It would be an impossible task to live up to "Batman: The Animated Series" and its various later incarnations. Not only has the series, which ran throughout the 1990s, been hailed by fans as the definitive representation of the Dark Knight, but it also ranks among the very best television series (animated or otherwise) ever aired.
So when the folks at Warner Bros. Animation decided to put together an all-new Batman series to tie in with the impending release of "Batman Begins," they made the daring but ultimately wise choice of completely revamping the world of Bruce Wayne, at least in terms of style and presentation. "The Batman," which debuted in September 2004 on the Kids WB!, played out as something of a "Young Batman Adventures," with the episodes focusing on the Dark Knight's earliest years as a superhero. The deep, raspy voice of Kevin Conroy (who took the lead role in the 1990s series, and who still voices Batman on Cartoon Network's "Justice League") was replaced with Rino Romano, a thirtysomething voiceover veteran who sounds like he's in his early twenties. Commissioner Gordon is nowhere to be seen; instead, we get two young detectives who are always on Batman's trail - and in a nifty twist, one of them is Bruce Wayne's best friend. Robin is also absent, Bruce has yet to get a handle on how to be Batman and run Wayne Industries, and the Rogues Gallery of villains are only beginning to emerge.
The most notable change is the stylistic choice to loosen up the storytelling, with a far heavier focus here on action and fantasy. "The Batman" is above all else a series that skews younger than its predecessors; taking a cue from the success of anime in grade schools across the nation, the series' producers push the action sequences above all else. In some episodes, fight scenes and chases take up an entire third, or more, of the running time.
Accent is also placed on gadgets (Batman's "Bat Wave" is a pre-Bat Signal pager-like device that flashes when crime's afoot), alternate costumes (Batman faces off against Mr. Freeze in a souped-up arctic gear Batsuit), and anything else that might translate well into toy sales. Which is neat for the kids, but it takes up too much screen time, forcing into the background the character development and intelligent drama that made the older series such a hit with fans of all ages.
Since all this tinkering was taking place, the producers felt that now would be a perfect time to also revamp the famous villains. The Joker is now a big guy, far more athletic than we've ever seen him before, his bare feet allowing him to climb and kick with ease. The Penguin is still short, birdlike, and obnoxious, but this time, he's a kung fu expert with two silent female assassins (with scissor-like blades on their fingers) at his side. Mr. Freeze, not a scientist but a petty thief, now shoots ice from his hands - no ice gun is necessary.
These changes might work for the tone of the series, but they're a bit much for the lifelong fan to take. Indeed, when I first started watching "The Batman," I found myself thoroughly underwhelmed, bored by the frantic action, lamenting the absence of more engaging storylines.
Revisiting the series, however, I've come to like it. Now knowing what to expect has helped with the adjustment. Yes, it still has its many problems - mainly, most of the villain revamps come off as too silly (and the writers rely on the Joker and Penguin way too much in the early episodes) - but it also has so much going for it. For starters, the animation is breathtaking, the combination of influences (the series borrows as much from the sleek 1990s cartoons as it does from recent anime) resulting in a eye-popping visual style that's a true joy to watch. And as with its predecessor, "The Batman" relies on a healthy dose of impressive guest stars, including Tom Kenny, Gina Gershon, Peter MacNicol, Clancy Brown, Jason Marsden, Udo Kier, Edie McClurg, Glenn Shadix, Fred Willard, Dan Castellaneta, John Di Maggio, and yes, even Adam West, who stars here as the mayor of Gotham City. Combine this with a top notch regular cast and you've got a series that matches Warner Brothers' usual high level of quality.
And while some episodes sputter under the weight of too much action, when the show gets it right, it really gets it right. There's always at least one great moment in each show, if only something little (often in the form of banter between Bruce and his cop pal, or a comment from Alfred the butler). Sometimes, an entire episode can shine from start to finish, as with "Q & A," which finds a former game show contestant seeking revenge on the show's producers, or "The Clay Face of Tragedy," which completely reinvents the bad guy Clay Face, with unexpectedly gripping results.
