May 7, 2014

On Nostalgia (aka DCAU Was Awesome)

On Nostalgia (aka DCAU Was Awesome)
Matt's Mentionables
by Matt

It’s 1992, a dark, cloudy evening. A policy blimp is floating above the city, calmly looking out for any trouble. Suddenly, a dark shape flashes by. A bat? Maybe, but that big? With that quick scene and a pan to Gotham skyline, a new world was born. Paul Dini and Bruce Timm’s vision for what DC could do with it’s properties when properly and lovingly animated.

In the Beginning…

I was an undisclosed childhood age in 1992 and seeing Batman: The Animated Series opened my eyes to the DC universe in a way the comics never had (also at this point, I think I had read 0 DC comics). B:TAS opened the door to me to comics after what I can call a dry spell of being much more interested in dinosaurs. The show was also legitimately good and, has been stated numerous times before, influenced actual comics.

Mr. Freeze’s backstory and wife and Harley Quinn didn’t exist before B:TAS. In a list of characters introduced from the DCAU, only 3 aren’t from B:TAS and one of those three is Terry McGinnis, the future Batman. Perhaps my personal favorite addition is Adam West as the Grey Ghost (or, as it is said in my mind, the GREEEEEEEEY Ghost).

If you want to watch a gripping, sad and incredibly effective half hour of TV, watch Heart of Ice. The show won a Daytime Emmy for it and that episode was only its 14th(!). If you want to watch Batman being fun, watch Almost Got ‘Im. The best part of B:TAS, for me, is the characterization. The Riddler, Scarecrow and Clock King (a personal favorite) are all spot on. Menacing, but believable.

The voice acting is of incredibly high quality and often fits the characters to a T. The Joker (Mark Hamill) is the best Joker; even better than Heath Ledger’s in my opinion. Kevin Conroy is Batman. Bruce and Batman have distinctly different voices and Conroy sells the distinction easily. His is the voice I hear when I think of Batman. He is the vengeance. He is the night. He is Batman.

B:TAS opened me to the world of Batman and set an incredibly high bar no movie or comic could overcome. One such bar was that of Ra’s al Ghul (pronounced reish, no raz). Comic villains can often become cartoonish (and not it the appropriately, after-school cartoon way) and that is especially true in a rogue’s gallery like Batman’s. Ra’s was always presented as Bruce’s equal, quickly deducing his true identity and crafting plots even the Caped Crusader took time to unravel. Hell, they even spent an entire episode where Ra’s was the villain and Jonah Hex (!) was the hero and in the end, Batman let’s Ra’s go.

Mr. Freeze is also an incredible turn on the character and Michael Ansara gives the perfect pitch to the cold doctor and his tragic introduction (in the 14th episode of the series!). If there is something B:TAS does well, it is introducing it’s villains. The Riddler’s, Scarface, Two-Face, Clayface, even the Clock King, all receive excellent stories to showcase what makes them criminals Batman would spend his time stopping.

For me, the indelible mark of B:TAS (apart from getting to say bee-taz whenever I write that), was the joy it gave me in the characterization of Batman and the characters of Gotham. Also, the voices, the voices stuck and are a continuing thread throughout the DCAU.

What’s that in the sky…

Following the success of B:TAS, Warner Bros. decided to let Bruce Timm and Paul Dini try their hand at the big blue Boy Scout himself. The Superman and Batman shows were literally night and day. Superman (which, I will not refer to as S:TAS, despite a strong desire), had his adventures during the daytime, with few exceptions. He didn’t square off against psychotic ne’erdowells, just megalomaniacal businessmen, space androids and a New God or two.

Metropolis was designed to be the city of the future, full of hope, Art Deco buildings not in a state of decay and that optimistic, Jet-age sort of feel. It is bright, super bright, more so when considered as a comparison to stark, dark hues of Gotham. The foils for Superman are equally as compelling as they were for Batman.

