Monday, October 06, 2008

Batman: TAS - Episode 1 - On Leather Wings

A couple last points of introduction to the Batman Animated Series.

It should be pointed out that I'm most familiar with the final incarnation of the show, The New Adventures of Batman, for which many of the characters went through design modifications. I will try to keep the comparison between the two styles to a minimum until we get to the new episodes, but some comparisons will be inevitable.

As I understand it, this series is sort of a continuation of the Tim Burton Batman films, with the notable exception that the villains who bought it in the movies are no longer deceased. Maybe we could call it a spiritual sequel, if not a true sequel. The style is meant to match the films, the look of many characters are similar - Penguin is basically an animated version of Danny DeVito's character. As I mentioned in the intro post Danny Elfman's Batman theme is the basis for the music of the show, the theme can be heard at times exactly matching the soundtrack, but Shirley Walker's music blends in perfectly. It's a perfect mood setter.

Being a continuation of the films none of the characters receive an introduction of any kind. Everybody has heard of Batman, some people like him, some really don't, and some don't know what to think. Commissioner Gordon already has at least a working relationship with Bats, if not yet a real friendship. Detective Harvey Bullock really doesn't like Batman at all.

The setting of the show is a curious mix of modern/slightly futuristic and an older 40's/50's look. The vehicles are old style cars, the police have a WWII era blimp, while Batman has a highly advanced computer, with sophisticated voice-recognition, sound wave analysis, in later episodes we also see complicated chemical and spectral analysis, and in this episode it speaks too. Additionally Batman's car is similarly very technologically advanced.

Also, this post took way too long. I spent a little over two weeks writing it, getting screenshots and the video clip. I'm not going to spend this much time on each episode. I wrote way too much for this one, you don't need a frame by frame replay of the episode, and even if you want one you're not getting it. For future posts in this series I'll be only doing a high level plot recap, I'll only dwell on the points that I really enjoyed. I'd like to set up a schedule, both to help me get posts out in a reasonable time, and because we'll be here forever if we don't do this in a timely manner, what with there being 12 DVDs just for Batman TAS, not counting the 4 movies, and I want to do Superman, Justice League, and Batman Beyond too. I think the plan will be to have a post reviewing two episodes ready every Tuesday morning. We'll see how it goes.

Okay, now on to the review. I'd better repost the opening screen, because I love it and you might have missed it before.

This episode seemed at first quite different from the episodes that I'm more familiar with. It began with what seemed to me a very different visual style than the episodes I'm familiar with. The opening has an almost blurry feel to everything, like an old 40's detective movie.

After the opening titles (which you should look up on if you haven't seen them before) the title screen for the episode appears (pictured above, in case you missed it the second time) with some great music that reminds me of an old horror or mystery show. On Leather Wings opens to a shot of dark, heavy clouds late at night, the view then pans until a break in the clouds reveals us to be high over Gotham city. It's dark and gloomy, car lights can be seen on the roads between the tall buildings. A blimp floats by with '* Police* ' on the side. Cut to the interior where we see two cops, an older experienced cop, and a young, nervous cop flying the blimp, with Old Cop reporting in to the station that all is quite in Gotham City for once. Yeah, that's not going to come back to bite him on the ass. And I guess it really doesn't either.

Young Cop sees a blip on his radar, but when he mentions it to Old Cop it's gone, Old Cop tells him he's seeing things. Then something large flies past the window suddenly, but Old Cop doesn't see it, but he tells Young Cop to fly above the clouds so they can see whatever it was, but nothing's there.

We see the blimp fly off and the camera pans down to a dark shape fling past the towering skyscrapers of Gotham. We see the creature flying through the dark night for a few seconds and over a building with the sign 'Phoenix Pharmaceuticals', then cut to a security guard wandering inside darkened building. He's speaking into a little tape recorder with a bland, not very impressive voice "Testing, testing one two three." Then suddenly switching to a deeper, radio announcer voice he records an advertisement for some learn-to-be-a-radio-or-tv-announcer class. I found it amusing.

