Monday, May 1, 2017

Happy Batman Day!

Today is "Batman Day." Batman's first appearance was in May 1939, in Detective Comics #27. So...May 1st is Batman Day. To celebrate, I'm telling you about My Favorite Batman. He's also yours. Don't deny it. 
With a character that's been around for nearly 80 years in mainstream media, Batman has seen more iterations than most. My favorite -- the best and longest-lasting version was created by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm in Batman: The Animated Series. It launched in 1992, following on the heels of Batman Returns. That movie seems to have darkened the tone of the cartoon, making it more a psychological exploration of Batman than previously seen. That's a depth that's always been in the comic books, but is hard to capture with a limited amount of screen time. 
They plumbed those depths even further with Batman's rogues, making previously laughable villains like Mr. Freeze into tragic figures. Villains and allies who hadn't been seen in animation before, but were essential to giving Batman the depth he needed to sustain years of a cartoon series. Poison Ivy, Clayface, Ra's Al Ghul, Two-Face, Bane, Nightwing and a new Robin. None had been included in a cartoon before Batman: The Animated Series. They gave Alfred Pennyworth life and personality, and finally got the relationship between Commissioner Gordon and Batman right. Paul Dini even created a few new characters, most notably Harley Quinn. She started out being a sidekick for the Joker, but ended up with a life of her own that’s made her a favorite in the comic books and video games, and even helped the recent Suicide Squad movie. Didn't help it enough, but... 

Batman Villains

Much of the credit for the success and life of these characters comes thanks to Andrea Romano, who cast the voice actors for the series. Kevin Conroy as Batman became my Batman. For all that I liked about Christian Bale’s Batman, every time he talked I winced. Not just because I felt sympathy for his larynx, but because it wasn’t Kevin Conroy. He brought a billionaire playboy’s lightness to Bruce Wayne, and a badassitude to Batman that I hadn’t seen before. More surprising was a Joker voiced by Mark Hamill, who became our new standard to measure Jokers. Looking at the extensive voice cast, from Bob Hastings’ Commissioner Gordon to Richard Moll’s Two-Face and Diane Pershing’s Poison Ivy, they’ve all become the voices of the characters for me. If I’m reading a comic book that has Penguin in it, it’s Paul Williams I hear. Not the “Waugh-waugh!” of Burgess Meredith. Not the growl of Danny Devito. Paul Williams. 
The writers and producers of Batman: The Animated Series had character arcs not just for Batman, but for the other heroes and villains on the show. They introduced Harvey Dent as the district attorney and a friend of Bruce Wayne. We saw a dark side to his character well before he was ever scarred with acid, becoming Two-Face. We see the pain that Bruce Wayne has at losing his friend, along with the superheroing that Batman needs to do to stop him. In the early 1990s, it was unthinkable to spend that much time developing a villain, but in order to have it be a Two-Face that we care about, it was vital that we knew him. I’ve always found it funny that Batman Forever had a Two-Face more cartoony than the actual cartoon. If Joel Schumacher had turned to Batman: The Animated Series for inspiration instead of…wherever he found it, maybe his two Batman movies wouldn’t have sucked so hard. After you’ve seen and heard Michael Ansara’s Mr. Freeze, Arnold Schwarzenegger is an insult to the character. 
The visuals for the series were also groundbreaking. Using the 1940s Max Fleischer Superman cartoons as a touchstone, they made a series that will end up being timeless. There’s a mishmash of time periods that somehow worked. Gotham City is patrolled by police blimps, and the cars on the street are Studebakers. They have computers and sophisticated technology, but they watch black and white television. The visual tone of the series had animators working against backgrounds painted on black boards, instead of the usual white. Going back and rewatching “Batman: The Animated Series” now, there’s a slowness to the animation, but also a film-like fluidity that other TV cartoons lacked. 
There were spinoffs headed up by the same creative teams, including another Batman series, a Superman, and Justice League series. That run of cartoons, from 1992 until 2007, has become my measure of what makes for a good DC Universe movie or television show. The various CW series on right now, including The Flash, Arrow, Supergirl, and Legends of Tomorrow -- they're coming close. WB and DC Comics have an impressive slate of films in the works, but I know that even with my high hopes, I’ll come away disappointed. For Marvel fans and casual fans, the Cinematic Universe is becoming their definitive version of those characters. For me and others of my generation, we’ll watch a DC Comics movie on the big screen and then think, "well, it's okay, but not as good as Batman: The Animated Series." Is it comparing apples and oranges? Sure. But those are some damn good apples. 

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