze, unlike some villains we’ve seen already, is debuting in the show and in the show’s universe as Batman has never encountered him before. We’re shown pretty early that he’s a vicious sort, not in his methods, but his mindset. He cares nothing for the men working for him or those his actions could harm. Batman is warned to stay out of his way, and he genuinely holds no ill will towards the caped crusader, but he also has no problem with killing him either. Freeze’s callousness is demonstrated in leaving behind one of his henchmen who he inadvertently froze. He shows no remorse and offers no apology that he froze the man with his handy ice gun and Batman is forced to help the guy out at the cost of letting Freeze escape.

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Victor Fries seen pleading with Ferris Boyle not to pull the plug on his wife.

Batman decides he needs to do a little sleuthing about Freeze and goes straight to the source:  GothCorp CEO Ferris Boyle (Mark Hamill). Boyle is at a loss as to why someone would be targeting his company, but does tell Batman (as Bruce Wayne) that a former research scientist would possibly hold a grudge due to the company pulling funding, but adds that he died in a lab accident. It’s a curious thing to bring up if the man is dead, but it’s enough of a lead for Bruce to return as Batman to scour the security tapes. He locates the one for the accident Boyle mentioned and witnesses a rather disturbing scene. Scientist Victor Fries (pronounced Freeze, naturally) was experimenting with cryogenics and freezing a live human to place them into a state of suspended animation. His test subject was his wife, Nora, as she was terminally ill with what we can only assume is likely some form of cancer, and he hopes to keep her in this state until a cure is found. Boyle storms in with some guards to tell Fries his funding is being withdrawn as it’s proving too costly. He has the apparatus housing Nora Fries shutdown, despite the protests of Victor as this will surely result in his wife’s demise. Boyle cares little for the predicament of Nora, and when Victor begs him to reconsider Boyle tosses him aside into a bunch of random chemicals. Victor can only look on helplessly as his wife is essentially murdered before his eyes, the contact with the chemicals apparently resulting in his current state. It’s a haunting video, though I can’t help but snicker a little at the dramatic cuts contained in supposed security footage, but it helps tell the story.

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Zzzzzap!

Batman is horrified, and even utters a “My God,” at the sight which was surprisingly allowed to make it to air as any mention of God like that is usually rejected by network censors for a kid’s show. Mr. Freeze conveniently shows up to offer a little commentary on Batman’s reaction to the security footage before firing his ice gun at the screen ending the scene. Batman is taken prisoner and suspended from the ceiling via ice shackles. From here he’s able to pry Mr. Freeze about the night Boyle ruined his life. The “accident” he suffered has forced him to reside in a sub-zero temperature as he cannot live in any other climate. The suit he wears keeps him alive, and we’ll learn later it also triples his strength making him a pretty good physical adversary as well for Batman. Batman offers his sympathy and tries to reason with Freeze, but Freeze doesn’t care. His heart is ice and he only desires revenge against the man who murdered his wife and no one will stand in his way.

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I’ve seen enough cartoons and movies to know that you probably shouldn’t just leave Batman like this.

This is where Freeze makes the mistake of behaving like a typical villain, for all of his bluster about not caring about the lives of those who get in his way, he makes the mistake of leaving Batman alive. He even spills the beans on his plan to crash a dinner where Boyle is being presented with a humanitarian award, and soon departs with his super weapon now complete. Batman is left to extricate himself from his confines and pursue Freeze. He’s able to arrive just in time as Freeze is in the process of encasing a begging, pleading, Boyle in ice. Batman even retrieves his utility belt, and it’s a good thing, because Alfred had equipped him with a thermos of chicken soup to fight off a cold he acquired during the episode which comes in handy when he uses it to smash the glass bubble around Freeze’s head. He hands the Gotham PD the security tape he took from GothCorp depicting what happened to Nora Fries. The episode ends on a sad scene of Mr. Freeze in his frozen prison cell gazing at his snow globe representation of his wife apologizing through tears that he could not avenge her.

