Series Review: Beware the Batman

WARNING: THE FOLLOWING REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS.

July 15th, 2012. I remember that day because that was my last day at San Diego Comic Con.  I sat in Room 6BCF all morning waiting for the DC Nation panel. For those that don’t recall, DC Nation was a programming block on Cartoon Network that aired episodes of Green Lantern: The Animated Series (a series I’ve previously reviewed here), Young Justice (a series I’ll never review), and several animated shorts featuring all kinds of characters from DC Comics. For DC Comics fans of all ages (myself included), it was awesome so I was pumped up for this panel. After waiting and shifting seats, I somehow managed to sit in the front row three feet from moderator Kevin Smith (Clerks, Chasing Amy, Cop Out). Next to him were Beware the Batman executive producers Glen Murakami and Mitch Watson, Teen Titans Go! Executive Producers Michael Jelenic and Aaron Horvath, & Jeff Prezenkowski who was the director of shorts and series for WB Animation at the time.

The panel started off with “EXCLUSIVE FOOTAGE” of Green Lantern: TAS and Young Justice…which debuted online several days before the panel. This marked the first time I saw the writing on the wall. Young Justice and Green Lantern: TAS were going to get cancelled and my heart sunk to the very bottom of my seat as millions of fans cheered on seeing Hal Jordan interacting with Guy Garnder and Static fighting along side the Team. The panel quickly shifted to Beware the Batman and suddenly, my tiny fan boy heart rose up as I genuinely liked Watson and Murakami’s ideas for the series. While I was initially hesitant, the designs, concepts, and respect for Batman shown at that panel won me over. As for Teen Titans Go!…that’s another story for another time.

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Five days after the panel, tragedy struck the town of Aurora, Colorado. A mass shooting took place during a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises. Twelve people were killed with seventy others injured by a deranged and heavily armed gunman. Seven days after the horrific ordeal, a decision was made by WB Animation to alter the depictions of weapons shown on Beware the Batman. It was the right call to make at the time. Networks and studios should always err (and air) on the side of caution and sensitivity but this kind of retooling is quite rare in animation. Eventually, Beware the Batman would air on July 13, 2013 as part of Cartoon Network’s DC Nation programming block and despite the aesthetic changes to how the weapons looked, I feel that this series is…

THE DARKEST BATMAN ANIMATED SERIES EVER MADE. 

Now look, I’m not suggesting that Beware the Batman is the definitive Batman animated series (that title rightfully belongs to Batman: The Animated Series) or the darkest Batman story ever made (that’s certainly debatable) but for a children’s cartoon, it’s very mature in its approach. Characters get killed off and on the screen. Multiple character’s including Batman have their shattered psyche’s explored in tragic detail. Hell, the series ended up getting aired and burned off on Adultswim’s Toonami block.

A lot of that darkness stems from the aesthetic Beware the Batman succeeds in capturing. Similar to Green Lantern: TAS, Beware the Batman is animated in 3D with computer generated graphics and much like Green Lantern: TAS, there are drawbacks and advantages to this medium. The biggest advantage of animated in 3D is that shots feel more cinematic. Yeah, objects like Batman’s suit have a plastic sheen to them, but that’s negligible when everything’s in motion.  A dynamic lightning system creates moments that couldn’t be made in traditional 2D animation. For instance, one scene has Batman in his all black attire investigating a home at night. Then Batman turns on his flashlight and suddenly, Batman’s is casting realistic shadows within these three visibly distinct levels of the color black. All of the technical effects like smoke, fire, and water make this show stand out from other animated series.

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Directors Sam Liu, Curt Geda, Rick Morales and Supervising Director Butch Lukic did a great job creating great action moments alongside the creepy visuals. But the set pieces themselves feel “dead” at times. Within the first ten episodes, the omission or limited use of civilians walking around or driving in the streets is very noticeable. This problem is resolved in later episodes but seeing Batman defending an empty Gotham City feels cheap despite the work that went into the meticulous world building.

