Sunday, July 15, 2012

Batman: The Brave and the Bold – Let Fly the Hammers of Justice!

Batman and Plastic Man battle some super-intelligent apes in Batman: The Brave and the Bold.

Batman has long been my favourite superhero. And I’m not alone: Hollywood has long favoured the Caped Crusader – giving us a half dozen major motion pictures in the past two decades alone. In five days, the long-awaited conclusion of Christopher Nolan’s brilliantly intense, philosophical Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, will open in theatres worldwide. But Batman’s life on the small screen has been just as varied. Beginning with the famously campy Adam West series in the mid-sixties, and reaching perhaps its zenith with the classic Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995), Bruce Wayne and his alter-ego Batman have been a television staple for more than four decades. Last August, the more recent Batman: The Brave and the Bold ended its three-season run on the Cartoon Network – but I confess that it was only over the past few weeks that I finally gave the series a real look. And with Nolan’s sure-to-be blockbuster movie waiting in the wings, this is as good a time as any to let you know why you should check it too.

Based on the long-running DC comic series of the same name, The Brave and the Bold is unique among the many Batman titles in that it specifically focuses on Batman teaming up with other heroes of the DC universe. The animated series follows this same mandate, bringing Batman together with one or more other costumed heroes in his famous battle against villainy and evil in all their incarnations. But Batman: The Brave and the Bold (hereafter BtBatB) was unique in another way, in that it controversially marked a return to the lighter, more tongue-in-cheek Batman stories of an earlier generation. It’s brighter in tone, snappier in dialogue, and unapologetically cartoonish in its animation style. And truth be told, in 2008 when I dutifully tuned in for its premiere episode, I hated it. 

A scene from Batman: The Animated Series,
In place of the reality-based stories and innovative Art Deco look of writer Paul Dini and animator Bruce Timm’s Batman: The Animated Series, BtBatB offered bright colours, upbeat voices, and (heaven forbid) catchphrases. Back in September 1992, I was a young graduate student just arriving in Toronto, and BTAS had just premiered on the Fox Network. BTAS told classically dark stories (its first season Christmas episode involved the kidnapping of a child), the writing was terse and economical, and the visuals were awash in noir motifs and references to art and film. In the era with Michael Keaton playing the not-so-Dark Knight on the big screen, Dini and Timm’s take on Batman was beyond refreshing. Set against the reality-denying films and TV of the Reagan-Bush era, BTAS looked and sounded like a show out of a different time. Among its innovations was Timm’s choice to break with the animation industry standard and draw on black paper, instead of white: every frame was more shadow than light, contributing to the dark mood of the stories and its characters. Gotham City had a Depression-era feel, full of lost men, orphans, and the unemployed. Batman (voiced by Kevin Conroy) spoke in a deep tone, said little, and smiled less. With its visual gestures to Hitchcock and classic noir motifs, the show grabbed me immediately. Over the years, the series would launch the so-called “DC Animated Universe”, and in collaboration with WB Animation, Dini and Timm would make series after series, eventually leading to the Justice League/Justice League Unlimited series of 2001-2004. (This ever-widening universe has since moved on to include over a dozen feature length direct-to-DVD offerings, including the 2010’s brilliant Batman: Under the Red Hood and Justice League: The New Frontier from 2008, with new titles coming out every year.) Although these later efforts were perhaps less visually ambitious than the carefully produced 85 episodes of BTAS, their stories were no less compelling, or their characters any less complex. While certainly not nearly as mature as their characters’ counterparts on the pages of the comics of the same era, Dini and Timm refused to pander to their audience and diminish the source material. These shows demonstrated that despite a televised cartoon’s unavoidably younger demographic – and precisely at the same time the printed comics were taking advantage of their aging readership to go to more narratively intricate, emotional, and morally darker places – they didn’t have to sacrifice rich, entertaining, and satisfying stories in the process.

All of which brings me to my initially negative experience of Batman: The Brave and the Bold. Instead of shadow, there was light. It told sharp, quippy stories, boasted quick cuts and whiz-bang sound effects, and instead of the familiar voice of Conroy (whose deep, bass voice, after 15 years, had become for me synonymous with Batman’s), Batman was voiced by a sitcom actor: Diedrich Bader, most famous for his role on The Drew Carey Show. (I have nothing against Bader as such, but I could barely watch that first episode without seeing his face every time Batman spoke.) The dialogue was broad, the animated bordered on the surreal, and the jokes were persistent. I turned it off, and thought I would never look back. For the next couple of years, my brother would mention it to me (praising a particular episode, or pointing out a famous guest voice – Neil Patrick Harris in a musical episode!”), but I’d shrug and explain: “it just wasn’t for me.” I don’t think I was being snobbish – and I certainly don’t believe that quality animation means “seriousness” in tone (see, for example, Archer) – but at the time, I just couldn’t watch it. My reaction was just that: reactive. In retrospect, I can hardly explain it. After years of immersion in the universe created by Timm and Dini, I think BtBatB was just too jarring. In the end, it took me almost 4 years, and a full year after the show ceased production, before I could begin to appreciate the series for what it is: something genuinely new, mixed brilliantly with a lot that was genuinely old.

Batman meets the Music Meister (voiced by Neil Patrick Harris) in Batman: The Brave and the Bold.

