We’re about a month into the new Fall television season and in geek circles the hype is about all the new and returning shows that have sprung from the comic book genre. THE FLASH, ARROW, AGENTS OF SHIELD, and CONSTANTINE are riding a wave of anticipation from casual to hardcore fans but the show that has earned the most advanced publicity is the Batman show without Batman, GOTHAM. The Fox show tells the story of the eponymous city after the death of young Bruce Wayne’s parents and everything that spins out of that act which spawns not only Batman but influences his cast of supporting characters and enemies that are known worldwide. Despite mixed reviews, the show’s ratings have been solid for the first four episodes and personally I can say I’m truly enjoying this journey while hoping for a long run.
The hype and the reality of GOTHAM is more than well-deserved but I’d like to pause for a moment to give a little light to a Batman show that recently ended, BEWARE THE BATMAN. This show however wasn’t anticipated or appreciated during its brief run and the geek world is all the poorer for it. BEWARE is an odd duck in the television oeuvre of the Caped Crusader and I’m concerned that that alleged oddness contributed to the show only lasting for one season with its last seven episodes ignominiously dumped as a financial write off during a Saturday night/Sunday morning marathon on Cartoon Network’s (CN) Toonami block last month. Many would find it difficult to believe a show about the Batman, currently the world’s most popular superhero, would fail but, alas, it is true. That is why I’m not here to bury BEWARE THE BATMAN, too many have done that, but to praise it. So allow my words to stand as a humble eulogy to a show that was more a victim of forces outside of its control than the quality it displayed on the screen.
Right from the jump BEWARE THE BATMAN was under the gun from fans and the geeknoscenti because it, along with the more inane TEEN TITANS GO! (TTG), was set to replace two well-regarded, highly rated animated shows on the Cartoon Network’s DC Nation block, YOUNG JUSTICE (YJ) and GREEN LANTERN: THE ANIMATED SERIES. To say YJ and LANTERN were beloved across various demographics is an understatement because even the finale episodes were the two most watched shows on the channel that week in spite of airing at ten on a Saturday morning. Those strong ratings were also a testament to the quality plotting and animation of those ‘toons that they kept and gained fans after the hijinks CN pulled with scheduling like placing them on unannounced hiatuses for months at a time with no public explanation. Pay attention because the word hiatus will come up again in this piece.
By the time the cancellations of YJ and LANTERN were officially announced, again just like the hiatuses with no formal explanations, disappointment and anger among fans was high and many were in no mood for another Batman cartoon since he has been the star or major character of animated shows continuously since BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES premiered in 1992. The cancelled shows had finally allowed lesser known characters in the DCU like the teenage heroes of YJ and the apparently radioactive Green Lantern, who was thought irredeemable after the flop of his big-budget summer tentpole movie, to prove there was more to the DC stable of characters than the Trinity of Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman. The spite and Bat-weariness was understandable if a bit misguided though because while TTG was barely tolerable with its simple flash-inspired animation and juvenile toilet humor aimed at immature little boys, BEWARE was a refreshingly different take from the first episode on the early days of the Batman legend.
This was a reinterpretation of the Batman story where Alfred was a retired secret agent who looked like an older, saltier version of Jason Statham or, if you want to go back further, more like a Cockney gangster straight out of the original GET CARTER who was just as tough and competent in a scrap as the Bat himself. Lieutenant, not Commissioner, Gordon was on the show with his barely teenaged daughter, Barbara, while the deep geek character, Katana, in a big departure from canon, was installed as Batman’s original sidekick with not a green pixie boot in sight. The look and style of the Dark Knight himself was reminiscent of the sleek black shadow style of vintage Neal Adams and Alan Davis with a Bruce Wayne who was more philanthropist than playboy right out of a Denny O’Neill script. Speaking for myself, I was happy to see Michael Holt, the future Mr. Terrific, show up in the premiere episode.
Just like no Boy Wonders appeared on the show neither did any maniacal clowns, monocled water fowl, or stray cats who walked on the villainous side. No, we got new and/or obscure villains like Magpie, Professor Pyg and Mr. Toad, Anarky, and Lady Shiva with many more introduced in the seven episode marathon such as an increasingly unhinged Harvey Dent before his acid facial and Deathstroke doing his usual mercenary work. The biggest nod to the heavy hitters of the Bat’s rogues’ gallery was when the Demon’s Head, Ras Al Ghul, showed up during the show’s second arc voiced by the peerless Lance Reddick in a bit of left field casting that worked just as great as Liam Neeson’s performance in the Nolan movies.