Speaking of world building, the writers really had their work cut out for them as Beware the Batman is the first truly serialized Batman cartoon. Much like Mitch Watson’s previous work on Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated, elements from each episodes carries over into the multiple mysteries and even certain character arcs. Along with staff writer Mark Banker, Watson collaborated with Jim Krieg, Michael Ryan, Erin Maher & Kathryn Reindl, Michael Stern, John Matta & Matt Weinhold, Mark Hoffmeier, Adam Beechen, Ivan Cohen and Greg Weisman to flesh out each episode.

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The sound design is excellent with casting done by the Legendary voice director Andrea Romano to ensure all the actors brought their A-game. Anthony Ruivivar is great as Bruce Wayne and Batman. His voice isn’t as gruff as Kevin Conroy’s but Ruivivar sells this versions “stoic loner” and “billionaire bachelor” personas associated with the Dark Knight. Sumalee Montano is great as Tatsu Yamashiro and her crime fighting alter ego Katana. This version of Tatsu is portrayed as a young CIA operative who infiltrated the League of Assassins, faked her death in order to remove the Soultaker sword out of their possession, and adopts the identity of Katana to fight crime as Batman’s partner. Rounding out the main cast is  J.B Blanc who provides the voice of the Wayne family butler Alfred Pennyworth. In this series, Alfred has a more proactive role in Batman’s crime fighting. Alfred’s past as an MI-6 agent (a nod to his Post Crisis origins as well as the Earth One version) and the baggage that comes with giving up that life to raise an orphaned Bruce Wayne is conveyed in the paternal tones Blanc converts in his performance.
Acclaimed composer Frederik Wiedmann orchestrates music that’s brilliant. His use of string instruments including greek guitars as well as traditional instruments enhances the action on screen. From classical stylings’s to otherworldly chants, it’s a shame that Wiedmann’s score for Beware the Batman has never been released because its genuinely epic.

SHADOWS OF GOTHAM

The first half of Beware the Batman sets up the character dynamics between our three heroes and introduces several villains including the League of Assassin’s. As the first truly serialized Batman cartoon, Beware takes a “slow burn” approach to its world building which is good when you consider how vastly different is this Batman compared to others. Starting with the first episode “Hunted”, we see Batman as a cold, calculating crime fighter who’s constantly anticipating the next move. During the day, we get a glimpse into the complex relationship of Bruce and Alfred. Alfred wants offers Bruce help in his never ending battle against crime but Bruce insists on working alone and keeping his alter ego separate from his own persona. After stopping Professor Pyg and Mister Toad from killing Alfred, Simon Stagg, and Michael Holt, Bruce admits to Alfred that both he and Batman need help after all. The episode ends with Alfred introducing Bruce to his new bodyguard, Tatsu.

The next couple of episodes flesh out the relationships between the three leads, introduce more C-List villains for Batman to fight, and build towards the League of Assassin’s. A majority of “passionate” Batman fans were peeved at the decision not to have popular villains like the Joker show up in the series. But having Batman fight lesser known rogues means that they never steal the spotlight away from him. This method and the episodic nature of the series mean that we get see aspects of Batman’s emotions and reflections of his psyche that are rarely explored in a Batman series. Pyg and Toad are perversions of Batman’s crusade against injustice. Magpie’s inability to cope with the darkness inside her parallels with Batman’s own darkness. Humpty Dumpty’s turn from childlike accountant to vengeful psychopath reflects on the Caped Crusader’s own loss of innocence.

Now this approach doesn’t apply to every villain like Tobias Whale (and sequently, his enforcer Phosphorus Rex) and the series does end up using more well known Batman rogues like Ra’s al Ghoul, Killer Croc, and Deathstroke. But the experience of discovering each new villain and their motivations made me rediscover why I loved Batman. For better or worse, Batman has been deified by the collective fanbase as this invincible warrior who always wins and knows every move the bad guy makes before they make it. This version tends to do that but I appreciated moments of vulnerability where we see Batman still learning from his mistakes and still feeling emotions. Batman shouldn’t be defined by the villains he encounters, but rather how he deals each new threat.

