Just forget the words and sing along

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Fishing in the Discount Bin - Batman: The Animated Series Volume 4

Welcome back to Fishing in the Discount Bin, where I rant and ramble about one of the DVDs I own.  It's time to return to the world of Batman, as I binge on Volume 4 of Batman: The Animated Series, which encapsulates the series The New Batman Adventures.  This was jotted down in my notes on July 24, 2014.

So, after receiving and enjoying the rest of Gargoyles on DVD, I started thinking to myself, "Gee, another collection I'd sure like to complete is Batman: The Animated Series.  I wonder if Volume 4 has been marked down to a reasonable price  yet?"  So I hopped online, went to Amazon, and saw that Batman: The Animated Series -- Volume 4 had been marked down from $50 to $15. 

Add to cart.  Here's my credit card number.  3 days later, my collection of Batman: The Animated Series is complete!

Even thought it falls under the umbrella of Batman: The Animated Series, Volume 4 has enough going for it that it could be considered a different series.  In fact, many do refer to it as The New Batman Adventures.  Time for a quick history lesson.  So Batman: The Animated Series finished its legendary run in 1995 after 3 very successful seasons.  Since Warner Brothers was getting ready to launch their own TV network, the WB, they snagged most of the creative talent before they moved on to other projects and said, "Now do that...but with Superman!"  Superman: The Animated Series premiered in the fall of 1996 as one of the launch titles of the WB's Saturday morning.  In 1997, the Fox Network's contract to run Batman: The Animated Series was drawing to a close, so the brass at the WB decided to show reruns of Batman alongside Superman.  However, in order to give people a reason to tune in, they got the creators of Batman to come with 24 new episodes.  Thus, in 1997, this one-hour block featuring the new episodes of Batman: The Animated Series premiered as The New Batman/Superman Adventures

But this is where the "almost a different series" comes into play.  The creators of Batman took advantage of this to tweak the look of Batman: The Animated Series, and apply some of the new design sensibilities they developed on Superman.  Plus, the network requested that these new episodes have more of a team aspect to them.  So, to accommodate that, they had Dick Grayson grow up and become Nightwing, introduced the Tim Drake incarnation of Robin, and promoted Batgirl from "special guest star" to "regular cast member."  And thus, The New Batman Adventures was born!

And speaking of teams, following a trend they started on Superman, we were treated to a few team-up episodes.  There was The Demon Within, where Batman teamed up with Etrigan the Demon to stop Klarion the Witch Boy.  Beware the Creeper gave us an updated version of The Creeper, kind of turning the Creeper into a "good twin" of the Joker.  But my favourite team-up episode had to be Girls' Night OutSuperman villain Livewire is being sent to Gotham City for an experimental operation to neutralize her powers.  But, she promptly escapes and teams up with Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn and they go on a crime spree throughout Gotham.  With Batman and Superman away on other missions, it falls to Batgirl and Supergirl to save the day! 

The episodes also get a little darker and grittier than Batman: The Animated Series.  The creators said that the WB's broadcast standards and practices folks were a little more lenient than the ones on Fox.  The best example, we get an adaptation of Mad Love.  Regarded as one of the best Batman stories of modern times, in which we finally see the origin of Harley Quinn.  When Harley Quinn became one of the breakout characters of the original run, the creators wanted to tell her origin story, but the Fox network felt it had a little too much sex & violence for a cartoon.  So, they talked to DC, and had it published as a graphic novel instead.  Jump forward 5 years and switch networks, and the WB said, "Yeah, go for it."  The episode is incredibly faithful to the comic.  Whole swaths of dialogue appear just as they do in the comic.

However, the creators were inspired by Harley Quinn to try and make lightening strike again, and create some original villains to win over the hearts of the fans.  The results...were mixed.  In The Ultimate Thrill, we meet Roxy Rocket, a Hollywood stuntwoman who lived for the adrenaline rush.  When doing stunts was no longer enough, she turned to a life of crime, pulling off bigger and more daring heists.  Going back to the "more lenient broadcast standards and practices" thing, we truly get one of the series more bizarre moments when Roxy, realizing that dying in a fiery crash would be the greatest thrill of all, begins, well, having an orgasm as she plummets to her death.  It's one of those moments that makes you go, "This is a kids show, right?" 

Or another one the fans aren't too fond of, Critters.  When a geneticist becomes a laughing stock for his radical theories on genetically enhanced farm animals, he remakes himself as Farmer Brown, and holds Gotham City hostage with his army of mutant livestock.  It's...yeah.

