After Batman: The Animated Series wrapped up its long, successful run on Fox, a revised version of the series -- with most of the same talent in tow -- popped
up as part of the animation block on Kids' WB. This half of The New Batman/Superman Adventures, unofficially nicknamed Gotham Knights, isn't just more of the same, though.
Although the general look of Batman: The Animated Series is still in place, many of the character designs have been revamped, making them sharper, more angular, and somewhat stripped down. Sometimes the changes worked; The Scarecrow is a much more ominous, disturbing figure now, and I like the exaggerated, deranged look of The Mad Hatter. Others didn't fare so well, especially the much blander looking Riddler, and I have mixed feelings about the older, frailer Jim Gordon and the beady-eyed look of the Joker. One of the more distinctive changes is that the yellow moon on Batman's chest is gone, an alteration that makes it easy to distinguish one of these episodes from the previous animated incarnation.
One aspect of Batman: The Animated Series that has always impressed me is that even though it was a weekday afternoon cartoon based on a popular comic book character, it didn't pander to a younger audience. Rewatching the box sets Warner has issued over the past year and a half,
I find myself as engaged by them now in my mid-twenties as I was when I first saw them half a lifetime ago. Gotham Knights skews younger, unnecessarily zooming in on certain signs and objects, overexplaining things in case the kids watching don't follow, and often sticking to blander and more straightforward stories. Comic book action is generally emphasized over the sorts of stories Batman: The Animated Series used to tell, largely devoid of the depth and tragedy its characters once boasted. Batgirl and a new, younger Robin are shoehorned into almost every episode, and that occasionally drags the show down too.
It's a odd mix because even though many of the stories seem geared towards a younger audience, the censors have lightened up, so the villains can use words like 'murder' and 'kill' more freely, its female characters (especially Harley Quinn) are less subtle with the sexual innuendo, and there's even a little blood. Batman himself is a much colder character, showing little of the heart from Batman: The Animated Series and even doing appalling things like mercilessly beating a flunkie in front of his family for information. That's not a patently incorrect interpretation of the Dark Knight, but nothing's shown on-screen to lead up to that sort of dramatic change, so it really doesn't ring true.
As much of a rabid fan of Batman: The Animated Series as I am, watching these episodes was much more of an effort than the other Batman box sets. Many of them just don't match up to the same standards of B:TAS, such as the overly rushed "Chemistry", where Bruce Wayne (along with most of Gotham's elite) is swept off his feet, the big bugs and cow monsters of "Critters", the single most hated episode of the entire run of the show, and "The Demon Within" and its over-reliance on magic, something that seems sorely out of place in a series like Batman. Still, instead of just griping and griping about the episodes I didn't like, I'd rather highlight the ones that I
think make this box set worth buying.
"Bruce Wayne! Stop where you are!" Those are the first words in "Over the Edge", one of my favorite episodes of any of Batman's animated incarnations, shouted by Commissioner Gordon as his men spray gunfire throughout the Batcave in a frantic chase against Batman and Robin. It's a dark, unflinchingly brutal story about loss and betrayal, showing the Dark Knight at his lowest point with his identity exposed and facing greater adversity than he ever has before. It almost pains me to speak in such vague, general terms, but as much as I want to keep talking about what an impressive, powerful episode this is, I really don't want to spoil any of the shocks for anyone who hasn't seen it before. Batman fans owe it to themselves to at least rent this box set just for this episode, if nothing else.
It's not all dark and dour, though. Another favorite is "Joker's Millions", which opens with the Joker struggling with his finances. Robots, hyena chow, Joker venom, and overly elaborate death traps aren't cheap, but he gets an unexpected windfall when a dead mobster leaves the flat-broke Joker a quarter-billion dollars in his will. The Joker goes on a spastic spending spree, bribing everyone in sight into wiping his criminal record clean, but...whoops. There's a catch, of course, and the Joker's not the one who gets the last laugh.
the Joker also take center-stage in "Mad Love", an episode penned by Paul Dini that was later spun off by DC into a graphic novel. "Mad Love" takes a look at how ambitious, straightlaced psychiatrist Harlene Quinzel could become infatuated with a psychotic madman like the Joker. The Joker's far more interested in cobbling together some sort of complicated trap to knock off Batsy than fooling around with his eager-to-please henchwoman, so she tries to get her puddin's attention by rehashing one of his unused schemes and getting rid of Batman once and for all. This is the sort of character-centric episode that I thought really defined Batman: The Animated Series, and "Mad Love" ranks with the best of the series. Even if you aren't a Harley Quinn fan now, you should be after watching this episode.
|Two very different incarnations of Batman from "Legends of the Dark Knight"|
"Legends of the Dark Knight" is another personal favorite, paying homage to some of Batman's different incarnations over the decades. Dick Sprang gets the first nod in a segment with Batman duking it out with the Joker in a music museum with all of the puns, oversized props, and four-color action you'd expect from a Golden Age comic, followed up by a deeply impressive segment with Frank Miller's hulking, fifty-something Batman squaring off against an army of mutants in the future. The side story with a few kids getting tangled up in an arson-for-hire gig with Firefly doesn't stack up to the rest of the episode, but who cares?
