DCAU 4: The New Batman Adventures

New Batman Adventures

Now, everything we love about the DCAU began with Batman: The Animated Series, that much is sure. The serious storylines, the dark animation style, the voice talent… It all began there. And, with the end of BTAS style, something of DCAU died, as well. The Art Deco Gotham city, something in the designs, will never be the same. Despite BTAS being the clearly superior cartoon to Superman: The Animated Series, the sleeker art designs of Superman actually won out. This was, no doubt, in no small part linked to the production costs, which must have been monumental for BTAS – after all, colorists had to wear gas masks to use aerosol paint to do the art for most of the original series. So there is a part of me that wishes Batman could forever be the same as in those first 85 episodes. That being said, storywise, The New Batman Adventures contained some of the most exciting Batman stories, at least for me personally – enough to make the claim that some of the legend of the greatness of BTAS owes a debt to the fantastic stories of The New Batman Adventures.

To realize how wonderfully deep the show was willing to go, one needs look no further than Growing Pains (written by Paul Dini and Robert Goodman), where Robin tries to take care of a little girl Annie, who has amnesia and is being stalked by a terrifying presence. Robin is now Tim Drake, replacing Dick Grayson who has become Nightwing in the gap between shows. While the wonderful Sins of the Father (Rich Fogel) set up Tim Drake’s motivation very confidently in its own right, I did not truly connect with the character until this episode, where his friendship with Annie takes him on a path to confronting Clayface, and a tragic realization about his friend. The twist towards the end, which I won’t spoil here, was a complete gut-punch to me, in that incredible way the DCAU seemingly specialized in.

You Scratch My Back (Hilary J. Bader) was not the first episode to introduce the older Dick Grayson, but it did feature Nightwing for the first time. Motivated by striking out on his own, being his own man, Dick Grayson establishes himself as a solo hero – and teams up with Catwoman. The pair bonds over Batman’s strictness, and Nightwing is established as a fun, capable hero. The sexual tension with Catwoman is fantastic, as is the dynamic between Dick and the rest of the bat-family. In the end, it’s revealed the schism between him and his mentor isn’t as deep as they’d put on, and while the twist isn’t as radically unexpected as Growing Pains, it’s just good-clean-superhero fun.

Legends of the Dark Knight (Robert Goodman and Bruce Timm) is told from the perspective of three children discussing Batman, and their different encounters with him or stories they’ve heard. The episode becomes an excuse to go through many of the most famous portrayals of Batman in the media, as well as the different ways he is perceived by the public. It ranges from him being a metahuman, a light version that is a nod to 40s and 50s version of the character, and Miller’s “Dark Knight Returns” take. There is even a nod to the Schumacher Batman! In the end, after all the children have told of their version of Batman, they actually witness the true Batman in action – and once again, go away believing the same “truths” about the Caped Crusader they started with.

I would be remiss to not mention Mad Love (Paul Dini and Bruce Timm), the famous story that reveals the origin of Harley Quinn. I definitely like the episode, and it is a great characterization of both her and the Joker, but the Batman-light episode was not actually my favorite. That being said, its contribution of an important story, later adapted to the main Batman mythos is beyond question. I also really enjoyed Beware the Creeper (Steve Garber), a genuinely odd story with a very strange superhero. His origin mirrors that of the Joker, except this time the Clown Prince of Crime himself is responsible for the transformation – it should be no surprise, then, that the Creeper is both driven mad, and placed on a path of vengeance against the Joker. He makes another appearance in the Justice League cartoon, however, indicating that as teased at the end of the episode, his career as a superhero went beyond mere revenge.