As the guard walks he hears a loud thump-crash. He tip-toes back to a room he's alrady passed and looks around, there's a large window, moonlight casting shadows on the floor and wall behind him, but he sees nothing. He heaves a huge sigh of relief and walks on by, his shadow cast on the wall behind him. The camera doesn't pan with the guard, but stays focused on the wall, where we suddenly see a very large, non-human shadow sneaking up behind the guard. The camera switches to follow the guard, who suddenly stops and shakes suddenly, I can only imagine he got a very nasty chill down his spine. He turns to see what it is, and screams as the beast swings at him, knocking his recorded out of his hands and under a desk. The guard grabs a chair from the desk and throws it at the beast, which ducks and the view changes to show us the chair smash through one of the large windows. We see the shadow of the creature on the wall through the window as it picks up the guard and hurls him through the window. The guard screams as he falls, making a big splash in the river, conveniently located next to the building.

We see a newspaper declaring that the Police are after Batman for his connection to several robberies. It's the next day and Commissioner Gordon and Detective Harvey Bullock are arguing in the Mayor's office. Apparently the robbery at Phoenix Pharmaceutical last night is the third or fourth such robbery, where witnesses report seeing Batman. Only this time someone was seriously injured. Harvey wants the Mayor's support to organize a task force to capture the dangerous vigilante. Commissioner Gordon argues that it's not Batman's MO, it's probably someone else and has refused to authorize the strike force. We see someone's hand resting on the arm of a chair, idly flipping a coin and the Mayor ends the argument by approving Bullock's request for a swat team and choppers. The Mayor asks if he needs anything else, to which Harvey says to make sure there's someone in the DA's office with enough guts to prosecute, he'll bring the Bat in. We see a man in suit sitting in a chair flipping the coin who says, "If you catch him, Harvey, I'll put him in jail for you". He's not named, but he's obviously Harvey Dent, District Attorney in Gotham City.

Later that night we see Wayne Manor sitting atop cliffs high above the ocean. In the BatCave Batman reads the news headlines, while Alfred pours him some tea, or coffee, or possibly hot chocolate, since it is a cartoon. They discuss the headlines and I must point out that while Clive Reville did a great job voicing The Emperor in The Empire Strikes Back, his Alfred voice sucks. It's slow, and almost too low to hear, and he has no personality. He tries to be snide with Batman, but it doesn't really work. They probably thought Alfred shouldn't have a personality, but he should be the most proper British butler, but really it's no good. Thankfully they cast someone else for the role a few episodes later, who really gives Alfred some great personality and allows for much better banter between him and Batman.

Batman heads to the crime scene to investigate, World's Greatest Detective that he is and we get lots of footage of the Batcar driving the long (but quite variable, episode to episode) distance between Wayne Manor and Gotham City. I really quite like the design of this car, although the later design is a little better. This one is obviously reminiscent of the vehicle from Burton's Batman. From the ridiculously long hood, to the forward sliding, two windowed cannopy, to the winged rear wheel covers to the single rocket engine. It's cool, it's rather impractical, but who cares?

Arriving at Phoenix he shoots his grappling hook at the top of the building, and as he flies up it two scientist types making out in a dark office see his shadow on the wall, they call the cops. Batman enters the building and seeing a guard seated at the door to the room where the crime occurred rolls a ball under her feet, which releases gas and knocks her out. Now we get to see Batman at his sneaky, investigative best. He just knocked out a police officer without her even noticing he was there. Now he must enter the room to investigate, but oh no! There's a barrier, a single strip of police line tape is strung across the door opening. What does Batman do? Not what somebody trying to keep their presence hidden would do. He tears right through the paper as if he didn't notice it at all. Um, WTF?

Meanwhile Bullock receives a call while in his squad car, informing him Batman has been sighted at the scene of the crime. He orders the SWAT team and a chopper to converge on the location. We see squad cars and a SWAT truck enroute to the lab, and get a look at the SWAT team inside. As stated before, the cars look old-timey, and the truck looks like a cross between a refrigerator box and a bus.

Back at the lab Batman sprays the room with some sort of red spray and puts on some InfraRed goggles that look like something Cyclops would wear, with build in digital zoom and photo capability. He finds strange hairs which he gathers, as well as seeing the guards footprints by the desk. He looks underneath it and retrieves the cassette player. He examines the desk and finds hairs which he takes, all the while we hear police sirens slowly fade in, though Batman doesn't notice until they arrive at the building and spotlights are shined through the window. He might have been just a little too focused on the investigation.

