Series Review – Batman: The Brave and the Bold

Nostalgia is a powerful thing. It’s that painful yet earnest feeling when we remember things from our past, and we often use it to fuel the future. To tear things down and build them back up in ways we always thought it should be or in ways no one could have ever dreamed of. In the world of entertainment, nostalgia is used as a crutch. So many modern reboots and remakes use nostalgia protective barrier to rehash old ideas and old stories while offering nothing creative for today’s audiences. But there are notable exceptions. Mad Men uses nostalgia as a potent storytelling device by connecting marketing campaigns with their products as means of exploring America’s cultural identity during the 1960’s. Stranger Things uses nostalgia as a lure to hook viewers into their subversion of Steven Spielberg’s films and Stephen King’s horror novels. And then there’s Batman: The Brave and the Bold (B:TBATB), a throwback to the Silver Age in a time where Batman is viewed as the “dark, gritty, and most realistic” superhero by the public at large.

But that wasn’t always the case. From his Golden Age roots as a  gun-toting vigilante, to the Silver Age silliness that today’s fans tend to ignore, and to all of the modern re-imaginings, Batman endured the test of time because Batman is an icon that’s flexible enough to be interpreted in any multitude of ways. An argument can be made that the “Inherited Wealth From Old Money” angle might be dated but everything else about Bruce Wayne and his superhero alter-ego are very cool and appealing to both children and adults. But when it comes to a “light” version of Batman, a lot of Bat-Fans immediately of the Adam West Batman and draw ire at the campiness. But here’s the thing, the 1966 Batman TV Series drew its inspiration from the comics of that era. For better and for worse, the Adam West Batman is a crucial pillar of the Dark Knight mythos so disregarding it because it’s “Not My Batman” is an attitude I don’t agree with. So don’t expect me to criticize B:TBATB for not being “MY BATMAN” as this Batman is no less valid than the incarnations portrayed by Adam West, Michael Keaton, Ben Affleck, Kevin Conroy, Anthony Ruivivar (whose performance I’ve covered in my Beware the Batman review) and countless others.

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But I digress. B:TBATB feels directly influenced by the Adam West Batman but upon closer inspection, is different in many respects. Both Batman shows draw from the pages of Golden and Silver Age Batman comics but B:TBATB goes further by taking elements from the Bronze and even Modern Age stuff like Grant Morrison’s eight year run on Batman. Co-Producer James Tucker (Legion of Superheroes, Batman Beyond, an awful lot of titles with the words “Justice League”) drew out the initial character designs for the series which are very much inspired by the artwork of Golden Age comic book artist Dick Sprang. Episodic Directors Ben Jones (Teen Titans, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), Michael Chang (Teen Titans, Superman vs. The Elite, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), Michael Goguen (Jackie Chan Adventures, Scooby-Doo! Mask of the Blue Falcon) and Brandon Vietti (Batman: Under the Red Hood, those LEGO DC Superhero movies y’all are sleeping on) worked very hard on bringing these episodes together but there’s some weird artifacts. Computer generated models and effects (vehicles, lasers, etc) stick out of the 2D environments like a sore thumb. The editing by Joe Gall is great overall but in fight scenes, a white flash gets cut in whenever a character strikes another character. These things don’t ruin the episodes, but they’re very noticeable when watching.

Co-Producer Michael Jelenic (Legion of Superheroes, Teen Titans Go!, that Thundercats Reboot y’all slept on) took on the writing half of the B:TBATB equation with a revolving door of writers which includes Adam Beechen, Dani Michaeli, Todd Casey (also a story editor on the series), James Krieg, Steven Melching (also a story editor on the series), Greg Weisman, J.M. DeMatteis, Matt Wayne, Joseph Kuhr, Stan Berkowitz, Paul Giacoppo, Alexx van Dyne, Dean Stefan, Thomas Pugsley, Marsha F. Griffen, Gail Simone, and Paul Dini.  Together, they created off-beat escapades and tributes to the imaginative era of the Golden and Silver ages in a way that I wouldn’t classify as “camp”. You see, being “Campy” is not the same as being “Sincere” and kids (along with some jaded adults) don’t really see the distinction between the two. In basic terms, the Camp aesthetic is where bad taste becomes good fun in the ironic eyes of the audience. The ’66 Batman series intentionally took the silliness of those old comics and magnified that in its own dutch angle lens. By contrast, B:TBATB takes those old stories and characters but treats them with reverence and modern storytelling sensibilities.

This approach is evident in B:TBATB by the portrayal of its titular hero. This version of Batman is not a self absorbed brawler like Adam West nor is he an moody avenger like Christian Bale’s Batman. This Batman is an earnest crimefighter who sincerely believes in fighting the good fight no matter the odds. His list of ideals that people should strive towards isn’t hokey nor cheesy, but comes off as genuine. The use of humor is interesting when you consider the voice of this Batman is Diedrich Bader. Bader’s a great comedian with impeccable timing and his naturally gruff voice makes him perfect for the role of Batman. But in a silly world of outlandish heroes and crazier villains, Batman is the straight man so the bulk of the humor in this show derives from Batman’s deadpan reaction to the ever changing circumstances in each episode. Hell, a couple of episodes forgo comedy in favor of drama and because this Batman can be taken seriously, the transition from fun to somber tones isn’t jarring whenever the Dark Knight needs to be well… dark.

