Batman Beyond

I am on a mission to experience every amazing TV show and movie that the DC Animated Universe has to offer. And the next stop on that journey is Batman Beyond.

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Batman Beyond
Writers and Directors: Loads, but mainly Butch Lukic, Dan Riba, Alan Burnett and Paul Dini
Starring: Will Friedle and Kevin Conroy
Aired: 1999-2001

Batman Beyond is the sequel series to Batman: The Animated Series, taking place in the same continuity. It starts off many years after Batman’s last chronological appearance in Justice League Unlimited, with a prologue that shows his decision to hang up the cowl after his failing health forces him to pick up a gun to defend himself. Twenty years later, Gotham is as crime-ridden as ever, and Bruce Wayne is a recluse with only his guard dog for company–until he runs into a teenager named Terry McGinnis, who stumbles upon the Batcave. At first Terry agrees to keep the secret to himself. But when his father is murdered for knowing too much about the dealings of a corrupt CEO, he decides to steal the Bat-suit (which has received a few upgrades over the years) and bring the killers to justice. Bruce isn’t happy about this at first, but once he sees Terry in action and understands his intentions, he agrees to teach him the ways of crimefighting. The rest of the show follows Terry’s adventures as the new Batman, battling foes that range from a gang of teenage Joker wannabes to the radioactive supervillain Blight, all while trying to keep his grades up. He occasionally clashes with Police Commissioner Barbara Gordon, picks up a part-time sidekick named Max, and is constantly guided by Bruce’s expert, if grumpy, advice.

This is actually the last major show in the DCAU that I watched, and not just because it’s a little harder to find than any of the others. I was honestly pretty reluctant to try out a show about a Batman who wasn’t Bruce Wayne or even any other member of the established Bat-family. How could some random kid from the future ever hope to be worthy of the name?

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And one with an emo haircut at that!

Well, as it turns out…he kind of is. Terry’s a compelling character in his own right, with a sarcastic sense of humour, a bit of a rebellious streak, and the same upright morals and compassion that helped make the original Batman great. And since the we never really got an origin story for the Dark Knight in this universe (except for the flashbacks in Mask of the Phantasm), it’s nice to be able to watch someone becoming Batman. Terry starts out as a hotheaded kid with a super suit and some natural athletic ability, but over the course of the show, he gradually becomes a better detective and fighter until he’s almost at the level of his mentor. Note that I said almost. Thankfully, said mentor is still a major character who appears in almost every episode. Even though he’s no longer the protagonist, Bruce has lost none of his awesomeness with age, and he delivers some of the show’s best lines and coolest scenes.

One of my favourite things about B:TAS was its dark, noir-style atmosphere. Atmosphere is also one of Beyond‘s biggest strengths, but this show ditches the noir in favour of cyberpunk. We’ve got flying cars (including the Batmobile!), super-advanced robots, futuristic slang, gene splicing as a fashion trend, and a city-scape that could have been ripped straight from Blade Runner. I love it. Not only does it provide a cool backdrop for the action, this setting also allows the writers to explore neat sci-fi concepts like artificial intelligence, instant gratification technology, the morals of messing with DNA, and dangers like nuclear waste and pollution.

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Gotham’s a lot…shinier, these days.

The funny thing about this show is that, from what I can find on the Internet, it seems to have been conceived as a way to get younger kids into Batman–thus the idea of making him a high school kid. But in addition to having just as much nuanced, mature writing as its predecessor, it’s actually far less child-friendly. It features lots of gruesome deaths that occur just off-screen, more brutal violence in general, and lots and lots of drug metaphors. Unlike in B:TAS, drugs are never mentioned by name (isn’t it weird how censorship changes over time?) but several episodes show the consequences of addiction in rather graphic detail by inventing sci-fi substitutes for real illicit substances. Many of the villains are still tragic, but this show really drives home the fact that “tragic” isn’t always the same thing as “sympathetic.” Beyond villains have a tendency to act like they could be redeemed, up until the last second when you realise that they were either faking those good impulses or they’re just much too far gone.