The first major story thread in Beware the Batman revolves around the League of Assassins whose goal is to plunge Gotham into chaos by using Dr. Jason Burr’s invention, the Ion Cortex. Now while the members of the League like Cypher, Silver Monkey, and Lady Shiva reflect on Tatsu’s past, the romance between Tatsu and Jason leads to interesting results. While the initial pairing comes off a little creepy with Jason’s clingy boyfriend routine wearing out its welcome very quickly, Tatsu’s budding feelings towards his genuine attempts at affection makes her less rigid and saving him helps hone her instincts. It’s a nice twist on genre conventions but once Ra’s al Ghoul shows up, Jason is killed off and is never mentioned thereafter.

While there are many incarnations of this well known Batman villain, I love this version for being the most faithful to Ra’s Arabic origins. The artists made Ra’s ethnicity appear to be Middle Eastern and not Caucasian and getting Lance Reddick (Lt. Daniels on The Wire) to voice Ra’s was a great choice. Reddick’s deep voice and the Arabic accent he puts on makes Ra’s sound both regal and menacing. Without spoiling anything, Ra’s association with Tatsu and Alfred lives adds this layer of depth and dramatic heft that adds more tension to the proceedings.

The midseason finale ends with Batman’s hubris getting the better of him as Ra’s easily overpowers the Dark Knight. With the Ion Cortex at his control and Batman captured, Ra’s al Ghoul succeeds with Gotham descending into total darkness leaving it defenseless from the League of Assassin’s. It’s a bleak ending but it left a lot of people confused since they assumed this was the last episode. In 2013, Cartoon Network put the series on indefinite hiatus around the same time they silently killed off the DC Nation programming block. “Attraction”, “Fall”, and the first 11 episodes were eventually made available to own in 2014 as part of a DVD and Blu-Ray collection Warner Archive released as Beware The Batman: Season 1 Part 1-Shadows of Gotham. The remaining unaired episodes would first trickle out via digital storefronts like iTunes and then on the [adultswim] late night programming block Toonami.

DARK JUSTICE

The second half of Beware the Batman resume with the episode “Darkness” as we pick up with Ra’s al Ghul having seized control over Gotham City. Batman escapes the confines of his prison just as Alfred and Katana are captured by Lady Shiva. As secrets are revealed between Alfred and Katana, Batman requires the computer hacking skills of Barbara Gordon to hack into the Ion Cortex with the password “ORACLE”. For those that aren’t familiar, Oracle is a codename Barbara Gordon adopts after being crippled by the Joker in the infamous Killing Joke graphic novel. That storyline not only robbed Barbara of her mantle as Batgirl and the use of her legs, but also that drive that made her unique. Unlike Batman or any of the Robin’s, Barbara’s motivation for being Batgirl isn’t fueled by tragedy but for her own liberation from the judgment of a male centric society and her over bearing father. This version of Barbara is the best of both worlds with the hacker skills (and eventually the codename) that come with being Oracle and the rebellious spirit of being Batgirl. She even has a mentor/mentee relationship with Katana later on which is a nice touch…but I digress.

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The League of Assassin’s arc ends with “Reckoning” as Batman outwits a gauntlet of his foes, culminating in a rematch against Ra’s al Ghoul for the Soultaker Sword. While some may cry foul at Batman using a magic sword when Batman’s world is based in science, the writers previously established Batman’s detective reasoning on how the sword operates. It may not be realistic, but it works within the internal logic of that world. Once the League of Assassin’s is broken and order is restored in Gotham, Alfred leaves Bruce with Katana to take care of his own personal business. It’s an intriguing set up that pays off later on as the next story arc involving two Anti-Batmen begins.