So maybe all this series needed was some time to work its way out of the shadow of its legendary forerunner, to find a way to make a name for itself. It may be a clunky start, but once the viewer can shake the memories of the 1990s series, there seems to be a whole lot of promise in this new version.
Warner Bros. has released two volumes of episodes previously, with three episodes apiece (totaling the first six episodes of the season). Seeing as they never got around to the rest of season one, "The Batman: The Complete First Season" seems to be the one to get, while those who purchased "The Batman: Volume 1 - Training For Power" or "The Batman: Volume 2 - The Man Who Would Be Bat" have been royally gypped.
The episodes included in this two-disc season one collection are:
Disc one: "The Bat In the Belfry," "Traction," "Call of the Cobblepot," "The Man Who Would Be Bat," "The Big Chill," "The Cat and the Bat," "The Big Heat," and "Q & A."
Disc two: "Big Dummy," "Topsy Turvy," "Bird of Prey," "The Rubber Face of Comedy," and "The Clay Face of Tragedy."
The superb animation gets a pristine presentation here, looking better than it ever did on TV. Nice use of colors and shadow, this set knows what the series' best feature is, and it flaunts it. Presented in the series' original 1.33:1 aspect ratio.
While diehard fans and techheads might wish for a surround mix to show off the action soundtrack (or, at least, the brilliant theme song, written and performed by U2's The Edge), the 2.0 Dolby Digital stereo track is good enough to get the job done. Deep, rich audio that gets the most from the source. Spanish and French soundtracks are also available, both in Dolby 2.0. Optional English, Spanish, and French subtitles are available.
The only new extra here is a short feature titled "New Look, New Direction, New Knight," in which the series' creators defend their many changes. Their genuine excitement for the project helps sell their argument, and they manage to get a lot covered in just a few minutes. Granted, it would have been better to feature these people on a commentary track or two (if for nothing else than to give them more time).
All other features are leftovers from the previous two DVD releases, and all are pointless fluff. The biggest of these is "Building the Batman," a six-minute tour of Mattel's action figure design offices. It's cute (it's hosted by Detective Yin, who's looking for Batman, and no, the toy designers haven't seen him, ha ha), and kids will get a kick out of seeing how toys are designed - but it's all little more than an overlong commercial for the new Batman action figure line.
Next up are two "Junior Detective" quizzes - presented here, oddly enough, with Level 2 listed before Level 1. One would expect an interactive feature, but no: the quiz simply plays straight through, with Alfred and Batman reading the questions and multiple choice answers, then announcing the answer immediately, allowing no time for a young viewer to ponder the choices. (The DVD cover states that getting to the end of these unlocks DVD-ROM features, but if it does, I did not find them.)
"Gotham PD Case Files" is a rundown of all the characters seen in season one. Unlike other Warner Brothers DVD releases, which has these "files" as an interactive feature (you pick which hero/villain you want to study), this one simply plays straight through.
"The Batman: Big Chill" is an interactive game, but a fairly boring one: press "right" or "left" on your remote to dodge Mr. Freeze's ice zaps. Even for youngsters, it gets old quickly.
The DVD cover also lists "Create Your Own Villain" as a final "cool challenge," but I didn't find it anywhere on either disc, nor did I find it on the DVD-ROM.
While the extras are embarrassingly lacking (they most likely wouldn't thrill a grade schooler beyond a first visit), and while the series is no match for the previous Batman cartoons, this season set is still worth picking up. If nothing else, it allows those who purchased the earlier two DVDs to complete the season. But more than that, it allows for the Batfan to see the Caped Crusader from a new angle, with gorgeous animation being the main draw (no pun intended). Besides, the low price is helpful to both the completist fan and parents of a fans in the making. Recommended.