Finally, my absolute favorite episode of the series (and one of my favorite Batman stories ever) is Over the Edge (Paul Dini). Throwing us into the action with Gordon and the police attacking the Bat-Cave and later flashing back to explain how we got there, it places the Commissioner on a war path against the Dark Knight. The story of the two friends turned against one another by a tragic death is awesomely believable and heart-wrenching. Typically, I would not be for a story that turns out to not be in-continuity, especially the way that is explained here… Except that here, it works completely. The trick allows the show’s creators to do something that so often provides the best superhero stories, but is generally not allowed due to their serialized nature – the end story. Or at least one possible end. One walks away from the episode realizing that this is entirely one that Batman’s story could end, that a single tragic move could put the entire Bat-family on an irreversible path. And that is not even the end of the episode, which ends with a fantastic character moment for both Jim and Barbara Gordon. It’s truly great superhero storytelling – and absolutely remarkably told in only 22 minutes. Anyone remotely interested in storytelling should study this episode simply for a lesson in economy.

DCAU_batsuits

Finally, of course, there are the character designs. The Batsuits on the right show the general progression of the costumes throughout the DCAU, and the TNBA version is the one labelled 1997-1998. While I love the the original version, I ultimately have to concede that the pure-black symbol and the darker grey suit works well, and I like the pouches better than the older style belt. The eyes on the costume were so very expressive in the original version, though… I would definitely say that aspect, at least, was and remains my favorite in the original version. I recognize why the white eyes cannot truly work in live-action, mostly because of the way they move, on the mask, in a way that is only available in cartoons, to match emotion in a completely unrealistic way… But I can’t help but be bummed they couldn’t figure out a way to do it in the new suit. Speaking of which… see the first color picture of the new cowl below!

Batfleck

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DCAU 3: Superman: The Animated Series


STAS

There’s no way around it – Superman: The Animated Series is just not as good. It’s not even worse – it’s just that the subject matter, as cool as it is, is, ultimately lends itself far less easily to serious or emotional storytelling. I’m not saying Superman can’t be dramatic – he absolutely can be, and he actually sometimes is in the series. The scope in the series, however, is so wildly inconsistent – ranging from street crime to the cosmic, that I simply never really felt I got a grasp of the intended tone of the series, which left me floundering from one episode to the next.

Superman is somewhat de-powered here, which is actually a positive – his power level has always been variable, and this allowed some more tension when squaring off again an opponent. But the traditional problem of Superman being effectively unkillable and unstoppable remained, despite the fact that the writers came up with plenty of creative ways to provide credible threats to him, as well as inventive ways for Superman to get out of them. Not even because Superman is impossibly fast, but because we actually don’t know how fast he really is. In the first few episodes, when Clark discovers his powers, he’s seen as just a streak when he runs at top speed. There’s even an episode, Speed Demons (which coincidentally introduced the Flash to the DCAU) where he races Wally West around the earth 100 times. I was very surprised, therefore, to rarely see the effect used later in the series. He’s occasionally seen chasing cars, for example, and while he doesn’t necessarily have trouble with them, he does not just zoom down in the blink of an eye and stop them immediately, either. I can see, of course, why this is done, but it does hinder drama. Despite the fact that we know it’s  cartoon where the hero will ultimately prevail, it is more exciting to see Batman trying to make a jump, run fast enough, or hit hard enough. Not because the Man of Steel is super-powered, but because we can’t rely on hard limits for his powers. This inconsistency ended up being one of the major problems I had with the series, as a whole.

I also simply did not enjoy watching Superman fight very much in this series. I understand that Clark Kent is not any kind of martial artist, so the fact that his fighting style is very simply is justified in-world, but there are only so many haymakers I can watch him through before it gets simply boring. When he comes up against physical opponents, therefore, it rather quickly becomes a rather uninteresting episode – not to mention the fact that very few of them could even stand up against him before first softening him up with kryptonite (as is the case with Metallo).

This is not to say that I did not enjoy the series as a whole. I did love some of the multi-part episodes. I thought the first few, that established Superman’s origins, managed to bring a few new aspects to the story than I’d seen elsewhere, as well as being simply really genuinely exciting. In fact, even the existence of an origin story is a pretty major contrast to many of the other heroes in the DCAU – we do see origin stories for a few of them, but many of them (most notably Batman) are simply first shown as established crime-fighters. Even the first season also contains over-arching stories and buildup to the confrontation with Braniac, and the coming Darkseid in a way that was not at all present in many of the other shows on DCAU (Justice League Unlimited returned to a similar format a decade later).

