Batman of the Future Review
“Hard to believe you're still re-making your image at this late stage.”
When Bruce Timm, Paul Dini and Alan Burnett, celebrated creators of the immensely successful and influential Batman Animated Series, were approached to fashion and re-tool the concept into a more child-friendly show, they took off along an altogether different road than anyone really expected. Realising that, in reality, Batman would eventually succumb to old age, no matter how physically gifted he was, and keeping the master/student arc that had become such a crucial part of the Dark Knight's mythology in films, comics and cartoons, they set the new show fifty years from now, with an aged Bruce Wayne (apparently eighty!) hiding away in his manor, with no purpose in life and then thrust him into contact with another noble young warrior called Terry McGinnis, who has a heart filled with the desire for vengeance over a personal loss. History repeating itself, in other words. It was felt that this new incarnation of a much younger inheritor to the Bat's mantle would be the only way to reinvent the character without wrecking the continuity they had already established. Bruce may be a crotchety old Boris Karloff look-alike living the life of a recluse but, with his jet-powered and high-spirited teen-protégé cleaning up the streets of a futuristic Gotham, he could still fight the good fight by proxy, acting as the real detective back in the Bat-Cave and steering the new hero onward. Life in the old bat, yet.
“Powers is making nerve-gas. He's using my company to make nerve-gas!”
Wayne Enterprises has now become an alliance between Bruce - who largely takes a back seat in the running of the vast corporation - and the sinister Lex Luthor-inspired Powers, who doesn't mind at all getting his hands dirty with all manner of nasty sidelines and schemes running in the background. With the murder of his father, an employee of Wayne/Powers Corporation, Terry smells a rat and sets out along a course of action that Bruce knows all too well. Reluctantly coming out of his bitter shell to help the kid investigate the killing, Bruce sees his potential for heroism, and, come the second half of the season's two-part opener Rebirth, young Terry has donned the new super-enhanced Batsuit and flown the nest, his own crusade beginning in earnest just as much as his teacher's had so many years before. But this is a whole new Gotham now, a sprawling metropolis filled with flying cars and hi-tech weaponry. Street-crime has been virtually eliminated throughout Batman's reign and the ongoing campaign waged by ex-Batgirl, Barbara Gordon, who is now the Commissioner of Gotham's Police Department. Well, I say eliminated ... there are the roving gangs of Jokerz, hooligans inspired by the Clown Prince of Crime, who rear their ugly made-up faces from time to time. Terry and Bruce initially meet during a skirmish with just such a troupe of these circus-psychos. But Gotham is still rife with corruption and organised crime - pockets of enterprise that Powers seeks to exploit. And, with the re-appearance of costumed crime-fighter, the floodgates open up to allow all the oddballs and freakish villains to wreak havoc upon the good folk of Gotham just like they did in the good old days.
“I've got this after-school job that takes up a lot of my time.”
Terry McGinnis, voiced by Will Friedle, is purely of the knee-jerk, written-on-the-back-of-a-stamp style of character. He has absolutely no depth, just an impetuous and devil-may-care attitude in keeping with the Robins of the past. Although some attempt is made in this season by Bruce Wayne (still voiced by Kevin Conroy) to mould and shape his apprentice, he wouldn't really come into his own until much later on. After the crucial - albeit perfunctory - Rebirth introductions, Terry far too quickly assumes the role of crusader, with scant evidence of any training being revealed. The new suit - that now completely covers the whole body and even hides the iconic chin (how could they?) was developed to aid the aging muscles of Bruce, boosting strength and agility, and coming equipped with jet-boots, a gazillion elecro-batarangs, more sonic and optical enhancing gadgetry than the CIA, and some very iffy little underarm wings - obviously helps ... but the transformation is still too swift. The need to hit the ground running was clearly vital to engage a new and potentially younger audience, yet it still feels too convenient and well-worn. As this season progresses, we get to know Terry fairly well, but he is modelled too closely on the likes of Spider-Man, another justice-chasing kid whose love-life doesn't stand a chance and yawns his way through classes during the daytime. The snapshots of his family life with his mother, voiced by Teri Garr, and his little brother often seemed shoehorned-in as though the writers feel obliged to remind us that the new Bat in the Belfry is nowhere near as tragically scarred as the original Caped Crusader. Perhaps it is this lighter, and more reassuring approach that lets the show down. For, despite the growing bond between Terry and Bruce - who even pops round for coffee now and again - and the steady scene-setting of dance-clubs and high school to base the show in typical American TV heaven, the violence is still there and the criminals are just as deviant, instilling something of an un-balanced feel to the show. The trademarked dribble of blood still crawls down from Batman's mouth after he has just taken a severe pounding and the threat of grievous bodily harm is ever-present, with lots of skull-damage taking place and nary a thought for schoolyard recreations. It is a curious approach to adopt when the strategy was to skew for the younger market.
