Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Idiot Box: Beware The Batman - "Hunted" Review


As is to be expected after the culmination of a successful film franchise, DC Comics' Batman is once again on our TV in cartoon form, and as with every new series from The Batman to The Brave And The Bold, we have another attempt to do the impossible - recapture the unparalleled awesomeness of Bruce Timm and Paul Dini's Batman: The Animated Series. One cannot speak to this specific iteration of cartoon Batman without addressing the controversy that preceded it, following the announcement that Beware The Batman would be taking a radical new direction from prior series, in full CGI, replacing Robin with Katana from the Outsiders and possibly a field active Alfred, and most problematic, a blanket ban on many of the most well known Batman villains in favor of more obscure bad guys never before seen in cartoon form. I for one didn't mind these changes and actually rather looked forward to some them, but after watching the first episode, I can't say we're off to a good start.




First, on the "no old villains" thing, I think a lot of the nerd rage surrounding this idea is completely misplaced. I love Batman's classic rogue's gallery as much as the next guy, but the fact is this is the latest of many cartoons featuring these characters, and just repeating what we've seen so many times over would just be redundant. Let's take the Joker. For my money, we've already had the definitive Joker in Mark Hamill's portrayal. Nothing is going to be better than that, and given the set up for this show, most likely what we would have gotten was a terrible 're-imagined' Joker akin to the Rastafarian from The Batman, or worse yet, an attempt to glom onto the last successful Joker in mass media with a dumbed down, kid friendly version of Heath Ledger's version. Is that what you people want? Why not try to use some other villains that we haven't seen before, and maybe put a new spin on some characters who maybe aren't as sacred and can be re-modeled to fit into an established universe independent of how we know them?


Well, there is one reason not to do that, and its that you can still fuck it up royally. While I have no problem with the use of more obscure villains, our first example is particularly disheartening. Our pilot features Professor Pyg and Mr. Toad, two wacky animal themed villains out to hunt billionaires like savage beasts out of some environmentalist "Save The Wetlands" vendetta. All fine in the abstract, unless you know anything about these characters from the comics. Professor Pyg is explicitly noted in the show as being inspired by The Wind And The Willows, but a more important inspiration in the comics was Pygmalion, because this villain, one of Grant Morrison's most disturbing creations, literally takes people and carves away their identity with psychotropic drugs and invasive surgery to turn them into mindless doll slaves. Now, I know why they can't do that in the comics, but then why even use this character at all if you were just going to take the name and do something completely different, with no respect for what's come before?


The expanded roster of heroes isn't necessarily bad on paper either, but in practice I think it only serves to make Batman less of what he is. I've never understood why so many people hate Robin, as I think he's the one character who can fight alongside Batman and still have this Dark Knight, lonely protector thing work. They compliment each other well, and yet every time you see Batman in other media, they have to either age the character, change him, or ignore him completely. This series takes the latter route, and while I've always liked the character Katana, I think her presence will prove to make Batman smaller. Batman isn't The Green Hornet or The Lone Ranger, he doesn't need a Kato or a Tonto to prop him up. The set up of this story has Batman trying to be so bad ass that he literally distracts himself into almost losing a fight, and by the end, he all but invites Alfred to be his new sidekick based on the conclusion that he can't do it alone, which he totally can. Alfred thankfully refuses (that concern among fans hopefully being premature), but then we get the promise of Katana, because this Batman just isn't up for it on his own.


I didn't really have a problem with the look of the show, at least in any knee jerk "no CGI ever" sense. While I do resent the fact that we're getting more and more computer animated shows on television, which up till now has been the last bastion of traditional animation, to be angry about it at this point just seems futile. That being said, its not the greatest CGI in the world, and often looks like a cut scene from a Gamecube era video game more than a show. While its a little more polished and the movements are much more fluid, you saw more detail and style in the classic Mainframe shows like Reboot, War Planets, and Beast Wars back in the 90's when the technology was still in its adolescence. The characters are all really blocky, much like the recent Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon, which is what initially turned me off of that show come to think of it. Its not unwatchable by any means, but I get the impression that a lot of what's wrong with the visual style of the show is a choice on the part of the creators rather than a limitation of the budget.


The best metaphor I can point to for how this show measures up to the best of Batman is strangely enough in the theme song. If you remember the theme to Batman: The Animated Series, you had this sweeping operatic score set to a brilliantly animated Max Fleischer inspired action piece. This show literally has a five second theme where Batman throws a batarang - the end. I'll give it a few more episodes just to be generous, mostly just to see how they pull off the Ten Eyed Man, but overall, I'm not holding out too much hope for this show. While much of the fan backlash is overblown, too many other problems with the execution hamper what could have been an interesting and innovating re-telling of a story that we've seen too many times already. The one re-imagined element I liked, a sort of rough and tumble cockney take on Alfred, isn't enough to convince me to sit through another bastardized villain like the one in this first episode. Granted, the next ones due to show up are hard to ruin considering how trifling they are (Magpie being next up apparently), but there's simply not enough good here to justify the effort of sticking with it indefinitely.
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