“Heart of Ice” is a triumph due to its story-telling and its style. Mr. Freeze has a retro sci-fi look with a dash of Darth Vader thrown in. His voice is modulated and fuzzy since it’s being amplified by the suit, and the red goggles work to hide any emotion his eyes could convey. His brow is in a constant frown and his cold mannerisms are achieved naturally without being too overstated by the character (something the film version from Batman & Robin was unable to achieve). His ice gun is a fun piece of animation and it’s particularly neat to see him use it in a manner similar to how Marvel’s Ice Man uses his powers when he smashes a fire hydrant and creates an ice track to a high rise. The pacing of the episode is well done, though the limited running time is felt a bit when Batman is able to figure out Freeze is improbably building a giant ice canon right away. I guess an ice canon isn’t a completely foreign concept to Batman. There is also a goof that probably bothers Timm and Dini when they watch this when the colors on Batman’s logo are flipped, and I do kind of hate that Freeze just captures Batman and makes the classic villain error of revealing his hand to the hero and letting him live to do something about it.

The shortcomings for “Heart of Ice” are real and go beyond nitpicking, but they’re not enough to do any real harm to the episode or take away from the fantastic back story dreamed up by Dini for the character of Mr. Freeze. Giving him the motivation of wanting to avenge his lost wife, and in turn making Boyle the real villain of the episode, means the viewer is in some scenes rooting against Batman. We want to see Boyle get what’s coming to him and we don’t want Freeze punished further. At the same time, the episode does make the crimes of Mr. Freeze obvious so it doesn’t go too far in making him sympathetic. The tragic air of the episode’s conclusion is a somber touch to end on, and appropriate one given the mood of the episode. The only real drawback is it’s too good, making it hard for the show to come back to the character because how can it possibly top this?

Heart-of-Ice-BatmanThankfully, Mr. Freeze avoids the Two-Face treatment which saw that villain return more than once as basically a conventional Batman foil. The show never forgets the true motivation for Freeze and Nora is a part of the few times he does reappear. He never schemes with the Joker or serves as hired muscle for Poison Ivy. And best of all, Mr. Freeze is provided a legacy that still endures today making him one of Batman’s greatest foes, and he owes it all to this episode of a children’s cartoon.


Batman: The Animated Series – “On Leather Wings”

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The series features great title cards for each episode. I like the simplicity of this one quite a bit.

Episode Numer: 1

Original Air Date:  September 6, 1992

Directed by:  Kevin Altieri

Written by:  Mitch Brian

First Appearance(s):  Batman, Alfred, Commissioner Gordon, Detective Bullock, Man-Bat, Kirk Langstrom, Francine Langstrom, Dr. March, Mayor Hill, Harvey Dent,

On this day 25 years ago, Batman returned to television with a show simply titled Batman. Almost immediately, the show came to be recognized as Batman:  The Animated Series and is even referred as such on the DVD volumes released much later. When it premiered, Batman was riding high on a new wave of popularity thanks to two Tim Burton directed features:  Batman and Batman Returns. Batman had returned to his more brooding roots and away from the camp of the television series from the 60s starring Adam West (RIP). And while the Batman of this new show would more closely align himself with Michael Keaton’s portrayal than what was featured on various incarnations of The Super Friends, it was still an animated show featured on Fox Kids that would appeal to a general audience.

Before Christopher Nolan came along, the Batman of this cartoon series (voiced by Kevin Conroy) was often cited as the preferred Batman above all others to escape the comic books. And for a great many fans, it still is. Batman:  The Animated Series tackled mature stories and treated its legendary hero with respect. Primarily the work of Bruce Timm and Paul Dini, it has become a landmark for animated television and is often considered the best comic-book adaptation to ever grace a television set.

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In the series’ first episode, Batman tackles an unfamiliar foe to most of the audience.

