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Beware the Batman – Hunted (Review)

Batman is a character who thrives on reinvention and reimagining. The character has over second decades of interpretations behind him, covering a wide range of portrayals. He has been Adam West’s camp crusader, Tim Burton’s gothic outsider and Christopher Nolan’s urban warrior. In the comics, he’s undergone an even more diverse series of changes and reworkings. Beware the Batman is the latest animated series to focus on the Dark Knight, offering a take quite distinct from the variety of animated interpretations we’ve seen in the recent past.

A running start...

A running start…

Batman: The Animated Series is one of the most respected and enduring comic book cartoons ever written. Even now, two decades after it first aired, it remains a touchstone for the character. Bruce Timm and his stable of writers, animators and directors found a way to tell stories that celebrated the diverse history of the Caped Crusader. It was occasionally a surprisingly mature take on the character.

Batman: The Animated Series casts a pretty long shadow, and animated adaptations are constantly and inevitably compared to Bruce Timm’s artistic vision. The Batman remains relatively unloved among fandom, while fans only really began to appreciate Batman: The Brave & The Bold on its own merits towards the end of its run. Comparisons between Batman: The Animated Series and Beware the Batman are inevitable, even if it’s clear they offer two radically different interpretations of the iconic character.

Oh, shoot...

Oh, shoot…

From the opening theme tune (a delicious seventies-style piece of pop looping the words “beware the Batman” as if Bruce has employed a backing group to score his adventures), Beware the Batman is clearly appealing to the pulp seventies aesthetic rather than the art deco design of Timm’s Animated Series. The character and design choices reflect that, with the Batmobile looking more like an update of Adam West’s vehicle than anything from the Burton or Nolan films.

The show’s cast also plays to that sensibility. Although Professor Pyg and Mister Toad are two recent inventions, they hark back to the post-psychedelic punk of the seventies. (Their motivations, radically altered from their appearances in Grant Morrison’s Batman & Robin, reflect the environmental social conscience of the late sixties and early seventies.) Alfred’s past as an MI6 agent is emphasised. Although she has yet to don a costume identity, Batman’s first recruit in his war on crime will be the samurai-sword-wielding Katana.

To catch a thief...

To catch a thief…

It’s certainly an interesting take on the character, although the inevitable gun censorship (in the wake of the Aurora shootings and Sandy Hook) does throw things off slightly. The opening sequence features crooks using laser guns. Not only does it imply the futuristic tech is easy to come by in Gotham (he has a back-up!), they also need to be reloaded – which suggests that they are easy to get a hold of and maintain.

The self-censorship seems a bit much. I can understand a desire to play down the use of guns in shows aimed at kids, but isn’t the distinction between a laser pistol and a gun arbitrary to a young kid? If they’re going to play at it, they’ll still make the same gestures and sounds in imitation. More than that, though, it seems like an easy answer. One of the defining attributes of Batman (unless you’re one of the very earliest creators working on him) is that he’s a hero who doesn’t use a gun.

Hardly A-listers...

Hardly A-listers…

In fact, one of the ways that Bruce Timm suggested it was time for Batman to retire in Rebirth, the pilot of Batman Beyond, was to force the Caped Crusader to use a gun. It seems like a missed opportunity to insert Frank Miller’s whole “this is the weapon of our enemy” spiel. Explicitly associating reckless firearm use with villains would be a more effective way of dealing with gun violence than simply side-stepping the issue. After all, it isn’t as if kids will cease to believe guns exist. If the show wants to respond to these tragedies, it needs to actually engage.

There’s also something a teensy bit hypocritical about being unwilling to so real fire arms while allowing Bruce to be downright cavalier about the fate of Toad and Pig. When Alfred inquires about them after Bruce blows up their headquarters, Bruce asserts that they’ll turn up again. I know they’re super-villains, but igniting the methane and destroying a building while the bad guys are still inside means you don’t get to fob off questions about whether you may have murdered them.

Packing a punch...

Packing a punch…

While the show suggests that this is a young and inexperienced Bruce Wayne (while cleverly avoiding the origin story, because… well, we know), that seems to be mostly concerned with his own safety. (Or Alfred’s, to be fair.) There’s no suggestion that his inexperience creates a risk to the citizens of Gotham or even the criminals he catches. It’s hard to empathise too much with Pig or Toad, but there’s something discomforting about how he shrugs off leaving them in the midst of a massive building-destroying explosion he created.

