after Batman: The Animated Series came to a close, Gotham City is without a protector. Failing health and a chilling act of desperation prompted Bruce Wayne to give up Batman's cape and cowl, and the corporation that had stayed in his family for generations has been wrest from him by a corporate raider named Derek Powers. Never married and abandoned by his sidekicks, the elderly, embittered Wayne lurks inside a sprawling mansion that seems more like a mausoleum than the stately manor of old. Derek Powers is using the remnants of WayneCorp to illegally manufacture an endlessly destructive but extremely profitable nerve gas, a secret that Wayne/Powers employee Warren McGinnis stumbles upon and pays for with his life. His troubled son Terry blames himself for the murder, but a chance encounter with Bruce Wayne results in the theft of a Batman suit brimming with cutting-edge technology and the revelation of the man truly responsible for his father's death. By the time the two-part episode "Rebirth" is over, Bruce Wayne has agreed to guide Terry as the new Batman, and an irradiated Derek Powers is a walking fusion reactor.
And to think Batman Beyond was created as a shameless ploy to bring in really young viewers and sell 'em action figures. I think I cringed the first time I heard the concept -- how could a cartoon about a teenaged Batman set in the far-flung future possibly be any good? It is, though, an accomplishment that's all the more impressive since so much of Batman Beyond was created from the ground-up. Batman: The Animated Series, Superman, and Justice League all drew heavily from the established mythos, but Batman Beyond is a largely original creation. Sure, there are quite a few nods to the original series -- it's still set in Gotham City, Barbara Gordon has taken the mantle of police commissioner (and is none too fond of Bruce or the idea of another Batman skulking around Gotham), and there are winks to fans like the Grey Ghost costume in the Batcave. The similarities pretty much begin and end there, though.
Terry McGinnis is a very different lead character than Bruce Wayne was in Batman: The Animated Series. In the previous series, it seemed more as if Batman was who this man really was and Bruce Wayne was just an occasionally
convenient mask for him to wear. Terry is seen out of costume much more frequently than Bruce ever was and feels like more of a fleshed-out character. He has friends, he has family, and he has a life outside of the pointy-eared hood.
Gotham City is still teeming with bad guys, but even though Batman has been transplanted to the future, he's not squaring off against Joker II or The Riddler Redux. The rogue's gallery of this futuristic Batman doesn't lift much from the previous animated series or even from the comics. The only familiar faces are Mr. Freeze, The Royal Flush Gang, and, briefly and unrecognizably, Bane. The other villains are original creations with some striking character designs, such as the amorphous corporate saboteur Inque, sound-engineer-with-a-power-suit Shriek, and the hypnotic Spellbound. This season also doesn't rehash the same villains over and over again, with Inque being the only badnik other than Derek Powers' Blight to strike more than once.
Several of the supervillains aren't costumed-threats-of-the-week, but ordinary people in extraordinary situations: Willie Watt in "Golem" is a nerdy high schooler who seizes control of a two-story-tall construction robot to exact revenge on the bullies who torment him, and "The Winning Edge" is about high school athletes using steroids yet deftly avoids playing like 'a very special episode of Batman Beyond'. One thing Batman's adversaries, costumed and plainclothes alike, have in common is their origins. Nearly all of the villains in Batman Beyond are born of tragedy or greed, and that gives these episodes more of a resonance than something like The Joker pumping Gotham City with laughing gas for no reason in particular.
If you'd like a list of episodes or plot synopses, there are a slew of episode guides online (I'd recommend the one on World's Finest), but I do
feel like I should highlight a couple of the stand-outs from this season. With Derek Powers' condition worsening, it's proposed that maybe a healthy, normal clone could be made of his irradiated body, but the process would need to be tested on someone with similarly damaged DNA first. The subject...? Victor Fries. This isn't the same cold, heartless monster from Batman: The Animated Series; when Fries is transplanted into a new body and can live a normal life again, he seems genuinely horrified by the deeds of his past and does his best to make reparations for what he'd done. Driven in part by Powers' machinations when the guinea pig's usefulness as a living subject fades away, Fries inevitably reverts to old form. "Meltdown" is to Batman Beyond what "Heart of Ice", one of my all-time favorites, is to Batman: The Animated Series.
Another stand-out is "Shriek", pitting Batman against an enemy whose technology enables him to manipulate sound. One of the most inventive sequences in the entire run of the series is set in a car factory where Batman starts setting off every piece of equipment in arm's reach as a distraction. Shriek uses his technology to block out the noise and isolate Batman's movements, resulting in an almost entirely silent battle with no dialogue, few sound effects, and a sparse, subtle score.