As the SWAT team storms the building Batman starts his escape. Gordon arrives, and Bullock is as excited as a kid at Christmas as he informs the Commish they have the Bat cornered, and he won't escape. "That's great," says Gordon, only you've got the wrong suspect, another chem lab was just robbed! You've got the wrong suspect."

We see Batman trying to prise open the door to an elevator as some SWAT guys come around the corner, he drops some gas bombs which knock them out then slides down the elevator cable. As he exits the shaft more SWAT guys see him and shoot as he jumps sprints down the hall. He sneaks around and hides in a dark room, shortly after which a SWAT member enters the room. Batman pulls the machine gun right out of his hands and covers his mouth. The team outside the room think they hear something, so they toss a smoke grenade in the room, not noticing the warning sign above the door, and it lands by several gas cans. Batman grabs the SWAT guy and jumps out of the window. The room explodes as though two pounds of C-4 had been in there, instead of a few 5 gallon gas cans. Batman and the SWAT guy land safely, and Gordon and Bullock come running, the SWAT member faints as Batman runs off into the night.

And we're only halfway through the episode, I'm going to see if I can speed up my recap. The next scene shows us Gotham Zoo, and Bruce Wayne walking through the bat exhibit. Bruce has a totally different demeanor than Batman, a slightly silly smirk on his face, standing taller and more proper. He even talks different, a slightly higher voice, and one that is a little harder to take as seriously. He encounters a Dr March, a shortish, hunched man with gray hair in a lab coat who comes out of a back room and practically yells at Bruce, "Why you bothering me?" Bruce says he called earlier about a bat problem in his attic. The scientist goes off on a tirade, "What do you think we are, pest control?" But he does let him in to the back room, muttering about Bruce thinking he owns the place, just because he donated a few million dollars to the exhibit.

Bruce explains about hearing squeaks in his attic and finding hair in his chimney, a sample of which he gives to the doc. The man clearly has been designed at scripted to arouse our suspicions. He obviously likes bats more than people, and though I know who Man-Bat is in the comics, I'm actually a little thrown, and wonder if he's supposed to be Man-Bat. I mean, sure Bruce Timm thinks of it as an adult show, and I do, but I know that the studio had to think it was a kid's show, being a cartoon, and wonder if some of the writers did too, and they're making it easy for the kids to spot the bad guy.

Anyway, he goes into a tirade, asking Bruce what he'll do if he does have bats in his belfry (no he didn't say that, I did), "you'll kill them like some insect?" He continues saying humans won't survive the next evolutionary calamity, but bats will, and bats are so much greater than people and they're not pests, they're a great benefit to man kind and yadda yadda yadda. A woman's voice interrupts his tirade, and we see pretty blonde woman in a lab coat, Bruce's interest appears to perk up, and he's suddenly a little smarmy as he introduces himself. The woman is Dr March's daughter, Dr Francine Langstrom, wife of Dr Kirk Langstrom, who enters the room just as she says his name.

Dr March runs off with the hair sample, Dr Langstrom is a little too friendly, and now I'm suspicious that he's Man-Bat, and wonder why Dr March is such a jerk. Anyway, Bruce pulls out a tape player and says he recorded a sound he heard from his chimney and watches both Dr's Langstrom closely for their reaction. The sound is very obviously not bats, sounding more like Godzilla or some other scary Japanese monster. Francine is very surprised, not having heard such a sound, Kirk says they'll analyse it, comparing it to other animal sounds.

Back in the Bat Cave Batman listens to the sounds again, when Alfred approaches and makes a joke about Batman listening to rock and roll music, which would have worked much better had The Real Alfred given the line, instead of the monkey-eyed, old-woman Emperor. Batman says the computer hasn't been able to identify the sound. He gets a call from Dr March, stands up a little straighter, and suddenly Bruce's voice comes out of the Bat costume, and it's really odd. "Hey, what's up, doc?" He asks. Seriously. It was awesome, but then, I love Looney Tunes. Dr March says Bruce has bats in his attic, and they'll probably go away as it gets colder. He says the sound he recorded was bats and starlings. After the call Batman has the computer analyse the sound comparing to bats and starlings, and surprise, surprise (not really) it's not bats and starlings.

