Batman: The Animated Series - Vol. 2 Review
Adam West or Michael Keaton? Val Kilmer or George Clooney? Most comic book fans have their favourite version of the cinematic Dark Knight, but none of those lucky few can match the vocal talents of one Kevin Conroy. His deep, penetrating voice has defined Batman for an entire generation - depicting the darkness of the Caped Crusader, with a clear vale of sympathy. Bruce Wayne’s alter ego has always been a tortured and often conflicted hero - elements of the comic that made him so intriguing - yet it was Batman: The Animated Series that provided fans with the closest representation of their beloved comic character. Some have called Warner’s TV show the best version yet, a pretty impressive label for an ageing series (especially with the imminent release of Batman Begins). While I won’t jump to such conclusions, I’ve always had a special place in my heart for this show; a childhood favourite, that has remained enormously entertaining. It also puts many modern alternatives to shame.
First broadcast in 1992, just after the release of Batman Returns, the animated show retained the dark, moody vibe of Tim Burton’s classic work. The Gotham cityscape employed by producers Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, was constantly bathed in shadow, with only rare glimpses of sunlight. Such a serious approach made the series stand out from the crowd, and it definitely made an impression on this comic-obsessed youth. Yet, it also worked for adults, who were drawn to the television on Saturday mornings (when it became a success, networks in the US gave it a prime-time slot). The Animated Series boasts a timeless style, with the animators giving Gotham an art-deco finish that recalls 40’s film noir, and pulp detective stories. Batman has been dubbed the world’s “greatest detective” after all, and the show features many of the hallmarks that fuelled Hollywood’s golden era. Mixing such an aesthetic with the comic mythology was a stroke of genius, making Batman: The Animated Series one of the best cartoons ever produced.
There are many reasons for its widespread success. First of all, it treats the Caped Crusader with enormous respect. The films often represented the character as a brooding cipher, rarely scratching the surface of this complex figure. In fact, they spent more time indulging the latest villain, rather than painting a fuller portrait of Gotham’s winged defender. With the Joel Schumacher films, he felt like a supporting character in his own saga; something which the animated version helps to rectify. There’s no mistaking whose show this is - the unforgettable opening credits mixing perfect artwork with Danny Elfman’s evocative theme music. The montage pulsates with truly powerful images - the rooftop battle with two heavies; the yellow glow of the police searchlights; Batman standing proud as a strike of lighting erupts behind him. It casts a chill down the spine. Here is a hero powered by grief, loneliness, and guilt. He’s also uncompromising and determined, making him an imposing presence. With Conroy’s suitably gruff voice, the characterisation becomes perfect; switching between Batman and Bruce Wayne with disarming ease.
The writing of the show also adds to its overall charm. It’s intelligent without being complex, providing the kids with a boost of adrenaline, while the adults mull over the more dramatic elements. The producers kept it kid-friendly (no deaths, or gory violence), and introduced the “Rogue’s Gallery” with innovative results; sometimes improving on the source material. This second volume of the show comprises another 28 episodes, featuring many of the adversaries that have plagued Batman for years. The Joker, Two-Face, The Penguin, The Riddler and Poison Ivy are all here, and like the Dark Knight, they are constantly growing in stature. As you’d expect, their schemes are frequently outlandish, producing a few ho-hum episodes. Still, this was a very consistent series, and the episodes presented here (in production order), are largely outstanding.
The highlights include "The Man Who Killed Batman," an amusing piece, in which Batman is feared dead. This causes a rage within The Joker (voiced with amazing relish by Mark Hamill), who wishes he had pulled the trigger. This leads him to reminisce about his “relationship” with the winged rodent; showing the dual aspects of Batman’s greatest opponent. A similar notion is expressed with the sublime "Almost Got 'Im," in which The Joker, Two-Face, Poison Ivy and Killer Croc tell each other about their run-in with the Bat, over a game of poker. It’s often very funny, and written with a sly wit, resulting in a surprise ending which makes the episode complete. Brilliantly designed, the villains also boast a surprising amount of recognisable voice talent. Hamill is the main focus here, but we have cult legend Adrienne Barbeau as Catwoman, Smallville’s John Glover as The Riddler, and the late Roddy McDowell as the little-seen Mad Hatter.
The voices help to give the stories an immediacy, especially during the brilliant two-parter “Robin’s Reckoning”, in which the Boy Wonder’s origin is told with a great deal of emotion. Loren Lester plays the role with enthusiastic glee, sparking memories of Burt Ward’s punning sidekick. The writers stay true to each character, and even the peripheral roles feel fleshed-out. Alfred (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.) and Commissioner Gordon (Bob Hastings) stand out, adding a sense of authenticity. With such professionals, the writers were free to pursue some challenging stories. An episode which springs to mind is probably the season-closer "Harley and Ivy", which features The Joker’s amusing sidekick Harley Quinn (Arleen Sorkin). Kicked out of the criminal gang, Harley proceeds to make a go of it on her own, which annoys a certain sadistic clown. He hunts her down in a cruel fashion, revealing those psychotic tendencies. It won’t register with children, but Hamill manages to give the role a chilling edge, between the uproarious laughter. It also helps that each show is crammed with action, allowing Batman to trounce the baddies with his trusty utility belt, and the super-sleek Batmobile. Even the weaker episodes are never dull.
