Batman has been, for decades now, the go-to DC Comics character for animation. Through the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, he helped Scooby-Doo solve mysteries, taught youngsters about the dangers of wasting energy and how to craft noise-makers out of paper plates and beans, and got kid-friendly with a goofy Legion of Doom. Then, fresh off the heels of Batman and Batman Returns, the iconic Batman: The Animated Series premiered in 1992, starting the DC Animated Universe and a whole new era of animated superhero goodness, including Static Shock, Batman Beyond, Superman: The Animated Series, and Justice League and Justice League Unlimited.
The Caped Crusader has headlined two additional series outside the DCAU, including the so-so The Batman (points for casting Gina Gershon to voice Catwoman in that one, though) and the delightfully funny and smart Batman: The Brave and the Bold. This wealth of programming means that Batman—through various incarnations, ranging from Olan Soule's campy chum to Kevin Conroy's definitive dark knight to Diedrich Bader's leading straight man— has been animated in some capacity during every decade since 1968.
And now there's Beware the Batman, a 3D, CGI series from Glen Murakami and Sam Register. Murakami is a veteran of the DCAU, and both men worked on Teen Titans and the Ben 10 franchise.
I admit to feeling a degree of hesitation regarding this latest incarnation, though that had little to do with any given interpretation of Batman as a character. As my rattling-off his past animated appearances can attest, Batman can shift with the times and the tones of a show so long as he has his utility belt and detective skills. No, what caused my concern was the the CGI animation. It's a matter of taste, and I'm just not a fan of Warner Bros. Animation's style. It has a plastic/rubbery feel that I struggle to find visually interesting.
Beware the Batman isn't an exception, but I do like its CGI more than I did Green Lantern's. Some of the character faces—particularly Alfred and Simon Stagg—have personality to spare, while Bruce and Tatsu feel, respectively, like "Generic White Male" and "Generic East-Asian Female." It's the difference between Green Lantern's flat, dull faces and Star Wars: The Clone Wars's more stylized and individualized visages, and I'd much rather have the latter than the former.
Helping matters with regards to the animation may be Sam Liu's direction. Liu, who's done a number of the direct-to-video DC films and some of the better Green Lantern episodes, managed to avoid the squishy sense of physics and weightlessness that I've seen too often in CGI animation. Professor Pyg's weight and bulk come through enough of the time, making him feel more distinct from the svelter Batman or the short and hoppy Mr. Toad. Liu also doesn't overextend the CGI's capabilities. Batman and Pyg's showdown in the premiere felt very much like what you'd expect to see in a 2D animation fight, and it wasn't until Batman's escape from the gas-drilling facility that Liu did a really impressive single take of running, jumping, and exploding. It cut at a weird time, but it was still something that would've likely been a pain to animate by hand, and such shots do demonstrate one of the benefits to CGI animation these days, when animation studios aren't flush with cash like they were in the 1990s.
What did not give me cause for concern going in was the producers' decision to use lesser-known Batman villains. I think it's a very fine choice because, like they've said in interviews, do we really need another Joker story? These not-so-familiar baddies also come with less interpretative baggage than the standard rogues gallery members, so there's room for the show to be flexible with them without feeling like it's mucking with superhero sacred ground.*
*Remember I said this, because in a few paragraphs I'm going to contradict myself on this very point, and I want you to know that I'm fully aware of that.
Pyg and Toad are good examples. Both were both created by Grant Morrison only a few years ago in 2009, and while Toad was a little undefined, Pyg was a raving psychopath prone to experimenting on people with drugs and performing odd surgeries (the medical saw he used as a weapon in this episode was a nice acknowledgement of his comic book incarnation). The series might've toned down the sadistic craziness of the comic book version to DCAU Joker levels, but I dug the decision to make the pair eco-terrorists. It's a timely profession, and the animal motif that both of them have gives it an air of sensibility.
What I really responded to, however, were their personalities, and it was a twofold response. First, I liked their old-timey, fairy-tale/nursery rhyme/storybook feel, with their use of honorifics and contrast in social status, with Pyg's educated air and Toad's more working class vernacular. They're a wonderful juxtaposition to each other aurally, verbally, and physically, which led me the second reason: They reminded me of Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, those two marvelous Warner Bros. players of the 1940s. Udo Kier's voice work as Toad especially called back to Lorre, and while Brian George (no doubt glad not to be playing an Indian for once) didn't remind me of Greenstreet in his voice, Pyg's dialogue sometimes rang in my ears as feeling like it'd been written for Greenstreet. In any case, they're both strong, vibrant figures, and that's exactly what the show needs in its villains.
