RON CAN’T STOP WON’T STOP
In the 90s, you were able to do good stuff only when no one was looking. And for “good stuff,” you can’t do much better than Batman: The Animated Series, 1992-1994. Its primary creators Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski bootstrapped themselves into deserved fame with its absolutely clear vision, their neat amalgamation of the several selves Batman had become at that point, an uncompromising love affair with inky-black visuals, and the personalities to hold their own against network TV corporates (who wanted a funny light kids’ show) and DC corporates (who wanted movie tie-ins only and ever) alike. And because the frequent writer and character designer Paul Dini
is my soulmate (cough) knew exactly what to do with the villains, this is pretty much the only Batman I like.
Pardon me while I just … watch this a few times …
[I’m not doing Batman Beyond or the later JLA or Superman shows, which I haven’t seen, and I’m sure they’re very good, just not to the current point.]
I will simply gesture with solemn gratitude to voice actor Kevin Conroy and the direction and writing which permitted him to give us a Bruce Wayne worth knowing.
Timm and Dini were masters of the Marvel villain and as I see it, literally saved the Batman franchise from itself by redefining the tired old morons from the 50s and 60s into pure Stan Lee form, beginning with Two-Face. They created a lovely taxonomy from neurotic needy guy, to total asshole, to stone cold psycho, never forgetting that each one of them is the hero of his or her own story. The series starring a classic “masked vigilante” works specifically through humanizing rather than the standard dehumanizing of the out-and-out villains. To those seeking to write and draw bad-ass scary edgy vigilante heroes, take note! If you present your growling shadowy “over the line? what line?” hero only with foes who deserve it and in fact every bit of it, then you just lost the vigilante edginess whole. It’s Bruce’s desire to help Harvey, rather than to beat Two-Face, that sets the theme for the entire show.
Then there’s Mask of the Phantasm, the only Batman movie I like (at all), and quite likely the best animated superhero rendition I can think of. The love story is beautiful, simply beautiful, script and visuals and all. Batman is sufficiently mean in his fight scenes to raise the question of whether he’s gone a bit too far down a dark road. The scene where Bruce begs his parents’ grave to release him from his vow is grade A psychological horror, the more so when it answers him. You can see his soul get scrubbed away almost but not quite – and see what it looks like for another character for whom it’s gone just a little farther. Mark Hamill is brilliant throughout the whole run of the show, but here he’s sublime. Cartoon or not, this Joker is more frighteningly grounded in real-world actual crime than any other version of the character ever. “Awww … mi Cosa Nostra is su Cosa Nostra!”
Now for the second point, the edgy violent vigilante part, which is all that keeps this post from being a straightforward gushy mess. How much of an anti-hero is Batman, anyway? Well … he talks the talk, but the walk manages to elude him. The TV Tropes guys have a great term for this: Badbutt. Sure, he smokes, swears insofar as the rating permits, glares about, threatens mayhem, and may not shave. He may even wave a gun around. But somehow, no one dies, the alleged ruthlessness never actually goes ruthless on anyone, coincidence lands the punk pushed over a ledge into a river or a softly-filled garbage bin … Batman in toto is a glaring example of frequent Badbutt, but miraculously, Timm’s desire to see Dahrrk Kniiiight rrrr in bull goose loony glory meshed so badly with network TV kids’ programming that it actually produced a watchable and working compromise in which Badbutt is reasonably compelling after all.
Timm did push it as far as he could – notable moments in the series include Bruce’s hallucinations of a huge gun lifting from the rubble of Gotham City, spewing blood, and a nice bit where we find that Batman’s carry-around gear includes a nasty-looking hunting knife. But the basic point which completely outweighs the explicit violence issue is that Batman punches punks and catches weirdo supervillains so that the cops can arrest them. Think about that. First, we simply take it as read that when the cops find Lenny and Curtis tied to a lamppost and clearly emotionally scarred from getting assaulted by a giant bat, that’s A-OK as probable cause for taking them in and presumably for seeing them eventually convicted. Second, it means that Bats really is cleaning up the joint by taking them down, legally and morally, in that if he does it, it must be OK. Wait … where’s the vigilantism here? Anywhere?