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Despite all the effort put into laying the groundwork of this Batman, he doesn’t grow much as a character. Much like the previous animated incarnations of the Caped Crusader, B:TBATB adopts the tried and true format of standalone adventures. Batman’s the same stoic vigilante from he beginning of the series as he is at the bittersweet end.

But like the comic book of the same name, The Brave and The Bold is all about superhero team ups with Batman serving as both an audience P.O.V. character What’s interesting is that the show puts the spotlight on lesser known heroes like Plastic Man as well as heroes that hold the mantle of popular names like Jay Garrick (The Flash) or Jaime Reyes (Blue Beetle). Later episodes in the series feature major tenants of the DC Universe like Superman and Wonder Woman (the rights to use these character in Batman series was hard since it required purchasing separate licenses back in the day), but this show is about making you care about Aquaman just as much as the DC Trinity. Legendary voice director Andrea Romano assembled an amazing ensemble of actors and actresses for the series. You’ve got well renowned vocal performers like Tom Kenny, Tara Strong, Corey Burton, Grey Griffin, Frank Welker, John DiMaggio, James Arnold Taylor, and many others delivering of their lines with tremendous passion.

Season One feels very uneven in comparison to the rest of the series. The crucial elements like a cold open that sets the tone for the actual episode are there but struggle to figure out the storytelling were noticeable in the first couple of episodes. That’s not to say these episodes are terrible. Far from it. The crazy concepts are fun and the superheroes Batman fights crime with are distinct enough to stand out (especially Aquaman who’s pretty much the unspoken breakout star of the series). But for me, everything didn’t click until “Enter the Outsiders!” where we get introduced to Batman’s team of young heroes. From then on, the rest of the season churned out great episodes like “Legends of the Dark Mite!” and the cult classic musical episode “Mayhem of the Music”. The latter is a great showcase of the Dynamic Music Partners (Michael McCuistion, Lolita Ritmanis and Kristopher Carter) whose compositions for the series invoke qualities of big band jazz, classic rock, and epic orchestras.

Season Two is where B:TBATB got more ambitious with episodes that pushed the series into uncharted territory. The wackiness got even wackier with episode like “Death Race to Oblivion!” and “Gorillas in our Midst!” but Season Two also went darker than its predecessor. “The Last Patrol!” saw the noble sacrifices of The Doom Patrol and “Chill of the Night!” saw the on screen death of Joe Chill (as well as the first series appearance of Batman’s alter-ego, Bruce Wayne). There’s a considerable body count beyond Batman’s parents, but these darker moments don’t represent the series as a whole.

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This is an accurate representation of Batman: The Brave and the Bold.

This is especially true of story arc episodes which are noticeably weaker than the standalone episodes. Season One had a story arc involving the cosmic balanced obsessed Equinox but all that build up led to a disappointing giant Batman/Equinox brawl. Season Two fairs better with their main villain Starro, the first villain to face the original Justice League of America. They really built up the Great Starro invasion in the teaser portions of “Revenge of the Reach!”, “Clash of the Metal Men!”, and “The Power of Shazam!” with each creating dread as each of Batman’s allies becomes possessed by the alien conqueror. All of this build up culminated in the two-parter “The Siege of Starro!” with Part Two’s fist fights never quite reaching the tense invasion in Part One. The most poignant moment in the series comes from B’wana Beast’s self sacrifice with his loved ones left to silently grieve, but the first person narration from B’wana at his own funeral softens the blow.

Season Three is the bravest and boldest point in the series as these final thirteen episodes going the distance with the format. It feels like the producers knew the series was coming to an end so they went all in, acquired the licenses for characters they’ve always wanted to use, and told the craziest stories in a series loaded with them. Right off the bat, there’s “Joker: The Vile and the Villainous!” which had Joker as the lead who teams up with the Weeper and painted Batman as the episode’s major antagonist. “Battle of the Superheroes!” featured Superman engaging in some Silver Age dickery based on the Curt Swan Superman books and a showdown with Batman paying homage to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Four Star Spectacular!” was an anthology of four teasers with Batman making a minor cameo in just one of them.

I could go on with how great is Season Three but the one episode that deserves all my praise is the series finale “Mitefall!” which is my favorite episode of the series. The teaser starts off in year 1865. President Abraham Lincoln is about to get assassinated by John Wilkes Booth until Batman shows up to thwart him (Seriously). Booth then transforms into a steam punk cyborg (no, Seriously) prompting Lincoln and Batman to take him down together (This all happens!). Lincoln survives and Batman says goodbye to the President…of Parallel Earth 5501. It’s an amazing opener that not sets the stage for the craziness to follow but takes the Team Up formula of B:TBATB to its logical (or illogical depending on your point of view) conclusion. The main plot involves one of the important guest characters of the series, Bat-Mite.