To celebrate 25 years of Batman:  The Animated Series, I’m going to take a trip through each episode in short write-up reviews. The posts will be in production order, so even though the series premiered with “The Cat and the Claw Part 1,” the first post is for “On Leather Wings,” which was the second episode to debut. The air dates are all over the place, as Batman’s first season was a 65 episode order designed to immediately qualify it for syndication. It was successful enough that more episodes were ordered (these are The New Adventures of Batman & Robin) and WB would order a third and final season many years later (The New Batman Adventures) to pair with their Superman animated series. I intend to get to all of them, including The New Adventures, though I have no idea how long it will take me. Hopefully I can refrain from typing 2000 words about each episode in order to move along at a decent pace.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about the first production episode “On Leather Wings.” This is a natural for the first episode because it’s a Batman solo adventure and does not feature a noteworthy villain who will hog the spotlight. This show very much follows a villain of the week/day type of format. There’s very little continuity from episode to episode and few callbacks, especially in the first season. This particularl episode was directed by Kevin Altieri and written by Mitch Brian. It’s sort of a surprise that Dini and Timm aren’t directly credited with the first episode, but since 65 were done at once I suppose it doesn’t matter much which is first. That and they also likely had a hand in just about every episode from some point in the development. Altieri will direct several episodes in this first season. Brian is credited as a co-creator on the show, though he only shows up a couple more times as a story writer.

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Commissioner Gordon and Detective Bullock, who will make many appearances in this show.

“On Leather Wings” feels like an introduction for Batman as the plot involves people confusing the villain with him and attributing his crimes to Batman. That villain is Man-Bat, a B-level villain who’s essentially a were-bat, if you will. The story calls on Batman to use his detective work to figure out who is the man behind the Man-Bat, essentially. Batman’s sleuthing skills take him to a bat exhibit in Gotham Zoo where he meets the irritable Dr. March. March, who seems to prefer bats to humans, is our episode’s red-herring though he’s clearly hiding something. Bruce also encounters March’s daughter and son-in-law, who have followed in his footsteps as bat experts.

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Fox was pretty good about letting the show depict some blood as well as guns and general, tasteful, violence.

 

Having Batman investigate a bat monster is a fun way to debut the series. We also get introduced to series mainstays Commissioner Gordon (Bob Hastings) and Detective Bullock (Robert Costanzo), and we also get a glimpse of Bullock’s distrust of Batman which will be an ongoing thing. Trusty butler Alfred is also debuted, though oddly enough voiced by Clive Revill. He will be voiced by Efram Zimbalist Jr. for all but three of Alfred’s appearances. The episode is also a nice exhibit of the show’s unique look. We get to see the Gotham skyline at night, done on black backgrounds and Batman and the Man-Bat pop nicely against it. The Batcave is also featured and we get to see Batman’s super-powered computer in action which will help him solve many mysteries through-out the series. It’s a tight little plot, which is resolved by the end in a mostly satisfying manner, though Batman seems very trusting of the bat experts to make sure this never happens again (spoiler alert – it does!) and declines bringing them to the police. In short, it’s a good episode though probably no one’s favorite. The production values are quite nice (we get some nice sound effects in particular for Man-Bat) and consistent through-out. Episodes both better and worse are still to come.

Like what you just read? Check back here every Friday, starting this Friday, for another episode recap of Batman:  The Animated Series. If you want to follow along we’re going in production order which just so happens to be how the DVDs are arranged. Individual sets can be had fairly cheaply these days, and there’s a complete collection for those with finer taste. All of the episodes are also currently airing on Amazon Prime so if you have a subscription you can watch there. I hope you enjoy reliving this series as much as I plan to enjoy writing about it.


Batman: Mask of the Phantasm Blu Ray

Batman-Mask-of-the-Phantasm-Blu-rayI’ve written about Batman: Mask of the Phantasm on more than one occasion, often in glowing terms. I dubbed it the definitive take on the Batman character for film and ranked it pretty highly on my list of best Batman movies of all time. In addition to that, I did a straight-up review of the film as well. Most of these articles are old by the standards of this blog, but all of those write-ups were based on the DVD release of the film. It’s taken Warner years to finally put this film on Blu Ray, but it’s finally here and I’m going to tell you about it.

