Batman: The Animated Series - Vol. 3 Review

Batman: The Animated Series is still regarded as one of the most innovative cartoons ever produced. It brought a sense of maturity to mainstream animation; making it perfect for adults too. It made use of Tim Burton’s gothic vision from Batman and its sequel, yet plundered the source material for its stories. It was a show that treated Bob Kane’s creation with respect, and the producers had a great deal of love for the Dark Knight, and his continuing crusade. As with this summer’s Batman Begins, the Caped Crusader is the star here; not the frequently-outlandish villains. Vol. 3 brings the show to an end, with the final 29 episodes. Even this late in the show’s run, The Animated Series is still essential viewing for any fan of the enduring comic book.

The defining aspect of Warner’s cartoon (which I documented in greater detail here), is clearly the animation itself. It looks spectacular, with Gotham coming alive in an art deco flourish; recalling just about every period from the last 50 years (a style also used to great effect in Sin City). Yet, the clear influence is 40’s film noir, with everyone from Bruce Wayne to the villains boasting angular features, sharp suits, and tommy guns. Even the vehicles and Batman’s gadgetry have vintage appearances; helping to give Gotham an otherworldly feel. It’s a time and place removed from our own, with only Metropolis (the home of Clark Kent) keeping it company.

The look of Batman - voiced with a great deal of range by Kevin Conroy - is also very important to the animators, with that “classic” look (bar the chest plate, this hero has a lot in common with Kane’s original sketches). The ultimate brooder, Batman’s pitch black cape and cowl is perfectly in keeping with the environment, blending with the dark corners of the Batcave, or the seedy alleyways of Gotham’s eroding streets. And what about those eyes? White slits in Batman’s mask, they express just about every emotion the animators wish to present. He’s a menacing figure, and his presence is always felt. Yet, the villains are also treated to acute characterisation, and careful writing. The famed Rogues’ Gallery has never been so vibrant.

The Animated Series infuses its villains with personality. While the writers essentially put these creeps on rotation, they developed the characters by giving them clear motivations. They also made them sympathetic in certain cases; giving the stories a tragic slant. In this volume, “House and Garden” springs to mind. When a poisonous creature begins attacking the well-to-do, Batman immediately points the finger at Poison Ivy - who had been released from the infamous Arkham Asylum. According to Commissioner Gordon (Bob Hastings), she’s rehabilitated, and married too. Should Batman learn to trust his past foes, and give them the benefit of the doubt? After all, his crime-fighting tactics aren’t too far removed from the dubious methods employed by his adversaries.

The dual nature of one’s personality, also comes to the fore in “Sideshow”, an oddly sentimental tale featuring Killer Croc - one character rarely seen in DC’s back-catalogue. Chased into the woods by Batman, he comes across a gang of ex-circus performers. They’re ‘freaks’ just like him - the only people that understand his emotions. But his killer instincts are reawakened, when Batman finally arrives on the scene. Do people ever change? Can they be redeemed? It’s a question often asked by the writers, and they never tire of painting Batman in shades of grey. He’s a force for good, and continues to help the citizens of Gotham. But he’s also powered by remorse and regret, and gets results by striking fear into the hearts of his foes. He’s teetering on the knife-edge between good and evil, and if it wasn’t for people like Robin (Loren Lester) and Alfred (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.), he’d probably fall into the abyss.

But the show isn’t always so grim. Far from it, actually. Children can enjoy the frequent bursts of action, while their parents chuckle at the knowing humour. Plus, any episode featuring one or more of the Rogues’ Gallery is usually a cracker. In the truly brilliant “Trial” we get all of them - the Joker (still voiced to absolute perfection by Mark Hamill), the Riddler, Two-Face, Poison Ivy, the Mad Hatter, Harley Quinn, and many others. After a crime draws Batman to Arkham, he is kidnapped and put on trial; with his foes acting as the jury. While the story is clearly an excuse to throw the characters together, those ever-talented scribes do have a point to make. The villains argue that it was Batman who led to their criminal endeavours; creating their traits through his constant meddling. It’s an interesting aspect of an episode that’s brimming with memorable moments.

There’s also the film noir-inspired “A Bullet For Bullock”, in which the titular detective joins forces with Batman after a series of death threats; the insane “Make ‘Em Laugh”, in which the Joker kick-starts another crime spree, and the two-part “Shadow of the Bat”. The latter introduces Batgirl, A.K.A. Barbara Gordon to The Animated Series for the first time. A peripheral character since the show’s beginning, Gordon only became Batgirl in the final season - and it’s a better origin than you’d expect. After her father, Commissioner Gordon, is framed for murder by Two-Face, she decides to use her own resources to clear his name. Naturally, it doesn’t go to plan, and it’s left to Batman and Robin to bring the criminal to justice once more. A fun instalment made all the better by sharp writing - I loved the ‘sibling rivalry’ atmosphere between Robin and Batgirl, and her character is handled better here than in Joel Schumacher’s woeful Batman and Robin.