This first season of Batman Beyond is remarkably consistent, offering perhaps the strongest debut of any DC animated series to date (in stark contrast to early episodes of Batman: The Animated Series like "The Underdwellers", "Be a Clown", and "I've Got Batman in My Basement" or the stiff, largely awkward first season of Justice League). Some episodes are better than others, but there's not a real disappointment in this thirteen episode collection. ("Heroes", an homage to the Fantastic Four, is the weakest of the bunch but really isn't that bad overall.) It's a delicate balancing act that Batman Beyond strikes, but the talent never stumbles. The writing's sharp, avoiding condescending to younger viewers while still keeping the stories accessible enough to pretty much anyone who'd care to watch. The series careens by at a breakneck pace and is overflowing with action without being vapid. The character designs and futuristic look of Gotham are as impressive as the dark-deco designs of Batman: The Animated Series, and the voice acting and music are flawless. The first season of Batman Beyond is a smartly written adrenaline rush, and fans of the previous animated series left wanting more should strongly consider picking up
this two-disc set.
Video: Batman Beyond is nearly ten years old now, so the show was still put together with cels, film, and all that other stuff Saturday morning animation has since shrugged off. That means it doesn't have the same digital sheen as a more recent series like Justice League -- there's some slight speckling, and the texture of the film grain is unavoidable -- but these episodes still look a good bit sharper on DVD than when they were originally broadcast, and that's all that really matters. The first eight minutes or so of "Rebirth" are unusually soft, but it looked the same way on the 1999 Batman Beyond: The Movie DVD, so maybe there's just something about the way that episode was produced.
Audio: Batman Beyond's spectacular action sequences and booming techno-rock soundtrack cry out for a 5.1 remix, but the 2.0 stereo surround tracks on these DVDs still pack a pretty throaty wallop. Even with the music screaming from the rear speakers, thunderous explosions, and all that fun stuff, the voice acting doesn't ever get buried in the mix, remaining crisp and clear throughout. There are no alternate soundtracks, but these thirteen episodes are closed captioned and also sport subtitles in Spanish and French.
Supplements: The first disc serves up audio commentaries with Bruce Timm, Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, Glenn Murakami, and Curt Geda on two episodes. Their comments on "Rebirth: Part 1" are anchored less around the episode than the series in general, chatting about the look of Batman Beyond and the network's hope for a more kid-oriented series. The five of them are joined by writer Stan Berkowitz on "Shriek", one of the best episodes on this set, where the conversation mostly revolves around the villains' unusual character designs, the voice actors' other credits, and the extremely memorable stretch of this episode that's almost completely silent. They're both really great commentaries, and I wish there were more of them on this set.
Even if that's it for their audio commentaries for this round, Alan Burnett, Bruce Timm, Glenn Murakami, and Paul Dini pop up again on disc two for "Inside Batman Beyond". This nine and a half minute interview has them talking about how the concept for the series was made up off-the-cuff and got a green light in the space of a single meeting, some of the original titles that were tossed around for the show, and the evolution of their Gotham City into a world that's futuristic while still relatable. Like the audio commentaries, this interview feels as if it's just barely nicked the surface, and I really
would've liked to have heard more. Oh well...maybe next time.
Finally, eleven minutes worth of scenes from "Meltdown", "Dead Man's Hand", "Spellbound", and "Disappearing Inque" are presented with an isolated score to show off the impressive blend of orchestral, rock, and techno music composed for the series. Bruce Timm provides a minute-long introduction to this segment as well.
The DVD features a set of 16x9 animated menus based on the series' title sequence. These episodes are each offered as a single chapter stop which is a little bit of a drag, but at least they can be viewed individually or played all at once. It's also worth noting that the two-parter "Rebirth" is presented as two separate episodes as opposed to the single, seamless forty-minute block on the Batman Beyond: The Movie DVD. This two-disc set is packaged in a box that's even slimmer than Warner's old snapper cases. The digipak slides out of a slipcase and opens to reveal an episode list on one flap and the two overlapping DVDs on the other. Very neat. Extremely thin.
Conclusion: Batman Beyond is one of my favorite animated incarnations of the Dark Knight, taking some of the best elements of Batman: The Animated Series and transplanting them a half-century into the future without betraying what made that series so wonderful. Timm, Dini, and company nail the concept from the first episode, resulting in a series that has a dark edge without being unrelentingly grim and stars a teenage hero without pandering to a younger crowd. I would've liked to have seen more in-depth comments from its creators, but this two-disc set of Batman Beyond collects thirteen strong episodes and boasts a very reasonable sticker price. Highly Recommended.