There are a few other episodes worth pointing out. "Girls' Night Out" is set with both Batman and Superman out of town, leaving Batgirl and Supergirl to square off against Harley, Poison Ivy, and electrifying Supes-villain Livewire. Dick Grayson, the original Robin, has struck out on his own as Nightwing, and he's highlighted several times -- first in "You Scratch My Back", which teams him with Catwoman, much to Batman's chagrin, and again in "Old Wounds", where Grayson tells Batgirl why he could no longer fight alongside the Dark Knight. The episodes on this box set also introduce The Creeper, the demon Etrigan, and Firefly to the animated series, along with a heavily revised version of Calendar Man, who was changed drastically enough that not even his gender was left intact. Villains like Two Face, The Mad Hatter, Catwoman, Clayface, Mr. Freeze, The Scarecrow, The Ventriloquist, Bane, Killer Croc, Baby Doll, and, briefly, The Riddler also return to torment Gotham again.
Although many of its 24 episodes are forgettable, this fourth and final volume of Batman's animated adventures also collects some of the best the series has to offer. It's kind of a bitter pill recommending a set that runs $30-$35 when I only really like around a third of the episodes on here, but the best of these episodes really are good enough to deserve it.
Video: This newer incarnation of Batman: The Animated Series looks a good bit crisper and cleaner than the episodes in the other three box sets. There's some mild aliasing, the animation generally lacks the stunning fluidity often seen in Batman: The Animated Series, and some of the compression doesn't look all that stellar when splashed across a big-screen HDTV, but the full-frame video looks decent enough.
Audio: The stereo audio -- provided
in English and French -- continues to sound fantastic. The voice acting comes through with crystal clarity, and the numerous explosions, gunshots, and colliding fists are accompanied by such a low-frequency wallop that it's almost hard to believe that there's not a dedicated LFE channel. These four discs are closed captioned and also offer subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.
Supplements: Each of the DVDs in this four-disc set has some sort of extra, beginning with the 'Interactive Arkham Asylum' -- a collection of interviews with the animated series' creative team that gives fans further insight into Batman's rogue's gallery -- on disc one.
Producers Bruce Timm and Paul Dini, art director Glen Murakami, storyboard artist James Tucker, and, for all but one of the tracks, director Dan Riba also contribute several audio commentaries. Two of them are for fan favorites "Over the Edge" and "Legends of the Dark Knight", and the other...well, isn't.
For "Critters", the five of them talk about the vastly different reactions to Steve Gerber's story internally, poke fun at the ridiculousness of an episode that pits Batman against a farmer with pterodactyl-like chickens and a talking goat, and compare it to the type of tale the '60s live action show would've churned out. They also have a lot of laughs discussing "Legends of the Dark Knight", pointing out all of the homages (which were sometimes specific down to the panel), how the difficulty in putting all of this together was overcome by a crew fueled by fandom, and how the kids' perception of Batman in the episode is a whole lot more interesting than the 'real' thing. I also enjoyed the commentary on "Over the Edge", my favorite episode of the season and one of the best in any of these four box sets. Among the topics covered are
how the action grew even more brutal over time, Paul Dini taking some inspiration from The Simpsons, of all shows, and questioning Alfred's...ummm...bedside manner?
Oh, and a bunch of trailers for other animated Warner releases are piled onto the fourth and final disc too.
When playing all of the episodes on a disc consecutively, viewers are prompted to choose between the opening sequences from the original Batman: The Animated Series and The New Batman/Superman Adventures. When played individually, the episodes default to the Batman: The Animated Series clip. These episodes also have chapter stops for the first time -- previous sets gave each episode one and only one chapter, but now they're divided into several, which is appreciated.
Each disc includes a set of 16x9 animated menus, and the packaging is similar to the previous sets in the collection, although the art has been updated to match the revised character designs. I don't remember seeing a sticker or anything on the shrinkwrap saying so, but my copy came with a small lithograph cel of a shot of the Caped Crusader from The Batman-Superman Movie inside too.
Conclusion: This box set is the least essential of the four animated Batman collections, but the handful of truly outstanding episodes make this volume difficult for fans of the series to pass up. Recommended.
By the way, keep an eye on the newspapers in "Love Is a Croc" for a kinda funny jab at DVD from back in the days before the format really took off.