Beware the Batman is making a conscious effort to avoid Batman’s most iconic adversaries. While you’d imagine that excluding familiar faces like the Joker, Two-Face or the Riddler might cut down on the show’s marketability, it’s nice to see some of the lesser-known and fringe Batman characters get a shot at fame. I like how the choices all reflect a particularly off-kilter approach to the Caped Crusader. Ra’s Al Ghul is the highest-profile villain named so far, and even he fits with the sort of seventies vibe the show seems to channeling.

Jumping in...

Jumping in…

Apparently, Batman’s main adversary in the show will be Anarky, the villain created by the underrated creative team of Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle. It’s a smart move, capitalising on just how ubiquitous the film adaptation of V for Vendetta made those anti-establishment Guy Fawkes masks. Characters like Magpie (star of John Byrne’s “first Batman/Superman team-up”), Humpty Dumpty (he likes to put things back together again), Silver Gorilla (I got nothin’) and others will round out the show’s gallery of bad guys.

There’s very much a sense that this an “alternate” Batman show, an experimental take trying to move away from the tried and tested formula. The presence of Professor Pyg and Mister Toad in the pilot episode feels like a mission statement. Both are creations of Grant Morrison, and debuted within the last decade. Although it should be noted that they were featured in Morrison’s Batman & Robin, a conscious throwback to the Batman of the sixties and seventies.

Happy as a Pyg...

Happy as a Pyg…

However, the problem with picking a character like Professor Pyg to headline your Saturday morning cartoon is that he winds up resembling the comic book character in name only. There’s no creepy sexy dancing here. He doesn’t wield a drill. He certainly doesn’t worship a wire monkey mother. Actor Brian George instead crafts a decidedly Hitchcockian persona for the character, and the show reimagines him as a conservationist. (The closest we get to Morrison’s deviant Pyg is when he describes Bruce as “a cheeky peeper.”)

It’s worth noting that fidelity to the source material is not a necessary ingredient for a quality adaptation. In fact, I suspect that we’d be more concerned had Pyg’s surgical tendencies made into the episode here. It’s the use of the name and likeness that is important, rather than the substance. It’s a declaration of intent from the creators. This is not the Batman you’re familiar with. This is something decidedly weirder.

Will we be seeing the black glove?

Will we be seeing the black glove?

(That said, I will confess to being a little weirded out by the fact that Mr. Toad is apparently a giant talking Toad, but nobody else finds this weird – especially this early in Batman’s career. His appearance at the start of Batman & Robin was probably intended to clue the audience into how weird things would be getting, and as a throwback to weirder and wackier adventures. Here it seems strnage that nobody treats Mr. Toad as any weirder than the British dude in the pig mask. Which, you’d imagine, would be slightly less weird in a city with a Batman.)

Beware the Batman kicks off with Bruce relatively early in his career. Which makes a great deal of sense. It’s fun to watch the character come to terms with the strange world of superheroics, and it gives him a nice character arc. Perhaps that’s another benefit to using the lesser-know baddies. It’s a fairly common criticism of Batman that his foes are frequently more interesting than he is.

Stagg hunting...

Stagg hunting…

Still, Beware the Batman starts with some fairly generic Batman psychology, as Bruce and Alfred ponder the relationship that exists between Bruce and Batman. It’s a fairly solid character hook, one that has anchored some fantastic stories, but the execution here seems rather basic. One imagines that Beware the Batman skipped the origin story because we all know it so well. So hearing Bruce delineate between Batman and Bruce only for Alfred to ask “Are they not the same?” feels a little on the nose.

To be fair, this is the first episode. It’s too early to really judge the grasp that Beware the Batman has on its title character’s psychology. After all, Batman: The Animated Series kicked off with the solid-but-unexceptional On Leather Wings. The decidedly more proactive and dynamic Alfred (“didn’t they tell you? I’m the butler”) is a nice touch, as is the decision to give him a decidedly working-class accent. It probably owes a debt to Geoff Johns’ Batman: Earth One, which offered a similar take on the character.

It's the car. Chicks dig the car.

It’s the car. Chicks dig the car.

At the same time, it makes Alfred a lot more actively complicit in Bruce’s “dress up as a bat and fight crime” plan, which raises a whole host of questions about Alfred’s relationship with the guy. Is Alfred actively encouraging the son of his former employer to risk his life? “My job is to protect you,” he assures Bruce. “I can’t do that if you want let me. You’re not alone in this.” This isn’t offering reluctant assistance to a version of Bruce who won’t take no for an answer. This isn’t helping Bruce to survive in a life he refuse to leave so much as it’s actively playing into the fantasy.