Realizing that Dr March is lying to him Batman heads off to the lab to snoop around. In the meantime we hear spooky music and see a shadow figure in the lab burn the tape and hair evidence that Bruce had given Dr's March and Langstrom. Shortly thereafter another shadowy figure (easily identified as Dr Kirk Langstrom) is hunched over one of the tables, holding some small vials in his hands, "Can't fight it, it's got me" he says, drinking the contents of the vials." That's not at all suggestive, is it?

Later, Batman enters the lab and finds the vials of chemicals that have a Phoenix Pharmeceuticals label on it (incriminating!), and then someone enters the room. "Who's there?" Dr Kirk Langstrom asks, and Batman reveals himself. "You!" Langstrom says. "I'm looking for Dr March." "He's not here, Batman." Langstrom says, suddenly sounding very unconcerned. He pulls off his rubber gloves and closes the door behind him. Batman says March is deluded, a liar and a thief, but Langstrom says he's a theorist, afraid to try out his ideas. "But I wasn't." He says. "We created a formula to create and entirely new species, neither human nor bat." He says he started taking the formula, but then couldn't stop, it started taking over. Francine and March tried to protect him, but it was too late. The beast knew how to make the formula itself, and that it only needed one more formula to complete the process, the one he had just taken.

"It's in me, Batman!" His voice distorts with the last few words, he starts laughing evily. And then, he changes. His voice gets deeper, his teeth get sharper, his body gets bulkier, his mouth stretches, his hair spikes out, his ears lengthen and move up on his head, his eyes turn yellow, he gets bigger and bigger until his chest and arms burst out of his lab coat, now with wings hanging from his arms, his legs lengthen and rips his pants, until he is, the Man-Bat. A large, perversion of nature, an unnatural crossing of man and bat. A monster.

I noticed something interesting about this transformation. Firstly, it seemed a tad more graphic than I would have expected for a 17 year old cartoon. Maybe I'm just out of touch with what kids would find scary, and I've probably forgotten that as I kid I would have thought it was really cool. The other thing is, like the Hulk, now matter how large he gets his legs never do more than shred the lower legs of his pants. His shirt and lab coat practically explode off his body as he transformed, but his pants didn't. It must bind like hell...No wonder Hulk and Man-Bat are always in such bad moods, their pants are much too tight for their man parts.

Man-Bat is suddenly very hostile. Smashing all the tubes and vials, he flies at Batman and knocks him down, he throws a desk on him, jumped on it, and looked like he was going to bite him. And Francine arrived to save Batman. She's yells at Kurt and backs away horrified. He's shirks from her glare and flies out the window, smashing through the glass. Batman shoots his grapple which wraps around it's leg and is pulled free of the desk to be dragged through the air behind him. A chase scene now occurs, as Man-Bat flies over Gotham trying to shake Batman off him. There's a nice shot that seems an homage to Tim Burton's Batman, with the shadow of Man-Bat and Batman flying up in front the moon.

We see our favorite police officers again, floating high above the city in their blimp. It's quiet and peaceful, the music having stopped. Young Cop again notices something strange on the radar, "Not again." Old Cop whines. "I'm serious," Young Cop argues, "It's right below us." And it was. Man-Bat shrieks and flies past them, slamming Batman's face into the glass next to Young Cop.

Old Cop radios for choppers, and we again see Bullock and Gordon fighting about catching Batman. They both jump in a chopper which takes off, looking for the Bat. Man-Bat drags Batman through the steel framework of a building just under construction. Batman narrowly avoids getting slammed into the steel beams, and as Man-Bat dives, Batman lands one and pulls the cable tight, but Man-Bat slams into him, knocking him off. Batman grabs his neck as they fall and hangs on tight. Back in the chopper Bullock sights them, "There he is!" he shouts as they head straight towards them. "There they are." Gordon corrects him. "What is that thing?" Bullock asks.

Now sitting on Man-Bat's back Batman hammers several powerful punches to Langstrom's face. He then covers his eyes with his arms and steers him to face-plant into the side of a building. They fall to a ledge, Man-Bat unconscious, Batman dazed. The chopper is quick to follow them, and Batman hoists Langstrom over his shoulder and runs off into the night.