Lex Luthor is introduced in his business magnate form and is more than a match for a Superman who cares about collateral damage and understands his role as protector of Metropolis.

Perhaps Superman’s foray into the bright world of modern animation is best known (by me) for it’s introduction of someone who would turn out to be a - if not the - recurring villain of the DCAU. I refer, of course, to the Dread Lord Darkseid:

Darkseid is by far my favorite villain and a true match for Superman. The visceral reaction of Kal-El to Darkseid is palpable. All the more so by Darkseid’s murder of Dan Turpin to end Season 1 and his brainwashing of Superman to end the series. Above all, the work of Clancy Brown (Lex Luthor) and Michael Ironside (Darkseid) create two fully developed villains. When you combine that with Dana Delany as a pitch perfect Lois, this version and vision of Superman is inspiring, emotional and a good model on relating the enormity of Superman’s power to the constraints he puts on himself.

The two-part episode of Darkseid’s attempt to take over Earth is what inspired my love of the character and my adoration of this series. It is a completely different creature than B:TAS, as it should be. Again, villains define and contrast with heroes in a way that resonates and still (15 years later) send chills up my spine.

Bat to the Future

Concurrent with the end of the Superman series, the DCAU also launched its vision of the future of the DC universe, Batman Beyond. Many may consider this series to be weak or inconsistent and they aren’t wrong on many accounts. The show is dated in a way that the other DCAU shows aren’t because it’s set in a future based on 1999 assumptions. It also uses as its protagonist a teenager who stumbles on a decrepit Bruce Wayne and effectively steals Batman from him.

My major quibble with this series is that Terry McGinnis (the titular Batman) is basically given technological powers and is not the self-made hero Bruce was. They share a similar tragic formation (and also genetics as it turns out), but Terry is decidedly more emotional than Bruce. That character decision is both a boon and deadweight on the series.

Despite my quibbling, I still love the hell out of the show. What the show gets right is the setting and the ability to callback without being obsessed with the past. To me, it illustrates a way to deal with 70 years of continuity without becoming simply a retelling of the old stories. Commissioner Gordon calls Batman a menace, but this Commissioner used to be Bat-Girl.

Batman Beyond blends the old with the new, often with a wink and nod. This strategy is one that would be adopted and adapted well to the DCAU’s next venture: the Justice League.

Unlimited Justice (League) for All

The logical leap once Bruce Timm and Paul Dini conquered both Batman and Superman was to move their focus on to the Justice League. The Justice League as a comic itself is complicated and complex. These issues are multiplied with the shorter attention span of kids and cartoons. I remember, I was one of them at some point. (At this point, it’s also important to remind you that, I toned down this section a lot, so consider how long this article could’ve been…)

The opening of the Justice League is epic. The first two seasons on the show (before it went Unlimited) feature a single stand alone episode. The rest take at least 2 and some 3 episodes to tell. These episodes rarely feel padded and watching them on DVD (as I routinely did), they feel seamless. The question is how? How did they manage to make the weirdness of the Martian Manhunter, the power of Wonder Woman and the humor of the Flash work?

The answer is really in a modified form of good storytelling, fan service and humor. Occasionally, time travel. I want to highlight 3 episodes that really show the success of this model: Legends, A Better World, and Hereafter. These are exclusively Justice League episodes, Unlimited comes after.

A wink and a nod is often given to the past in Justice League episodes. The lineup before the expansion is a modified version of the traditional lineup. The Big Three are present as is a Flash, Green Lantern and the Martian Manhunter. The major differences are the presence of Hawkgirl and the versions of Flash and GL used. John Stewart is serious and an ex-Marine (and non-architect) and probably my least favorite JL character.

