The Half-Season (Series?):
Ever since Batman: The Animated Series ended nearly twenty years ago, the folks at DC have been chasing success for the Caped Crusader's serialized storytelling, repeatedly trying to discover a lasting televised spark for the iconic universe. When looking at the successes and failures of the futuristic Batman Beyond and the slightly-tweaked world created in The Batman, it's become clear that that there isn't a magic formula for balancing innovative changes and sticking to what's familiar. Beware the Batman, the latest of a rash of DC Universe adaptations from Warner Bros. Animation that's designed to fill the void left by the divisive The Brave and the Bold, pushes the limits while trying to find a balance between originality and familiarity, maintaining the roots of Batman's origin while exploring uncommon ideas for his surroundings -- his sidekick, his enemies, and his loyal butler -- amid computer-generated animation. The result is a flawed but exhilarating revitalization, but one not so easily appreciated on traditionalist levels.
Bruce Wayne himself (dutifully played by Anthony Ruivivar) takes few, if any, hits to his established character in this new take on the exploits of Gotham City, which finds the orphaned billionaire in an era shortly after his initial training and acclimatization to the life of a masked vigilante, neither a reckless rookie nor a veteran with years of wisdom under his belt. The differences in Batman's support structure become some of the defining, contrasting traits of Beware the Batman, first exploring the often hinted-at idea of his guardian and butler, Alfred (JB Blanc), as an ex-MI6 agent with the skills to train and physically assist Bruce. Alfred's proficiency and experience also leads to the reluctant incorporation of a new assistant for Batman: Tatsu Yamashiro (Sumalee Montano), a skilled female martial artist with a past in espionage and ties to a well-known organization in the Batman universe. The training of this Robin proxy, code-named Katana, becomes a central facet of the story as Batman protects the streets of Gotham and evades the police department's manhunt, led by Jim Gordon.
The first thing many will notice about Beware the Batman will be the stylized 3D animation, starkly deviating from its predecessors. A slightly-futuristic, sleek version of Gotham City is rendered for the Dark Knight to protect as tight angular buildings and sparse blasts of lights, vibrant explosions, and energy-weapon shots present an unmistakably comic-bookish atmosphere with nods to previous Gothams, though lacking its signature grittiness. Batman's appearance even takes a different approach, sporting high ears and a sleek suit that looks like an amalgamation of several previous designs, including a little of the original Detective Comics appearance in the cowl. At times, it's an enjoyable departure from the norm, where textures and punchy colors peek out from the depth rendered in the shadowy environment and steady camera angles, but it also cheapens other less-organic sequences with plastic facial movement and emotive eyes. DC clearly wanted the visual tone to stand out, and while it's a mixed bag in terms of execution, the streamlined fusion of old and new does come together into frequent eye-catching bursts of action and dynamic conversation.
Underneath the visual difference, Beware the Batman operates almost beat-for-beat on the same episodic formulas that hallmarked The Animated Series, methodically duplicating its high points with alternate characters and tweaked plots to bolster them. Some might get frustrated with the absence of familiar villains: instead of identifiable faces like The Joker and Catwoman, it unearths a gallery of lesser-known villains -- some will recognize members of the Circus of Strange, namely Professor Pyg and Mr. Toad, and inmates involved in the "Arkham Asylum: Living Hell" book series -- to serve as clever substitutes in this new universe, involving gray-area conflicts built around eco-terrorism, scientific experimentation, and rebelling against order. From the enigmatic Anarky to the mentally-unstable vixen Magpie (ironically and exceptionally played by Grey DeLisle, who voices Catwoman in other mediums), the roles they serve become obvious as the gears move in each episode, but that doesn't stop them from being intriguing presences in this welcomingly diverse take on Gotham. For a dose of the familiar, the series also taps into the recent surge of popularity around the League of Assassins, dropping a refined version of Lady Shiva in the mix.
While the writing occasionally suffers from the convenience and comic-book logic, Beware the Batman held my attention with its surprisingly brisk action operating around smartly repurposed plot ideas and the occasional use of superpowers, fleshing out a tone that's both accommodating for younger audiences and mindful of adult tastes. Batman's training of a new partner -- a capable female with a checkered past and looser morals -- creates a unique underbelly to the stock, somewhat nondescript handling of the Caped Crusader himself; his cold stoicism, empathy for criminals, and dual existence aren't really developed much beyond what's already known of the billionaire vigilante. That's expected after just a half-season, though, since he's only rubbed elbows with each antagonist a handful of times, most of which don't have years of pop-culture exposure pushing them forward. Instead, the focus falls on fleshing out Katana's past and the infrastructure within the League of Assassins, alongside a recurring scientist's research towards solving the world's energy problems.
