The Joker leaps high into the air, planting one foot against Batman’s chest and then uses the other foot to rock the Dark Knight backwards with a kick to the jaw. Bane turns a dial on his wrist, unleashing a flood of his patented super-steroid Venom into his veins, turning him into a twelve-foot-tall hulking red beast. The Penguin flies forward, landing a barrage of rapid fire kicks on Batman and shortly following it up with flipping leaps into a tree. This is The Batman, and it’s a far cry from the animated adventures that had defined the character for the past ten years.
The Batman, debuting in 2004 on the Kids’ WB programming block, occupies a weird spot in his history. It came hot on the heels of the DC Animated Universe, the staggering collection of shows that began with 1992’s seminal Batman: The Animated Series and would later grow up to involve Superman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, and a duology of Justice League series, which had recently begun its last lap with Justice League Unlimited. Meanwhile, we were a year away from Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan’s genre-redefining origin story that effectively reset the tone and lore of the Batman films and Hollywood’s approach to superhero cinema in general.
In that way, The Batman, a series that begins in the third year of Bruce Wayne’s indefinite war on crime and revolves around him meeting his classic array of supervillains and allies for the first time, is a sister series to Nolan’s story. But while Batman Begins and especially its sequel would be praised for flipping a cinematic character that the public had considered as declining since the mid ‘90s, The Batman would score ire in its nascent days. It was also no Batman: The Animated Series, a show that was almost immediately rendered legendary thanks to its noir-heavy atmosphere, distinctive storytelling, and iconic grip on the denizens of Gotham City. The Batman—with its parade of toy-ready gadgets, martial arts-wielding bad guys, and dialogue that featured its fair share of puns—was stuck in its shadows.
The Batman was also undeniably for kids (even though it does include a few awesomely grotesque moments, such as a trippy episode where Batman enters the Joker’s psyche and the first reveal of Clayface—a sobering moment where a horrified man watches the skin on his face begin to sag and stretch in the mirror), and a different generation than the ones that would’ve caught 1992’s series. While B:TAS owed debt to classic crime cinema and the Fleischer Superman shorts from the 1940s, The Batman’s inspiration would come from anime. Jeff Matsuda, the chief character designer fresh off the underrated Jackie Chan Adventures, supplied all sorts of outlandish, angular models that seemed more in line with Naruto than The Third Man.
It’s here that the strengths of The Batman appear the earliest. The plotting of much of the first season remains pretty standard fare, with a few episodes climaxing in a way that suggests the sole purpose was pitching a new action figure to kids. However, the action direction is top notch, with the fight choreography taking the spotlight. Sure, the Joker and the Penguin have never previously been shown as having apparently taken so many Taekwondo lessons, but they look very cool when pulling it off.
Batman’s first duel with Bane is appropriately desperate and hard-hitting, and even his bouts with henchmen like Scarface’s Rhino and Mugsy, or The Penguin’s “Kabuki twins” are vibrant and stylish. It’s a reliably consistent aspect, something that B:TAS—who’s combat fluidity depended heavily on which studio was animating it at the time—sometimes lacked.
More serialized than B:TAS’ “every episode is a mini movie” approach, the narrative strengths of The Batman come from the long game. Season 1 wraps up with the introduction of Clayface, a former pal of Bruce Wayne driven mad and accidentally turned into walking, mutant goop by the Joker. His character arc evolves from a disgraced villain looking to lash out at Batman however he can to a man seeking redemption for his misdeeds. Similarly, Hugo Strange is introduced as Clayface’s eccentric psychologist, and over time is revealed to have malicious intent when it comes to his particular obsession with the series’ villains. Even the Joker, Batman’s immovable fiend, experiences a burgeoning jealousy of Batman’s capabilities, to the extent that his eventual partnership with Harley Quinn is implied to be framed around his wish to have a sidekick of his own.
Of course, this aspect is most apparent in the trajectory of Batman himself. In the first episode, he’s just on the cusp of notoriety, having absconded from the realms of urban legends and is now deemed a menace by the police. By the end of the Season 2, he’s unofficially deputized and in the third, he introduces Batgirl to his brand of organized vigilantism. In Season 4, Robin joins the fold, and by the fifth he’s a member of the Justice League. Over the course of 65 episodes, Batman goes from being a troubled loner to the main figure in a “Bat family” and an intergalactic group of superheroes. It’s a satisfying journey, one rarely attempted by superhero cartoons. (X-Men: Evolution is perhaps the closest comparison, but there’s also The Spectacular Spider-Man, a truly astounding animated adaptation that was canceled far too soon.)
It was this, along with The Batman eventually finding its own distinct voice (every season has at least a few great episodes, but Season 4 is a nearly perfect run) that would lead to The Batman endearing itself to a fanbase that was able to put comparisons to B:TAS aside. It would never reach B:TAS’ cultural heights, a critical pinnacle that no superhero cartoon will likely ever be able to claim thanks to its legacy. But it stands on its own now, an anime-infused journey through Batman’s career. And if you can find some glee in watching The Penguin throwing a flying roundhouse kick, The Batman is a pretty darn good place to start.
The Batman is streaming on HBO Max; the complete Blu-ray edition is also available for purchase.
Daniel Dockery is Senior Staff Writer for Crunchyroll. You can follow him on Twitter.
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