For those that aren’t familiar with the character, Bat-Mite is a fifth dimensional imp who can manipulate reality on a whim and considers himself to be Batman’s biggest fan. In the context of this series, Bat-Mite is not only a fan surrogate who references many of Batman’s exploits across all media but is also a mouth piece for the producers when they need to talk directly to the audience. For instance, the episode “Legends of the Dark Mite!” had Bat-Mite supercharge the Calendar Man with the ability to conjure increasingly absurd holiday themed threats for Batman to fight. Questioning whether or not this is an appropriate scenario for his idol, Bat-Mite heads to the 5th Dimensional Comic Book Convention with the series crew and gets challenged by one of the die hard Bat-fans. After deliberating, Bat-Mite reads aloud the series missive from one of the show’s creators:

Batman’s rich history allows him to be interpreted in a multitude of ways. To be sure, this is a lighter incarnation, but it’s certainly no less valid and true to the character’s roots than the tortured avenger crying out for mommy and daddy.

All the fans are pleased (except for a fan who looks an awful lot like Bruce Timm) and the episode proceeds accordingly. Outside of Batman, I’d argue that Bat-Mite’s the important character in the series because he’s the embodiment of fan culture. But in the final episode, Bat-Mite has grown fickle of watching Batman: The Brave and the Bold as he claims that the show has both literally and figuratively “jumped the shark”. Wanting a darker Batman cartoon, Bat-Mite concocts a scheme to make the show so awful, the network would have no choice but to cancel it. So Bat-Mite uses his alternate reality powers to occupy the Bat-Cave with a nuclear family (voiced by Bader’s own family), gives Batman a garishly toyetic “Neon-Powered Super-Street Bat-Luge”, and recasts John DiMaggio with Ted McGinley in the role of Aquaman. All of this meddling earns the attention of Ambush Bug, a silly fourth wall breaking superhero voiced by Henry Winkler, to stop Bat-Mite from unraveling the very fabric of reality. While powerless against Bat-Mite’s constant reality bending, Ambush Bug breaks through to Batman when Bat-Mite crosses the line by having Batman fight Grodd… on surfboards…in Malibu, California…with a Scrappy-Doo analogue…and the coup de grâce is that he’s holding TWO GUNS! By showing Batman the error of his ways, the Dark Knight feels disillusioned at the idea of being a fictional since none of what he does is real. Ambush Bug shakes Batman out of his malaise by stating what he does matters to the audience watching and together, they defeat Grodd and restore reality back to normal.

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Elsewhere, the executive producers inform Executive Producers James Tucker and Michael Jelenic that they’re putting to bed this version of Batman in favor of a darker incarnation. Bat-Mite rejoices over the demise of his hero’s light-hearted escapades and watches a promo for the newly minted Batman cartoon. He’s disappointed that it’s a CGI Batgirl cartoon with Batman as a secondary character but Bat-Mite’s okay with it so long as he gets “super realistic dramatic storytelling”. Ambush Bug chimes in stating that Bat-Mite can’t exist in that new cartoon since he’s not a dramatic superhero which causes Bat-Mite to blink out of existence with one last “That’s All Folks!” to the audience.

The series ends as they usually do, with a wrap party. Batman finds himself in the Batcave with all of his friends and enemies wining and dining thanks to Ambush Bug. Even dead heroes like B’wana Beast, Ted Kord, and the Doom Patrol show up to celebrate Batman’s successful television run. Music Meister serenades the partygoers with a piano cover of “If Only”, the sets break down, and Batman admits that it truly is the end. Batman breaks the fourth wall to assure the audience at home that as long as there is evil to fight and innocents to protect, he (and the Hammers of Justice) will be there. Every hero seen on the series is displayed in massive panorama with Batman in the center wishing everyone at home a good night.

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When you consider how many Batman series there have been in the past 30 years, it’s weird yet fitting that B:TBATB ended with some form of closure. They didn’t have to come up with an ending since the series is comprised of standalone adventures but they didn’t because they cared for the show and the audience invested in it. Batman: The Brave and the Bold is a great series in its own right and a reminder that serialized characters should be reexamined, reshaped, and reimagined. Otherwise, what’s the point of adapting the source material? B:TBATB may have poked fun at other versions of Batman and even itself, but the show was all about being inclusive to every version from Detective Comics #27 all the way to Grant Morrison’s run on the character. The producers didn’t use nostalgia as a crutch, but as a springboard to celebrate Batman as an icon of pop culture. The series also pays respect to DC Comics’ rich history by giving its less recognized heroes and villains some much needed visibility. You can buy the series on various digital storefronts like iTunes and Warner Archive released Season One and Season Two on Blu-Ray. Overall, Batman: The Brave and the Bold the series that fans deserve and considering how dire things have become in the world, it’s the one we really need now.tumblr_mfb60vDXgK1qig9p5o1_500.gif


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