There's a lot of promise in the groundwork laid by this first part of Beware the Batman, developing a distinct personality within the world-building and refinement of its technical attributes, but it appears as if all that's in jeopardy due to Cartoon Network's dropped support for the show. As it stands with the last episode available in this half-season (one previously unaired on the CN, and apparently the first of three interconnected episodes), we're left with a pretty brutal cliffhanger following the introduction of one of Batman's more renowned villains, and it's unclear whether any other episodes -- three of which apparently have been produced and scheduled to air in other territories -- will make it to a domestic channel for any kind of proper closure. It's a shame, because with a little refinement and time spent with the characters, Beware the Batman could've eventually shaped into a thriving contemporary take on an oft-adapted hero. Certainly not as successful as its predecessors, but worthy of a cult audience.
Warner Archives have release Beware the Batman: Shadows of Gotham -- Season One, Part One on Blu-ray in a standard one-disc package, where a single Blu-ray holds all thirteen available episodes (nearly five hours of material). No special features have been included with this release, only a static menu with an episode selection. Note that the last two episodes on this disc, "Attraction" and "Fall", haven't aired on Cartoon Network as of yet.
Video and Audio:
While the decision towards computer-generated animation is a debatable aesthetic choice, there's no denying that the collection of thirteen episodes look pretty flippin' fantastic on Blu-ray, especially considering that they're all crammed on the same disc. Sharp eyes will spot fine, well-structured details in clothing, architecture, even in the rendered skin texture of the of the characters, while the vibrant color palette -- glowing greens, rich purples, and blasts of fiery reds and orange -- boldly comingles with both daytime and night sequences in a stable digital rendering. The animation's range of motion never skips a beat, while there's only a minimal amount of noticeable jagged edges. Most of Beware the Batman takes place in darker, nighttime sequences, but the black levels are well-balanced and mindful of details, if a bit of the gray side at a few points. Considering the style and the fact that they're all plopped on this one Blu-ray, they're very satisfying.
Telegraphing less of a punch are the 2-channel DTS-HD Master Audio tracks, all serviceable treatments which do little to enhance the persistent action in the series. Some subtle sound effects, like blasts from an energy pistol and the slam of a batarang into a surface, muster enough oomph to be pleasing and atmospheric, but the likes of explosions, motorcycle zips, harder-hitting martial arts action suffer in the bass department. Everything comes across crystal clear, though, especially dialogue and the musical score, cradling the higher pitches of Magpie's vocal registry and the thickness of Professor Pyg's dapper manner of speaking amid the pulse of contemporary scoring (and that intro music does sound quite snazzy). There's simply a lack of power and dynamic separation in the shrug-worthy audio, even after taking into account its stereo limitations. Optional English subs are available.
Beware the Batman attempts something of a strategic, limited reinvention of the Dark Knight mythos, keeping the hero the same while modifying and embellishing the elements surrounding him. This results in a Gotham City plagued with lower-grade members of Batman's rogues gallery, a capable female martial artist as his sidekick, and a version of Alfred who's more openly demonstrative about his past experiences in espionage. And to tell you the truth, after acclimating to the computer-generated visual style and digging into the alterations, Beware the Batman really started to grow on me, becoming somewhat addictive once it finds its rhythm similar to Batman: The Animated Series. It's not as good as the crown-jewel series from the '90s and barely keeps pace with the other recent DC Universe series to come out of the woodworks on Cartoon Network, but the foundation it built across these thirteen episodes made for an engaging, charismatic take on the storied masked vigilante. That is, until the rug was pulled out from under its feet, which isn't much of a surprise given its lackluster viewership, shift in visual style, and departures from the norm. The thirteen episodes available on this decent Blu-ray, labeled Shadows of Gotham, still warrant a mild Recommendation at the low asking price, but know what you're getting into: half a season of a show on the verge of disappearing in its own shadows, potentially without any viewable closure to its final episode.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site