I liked that Glen Murakami, the producer, and the show runners went deep into the Bat’s smorgasbord of foes for a different kind of twist on the accepted mythos. I would have liked to have seen a personal favorite, Maxie Zeus, make an appearance but an updated, blinged out Tobias Whale was fun too. The lack of the more recognized scoundrels known to the larger public was said by some critics to have hamstrung the show but for me, a guy who grew up reading comics well before the first CRISIS, it was refreshing to be reminded of how deep that bench could go. The Joker, Penguin, and Catwoman have always been fun to read or watch but their omnipresence in many shows, movies, and stories made them seem more like co-stars you expect to see every time the Bat shows up than guest stars to be used sparingly to keep their allure fresh.
The biggest criticism of the show I could find is that many were turned off by the 3-D computer generated animation that was used in favor of the more traditional and accepted 2-dimensional cel style. Some have said the CGI style looked only a few steps above the cut scenes of a common video game and I could agree with that up to a point because the streets of Gotham were oddly empty in many earlier shows along with the stilted movements of some figures during action scenes. Nevertheless, I was also patient enough to know that no show is perfect right out the box so any problems with the visuals I was sure would be taken care of with time which was the case here. Those complaints were similar to the grousing about the same CGI method Bruce Timm chose for LANTERN which honestly got better every episode. I grew up watching the cheap, rudimentary animation of 70’s Saturday morning cartoons so BEWARE and LANTERN were miles ahead of that but we live in a jaded age where the perfect is the mortal enemy of the good.
The plotting though was strong throughout the show with many threads and Easter eggs being set up in every episode from Katana’s true motives and history to the building of the Bat’s relationship with Lt. Gordon and following Barbara Gordon’s steps into fighting crime from a laptop. The stories highlighted the reasons why Batman is called the World’s Greatest Detective as it showed him doing real research to learn how to track and take down his foes by searching for clues. This came in handy whenever Anarky showed up to battle and was crucial to stopping Ras Al Ghul when he took over Gotham in his arc. Batman on screen has always been shown to be resourceful but this was the first weekly show since BATMAN ’66 I can remember that consistently showcased his detective chops as much as his martial arts skills and cool gadgets. All due to a storytelling style that allowed the fantastic to walk side by side with the grit particularly when Mr. Toad, Metamorpho, and Man-Bat appeared. The show was a crime show first and foremost which set it apart from the zaniness of BATMAN: THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD and the superheroic action of THE BATMAN and that again was a refreshing new take.
BEWARE THE BATMAN had it all to be a success. Strong visuals, smart storytelling, and an atmospheric tone which suited its title character and his world perfectly. So why did it only get one season then? Many reasons on top of the ones I’ve already touched on like CN feuding with its fellow WB property, DC Entertainment, lack of toy sales, and CN screwing around with its scheduling and unexplained hiatuses (sound familiar?). All those reasons are why we only got twenty-six episodes but the biggest reason for me is my fellow fans. I accuse my fellow fans because this show was trashed even before its first episode aired in many online quarters because it dared to tell Batman stories outside of the Timmverse. Batman fans are increasingly too precious with the character because they only see one narrow way to tell his stories and if those stories don’t adhere to that particular way then they are found wanting. Since the peak that was reached in 2008 with THE DARK KNIGHT there has been a meme in the zeitgeist that everything done with the character since has been wrong. Go read the screeds about how blasphemous THE DARK KNIGHT RISES was to Batman’s character to have him retire at the end. If you listen you can still hear the howls of disappointment from fanboys when Ben Affleck was cast as the Caped Crusader for the still unreleased BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: THE DAWN OF JUSTICE. I read and hear the same things about GOTHAM now as well. I get it if a person doesn’t like something but what I don’t get are baseless complaints that are made up out of whole cloth.
I’ve been a Batman fan since the first time I was scared by Adam West in a still picture on television from BATMAN ’66 when I was five years old and that fandom goes deeper than the Bat tattoo I have on my left shoulder so I know I can speak on the character as intelligently as any other fan. Right now I’m speaking as a concerned fan to my peers and I say let Batman out of the hermetically sealed container you’ve trapped him in and permit him to breathe. Let other fans that are just as invested in the character’s continued dominance as the rest of us take him in different directions we may have never thought of before. Allow any show, movie, videogame, or book to rise and fall on its own merits but don’t automatically look at it with a dismissive eye before you’ve even experienced it. Let the story unspool first before you bury it. This desire to keep the Batman stuck in some kind of Frank Miller/Bruce Timm/Kevin Conroy-influenced limbo does us and the Caped Crusader no favors. Ben Affleck’s Batman may be considered on the same level as Michael Keaton’s and Christian Bale’s one day and GOTHAM may turn out to be the BREAKING BAD of superhero television shows but we may never know if we continue to cling to one interpretation of the Dark Knight. There’s time for GOTHAM and Batfleck to become what they will but narrow-minded thinking among a loud segment of our fellow fans doomed BEWARE THE BATMAN as much as deluded CN executives who paid more attention to increasing toy sales than letting a good show become a great show.
–Jason O. Logan