Now since I’ve already done an actual review of the film, I’m not going to go into much detail though I did re-read my review and I have some embellishments I can make in order to pad this post out. The Blu Ray itself is what is important for this post. Mask of the Phantasm is a film I always felt would benefit from a high-definition transfer because of all of the deep blacks, particularly in the backgrounds. The DVD release was an old one and not particularly good by the standards of DVD. It was re-released in multi-packs with the direct-to-video Batman films based on the animated series and I don’t know if any of those were handled better than the version I have. As far as the transfer goes, the Mask of the Phantasm Blu Ray is a mixed bag. My assumption the blacks would benefit was spot-on. Not only are they rich, but the deep blue of Batman’s cape looks great as well and the animation is nice and fluid. Sadly, there’s some blurring that takes place, particularly early in the film. I’m not sure if it persisted throughout at times and I just became engrossed in the plot or if it was confined to the beginning of the picture. Either way, it’s disappointing the transfer isn’t better.

The other disappointing aspect of the release is the complete lack of special features. The DVD did the same as both only include a standard definition version of the trailer for the film and nothing else. I find it hard to believe the likes of Paul Dini and Bruce Timm weren’t interested in doing something for this release, be it a commentary or a short piece on the making of the film. The subpar transfer and lack of special features really makes it feel like Warner cared little about the integrity of this release, which is a shame because it’s a film deserving of more respect.

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What you see is what you get.

And what a film it is! In re-watching it for this write-up I’m just reminded of how well it gets the Batman character. Seeing Bruce’s early years as a vigilante really drives home the tragedy of the Batman character. And I don’t mean the sad origin of Batman, but in how Bruce has given up any chance at a healthy life by committing to being Batman. He’s fighting an un-winnable battle to rid Gotham of crime and foregoing marriage, children, and the simple pleasures of life. He’s unquestionably doing good in the community and helping people, but it’s probably not a fulfilling lifestyle.

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The Joker could have felt tacked-on to give the film a recognizable villain, but his inclusion pays off

The other aspect of this film that really merits praise, because it feels overlooked in light of The Dark Knight, is its depiction of The Joker. The Joker of the cartoon series is somewhat of a cornball. There’s some danger to the character, but standards and practices kind of holds him back. He’s overshadowed by the likes of Mr. Freeze and Two-Face as far as memorable villains go. Instead he’s kind of the old reliable stand-by for Batman as decades of Joker material from the comics means it’s relatively easy to come up with a decent episode. Here we get The Joker that the animated series probably wanted to give us, but couldn’t. He’s still a nut, but so much more menacing. There’s a real tension in his scenes because he feels unpredictable. Is he going to aid a character? Kill him? What’s his endgame? It’s a shame he doesn’t share screen time with a character we as an audience are invested in, instead he’s paired with scum and we don’t mind if Joker opts to murder them. And what more can be said of Mark Hamill’s performance as The Joker? He’ll always be my favorite.

What we have here is a mixed bag, a great film undermined by a mediocre release. Even so, the Blu Ray is an easy recommend for those who do not have the film already, especially if you’re into Batman and you’ve never seen it. It may be a brief experience, but it’s worthwhile. For those like me who already had the DVD, it’s a tougher sell. This strikes me as a release that will be discounted to the ten dollar bin by this time next year, so maybe waiting on it is the right move if you’re not eager to re-watch. If you’re perfectly happy with the DVD then sure, feel free to pass on this one. I don’t feel burned by it, but I do feel like at 19.99 it’s probably five bucks too expensive. Next year is the film’s 25th anniversary so perhaps there’s an outside shot of Warner doing a more robust release, but I kind of doubt it. This is probably all we’ll get with maybe a future two-pack coming along with an HD transfer of Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero, but I doubt that would feature any additional content aside from the films themselves.