Six months have passed at the start of the episode “Nexus” as we get introduced to Gotham’s District Attorney Harvey Dent. Instead of going the traditional two headed coin/spilt personality route with Harvey, the producers went in a different direction. Charming in the public eye while being self centered among his associates, Harvey is Two-Faced in the way politicians are. Harvey’s hunger for more political power is only matched by his hatred for the Batman. So much so, he ends up forming a devils alliance with the villain Anarky. For the first half of the season, Anarky has been all about causing chaos as his means of creating Anarchy. It was underwhelming, especially since the villain boasted himself as a proper rival for Batman only to be bested by Batman time and time again. But Anarky is much better in this half of the series with his influence slowly corrupting Dent. He even goes as far as enlisting a certain highly skilled mercenary into the fray… but I’m getting ahead of myself.

As the absence of Alfred slowly takes its toll on Batman, his behavior becomes more reckless as the vengeful side of him starts to run wild. From withholding Rex Mason’s  survival (who became the meta-human Metamorpho) from Sapphire Stagg after threatening her life in “Monsters”, to risking the lives of Humpty Dumpty’s hostages in “Games”, and culminating with a series of terrible choices in “Animal”. To stop a villain known as The Key from releasing code-breaking software within the confines of Blackgate Penitentiary, Batman willingly gets himself arrested by Harvey Dent, fights his way through the general population unarmed, and nearly beats Killer Croc to death all to stop one man. This episode highlights how unsavory Batman is without his supporting cast. Without a sidekick to keep Batman check while on duty and without Alfred to keep Bruce’s moral compass straight, both come off as creepy loners. Thankfully, Katana stops Batman from killing Croc and Alfred returns from his sabbatical.

The next couple of episodes shows Bruce opening himself to more people. In “Doppelgänger”, Bruce makes friends with Harvey Dent and his bodyguard Dane Lisslow while Batman befriends the Man-Bat Kirk Langstrom. After Bruce saves his childhood friend Ava Kirk in “Unique”, he begins dating her in “Hero”. Their first date gets interrupted by the same goons from the start of the series who rob the restaurant. The crooks heist is foiled by the mercenary Deathstroke, the newest enforcer in Harvey Dent’s task force hired by Anarky to pose as a hero. Later on, Deathstroke turns on both Anarky and Dent as his personal vendetta against Batman conflicts with their political agendas.

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The series final three episodes features so many clever twists and shocking reveals, that I’m hesitant about spoiling any of it. I will say that it’s bittersweet to see Batman going from working alone in the first episode to being surrounded by all of his allies. It’s cool to see Batman victorious alongside Katana, Alfred, Oracle, Metamorpho, and Man-Bat but it’s also sad because it’s over. I’ll never see them interact with other Outsiders like Black Lightning and Geo-Force. I’ll never see Harvey Dent’s true face. I’ll never know what happens next because Beware the Batman never stood a chance. It never had a toyline. It was written off as a financial failure by the network that ordered it into existence. And worst of all, Beware the Batman was damned from the start by diehard Batfans for the crime of not being Batman: The Animated Series.

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But I’m glad Beware the Batman exists. There will never be another Batman: TAS but that won’t stop people from making more Batman media. There’s a reason why Batman has endured as a 75 year old icon. He’s a fascinating character composed of many contradictions and this series embraces those flaws to challenge our idealized perceptions of the Dark Knight. It’s not just this of version of Batman as to why I love this series so much. I love how macabre each of the villains look. I love the female characters for being fleshed out characters instead of tokens. I love the several mystery arcs as it’s fitting for a character whose been referred to as the “World’s Greatest Detective”. It’s not a perfect series, but it’s a damn good one and I’m even more thrilled that people are discovering it for the first time. If you love Batman, you owe it to yourself to watch Beware the Batman at least once. It’s a criminally underrated series that I feel earns the right to be called the darkest, most mature Batman cartoon series ever made.

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