One of the classic Justice League stories involves them interacting with the Justice Society of America. It involves Cosmic Treadmills, Flashes and the like. It’s a good Silver Age story. To adapt that story to the modern world, the DCAU went with a story called Legends. Essentially, the Martian Manhunter, Flash, GL and Hawkgirl. The members of the Justice Guild are analogues to the JL and JSA team members. You have Catman (Wildcat), the Green Guardsman (GL and can’t affect anything aluminum) and several match ups to the JL line up. The story, thanks to J’onn’s telekinesis gets dark, but ultimately it works as a way to showcase humor (the scene with Hawkgirl in the kitchen), good storytelling (basically, you don’t know what where things are going, except that eventually everyone will go home) and fan service (essentially, this episode is Flash of Two Worlds, but with nuclear destruction). The first episode it just so silly, you’d think you were watching a cartoon starring Spider-Man and Firestar.

While I love a good, goofy comedy, I am more a fan of the dystopian story. To get that, and to basically see the episode that sets into motion all of Justice League Unlimited, watch A Better World. The episode does a great job of sucking you in from the beginning because you think you’re just watching a regular episode. Until Superman vaporizes Lex Luthor in the White House. It’s a fantastically effective establishing scene. You are on Earth-3, kind of. The key difference, and lynchpin of the series, the Flash of the Justice Lords is dead. The best scenes are between Kevin Conroy as Batman and Kevin Conroy as Batman. In case you missed it above, Conroy — to me — is the definitive Batman. The story is well done, there are callbacks to old episodes and shows, plus, things aren’t all dark and grim. They even let GL crack a joke!

Nothing quite tests a show than time travel. I mean, it’s complicated, makes no sense in a contemporary sitcom and causes headaches for even established sci-fi shows. Enter Hereafter. Basically, the cold open involves a massive fight where Toy Man vaporizes Superman via some unknown weapon. The whole world assumes Superman is dead, except (naturally) Batman. The first episode focuses on the fallout in the present from Superman’s departure, with some nice work by Lobo. There is a lot of humor and remorse in the first half, the characters are real, the loss of Superman heartbreaking. The second half is all Superman, with a bear and weird future dog-wolves. Plus Vandal Savage as not a villain. The real villain? Super-mutant-future Roaches. It’s great, humorous and fast. The best part, the end, doesn’t even show a resolution to what Superman does, just a fade out.

There are many, many, many additional great episodes in the first round of Justice League. Personally, I love the reveal of who the Flash is in Starcrossed. It’s great, no one knows who he is except Batman.

Moving on to JLU, the episodes become more on-off arcs. You get introduced to just a cavalcade of characters.

I can name...most of these people.

Booster Gold (!) even gets his own episode. There is another call out to the fact that no one knows who the Flash really is anyway. The JLU episodes focus on the arrival of Cadmus (due to mostly the Legion of Doom doing stuff), but the Suicide Squad gets a shoutout as does the Seven Soldiers of Victory. Basically, any episode Dwayne McDuffie was a part of is worthwhile to watch. Since, at this point, I would probably just blather like an idiot, I will just give recommendations: The Greatest Story Never Told, The Once and Future Thing, Task Force X, Epilogue, The Great Brain Robbery, Alive! and Destroyer (the series finale).

I know that this ending makes it seem like Justice League is getting short shrift, but by the time you’ve worked your way through Batman, Superman, future Batman, and the Big Seven Justice League, you will just be a quivering mass of fanboy idiocy for Bruce Timm and Paul Dini’s creations. The voice actors they manage to get are amazing good at conveying the stories of these crazy, powerful beings. Kevin Conroy is the voice I read Batman comics as, Clancy Brown is Lex Luthor, Michael Ironside is the Dread Lord Darkseid. The work is truly phenomenal.

Really, though, the person you should thank for a lot of the success of JL and JLU is Dwayne McDuffie, but sadly he’s not around to make fun, engaging stories anymore.

The verdict? Get Netflix or buy these all of DVD, yesterday. Take a 2 week vacation and watch everything. Skip season 4 of Batman. Once you’ve managed to stop watching them, come and we can chat about the episodes that don’t work (I would say a greater than 75% of them work, the success rate increasing as the series progress).

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