Written by Musgo Del Jefe
The Batman's been around since 1939. In almost 70 years, he's existed in print, on the silver screen, on the television, in video games, and loads of other mediums. It's hard to imagine someone that hasn't interacted with Bruce Wayne's universe in one way or another. The character has essentially remained the same in every incarnation and reboot; it's usually the themes, surrounding cast, and tone that change. I first encountered Batman as a young child, just getting home off the bus and running in to catch reruns of the campy TV show from the Sixties. Batman existed for me in the various incarnations of the Superfriends on Saturday mornings also. The character had never truly crept into my imagination until my college days when I came across The Dark Knight Returns in 1986. This Frank Miller take on the character struck a chord with this young adult at the time. That dark vision of Batman's future was a heavy influence on the Tim Burton Batman films and I was hooked. That fandom led me to the ultimate comic adaptation of this character in the Bruce Timm-produced, Batman: The Animated Series. While following the different incarnations of this universe through the Justice League Unlimited project, another Batman project flew in under my radar.
Since 2004, an animated show called The Batman has been airing on Kids' WB (now The CW). I came to this show fresh with no prior knowledge of the show with the latest DVD release, The Batman – The Complete Fourth Season. As a relatively knowledgeable Bat-fan, I immediately knew that I had dropped into a fan-friendly universe. The Fourth Season starts with the episode "A Matter Of Family." This episode introduces us to Dick Grayson, who'll become Robin by the end of this story and a mainstay for the whole season. It's the little nods to the rich tapestry of Batman's history that make this so accessible. Dick's father is voiced by Kevin Conroy (voice of Batman from Batman:TAS). Tony Zucco is voiced by Mark Hamill (voice of The Joker from Batman:TAS). Dick's origin mostly follows the initial DC Comics story with a slight nod to the wonderful Batman: Dark Victory mini-series, but the core of story remains strong, Bruce and Dick both lose their parents in front of their own eyes and initially seek crime-fighting as a way to find revenge. This link, this understanding is the basis of their relationship. In the end, Robin saves Zucco's life, but the question of "justice" remains.
There are two episodes in this season that illustrate the power of good storytelling. The power of not talking down to kids. The first is "Strange New World." The episode starts with a shot of helicopters, reminiscent of the opening sequence of Batman:TAS. The story starts with Batman surrounded by zombies and we are taken back 48 hours to see how we got to this point. Dr. Strange is behind bars at Arkham Asylum and threatens to turn all of Gotham into zombies. Slowly, Dr. Strange's prophecy starts to come true. Eventually, Batgirl and then Alfred and eventually Robin are turned into fast-moving zombies and Batman is all alone. By starting at the end, we know that Batman is going to come to a point in which he's surrounded by zombies. He has what he thinks is the antidote, but he's not sure. The delicious detective work he pulls and the "Twilight Zone"-ish ending are worthy of some of the best issues of the comic series. It's a rare episode of any superhero series that pulls in both the fun villains like zombies in combination with the great Moriarty/Holmes relationship that Dr. Strange and Batman have.
This episode is followed by the strongest episode of the season, "Artifacts." This story is a fresh break even in a 13-episode season. The story starts in 3027 and flashes back to 2027. In the far future, the Batcave has just been discovered. Investigators follow the clues in the cave to reconstruct what happened in 2027. This episode shares many elements with The Dark Knight Returns. The Batman of 2027 has the same scar as in the book, drives a tank-like Batmobile that's similar to the book and Batman Begins, and Mr. Freeze even utters the line, "the Dark Knight returns." But the plot isn't beholden to the story of the book, nor does it expect the viewer to necessarily have knowledge of that story. It's a testament to the writers that the story is influenced by other projects, but it commands the characters in a way that fits the universe that it exists in. Dick Grayson is now Nightwing and Barbara Gordon is now the wheelchair-bound Oracle.
Like in "Strange New World," there's a time element to add to the suspense. The investigators in 3027 need to find the right clues or New Gotham will be destroyed. As their investigation unfolds, so does the parallel story in 2027 with Batman battling a more powerful Mr. Freeze. The viewers are assembling the clues along with the future cops. And once the 2027 storyline is completed, there's a solution to the problem in New Gotham. Yet, there's a way that Batman, even 100 years later shows us that his "legend" lives on.
The Fourth Season has a nice variety of villains – Joker, Penguin, Clayface (two of them), Killer Croc, and more. The weakest of the bunch is Black Mask (in "The Breakout") who comes across as a very poor man's version of the Red Skull. Some stories are straightforward: bad guy commits crime and Batman and family catch them. There are also a good balance of stories that require more detective work to solve, which has always been an important part of the Batman mythos. This season introduces Harley Quinn in "Two Of A Kind", interestingly written by Paul Dini who created her in Batman:TAS. Here he has the rare opportunity to reboot his own character and does so by making her more of an equal to the Joker instead of his lackey.
The season ends with an interesting two-parter that introduces J'onn J'onnz as the Martian Manhunter. "The Joining Parts 1 & 2" tells the story of an alien invasion of Earth. While a good story, the core invasion story seems to get ignored in order to characterize the great chemistry between Batman and J'onn J'onnz. The aliens are a boring combination of The Borg and War Of The Worlds and their downfall is too easily predicted based on that comparison. All this leads to Batman's invitation to join the Justice League of America in an orbiting tower that looks much like the Hall of Justice from Superfriends.
Season Five will no doubt take place on a grander scale with Batman teaming up with other superheroes and fighter bigger battles. But, for me, it's those little moments in "Strange New World" where Batman is surrounded by zombie versions of his "family" and there's that moment of indecision. Has he solved the mystery, can he save his "family," or will they face the same fate as his parents? This series isn't a dark, adult version of Batman, but it is smart. The Batman doesn't have the best soundtrack, nor is its animated look the most desirable (why does The Riddler look like Marilyn Manson?), but it has something that I didn't expect to find. It has a heart.