Yet, the character that makes the biggest splash here, is Ra’s Al Ghul - an international terrorist, who also happens to be immortal (in the comic books at least). A major part of Batman Begins, Ghul is a centuries-old criminal, with unlimited resources. Thanks to veteran thesp David Warner, the character is given a mysterious vibe, that pays off in spades. His episodes add a movie serial flavour to the show, with the globe-trotting “Avatar” and the brilliant “Showdown”. He carries the latter on his own, and Batman is barely seen throughout the episode (but as you’d expect, his presence still lingers). “Showdown” is set in the mid-1800’s, and offers a look into one of Batman’s most important villains. It’ll be interesting to see how Christopher Nolan and David Goyer have adapted the character, once Begins sweeps into cinemas.

One of the best screen incarnations of the Dark Knight to date, Batman: The Animated Series continues to entertain fans the world over. Its engaging stories, excellent writing, and perfect voice casting makes it one of the best cartoons there is. Highly recommended.

The Bat-Discs

Warner continue to treat Batman: The Animated Series with a great deal of respect, and this third volume maintains the quality; finishing off the compilations in style. Part of the growing DC Comics Classic Collection, it screams cool - right down to the embossed, and colourful box art, which houses 4 discs (each of which, is graced by its own character). For comic-obsessed geeks, this is a must-own package!

The Bat-Look and Bat-Sound

The dark nature of the show, is once-again handled with a great deal of care, with the episodes presented in their original full-frame versions. Those who own the previous sets should know what to expect. It seems that Warner have looked after these materials in a meticulous fashion, since the episodes look better than most decade-old shows. The colours are impressive, with a much-needed vibrancy (especially the red and green of Robin’s costume, or the garish tones of the Joker’s visage). The shadows and overall darkness are also revealed in pleasing detail, and the transfers are largely free of annoying artefacts. Naturally, for a show using cell animation (which was shot on celluloid), problems like grain and dirt do arise, and the episodes often have a soft look. Yet, the effort has paid off, and Batman still impresses with it’s outstanding visuals...

This show was always praised for it’s epic use of music and sound, and the Stereo 2.0 tracks put the material to excellent use. Danny Elfman’s opening theme music successfully puts the viewer in the mood, as does Shirley Walker’s exciting scores. Those all-important sound effects also have plenty of resonance, from the ambient noise of the Batcave, to the roar of the Batmobile. Each of the elements are neatly defined, and the wonderful dialogue is never hard to hear. The audio never packs a punch, but it’s clear and well-transferred. While a true surround track would have added to the experience, it’s difficult to pick flaws with Warner’s above-average presentation.

The 2.0 tracks are also available in French and Spanish.

The Bat-Extras

The following bonus material is spread across the 4 discs:

"Gotham's New Knight"

The only featurette this time around, concerns the origins of Batgirl (running for just over 7-minutes). Some of the main creative talent like Paul Dini, Bruce Timm, and Boyd Kirkland are interviewed, along with famed artist, and avid fan Alex Ross. It’s interesting to note how Barbara Gordon was gradually developed throughout the series, and their reasons for bringing Batgirl into the mythos.

Commentary on “Read My Lips” by Timm, Dini, Kirkland and composer Shirley Walker

A straight-faced and involving yack-track, the contributors are clearly good friends, and have plenty to say about the series. Among the topics raised, is the vast difference between Batman and the shows they make today (especially the pacing, and bleak colour palette). Timm and Dini are also very vocal about the changes they made to the Ventriloquist character, in contrast to the comic book, and Walker discusses her score at decent length too. Interesting.

Commentary on “House and Garden” by Timm, Dini, Kirkland and
moderator Jason Hillhouse

Not just any commentary - this makes use of a “video” function, and is great fun to watch/listen to. The group take more of a self-deprecating approach here, with Hillhouse dispatching a variety of questions, both insightful and humorous. It’s an interesting episode to document (with some creepy imagery), yet this is more of a light-hearted chat, with few details. Still, the video (sometimes presented in a small window, or at times full-screen) is done in a very creative fashion.

Commentary on “Harlequinade” by Timm, Dini, Walker and producer Eric Radomski

Easily the finest commentary in this set, the group have a blast talking about one of their favourite characters - Harley Quinn. They discuss their influences, the original treatment for the episode, and how the character was developed. The animation style is also documented in fair detail, with some amusing anecdotes raised along the way...

You’ll also find a slew of trailers for other DC titles, including the brilliant Superman: Animated Series.

The Bat-Assessment

For Batman followers, The Animated Series will continue to be held in high regard - a benchmark in modern cartoon television, it also represents the character in one of his better forms to date. Hopefully, the much-anticipated Batman Begins will be worth the hype. Until then, Warner’s excellent box set is highly recommended.

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