Along with its willingness to harness seven decades of Batman history – on the page, on the screen, on television, and in popular culture – the show’s anthology format is a perfect showcase, giving it license to tell practically any kind of story it wishes. Every episode not only brings in new heroes and villains, but also different sides of the many lives of “Batman.” They went from an all-singing all-dancing NPH-starring musical episode to a brief return to Batman’s darker inclinations in an episode written notably by Paul Dini himself, for example. A third season episode even animates “Bat Boy and Ruben,” a classic MAD Magazine parody from 1953, complete with MAD’s signature Yiddish-ish phrases.

True to The Brave and the Bold comic series, BtBatB is set in a highly populated DC universe – it could have been titled “Batman and Friends.” The oddness of that descriptor to most of our eyes might go lot way to explaining just why this series may be so shocking to the uninitiated, myself included: Batman, almost by definition, doesn’t have friends. But in this show he does, and many of them!

Developed by James Tucker and Michael Jelenic, BtBatB is definitely not Paul Dini’s Batman (though, as mentioned, Dini does eventually show up to write a handful of episodes for the series – arguably some of the best ones). Sure, Batman still fights villainy, and has a strong sense of justice, but he isn’t the borderline personality we’ve come to know and love. This Batman isn’t haunted by his past, and the stories don’t dwell on Batman’s twisted and broken psyche. In fact, Bruce Wayne hardly makes an appearance. (Batman doesn’t even appear unmasked until late in the second season.) Here Batman playfully jibes with his super-friends and rolls his eyes at Plastic Man’s slapstick goofiness. And he’s more likely to be seen arbitrating an intergalactic peace treaty than stopping a bank heist. In fact, very few of the stories are actually set in Gotham City at all, as Batman finds himself fighting crime overseas, or under the sea, or in the past or far future. And he dispatches his many enemies with a pair of Nth metal knuckles, and has a propensity to refer to his fists as “the hammers of justice.” (As in, in a classic bit of battle banter, “The hammers of justice will always pound straight the bent nails of evil!”) It is, in short, a heck of a lot of fun.

So why did it take me so long to see it? I think, perhaps, because I initially misread the show’s deliberate irreverence as unintentional disrespect for the source material. But, as the series taught me with every new episode I watched, I now realize my misunderstanding followed from how little I really knew about that very material. The show’s simple format (a self-contained story with Batman teaming up with another hero) turns out to be ideal for mining DC’s almost 80 year history for the most fun, if not the most famous, of its catalogue of heroes and villains. Almost every episode opens with a short standalone teaser, a format which itself harkens back to an earlier era of short animated films and daily comic strips. You’ll see Batman and Detective Chimp (who hails from 1952!) take down False-Face, visit the Planet of the Apes-inspired future of Kamandi the Last Boy on Earth and his dog master, Dr. Canus (both 70s-era Jack Kirby creations), and see Batman join forces with B’wana Beast to take down the villainous Black Manta. It was actually when I watched the latter episode that I finally got what the show was. I was trying to parse B’wana Beast’s bizarre power (in his own words, the power to “merge the best of two different things to create an unstoppable force” – for example a spider, merged with the size and teeth of a shark and the wings of a hawk – a power which Batman will rightly describe as “gross), when I decided to look it up online. I then discovered B’wana Beast’s 40-year history in comics. Ever since then, an open Wikipedia page has been my indispensable companion for every episode of The Brave and the Bold! (I find myself pausing an episode two sometimes three times to do my impromptu research, which only increases the fun.) What I discovered, to my increasing pleasure, was that the show’s playfulness disguises a deep and knowledgeable respect (if not reverence) for the full and complicated history of Batman and the entire DC universe – a world which doesn't begin with the comic book's new “maturity” in the 80s but goes gleefully back to the 50s, 60s, and 70s, comics’ so-called Silver Age. Rather than a pandering exploitation of a beloved brand, every episode of BtBatB is like a master class in DC comic history.

BtBatB delves deep into the archives, and brings out the most colourful personalities of Batman’s rogues gallery: alongside the usual suspects – The Joker, Bane, and Two-Face – we learn about the lesser-known machinations of The Gentleman Ghost, Crazy Quilt, Clock King, Shaggy Man, Calendar Man, and perhaps my current favourite Kite Man. (Kite Man, who first appeared on the pages of Batman in 1960, is a supervillain whose misguided Ben Franklin-style experiments lead to a “resulting lightning strike that caused a psychological trauma forcing him into a life of kite-centric crime.” Now obsessed with the idea that Franklin is overrated, Kite Man is committed to becoming “the most famous kite-related person in history.”)

All three seasons of Batman: The Brave and the Bold are available on DVD. If the weightiness of the Batman mythos has never been your cup of tea, or if you, like me, were initially turned off by the seeming light-heartedness of this new incarnation, I heartily recommend taking a look. With its raucous sense of humour, the show is a giddy love letter to the comics of our youth, and will take you back to the simple joys of a well-told adventure story. With a wonderful array of guest voices – from actors spanning every decade of film and television – over the show’s 65 episodes: including Tim Conway, Adam West, Dana Delany, R. Lee Ermey, Tippi Hedren, Julie Newmar, Henry Winkler, Jeffrey Tambor, Wil Wheaton, Olivia d'Abo, and William Katt, among dozens of others – and an unabashed sense of fun, BtBatB is like comfort food for the brain. A darker, brooding Batman (a cutting-edge CGI animated production titled Beware the Batman) is set to return to the Cartoon Network in 2013, likely to harness the promotional juggernaut of Nolan’s new movie this summer. But in the meanwhile, pop yourself some popcorn, and curl up with The Brave and the Bold.

 Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.

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