 

Many of my favorite episodes were ones that had Superman team up with other superheroes, allowing him to work as part of a team. I cannot quite put my finger on why, but I really like him as part of a team, as is later seen in the Justice League shows. Something about him racing Flash, helping a young Green Lantern deal with his new powers (In Brightest Day…, DCAU’s only real appearance by Kyle Rayner), or leaving his comfort zone to confront magic with an unwilling Doctor Fate (The Hand of Fate) is simply consistently more enjoyable than having him be on his own. This is tripled by the multi-part World’s Finest episode, which featured great characterizations for both Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent – the scene where the two recognize each other, through different means, is nothing short of fantastic.

The cosmic episodes typically worked well.  That side of the DCAU was only explored by STAS, and JL and JLU, and it really worked with Superman. While those episodes were also not consistently fantastic, the Apokalips-themed eps, such as Apokalips… Now!  and Legacy were generally very strong.

I also enjoyed the episodes that were more conceptual or had a twist on the usual storytelling. The Late Mr. Kent, for example not only featured a very touching funeral for the mild-mannered reporter, but one of the very first real dangers for Superman’s secret identity.

Generally my favorite aspects of the show, however, dealt with established parts of the character’s history and tropes, some of them rather surprisingly gleefully embracing inherent silliness of the concepts. A perfect example is Mxyzpixilated, which could have been unbearably boring and silly, and actually ended up really fun, in a classic fairy-tale sort of way. Bizarro episodes were similarly enjoyable, with sufficient pathos for the deformed villain.

Much of the voice-acting is really good, but the true stand-out for me is Clancy Brown as Lex Luthor, who brings real gravity to the character’s villainy. His range – from complete sophistication to growling hatred – is truly remarkable.

DCAU 1: Thoughts After Finishing the DC Animated Universe

DC Animated UniverseJust like that, over a year and a half after first watching On Leather Wings, I am done watching the entire DC Animated Universe. Started on September 5th, 1992, the expansive series spanned 14 years, including 21 seasons of television, 4 animated features, a short, and 2 web-series (not including the various comics and video games, which I have not, for the most part, delved in yet). The collaboration between Bruce Timm and Paul Dini birthed a universe which was not only the best adaptation many of the DC characters will ever see, but brought about characters which were, since then, adapted into the main DC continuity – many of them women. Nora Fries, Harley Quinn, Renee Montoya, Livewire, and Mercy Graves all make the world of Batman and Superman richer to this day. Not to mention the heavyweight addition – Terry McGinnis, who has recently made his first New 52 appearance in Future’s End.

Bruce Timm and Paul Dini brought an unprecedented coherence to DC. While its continuity has always been scattered, through various crises and events, the universe beginning with Batman: The Animated Series and ending with Justice League Unlimited was not only generally consistent in its art style, but with its characters. While the tone of each show was definitely not the same, one could rely on the fact that Superman appearing in Justice League, Batman Beyond, or his own series, would generally fit within the confines of the same character. It allowed writers to take us through stories that are both reflections of classical tales, and completely modern takes on familiar characters (or even brand new characters) while streamlining origins and histories. Similarly to Marvel’s Ultimate line, this was a bottle universe – much more approachable, and much more streamlined in terms of vision.

Then, of course, there was the animation. A few notably terrible episodes aside (Superman’s Pal springs to mind, which was horrid, and by Bruce Timm’s own admission, the worst in the DCAU), the animation really was rather wonderful. This began, of course, with the style of Bruce Timm, and the wonderful pilot he created in 1991 to sell the series:

Overall, very little changed when it was picked up for series. You can instantly see the animation is fluid, and the designs are so wonderfully consistent that you don’t question any of the characters as being a part of the world for a second. Bruce Timm went for a art deco inspired look, where the cars, architecture, and clothing looks like something from the 40s. The modern technology combined with a retro style  (Timm was strongly inspired by the 1940s Fleischer cartoons) defined the DCAU throughout, despite the fact that unlike Gotham, other places in the world did not seem to share the fascination with the 40s look.