“Now go forth ... and do damage!”
The animation loses a few points too, looking jerky and sluggish at times. However, it is very inventive, with some interesting angles and clever compositions to spice up the proceedings. Fast action - running, leaping and fighting etc - have a borderline anime feel, and flow well with flair and dynamism, yet a lot of the simple things, like a character merely walking, can appear faltering, hesistant and incomplete. Although the direct animation style is still akin to the classic show, Batman Beyond wants to be more colourful and vibrant. Red is very much the optimal colour, literally flooding the screen at times, and this new spectacular and garish sheen sets the show apart. Gotham no longer possesses that delicious noir, its atmosphere now too clean and bright and compromised to offer up any tangible menace. However, I do like the way that the futuristic vibe is handled, without it becoming too overt. We're not talking the cliché city of tomorrow - no glass domes or lifts climbing up the sides of massive skyscrapers - but the design of the multi-levelled walkways is nice and aesthetic. The environment isn't too removed from our own.
“You heard the General ... those freaks are history!”
Regular villain Powers, voiced by Sherman Howard, provides a solid backbone of skulduggery. His hidden identity of glowing radioactive megalomaniac ensures that we get some grisly scenes of his fake skin peeling away at the most in-opportune of times. Even when fully clothed in manufactured flesh, he has a great Anthony Zerbe look that helps maintain his outwardly regal charms with his bestial inner rage. The show certainly needs an ongoing villain, although Blight, as his green-lit skull-faced alter-ego is known, only appears in a couple of episodes. The relationship between Terry and Bruce Wayne is a far trickier affair, but accomplishes the necessary gravity by simple virtue of being formulaic. The tutor/learner bond is time-honoured, particularly in the superhero genre, but even here, the good guys' team is just not as much fun as the bad guys'. Wayne, himself, is sadly not that likeable as a grumpy old man and Terry, as I've said, is purely a one-dimensional impetuous teen-hero. So, how did the show succeed when the good guys lacked so much deeper resonance? Well, it's quite simple really - fast action, economical writing and a dearth of fractured psyches. The kids knew who to root for and the villains wouldn't give them nightmares. Just good, colourful escapist fun. And, on those terms, you can't fault Batman Beyond. In fact, when I first saw the show back in 1999, I loved it. Though, watching it now, after recently re-watching the Animated Series, the excellent new TV show The Batman and, of course, witnessing the birth of Christian Bale's magnificent big screen Batman, this show comes up wanting. It is good, don't get me wrong. But it just isn't Batman. That exquisite darkness has gone from the legend. In some ways it great to see old Bruce still around, but it is also hugely disheartening to see the man that was once the Bat grunting and wheezing.
“You feel it, don't you? Right through your suit. The heat is on, Victor!”