The movie touches on it a bit differently, to show that Batman is always a short step away from societal censure, necessarily diminishing Gordon’s role considerably. Arthur Reeves’ “Batman’s a menace” neatly synthesizes J. Jonah Jameson’s smearing of Spider-Man with the SWAT-vs.-Batman scene from Batman: Year One (a couple of scenes draw on other parts of the latter story too, as well as Year Two). It also admirably avoids Mary Sue-ing him, as the cops really do almost get him and conceivably, if they kept the pressure on, his costumed career would soon be cut short.
The movie is also – to tie it all together and to start in on the gushing again – the one to show us the real vigilante in the house, one of the best, most exciting, and most sympathetic first-degree murderers I can think of:
I’m not saying it’s right or even sane, but it’s all I have left, so either help me or get out of the way!
Please watch the film to find out who.
For the most part I can only say: what Ron said!
I love Mask Of The Phantasm just as much as you (and I heartily agree: only good Batman film), but I have one major complaint: they should have just adapted Batman: Year Two, with its marvelous villain the Reaper. The stories are practically identical in many ways, and every time I watch MotP I can only think that some rights-related issue prevented them from doing a direct adaptation. The Reaper (who I’ll discuss further in an upcoming column) is, in my eyes at least, so cool, and such a great villain, that he makes the Phantasm look pale and uninteresting in comparison.
Another thing I want to call out, sort of as a follow-up to a comment we made about Hub City in the Question column, is how much Timm & Co. make Gotham City itself a character. They give it, and its inhabitants, a distinctive aesthetic that’s nothing like anything ever shown in the comics, much less in real life, but somehow it works. You’ve got modern computers alongside zeppelins, and gangsters using tommy guns, but no one questions the silliness of it because it’s so Jazz Age-meets-Digital Age cool. To paraphrase Chris Cloutier (author of Golden Age Champions), it’s a setting where no technology ever completely becomes obsolete, gangsters dress like gangsters rather than sports fans, and cars don’t look like used bars of soap.
Let’s not get started on the legalities of arresting and convicting Lenny and Curtis, or we’ll be here until they ret-con our series and we have to start over at #1. As a (recovering) attorney I’ve written plenty about how the law might work in a world where superheroes exist. While it’s an utterly fascinating rabbit hole, it’s still a rabbit hole, and let’s not dive down it — at least not until Alice arrives with some tea. (Plug alert!) Check out my book Stronghold for my most recent take on the subject, if’n you’re interested.
RON IS PUZZLED
Wait – Bruce has sex with a guy named Reaper? There is certainly a wide target audience for this, but I’m gonna have to review Year Two ’cause I don’t remember that part.
Regarding the law: I’m not talking about simulating or re-casting the in-fiction legal system with “what if there were superheroes” in mind. I’m doing the reverse: what dubious presumptions are being tacitly laid into place in order for the superheroes we’re looking at to function as depicted? I don’t think that’s a rabbit hole, it’s an answerable question concerning a given piece of fiction.
For example, I just read holy-cow-all-of-it Moon Knight in prep for some more vigilante posting, and in an important issue, his old enemy Bushman has appeared in New York to run crime. Apparently for some unknown reason the police have not arrested him. Yet when MK leaves him unconscious and bleeding on the floor of his sex-and-gambling-and-heroin emporium, cops come in to finish up the job, explicitly there to arrest him now. The only thing that seems to have changed is that Moon Knight beat him up. Ergo, if Moon Knight beats you up, you are now arrestable and likely convictable. I’m not saying anything universe-wise about “how law works in Marvel New York,” I’m saying instead, see what obviously has to be borked into absurdity in order for these plots and characters to work. And to ask, can such characters work without doing that? I’m not being rhetorical. It’s a good question and a creative challenge.
Next: And the horse you rode in on
Posted on February 7, 2016, in Filmtalk, Lesser is still great, The great ultravillains and tagged Badbutt, Batman, Batman: The Animated Series, Bruce Timm, Eric Radomski, Joker, Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, Mask of the Phantasm, Paul Dini, vigilante. Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.