When you come down to it, this show is good for the same reason that B:TAS and every other show in the DCAU is good. It’s smartly written, constantly going beyond (heh) the basic superhero premise of “good guy fights bad guys” to explore deeper questions about what makes a hero and a villain. The voice acting is top-notch as always, as is the animation. And the theme song…well, like the one for B:TAS, it does a great job of establishing the story and the universe where it takes place in just a few seconds. And in the words of Terry, it’s “unbearably cool.” Take a look-see:

My problems with this series can basically be boiled down to three. 1) It establishes that Bruce and Barbara Gordon were in a relationship at one point. If I were to list all the reasons I think that pairing is sick and wrong, it would take up the rest of this review. I will never understand why cartoon writers are so obsessed with making it a thing. So in my mind, it never happened, and Barbara is just losing her memory in her old age. 2) Speaking of relationships, this show focuses on Terry’s just a wee bit more than I would like. One of the many things I love about the original Batman is that he never had a steady girlfriend who knew him as Bruce Wayne, so he never had to do what I call the “secret identity dance,” where the hero constantly has to make excuses to a love interest about why they’re sneaking out every night. Terry does a lot of that, and it’s rather dull as conflicts go. His girlfriend, Dana, is also rather dull. 3) I wish the show could have done more with Blight. He’s something of an archnemesis to Terry in the first season, and an effective one, but he just kind of disappears after that. Seems like a bit of a waste to me.

But those are minor issues, in the grand scheme of things. For the most part, this is an excellent show that lives up to its predecessor in almost every way.

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“Very good then, Mr. McGinnis. Welcome to my world.”

A note on formatting: In the version of the show that I watched (which I streamed from Amazon), several of the episodes are listed out of order. They’re self-contained enough that it’s not usually a big deal, but once in a while a character will mention something from a previous episode that you won’t get if you’re watching in the Amazon order. Also, like B:TAS, this show never got a proper finale during its own run, but it does have a movie (Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker) and its storyline gets wrapped up for good in an episode of Justice League Unlimited called “Epilogue.”

Whatever order you watch it in, I highly recommend this show, especially for fans of the original Batman series.

Grade: A

Batman: The Animated Series

Holy awesomeness, Batman!

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If you’ve been reading this blog for any time at all,  you know I love all things related to the Dark Knight. So it may come as a surprise that, until recently, I had never watched Batman: The Animated Series, which is considered by many to be the definitive portrayal of the character (outside the comics, at least). It was just a matter of being born too late, I guess. I wasn’t even old enough for Sesame Street when this show first aired, and by the time I started caring about superheroes, I thought I had outgrown cartoons in general. (Yeah…there was a time in my life when I actually thought I was mature and dignified. Fortunately, it was just a phase.)

So it wasn’t until recently that I finally decided to track down this 25-year-old cartoon series and see what all the fuss was about. I was not disappointed.

For those who haven’t seen it (I know you exist!), the show’s premise is pretty self-explanatory. It’s four seasons of self-contained episodes about Batman fighting the villain of the week and occasionally teaming up with Robin, Batgirl or another sidekick. No complicated story arcs, just a simple, kid-friendly show. And it’s the most consistently intelligent, fun and all-around awesome superhero show I’ve ever seen. Why do I love it so much? Let me count the ways:

A silent guardian. A watchful protector. A dark knight.

The intro. From the minute the WB symbol turned into a pair of headlamps from a police zeppelin (I love that Gotham has police zeppelins, by the way), I knew I was in for something special. The grand, sweeping music and the dark, noir-style animation establish the show’s atmosphere perfectly. And the image of Batman standing on a skyscraper with lightning flashing behind him is just so iconic. It’s everything you need to know about him packed into a few seconds.

The music. Did I mention that yet? This is one of the few cartoons ever to get a fully-orchestrated soundtrack, and it makes me wonder how modern cartoons can stand to settle for less. Here, the music makes everything seem so much bigger than you expect on your average kids’ show. It always hits the right emotions, making the villains creepier, the action more urgent, and Batman more triumphantly awesome. Apologies to Hans Zimmer, but there’s just no music that captures the essence of Batman better than that soaring brass anthem. And there’s one more thing that makes this soundtrack special: unlike 99 percent of all mainstream movie and TV scores, it was primarily composed by a woman. I’m adding Shirley Walker to my list of inspiring female artists.