Highly entertaining, and exceptionally-crafted, Batman: The Animated Series is a bona-fide classic of cartoon television, despite its “kiddie show” roots. A must-see for any serious fan of the Dark Knight, it has aged well, and continues to impress audiences over a decade later. Only time will tell if Christian Bale can redefine the character for modern audiences. If you’re like me, anticipation has reached an all-time high. Batman forever, indeed.
• "Eternal Youth"
• "Perchance to Dream"
• "The Cape and The Cowl Conspiracy"
• "Robin's Reckoning, Part 1"
• "Robin's Reckoning, Part 2"
• "The Laughing Fish"
• "Night of the Ninja"
• "Cat Scratch Fever"
• "The Strange Secret of Bruce Wayne"
• "Heart of Steel, Part 1"
• "Heart of Steel, Part 2"
• "If You're so Smart, Why Aren't You Rich?"
• "Joker's Wild"
• "Tyger, Tyger"
• "Moon of the Wolf"
• "Day of the Samurai"
• "Terror in the Sky"
• "Almost Got 'Im"
• "Birds of a Feather"
• "What Is Reality?"
• "I Am the Night"
• "Off Balance"
• "The Man Who Killed Batman"
• "Paging the Crime Doctor"
• "The Mechanic"
• "Harley and Ivy"
After years of fan campaigning, Warner has finally released the show as it was meant to be seen - in comprehensive season-by-season sets. Volume 2 presents the 28 episodes across 4 discs; housed in a pretty attractive digipack, with an embossed Batman on the front. In fact, it’s rather too good to pass up...
The Look and Sound
Naturally, the TV origins of this release reveal some imperfections, but it’s clear that Warner have transferred these episodes with great care. The full-frame (1.33:1) transfers look fantastic, with a pretty impressive colour palette, and a solid handling of the dark cityscapes. The image quality varies from episode to episode, depending on the materials at hand (this was, after all, cell animation shot on celluloid). Some episodes show little scratches or dust, but others reveal a great deal of grain. That said, it was amazing how clean the show looks, reproducing the animation with skill. In other words, few decade-old cartoons look this good.
As you’d expect, we aren’t treated to the bombastic fury of a 5.1 mix, but the 2.0 surround tracks are just the ticket. They make good use of the front channels, with Shirley Walker’s music coming across with a great deal of resonance. The sound is clear, without distortion (The Joker’s laughter is pretty strong!). The dialogue, and ambient noise is all well above-average, making these simple tracks fairly entertaining. While a full-on surround mix would be brilliant, Warner have done well with the material on offer.
These were simple, and very functional (though unfortunately, not animated). Each disc features the Bat himself striking a different pose, with the Elfman theme playing away. I should note that due to the short length of each episode, there are no chapter stops - something which annoyed me at first.
Due to the cult audience for this series, Warner have kindly produced some intriguing special features.
These compliment four episodes in the set (one on each disc), with the comments playing over “Robin’s Reckoning”, “Heart of Steel”, “Almost Got ‘Im” and “Harley and Ivy”. Among the contributors are show-runners Bruce Timm, Eric Radowski, Kevin Altieri, Paul Dini and Boyd Kirkland. The tracks tend to be heavy on the technical and creative aspects of the show, appealing to those who appreciate the production process from script to screen. For instance, during “Robin’s Reckoning”, they are very vocal about how the character was changed, and what the writers did to make him more interesting for fans. The speakers are clearly in love with their work (who could blame them?), and they offer a lot of fun anecdotes about writing the stories, and playing with the comic mythology. These tracks are a must-listen for any Bat-Fans.
These were pretty slick, and well-produced featurettes, boasting interview material with the creators and select members of the cast. "Robin Rising" goes into fair detail about the continuing trend of changing Dick Grayson for modern audiences, and how he developed as the show progressed. Timm and Dini are on hand to offer their two cents, and even highlight Grayson’s successors - Tim Drake and Nightwing. "Gotham's Guardians" was pretty fun, since it concerns the incidental characters that help Batman’s fight. Naturally, these include Alfred, Commissioner Gordon, and Batgirl (who appears briefly in this set). Last but not least, is "Voices of the Knight" a welcome look at the voice performers; including Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill and Adrienne Barbeau. Among their recollections, is the casting process, performing the ‘sound effects’, and their realisation that the show was something special. A fine collection of material, overall.
The Bottom Line
A legendary show, that boasts one of the better adaptations of DC’s enduring comic book. Batman: The Animated Series is wonderful television, that is given new life by Warner’s impressive box set. Now all I have to do, is wait for Volume 3. So, I’ll see you next time readers...same time, same place, same Bat Web-site!