Some episodes are clunkers. “Golem” is just a morality play that doesn't deliver, being the rather uninspired tale of a stereotypical, put-upon geekboy seeking revenge on the society that belittles him. And “The Winning Edge”, with its neo-steroid theme failing to engage, makes a huge misstep by treating us to a very pitiful reappearance of the once-formidable, and back-breaking, Bane. “Spellbound” may have flashes of interest but, considering that most of it is just an illusion, the drama is considerably lessened and, despite his snazzy surreal appearance, the villain is too low-rent to be enjoyable. More than any other, this episode reminded me of the worst shows from the Spider-Man sixties serial. However, there are still some great episodes on offer, making the season worthwhile. “Meltdown” gives us the terrific rebirth - or re-frosting - of Mister Freeze, and is a wonderfully poignant and well-told tale. In fact, I wish that this one had been a double-episode, there was so much more that could have gone into it. Still great, though. “Shriek” offers a glimpse into Gotham's and Bruce Wayne's conjoined history, when Powers wants to tear down a section of the old city. The titular villain, who uses sound as a weapon, is quite a good character too, even if he does rather irresponsibly destroy his own studio in an attempt to kill Batman. There's great use of the lack of sound to disorient a victim in here, as well. “Heroes” is a smart episode, and one that very clearly pokes mischievous fun at DC's rivals over at Marvel. A close-knit bunch of scientists gain super-powers when an experiment goes awry and become bizarre new heroes of Gotham. One becomes a super-bendy guy, one is an ethereal ghost-girl with ice-forming skills that would melt even Mr. Freeze's cold heart and the last one becomes a hulking volcanic muscle-mass called Magma. Yep, there's only three of them, so not quite the full riff on the Fantastic Four, but then Magma is really the Thing and the Torch fused into one brutish body. The equally molten-faced Robert Davi voices Magma in this deliriously loopy episode. But the stand-outs are definitely the two that feature the super shape-shifting villainess Inque, a gloopy assassin with hybrid DNA who can literally morph into anything, Mystique-style. In both “Blackout” and “Disappearing Inque”, the season's most memorable baddie makes for some seriously strange contortions, terrific fight sequences and, in the latter, a truly horrific twist for one unfortunate character. The climax of this episode actually recalls the grim finale of The Fly 2. Big Bruce (who actually resembles his old adversary Solomon Grundy more and more as the season progresses) even climbs into the Bat-Battlesuit for some smackdown-fun come the crazy crescendo. Another notable female - and this show has its fair share of sexy ladies - is the ninja-assassin Curare in “A Touch Of Curare”, although this blade-wielding uber-warrior kept reminding me of General Grievous as we see him in the Clone Wars cartoons. Check out the magnet-booted shock-troops being decimated by her atop the roof of a speeding train in this episode. It's bruising stuff, folks.
“I was Batman.”
But, back to the costume. I can't say I'm a fan of it. Terry looks too spindly and narrow in it. The underarm wings just look tacky and the jet-boots smack of The Jetsons. I like the long pointy ears - I was always a fan of the longer ears - but the lack of a human chin on show just makes the whole thing look too robotic. It's sleek but it lacks the class. I suppose I miss the cape too much. Even the logo doesn't cut it, I'm afraid, looking too flared and bright. I think there's a slightly Russian feel about the whole ensemble that makes Batman a little too exotic. The Batmobile is good fun though. Of course it now flies - doing away with the need of the Batwing, I suppose. But it has little to do in the way of hot pursuit in this season, I'm afraid. The voice cast are excellent, however, and the many guest stars are very welcome indeed. Listen out for the likes of Stockard Channing, Larry (Darkman) Drake, William H. Macy, Paul (The Terminator) Winfield, Cary Elwes and even George (Sulu) Takei. The great Shirley Walker contributes to the show as Supervising Composer, whilst the actual scoring belongs to Kristopher Carter, who elects to use a much more rock-orientated style with thrashing guitars ripping through every action scene in, what is now, a very dated fashion.
The accomplished team of Bruce Timm, Paul Dini and Alan Burnett should be applauded for taking Batman in such a radical new direction, though. I found later episodes to be much more solid and consistent, and the spin-off movie Batman Beyond: Return Of The Joker (in its uncut form, obviously) was a true classic. I look forward to the release of the next season.
Each episode lasts around twenty-one minutes and has no chapters. All thirteen episodes from Season One are presented across two discs.