It's telling, of course, that I discussed our villains first, rather than our protagonists. There's nothing wrong with this Batman, really, and the opening scene as he broke up the robbery was classic Batman as he predicted the thug's choice in moves and then misled him in that choice, exploiting that eerie sense of omniscience that Batman has become known for. It was a good scene, and I even liked that he was caught unawares by the thug's partner. It's still a fresh-seeming Batman that Beware is crafting, and I appreciate that he's not completely invulnerable through preparedness and gadgetry.
Anthony Ruivivar (best known for Third Watch) is... fine? I don't mind the decision to forego two very distinct voices for Bruce Wayne and Batman, but I kept thinking that it was Steven Blum, he of a gazillion voice credits. I know that Blum voiced Batman in the most recent LEGO Batman game, but I haven't played it, so perhaps I just need to have my ears checked? In any case, it's a fine performance, and I don't think that the show's doing anything really different with Bruce/Batman, at least not yet.
However, we really need to talk about Alfred, and here's where that bit about interpretative baggage comes back to haunt me. Even if you did like the episode—and I really liked it, in case that's not yet clear—I think it's possible for this Alfred to give a lot of people pause. He's very different from the normal non-comic-book media representations of the character, and I've needed a couple of days since I first screened the episode to work through my thoughts about it.
Just from a character-design perspective, I thought for a second that Lex Luthor had lost some Brady Bunch-esque wager, and had started working as Bruce Wayne's butler. I mean, you see a bald white guy in a DC Comics property, you think Lex Luthor, not Alfred Pennyworth. On top of that, this isn't the older butler/guardian we're used to; this Alfred has a strong jaw and a face that looks more at home on a boxer than a butler, no thin mustache or ring of hair.
Beware the Batman is making heavy use of the Alfred character's oft-mentioned but not always exploited background as British intelligence agent, and that's an interesting and differentiating choice, in line with the show's desire to tell new Batman stories through more obscure villains. Unlike with those villains, though, many people—and I include myself in this group—have likely grown accustomed to the polite-yet-sarcastic Alfred who delicately and lovingly keeps Bruce from losing his humanity completely to the cowl. So this more direct and almost partner-level Alfred—there's no "Master Bruce" or "Master Wayne" here, Bruce is just addressed as Bruce—rings a bit odd.
It's not completely outside the realm of comics, as the Batman: Earth One story painted Alfred as an ex-Royal Marine who was named Bruce's legal guardian after Martha and Thomas died. Alfred had a buzz cut and a goatee, and there was obviously no master/servant vibe given the circumstances. So it isn't as if this tough and durable Alfred is a completely fresh take, even if it may seem that way.
Initially I didn't care for it, and I'm still sort of on the-fence. But if there's one thing that can convince me to accept this combat butler version Alfred, it's that the core of his relationship with Bruce is the same: He's trying to protect Bruce as best he can, regardless of which mask Bruce is wearing, be it the Billionaire or the Bat. That, for me, is really important. I can come to accept this "new" Alfred because the bedrock of the character—as it's become set throughout the decades—is still there, and that matters more to me than bringing other, pre-established traits to the forefront.
I know it's contradictory of me to outright praise the changes made to the villains here—Pyg especially—while hemming and hawing about Alfred for several paragraphs, but it again speaks to that sense of interpretative baggage. I hate that it exists in this regard, and it says a lot about what I value, and what I think is important. Iron Man 3's Mandarin thing? LOVED IT. Idris Elba as Heimdall in Thor? I could not care less that he's black. Andrew Garfield half-joking about a sexually fluid Peter Parker falling for a male Mary Jane played Michael B. Jordan? Let's do it!
Yet I balk at a different take on Alfred. It's short-sighted of me, and speaks to the creative and fan-expectation inertia that can accompany characters that've been around for, well, closing in on a century now in some cases. But we—and, again, I include myself in this—should be open and, indeed, happy with new takes on characters that keep them fresh and timely. They should not be stuck in plastic clamshells like those toys that are "mint in box." They should be reinvented, and we should expect our media creators to do just that, and give them the space to do so. We may just come to like it.
In any case, I'm very eager to see more from Beware the Batman, and I hope the show continues to challenge and push our expectations as it goes forward.
– "I say, Mr. Toad, what a wonderful night for a stag hunt."
– I love that Alfred just attacked Bruce in bed like he was Cato attacking Inspector Clouseau. Man, between the Greenstreet/Lorre comparison and now a reference to the old Pink Panther movies, I am really dating myself.
– "Is that you in there, Mr. Wayne, being a cheeky peeper?"
– I really appreciate the use of Michael Holt. Would not be at all opposed to his superhero alter ego making an appearance as the show develops.
– DC Nation Short: Speaking of reinterpreted characters, the Wonder Woman short was decidedly smooth and stylish.
What'd you think of Beware the Batman's series premiere?