His laugh is a trifle more…contagious than other versions.

The voice acting. Obviously, I’m mainly talking about Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill here. But really, all the acting is top-notch in this show. The only recurring voice that I didn’t love was the first Robin–he seemed a little too whiny to me. But even he got better by the end of the series (because NIGHTWING!) and everyone else, even minor one-off characters, seemed perfect. But Conroy and Hamill stand out because they manage to take two characters (Batman and the Joker, respectively) that have been interpreted and re-interpreted hundreds of times, and own them so thoroughly that even someone who was raised on the Nolan movies like me can still look at a comic and automatically read it in their voices. I like all the live-action Batmen I’ve seen, but I didn’t understand how truly, terrifyingly awesome the character could be until I watched the episode “Nothing to Fear” and heard the immortal line, “I am vengeance. I am the night! I am Batman!” for the first time. I don’t think anyone else could make that line send chills down my spine the way Conroy did. And as for Mark Hamill’s Joker…well, let’s just say not many actors can be genuinely hilarious and genuinely scary at the exact same time. Mark Hamill can.

“Puddin’, you really put the ‘fun’ in funeral.”

The tragedy. Here’s what really sets this show apart from other superhero works, and even other DC cartoons (which are all excellent, by the way). A lot of writers seem to focus almost exclusively on Batman’s hunger for justice and desire to punish wrongdoers. That’s certainly an important part of his character, but B:TAS focuses on what I think is an even more important part: his desire to save people. And when I say “people,” I mean everyone who’s in danger in his city, including the villains. That’s where the tragedy comes in. Keep in mind that this is a show where no one ever dies–at least not on screen. The bad guys’ evil plans always fail, good always prevails, and everything stays PG along the way. But it still manages to create some of the most heartbreaking stories I’ve ever see on TV, and it’s largely thanks to the villains. With the exception of the Joker, almost every recurring villain on this show will make you feel sorry for them at some point. Most of them start out relatively normal and are driven to do terrible things by a combination of mental illness and traumatic circumstances. And Batman often goes out of his way, not only to avoid killing them, but to try and help them heal from whatever it was that turned them into monsters. After all, he’s pretty messed up in the head too, so he understands where a lot of Gotham’s costumed criminals are coming from. But while he may be able to save the innocent citizens of Gotham from the villains, he’s never able to save the villains from themselves. And it’s very clear that he finds it difficult to forgive himself for that. If you’ve ever had a loved one who struggled with mental illness, or just went down a wrong path in life, there are some episodes in this show that will feel like a punch to the gut.

I DARE you to watch this scene with dry eyes.

Don’t get me wrong–there are plenty of funny, light-hearted episodes, along with some truly heartwarming moments. But for some reason, I admire a kids’ show more for making me teary than for making me laugh. Maybe just because it’s rarer. And the intelligent, understated way this show approaches such heavy subject matter as grief, mental illness and domestic abuse is a step beyond anything I’ve ever seen in a kids’ show. Or most adult shows, for that matter. It keeps things child-friendly, but never becomes childish. Like all great kids’ entertainment, it can be enjoyed by people of all ages, at the same time, for different reasons.

And no matter what age you are, this car is awesome.

Of course, it has the occasional dud episode. And I’m not a huge fan of the different animation style in the fourth season. But for the most part, B:TAS is everything I’ve ever wanted from a Batman story and more. And it even has a movie! Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, which is just as well-made as the show (actually more so, since it had a bigger budget), but is a little more consciously aimed at adults. Then there’s the spinoff shows, the crossovers, etc…Point is, everything about this series is fantastic and wonderful, and I just wish I had watched it sooner.

Grade: A+

P.S. Here are my very favourite episodes, for the curious:

Nothing to Fear (only because of that one Batman line)
Heart of Ice
Joker’s Favor
Appointment in Crime Alley
Perchance to Dream
Almost Got ‘Im
The Man Who Killed Batman
Baby-Doll (this is my number one favourite, but we’re going in chronological order here)
Harley’s Holiday
Never Fear
Legends of the Dark Knight
Mad Love