#5 Best in TV Animation: Batman – The Animated Series

Batman_the_Animated_Series_logoChildren of today can probably hardly imagine a world in which super heroes aren’t dominating the pop culture landscape. We’re in an era where even the Fantastic Four have received three chances at making a successful movie and less popular characters like Antman and Dr. Strange have either become mainstream or soon will. That wasn’t the case before 1990. Prior to that, only Batman and Superman had ever made a buck at the box office while The Incredible Hulk had a semi-successful television series for Marvel. When it came to cartoons, there was basically the many variations on the Super Friends and the Marvel Action Hour. The quality for these cartoons was something less than satisfactory.

When Tim Burton and Michael Keaton helped to make Batman popular once again, the powers that be at DC and Warner Bros. decided to give television another go with the caped crusader. Instead of another colorful super hero mash-up they opted to adapt the more current iteration of Batman. The resulting “Batman” (often subtitled “The Animated Series)” returned Batman to the night from which he was born. Developed chiefly by Eric Radomski, Bruce Timm and Paul Dini, the show embodied much of the recent films as well as the tone of the current comics. Robin was there, but only in a handful of episodes initially and he no longer dressed like Tinker Bell’s older brother. Villains that were popular on the older 60’s television program returned, but with a more serious take. Joining them were the more grounded villains like Roland Dagget and Rupert Thorne, mobsters who waged war from the comfort of their homes. Adding even more of a sense of realism to the program was the fact that the villains (and cops) carried and fired realistic weaponry as opposed to cartoonish laser guns that are always conveniently set to stun.

The pervasive darkness of the show is like a character by itself.

The pervasive darkness of the show is like a character by itself.

The Batman present in the animated series was not the ever-present optimist from the 60’s with the serious, but often cheerful, demeanor. This Batman, voiced exceptionally well by Kevin Conroy, was a moody, no nonsense, hero who truly embodied the term The Dark Knight. He’s driven by a quiet anger, it’s root cause being the murder of his parents he bore witness to as a child. Batman is fiercely driven and consumed by his urge to avenge his parents by cleaning up the streets of Gotham, a seemingly never ending task. His alter-ego Bruce Wayne exists only as a cover for Batman. This Batman has a lot in common with Frank Miller’s, only the delivery isn’t so heavy-handed and extreme. As usual, Batman has allies around him. By his side is his butler, Alfred Pennyworth, who is more of a sidekick in the series as opposed to a moral arbiter. That role falls to Dr. Leslie Tompkins who often counsels Batman away from his life of crime-fighting. Commissioner Gordon heads the Gotham police department and relies on Batman probably more than he should while Detective Bullock is Gordon’s foil and often mistrusts the Batman. Robin is also around with an equally tragic backstory and Batgirl eventually comes into the fold during the second “season.”

Batman has no shortage of allies but he’d be nothing without his rogue’s gallery. The usual suspects are present such as The Joker (voiced by Mark Hamill) and Penguin. They’re presented well, but the show is best remembered for its fresh approach when adapting the lesser villains. Two-Face is introduced slowly as district attorney Harvey Dent before his eventual transformation. His character is handled with care and his sympathetic nature is sort of a calling card for the series. The villain most often cited as coming out of the show for the better is Mr. Freeze. Once a fairly corny player in the comics, the depiction of Freeze in the animated series is that of a vindictive killer. Juxtaposing his cold demeanor is the origins for his madness over his wife’s apparent murder. His debut episode, “Heart of Ice,” is often mentioned among the show’s best. The show doesn’t always rely on its villain of the week (day, actually, since the program aired week days originally) as illustrated in “Beware the Grey Ghost.” In this episode, the show runners have some fun by pairing Batman with an out of work actor typecast for his work as a super hero in an old television show. His voice actor? None other than Adam West.

The rogue's gallery for the show is a clever mix of classics and unknowns, with the unknowns often shining brightest.