We again see Batman in the Bat Cave, and Man-Bat laid out on a table. He has a list of all the items stollen from the various pharmeceutical companies, and he thinks he can synthesize an antidote. He enters some information into his computer, and we then see the Car pull up to the Lab, and Batman exists carrying a shape wrapped in his cape. Francine runs out and asks if he's okay, and if he'll change again. "No," Batman says, "the formula is out of his system. It's over. For now." The theme swells as the screen fades to black. And the credits roll.

I really enjoyed this episode, partly because it was the first, and I'm not sure if I'd seen it before. The transformation was the best part, it surprised me and it looked really good. For those of you that haven't seen it, here it is.

I can't really explain why I liked it so much, except that I was trying to watch it as though I hadn't seen the series before, or at least wasn't very familiar with it. I really liked the way Bruce Wayne and Batman were voiced, and depicted as completely different people. Bruce Wayne was light-hearted, and very happy and optimistic sounding, which is the polar opposite of Batman, who is the Eternal Pessimist. Just everything about this show is great. The visual and musical styles are so faithful to the character of Batman from the (good) movies and comics.

Batman has always been my favorite Super Hero, and this show is a great way to get to know him, the had such freedom to tell so many great stories, and they did. And it's certainly more accessible than comics, and at their current price on eBay it's certainly cheaper. Sure, we're not going to get such long, involved stories as Cataclysm and No Man's Land, or even something shorter like Knightfall or Hush, but it's a wonderful introduction to the character, and has probably been the single greatest contributor to my DC fanboyism. Maybe after I finish going through all five Bruce Timm series' I'll move on to review what comics I have. Or maybe the Teen Titans show, I know Rish would love that.

Moving on, this episode was written by Mitch Brian, who also wrote two other episodes. He also wrote, co-wrote, adapted, or otherwise worked on other stuff, none of which I've heard of. Kevin Altieri directed this episode, and Wikipedia says he's best known for his work on Batman the Animated series, and Pearl Jam's video "Do the Evolution". Skimming down the list of episodes (before the rename to The Adventures of Batman and Robin) he directed over 10 of them, so I guess he's cool, and I like his work.

The character voices of note in this are of course, the staples of the series: Kevin Conroy as Bruce Wayne/Batman, Bob Hastings as Commissioner Gordon, Robert Costanzo as Detective Harvey Bullock, and Lloyd Bochner as Mayor Hamilton Hill (who I honestly didn't remember had a name other than Mayor). Other voices include, Richard Moll of Night Court fame as Harvey Dent (and later Two-Face. Looking over his past work I notice he was in the pilot episode of Highlander: the Series, which I have and should have recognized him from, I guess. He also voiced The Scorpion in Spiderman: the Animated Series.

Dr Kirk Langstrom was voiced by Marc Singer, who when I saw his picture recognized as the protagonist in Beastmaster, he also guest stared in many shows I like - The Twilight Zone, Murder, She Wrote, and Highlander, the Series. He is cousin to the director Brian Singer (the X-Men series, Superman Returns). And I've already talked about what I thought of Clive Revill's portrayal of Alfred.

And finally, the voice and name that should have stood out to me the most (and I guess it sorta did, but I didn't consciously recognize it, but I bet Rish would) René Auberjonois played Dr March. I know him as Odo, from Star Trek: Deep Space 9. He also cameoed in a few movies, Colonel West in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, and Dr. Burton, a mental asylum doctor patterned after Tim Burton, in Batman Forever. Wikipedia says he voiced several roles in this series, and also Justice League Unlimited so we'll be hearing more of him in the future.

I really did go in to far too much detail on this episode, and I won't be doing it again (except maybe on rare occasion). It was fun to watch the episode and write it up at the same time, but just took too much time. So shorter write ups in the future, probably fewer screen grabs, but maybe not. Next up will be Christmas with the Joker and Nothing to Fear.

One last thing. I also must say I'm really quite proud of the screen shots I was able to get (thanks to Windows Media Classic). They turned out very crisp and clear, and a much bigger size than I was expecting - I widened the format of this blog by over a sixth so I wouldn't have to scale the images down. I'm also happy with the video captures, although uploading them to youtube lowers the quality, until I can figure out how to embed the hi-res version instead of the standard.

Episode Listing


Marissa said...

That was fun to read. I like how you put the screen shots in; they definitely add to the text.

Leather Pants said...

nice post love it