Another aspect was, of course, the decision that to portray the Dark Knight in a dark enough style, it would be painted on black paper. This did not remain to be the case throughout the production of the show (by The New Batman Adventures, the technique was abandoned entirely), but that was only when they figured out how to reproduce the look using regular paper. The paint they had to use to paint on black paper evidently was very toxic, and had to be sprayed.

What is wrong with them?

What is wrong with them?

I started watching the 90s X-Men: The Animated Series this week, after finishing the DCAU, and although that show and Batman: The Animated Series began at the same time, the difference in animation quality is incomparable – the movement is stiff. It seems, at times, to simply be poorly edited. Cyclops’ abs look like boobs affixed to his abdomen. I realised after a few episodes that the quality didn’t bother me when I watched the show as a kid – I’ve simply been spoiled, in no small part by the fantastic art in the DCAU.

As is always the case after finishing watching/reading/playing something huge and really great, the feeling at the end is disbelief. I always had more to watch, for the past year and a half, it’s really strange being done. And while the final episode was really cool, I was hoping for… I don’t know what. Something else. Bigger, more meaningful. In all honesty, and I’ll talk about this when I get to the Justice League Unlimited article, I wish it would have ended with something more like the end of season 2, Epilogue – quiet. Contained. Meaningful, character-driven, and emotional. The series were full of such moments, and they made the shows unique. As it stands, for something that ran for 14 years and produced the greatest superhero animation – or even greatest superhero fiction – of all time, a giant battle, satisfying as it was, did not cut it.

I watched the show primarily in production order, in full seasons, switching between shows when they were running concurrently. This was somewhat arbitrary, to be sure, but it allowed me to get the general idea of the franchise’s evolution while keeping it relatively simple, while not breaking the streaks of watching full seasons. I would throw in the feature films in between seasons where I saw fit. I generally tried to break it up so I wouldn’t have to watch two seasons of the same show in a row to break monotony. My viewing order will be at the bottom of the article.

I’ll do a series of articles on each of the shows in the DCAU, highlighting some of my favourite/odd moments. Some of the shows were definitely tougher to get through than others, but they all added something of value to the overall franchise. I’ll go through the shows and highlight moments that stood out as great, poor, or just interesting.

Batman: The Animated Series Season 1 (1992-1993)

Batman: Mask of Phantasm (1993)

Batman: The Animated Series Season 2 (The Adventures of Batman & Robin) (1994-1995)

Superman: The Animated Series Season 1 (1996-1997)

Superman: The Animated Series Season 2 (1997-1998)

The New Batman Adventures Season 1 (1997-1999)

Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero (1998)

Superman: The Animated Series Season 3 (1998-1999)

Batman Beyond Season 1 (1999)

Superman: The Animated Series Season 4 (1999-2000)

Batman Beyond Season 2 (1999-2000)

Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker (2000)

Gotham Girls Season 1 (2000)

Lobo Season 1 (2000)

Static Shock Season 1 (2000-2001)

Batman Beyond Season 3 (2000-2001)

The Zeta Project Season 1 (2001)

Gotham Girls Season 2 (2001)

Justice League Season 1 (2001-2002)

Static Shock Season 2 (2002)

The Zeta Project Season 2 (2002)

Gotham Girls Season 3 (2002)

Batman: Mystery of Batwoman (2003)

Chase Me (2003)

Static Shock Season 3 (2003)

Justice League Season 2 (2003-2004)

Static Shock Season 4 (2004)

Justice League Unlimited Season 1 (2004-2005)

Justice League Unlimited Season 2 (2005)

Justice League Unlimited Season 3 (2005-2006)