The rogue’s gallery for the show is a clever mix of classics and unknowns, with the unknowns often shining brightest.

The artwork in the show is heavily based off of the set designs of Eric Radomski and the character designs of Bruce Timm. If you are not familiar with Timm’s work, it’s a low-detail approach with lots of angular lines. Lots of pointy-chinned females and square-headed males populate the show. His take on the various villains is often influenced by both classic works and the Burton films. Joker and Penguin are obviously takes on Jack Nicholson’s Joker and Danny DeVito’s more monstrous Penguin. Catwoman too resembles her look from Batman Returns but with the S&M aspect toned down. There’s a minimalist approach to the details with lots of flat, muted colors. Backgrounds were even done on black paper, most noticeably the opening title sequence, with light colors painted over them. This technique is credited to Radomski and often referred to as “Dark-Deco.” The show’s biggest contribution to the world of Batman though is easily the character of Harley Quinn, who first originated on television before making the leap to comics.

Whether you like the look of the show or not is a matter of opinion. It certainly needed to grow on me, but I appreciated the style of the show. Like the Burton films, Gotham is a modern city rooted in the stylings of the 30s and 40s. Batman possesses some pretty advanced technology but for some reason also watches a black and white television half the time. The low detail approach for the show’s look is a benefit to the animation itself. Rather than the somewhat stiff X-Men, Batman animates rather smoothly. The later series, The New Batman Adventures, who further reduce the detail to boost the animation but some would suggest they went too far as certain characters came across as too cartoonish.

The show maybe fairly serious in tone, but Batman still has plenty of toys at his disposal. Just no shark repellent this time.

The show maybe fairly serious in tone, but Batman still has plenty of toys at his disposal. Just no shark repellent this time.

Batman The Animated Series is truly one of the great achievements in kid’s programming. Its serious approach to the character of Batman and his many villains really enhanced the product above what is typically expected of children’s programming. The only thing holding it back is the show’s consistency. It was originally ordered as one season of 65 episodes which is a pretty daunting task to come up with 65 well-executed episodes. The show is often one of those programs where the good episodes are really special but there’s a lot of filler to work around. The show becomes more watered-down when the short second season is added to the mix as well as The New Adventures which surfaced years later. That run produced maybe 2 or 3 worthy episodes with the rest being kid stuff, sadly.

Even so, the good produced by Batman The Animated Series is worthy enough to place it at fifth on my top ten list for animated television programs. The show also spawned some feature films, though only one was released theatrically, the fantastic Mask of the Phantasm. When the films jumped the shark with Batman Forever and Batman and Robin, it was the animated series that kept Batman relevant. It’s unlikely another super hero show could ever surpass it.


#8 Best in TV Animation: Gargoyles

disney-has-gargoyles-legally-streaming-on-youtube-socialWhen I started this feature I swear I did not intend to list the best cartoons aimed at children, that’s just how it’s worked out so far. I promise the next few are going to trend older. That said, Gargoyles is a pretty terrific show whether you’re 8 or 18. The show borrowed heavily from comics and was obviously influenced by the likes of Batman and X-Men. Like most cartoons geared towards boys, the show featured plenty of action but also contained plenty of drama. It asked a lot of its viewers, opting for a more serialized narrative structure with numerous callbacks to older episodes. Sometimes, plots required multiple episodes to develop and pay-off which is probably one reason why the show aired weekdays as opposed to Saturday mornings (though the final season was moved to Saturdays). Lastly, as a Disney produced and developed cartoon show, the program featured slick animation and stellar production values all around.

Gargoyles first began airing in 1994 and centered around the character Goliath, the leader of a clan of Gargoyles displaced by time and forced to adapt to life in New York City. The premise for the show was established over the first five episodes and the lore of the world is firmly established here. Gargoyles are beast-like creatures that are active at night, and stone by day. During the middle ages they protected a castle inhabited by humans in Scotland but were betrayed with most of the gargoyles destroyed while they slept. Magic is also a part of this world, and the remaining gargoyles that survived the attack were placed under a spell that would keep them stone until the castle they inhabited rose above the clouds. Of course, this would happen when a man by the name of David Xanatos purchased the castle and placed it atop a skyscraper in New York.

