Monday, August 05, 2013

Should we Beware the New Batman?

Holy CGI Batman! Cartoon Network debuted Beware the Batman last month, an all new, half hour animated show featuring Gotham City's Dark Knight. There have been a slew of Batman shows in the past two decades, the Holy Grail of them still being Batman: The Animated Series (TAS), which debuted in 1992. So how does this latest offering stack up?

Beware the Batman is unique among the Batman television show family in that it's computer animated. The producers went with a novel approach to the show's aesthetic, and, though different, it's not always successful. While some of the character designs are intriguing (and not the similarities in the character design below, despite the different mediums), the show is plagued by vacuous landscapes. All of Gotham seems wide, sprawling, and empty. Whereas in Batman: TAS the streets were cluttered with pedestrians, motorists, and litter, Beware is perpetually devoid of background players (as if worried about the cost of retaining extras for an animated show). Every set piece is barren - little to no art on the walls, expansive, monochromatic rooms and buildings, unbroken, window-less facades on most of Gotham's edifices. Everything just feels empty, which gives the show a ghostly, skeletal feel. Where are all the Gothamites Batman fights to save? So far, we've only seen criminals and allies, very few of anyone else. 

The trimmed down set design is reflected in the costume design, as well. In the most recent episode, a character was woken up in the middle of the night; though he'd been tucked soundly in his bed, he was still wearing his slacks and blazer from when he was first introduced. Sure, most cartoons adopt unchanging looks for each character, but not at the expense of aesthetic variation.  

The animators of Batman: TAS employed an unusual tactic in order to achieve the look of their iconic show - rather than animate it on white paper, they used black paper as the foundation of each illustration, giving the show a dark, menacing, perpetually shadowy feel. It was beautiful. Beware the Batman, while unique, seems to have been deliberately pared back, a decision I'm not sure works in the series' favor.

Out of a desire to achieve a new look, feel, and sound, and to feature a younger, slightly less veteran Batman, the show's producers decided not to cast the formidable Kevin Conroy as Batman. Conroy has been the definitive voice of Batman since 1992, beginning with Batman: The Animated Series and through The New Batman Adventures, Batman Beyond, and the animated Justice League series of the early 2000s. He reprised his role as the Caped Crusader in the Arkham video game series. Antony Ruivivar plays Bruce Wayne/Batman this go around; his big break came in 1999, when he appeared as a series regular as a paramedic in NBC's Third Watch. Since then, Ruivivar has played mostly cops and the like. He's a fine actor, but he's not the authoritative Conroy, and his Batman is a shade below menacing, whereas Conroy's was three shades above.

Tonally, Beware is a bit all over the map. Some moments are played clearly for the younger demographic - slapstick moments and youthful humor. The humor, then, is followed up with a moment of darkness or violence that can't help but seem incongruent. Batman: TAS trusted its viewers to handle darker subject matter with a maturity that modern cartoons seem to feel inappropriate for children. Young viewers will absorb what's at their level, and might or might not question what's not. But they don't need to be catered to - part of their development is contingent upon being exposed to heavier material, and it's a shame that fewer modern cartoons embrace that mentality.

All of the above, however, is not to say that Beware the Batman is intrinsically flawed. One of the greatest aspects of the show, especially for true fans, is that the producers decided to scrap the regular cast of rogues and showcase ones that are rarely if ever taken out of the comics. Professor Pyg, a recent villain, was the antagonist in the premier. He's been followed by Magpie, Anarky (rumored to be the primary villain), and Lady Shiva's League of Assassins. Comics fans will recognize these (and other) antagonists as interesting rogues seldomly offered screen treatment. New takes on uncommon villains are exactly what a Batman show needs to hold its own these days. Perhaps we owe our thanks to Christopher Nolan, whose Batman trilogy brought us The Scarecrow, Ra's and Talia Al Ghul, Carmine Falcone, and other Gotham rogues to the big screen for the first time. Beware's decision to introduce a cadre of villains beyond The Joker, Two-Face, Penguin, and Catwoman is commendable and will keep me coming back each Saturday.

Beware the Batman is fun for fans and a worthy 22-minute foray into Gotham each week, but it's still no Batman: The Animated Series. Of course, maybe I'm just a fanboy who grew up watching what's been hailed as undoubtedly one of the best cartoons ever, Batman or other.