They did, however, get to re-imagine and introduce some of Batman's classic rogues that they never got to the first time around.  Like the pyromaniac Firefly, who pops up for a few episodes.  Or their re-imagining of the cheezy villain Calendar Man.  In the comics, the Calendar Man is just a gimmicky villain who themes his crimes around the holidays.  For the series, they rebooted him into Calendar Girl, an aging supermodel who swears vengeance on the corporations who fired her for getting to old, and does so with crimes themed around the seasons.  It almost works.

But, they do manage to re-capture the old Batman: The Animated Series charm in a few episodes, like in Double Talk.  In looks like the Ventriloquist is finally free of his alter-ego Scarface.  But, when it appears that Scarface is making a return, the Ventriloquist is soon driven to the brink of madness.  Or Judgement Day, where Batman has to solve the mystery of a new vigilante called the Judge who's turned up on the scene.  Lots of good stuff.

So much good stuff, that I may as well countdown my top 5 episodes.

5)  Girls' Night Out.  Already mentioned it, so I won't rehash

4)  Never Fear.  My favourite villain, the Scarecrow, returns!  This time out, he has a new toxin that completely removes a person's fears.  When Batman gets infected with the toxin, Robin soon discovers that the most dangerous villain of all is a Batman who's no longer afraid to cross the line...no longer afraid to kill. 

3)  Old Wounds:  After beating up some muggers one night, Robin and Nightwing get to talking, and Nightwing soon tells the tale of the falling out he had with Batman that led him to hang up the Robin identity and strike out on his own.  The image of Robin taking down Batman is one that isn't soon forgotten.  It's just some great character development for Dick Grayson. 

2)  Legends of the Dark Knight:  One of their more experimental and beloved episodes.  Three kids are hanging out one night, and each shares their tale on what they think Batman is like.  The first tells a tale of a campy, 1950s era Batman, taking its inspiration straight from the Silver Age of Comics.  The second tales a story of a dark, brutal Batman, ripped straight from the pages of the classic graphic novel the Dark Knight Returns.  (In fact, according to the book Batman Animated, Frank Miller gave his personal thumbs-up to this adaptation of his Batman.)  And for the final tale, the kids get to see the real Batman (the Batman: The Animated Series Batman) in action.  What really gets me are the details.  For the 1950s Batman, it's animated just like a cartoon of that time, with very limited animation and choppy edits in the music score.  For the 1980s Batman, they capture the look and tone of 1980s cartoons perfectly.  They even get in a dig at the then-recent Batman & Robin and it's director, Joel Schumacher:

Joel:  Are you guys talking about Batman?  I love Batman!  The muscles...the tight rubber outfits...and the car!  I hear it can drive up walls!

Kids:  You're weird, Joel. 

It just a great tribute to the many interpretations of Batman over the  years. 

1)  Over the Edge

So the episode opens with the Gotham PD chasing Batman and Robin through the Batcave, screaming for the arrest of Bruce Wayne.  Once Batman and Robin evade the cops with the help of Nightwing, we're treated to the flashback to explain what's going on.  In a recent battle with the Scarecrow, Batgirl was killed in action.  With her dying breath, she reveals her true identity to her father, Commissioner Gordon.  Consumed with grief and vengeance, Commissioner Gordon unleashes the full might of the Gotham PD to end Batman once and for all.  And for those who always wondered how Gordon never could figure out Batman's true identity, Gordon admits in the episode that now, that he really wanted to, it took him all of 10 minutes.  Reaching his wits end, Gordon eventually makes a deal with the devil, springing Bane from prison to assist in the hunt for Batman.  In the big twist ending (spoiler warning for a 15-year old cartoon), it's revealed that the whole adventure was Batgirl's Scarecrow-fear-gas-induced hallucination.  Her fear was that her two families -- biological and Bat -- would be torn apart because she was never honest with her father.  So she decides to reveal her true identity to her father. 

This is just...wow.  It has everything.  As the episode title suggests, it does take us to the edge as we see a very plausible end game for Batman.  And it's good because it takes Commissioner Gordon to a very dark place.  And it all ends with a nice little pinch of character development for Batgirl. 

And that's The New Batman Adventures.  When all is said and done, it was a very worthy addition to the Batman Animated cannon. 

Oh, and I still think Tara Strong's Batgirl voice is dead sexy. 

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