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Batman: The Animated Series – “On Leather Wings”

On Leather Wings

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.

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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.