Batman: The Animated Series “On Leather Wings”

28Nov10

Man-Bat is probably the weirdest villain Batman fights on a regular basis.

That’s a strange claim to make about a man whose archenemy is the Joker, but thematically, almost all of Batman’s enduring villains are visually distinctive in their own right. They mirror Batman in some way, comment on themes about Batman himself, and offer a different visual than him-Joker’s clowns, Twoface’s obsession with the duality of order and ruin, the Riddler’s green and question marks. But Man-bat? He’s a giant bat. That’s….about it. I suppose he goes shirtless, so you could claim he’s like an unsexy version of Batman, but that’s a hell of a stretch. He’s just an interesting play on words that managed to stick around.

But oddly enough, that makes him a pretty good choice for the first episode of the Animated Series, because that lack of distinction makes it easier to focus on Batman himself. Sure, the character was over 60 years old when the series started, so very few people needed an introduction to the concept. But there are many versions of Batman, and it would take some time for the series to get a handle on how it wanted their Batman to act. Pitting him against one of his least colorful villains isn’t a bad start, and it’s better than a possible misuse of someone like the Joker.

Before we get into the story itself, there’s the killer opening. This is probably the greatest opening of any cartoon ever made, in my opinion, because we don’t get a hyperkinetic showing of all the possible cast members-we get a story. A dark city. A vicious crime. A vehicle for vengeance…and a man who will not be stopped. Every time it thrills me, exactly because it leaves out anyone exceptional but Batman. And the music is just perfect.

I could rave about the opening for a while, but there’s a little bit more than that, isn’t there? Besides, we’ll get to see that all throughout the first season. Something weird shoots past a police blimp (probably one of the most impractical ideas you could think of, honestly), because there’s a giant bat thing flying around in Gotham! And it attacks a security guard at one of Gotham’s innumerable chemical companies. Naturally, the Gotham Police declare that it’s Batman, and that they’ll catch him.

Realistically, it’s hard to fault them for thinking he might be involved; there’s no “beginning of Batman” episode in the first season, so we’re dropped into the middle of a Gotham City where people know about him. And no self-respecting police force is going to applaud a vigilante, no matter how well-meaning, controlled and successful they are. But at the same time, you’d think they would wait a moment before saying that the man who regularly captures the Joker for them has randomly thrown a security guard out a window. Then again, maybe it’s more resentment than any real evidence. “It had big wings-” “All right, it’s Batman. Shoot to kill, boys!” “But I know it wasn’t Batman! It was-” “Okay, he’s delirious now, don’t listen to him.”

The more important thing for the series is that this scene establishes some of the more normal characters. We get to see Mayor Hamilton Hill, who’s motivated primarily by concern for how the voters think, saying that something needs to be done-he intentionally leaves it vague what that something will be. Then there’s Commissioner James Gordon, arguing the point that Batman is not going to randomly assault security guards at this point, while his subordinate Detective Harvey Bullock says that Batman is doing illegal things anyway, so why not take him down? And finally, there’s a pre-Twoface Harvey Dent, ready to prosecute, but expressing no opinion on if he should be captured.

Batman’s first appearance is a good example of that wrestling with tone. Alfred’s voice will change, but his character is already in place: sardonic, using humor to deflate his master’s exploits without being too disapproving. But Batman actually smiles in response to one of his jokes, and counters another with a joke of his own. It’s a surprising contrast to both the opening and the image he projects to criminals in most of the series, but it’s another reason I love the series-an effort was made to humanize Batman without making him outright silly. Whether that effort works…well, we’ll see. But it’s a great improvement over him being grim all the time.

With an anime-esque exit in the Batmobile (lightning on the wheels? How would you possibly get that?), he goes off to investigate not the security guard’s assault, but the chemicals that went missing from that plant, and others. While he’s able to do some investigating, his accidental cock-blocking of two scientists means that he gets the police called in on him, and he’s not able to get away before they arrive. Things end up blowing up before Batman escapes the scene, making the SWAT teams (who look like old football players in their uniforms) look like chumps.

In his Bruce Wayne persona, Batman goes to some bat experts for analysis on the clues he’s found-an odd choice, but it sets up the possible suspects, including one obvious red herring. Back in the Batcave, Batman explains his reasoning…and when he gets called about the results, gets to point out just how much the red herring is lying. But when he goes to confront the scientists, we find out who the Man Bat really is, in another anime inspired animation sequence. Soon the two of them are flying around Gotham, in a visual showcase that’s far better than I remember, and gives the police definitive proof that…well, not that Batman didn’t attack anyone, but that there’s something else that looks like a bat running around, at least. Also, it features Batman punching Man-bat in the face, mid-flight, before forcing it to ram head-first into a building. I don’t know about you, but that’s awesome.

The episode has an unusual ending compared to most Batman episodes-he’s able to turn Man Bat back into a human. But rather than turning him over to the police, he takes him to his wife, who knew about the transformation.

So how did the first episode of Batman: The Animated Series work? Better than I had remembered, fortunately. There’s still some tonal issues that are being worked out, and the odd animation that hasn’t been smoothed over yet. But it’s a stronger story than I’d thought, and some of that odd animation was quite lovely. It’s easy to see why I’m not the only one who was taken with it in the beginning.

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