One wonders what Thomas and Martha might think. I really hope that Beware the Batman does explore the implications of Alfred’s relationship with Bruce, his willingness to actively train and mentor the young man rather than simply standing on the side lines and trying to work damage control. By pushing Alfred’s complicity to the fore in Bruce’s little experiment, Beware the Batman teases the issue in a way that could potentially pay off down the line. (Or, it could simply be ignored completely.)

Caving to pressure...

Caving to pressure…

I like the show’s visual design, even if there are obvious limitations with the CGI. Sam Liu does an excellent job directing the opening episode. Liu was a wealth of experience with animated DC superheroes (he directed several animated movies like Batman/Superman: Public Enemies and Batman: Year One, along with episodes of Green Lantern: The Animated Series and The Batman), and it’s clear he knows how to frame an action sequence. Beware the Batman does look impressive, particularly during the car chase or climactic action sequences.

At the same time, Gotham looks eerily empty. The streets appear unpopulated, and the town looks abandoned. During the car chase, there’s nobody on the streets. It looks like a giant set that has been constructed solely for our characters to wander through. Few people appear on screen, save characters important to plot. There’s also a lack of detail and texture on objects in the distant background. All this creates the sense that Gotham isn’t inhabited by anybody but heroes and villains and victims.

Faithful butler...

Faithful butler…

Still, aside from that issue, I like the look of Beware the Batman. Despite the obvious differences between CGI and conventional animation, you can see the obvious influence of Bruce Timm on the show. This makes sense, seen as producers Glen Murakami and Mitch Watson both have experience working with Timm. Although the style is somewhat toned down, you can see the influence of Timm’s anatomy on Batman, who has a noticeably broader shoulder than waist, although his proportions less exaggerated than the animated iteration.

This influence is clearest when the show’s three-dimensional characters are rendered in two dimensions – the newspaper photo of Simon Stagg might easily have been a piece of concept art from The Animated Series, with its user of lines and angles giving it a very distinguished look. The production art from Beware the Batman looks absolutely stunning. At least part of me is sad that the show isn’t being animated traditionally – as it would allow for a more life-like environment and showcase the wonderful concept art a bit better. Still, it’s not a bad look, and Liu handles it well.

Up to Bat...

Up to Bat…

Naturally, the show borrows quite heavily from Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, which will likely serve as something of a major influence on the character for the next couple of decades. Most obviously, Alfred repurposes one of Bruce’s lines from Batman Begins, suggesting that “Bats are nocturnal creatures.” It also serves as an effective contrast between this version of Alfred and Michal Caine’s take on the character.

In Begins, Bruce offered his nocturnal excursions as an excuse for personal seclusion. Alfred rejected the idea, insisting that Bruce must learn to co-exist as both Bruce and Batman. In Hunted, Alfred’s outlook is more firmly mission-focused and results-orientated. It’s a nice way of distinguishing the two takes on the character, highlighting how Caine’s Alfred was a reluctant co-conspirator while this version is a willing collaborator.

There are other moments which feel like shout-outs or homages to Nolan’s films. At one point, young and over-eager Batman is incapacitated while on patrol, forced to hide from his attackers and to call Alfred for assistance. During a car chase, Bruce uses the Batmobile to cushion another vehicle from some explosive ordinance, as he did during the car chase in The Dark Knight. (In both Hunted and The Dark Knight, the blast incapacitates the Batmobile.)

I also like the show’s attempts to showcase Bruce as something of a detective. In one sequence, in a feat that would make the production staff of CSI bow their heads in appreciation, he’s able to read a name off a plaque reflected in the barrel of a blunderbuss. It’s hardly the most plausible forensic science, but devoting a few moments to the investigative side of the character is a nice touch.

It’s far too early to tell whether Beware the Batman will become another well-loved and distinct take on the Caped Crusader like The Brave & The Bold, or whether it will just sort of fade into the back ground like The Batman has. The talent is there. The show’s aesthetic is interesting. The decision to avoid the higher-profile characters in intriguing. While Hunted hardly ranks as one of the strongest animated Batman episodes ever, and contains a fair few flaws, it certainly has promise.

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3 Responses

  1. Something that nobody knows…….Mitch began as a playwright in The Actors Gang. If you can find “Klub” do so. It won awards and it is about Actors trying to escape from Hell and there is no exit…….. One moment you scream with laughter and the next moment you scream with fear. He brings that tension to everything he writes……….this series will grow and grow.

  2. Turns out this show will be forgotten. It has been officially cancelled alongside Green Lantern: The Animated Series and Young Justice. Now Teen Titans Go! is the only DC show on air and it’s awful…

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