MacBeth is one of the more prominent antagonists in the series.

MacBeth is one of the more prominent antagonists in the series.

Over the resulting episodes, the gargoyles would come to view Xanatos as an enemy, as well as many others. Surviving outside of the curse is Goliath’s old flame, Demona, a female gargoyle who is like the Magneto to Goliath’s Xavier. She wishes to exterminate humanity while Goliath sees value in forging alliances with people and serving as their protectors. Goliath and his clan, consisting of fellow gargoyles Hudson, Broadway, Lexington, Brooklyn, and Bronx, forge a bond with detective Elisa Maza and basically become protectors of New York. They don’t run around like Batman, but their presence draws out and attracts the attention of various foes, many from the past. Some are more interesting than others. Throughout the series, Demona is a worthy foe for the clan. She’s ruthless and cunning, and even though she often finds herself on the losing side the writers manage to maintain her credibility as a villain. MacBeth is another stand-out foe. He and Demona share a bond as a result of a curse and neither one can die unless the other is killed which makes for an interesting dynamic. MacBeth is no friend to Goliath and company, leading to numerous instances where the gargoyles are caught between MacBeth and Demona, who despise one another.

Stylistically, the show is quite dark. This is to be expected since the primary protagonists are only active at night. The gothic influence in the look and music invite comparisons to another well-regarded cartoon; Batman: The Animated Series. So natural was the likeness that Batman producer Bruce Timm was asked about the show more than once and was said to be not a fan of Gargoyles. The tone of the show was certainly quite serious, even melodramatic. The serialized nature of the show and the human/gargoyle dynamic make it seem more comparable to X-Men, particularly the first two seasons. There’s even a beauty and the beast vibe going on (and the allusions were quite literal in one episode) between Elisa and Goliath. Their relationship starts off professional early on and gradually develops into something more. If you’re looking for pay-off though, you’ll have to consult the not safe for work fan-fiction of a few a diehards (you may want to enable safe search between doing a google image search of Elisa and Goliath) scattered across the internet.

Goliath and Elisa share a bond bordering on love that only intensifies as the series goes on.

Goliath and Elisa share a bond bordering on love that only intensifies as the series goes on.

One thing that Gargoyles did that I can appreciate is that it added to its cast. In X-Men, several mutants and other heroes would cameo on various episodes. These characters, like Archangel and Nightcrawler, were members of the team in the comics but would never join the roster on the television show. This used to bug me, though I understand why the show runners would want to try and keep the cast as manageable as possible. Gargoyles expanded its roster during the second season and it was cool to see. Villains were also eliminated or changed while others, like Xanatos, would become grayer as the series progressed.

Where the show opens itself up for criticism is within its tone and scope. Two things that I consider a strength, do sometimes bog it down. The show is so grim at times it feels joyless. There’s moments for comedic relief but not a lot when compared with contemporary programs. The show also became burdened with the lore it created, particularly during the last half of season two, and sometimes the show felt like it was becoming too big for its own good. It’s no surprise that the show kind of fizzled out towards the end and the final third season is rather poor.

Gargoyles earns its place on my list of top animated television shows because it scores very well across the board, even though it doesn’t quite knock-it-out-of-the-park in any one category. Though maybe I should amend that last sentiment because I’ve underplayed how stellar the animation is for a televised program. The first season especially is borderline feature-film worthy, which is something Batman can’t even boast. Gargoyles is a really unique program when compared with the other Disney Afternoon shows and it would be nice to see Disney try to revive the franchise in at least a small way (cough KingdomHeartsThree cough).

If you’re interested in reading more of my thoughts on Gargoyles, you can fine reviews for the three DVD releases here, here, and here as well as read my arguments for why it should be included in a popular gaming franchise here. Enjoy.