Saturday, December 04, 2004

What's wrong with "The Batman"

After the first eight episodes of "The Batman," my opinion of the show hasn't changed much. It's kinetic and well-animated, but I find the voices lacking, the designs sub-par, and the plots full of holes. There have been a number of groaner moments, but no great ones that stick with me.

But there's something more substantively wrong with the show, something that goes beyond the mere surface. The show is bland and uninspiring, and doesn't seem to have much of anything new to say. Bruce/Batman himself is practically an empty suit, with no real personality, and I think that starts to identify the problem.

By and large, there are two ways of approaching Batman. There's the darker Batman exemplified by Tim Burton, Frank Miller, BTAS, and the like. This is the Batman motivated by his parents' death. The Batman who is the dominant personality, because Bruce largely died that day. He doesn't have to be perpetually angry and brooding, as some have treated him, but he is serious almost all the time. He keeps himself at arm's length from most people, counting only a handful of individuals as friends. This is the urban legend Batman, the one who operates almost exclusively at night. This is the "Dark Knight."

The other Batman is the smiling, day-glo Batman of Dick Sprang comics, the Adam West series, and Superfriends. This is Batman as superhero, as opposed to Batman as vigilante. The death of his parents is rarely, if ever, mentioned as a motivating factor. He's happy and cheerful most of the time, he has funny dialogue with Robin, he's chums with Superman, and he's generally a likable guy. This Batman's villains aren't psychopaths or even necessarily crazy; they're just goofy guys with themed gimmicks. He has goofy fights with Bat-Mite. And this Batman frequently operates in broad daylight, even appearing in public or with the police.

Schumacher did "Batman Lite," in that he didn't want to commit to either of these portrayals. He pulled a little from column A, a little from column B. The result was a mishmash of a slightly dark character and a fairly dark Gotham, mixed with jokes and bright colors. The villains were evil and yet dropped a lot of puns. The old Adam West Batman movie depicts Batman in a much sillier way than Schumacher did, but we still love the film because at least it had a pure vision.

"The Batman" has the same problem as Schumacher. It desperately wants a dark, brooding Bruce Wayne, but it also wants him to be hip and funny. So the same episode has 'Batman tries internet dating' and 'Batman is my dominant personality, and I can't afford relationships.' The shift in tone is almost painful. Virtually every episode has something quirky about Bruce's private life. He's frequently haunted by his parents' deaths, but he really digs nachos too. Bruce is uber-competent enough to build a Batbot, and absent-minded enough to forget an important business meeting. Alfred seems to serve as some sort of weird comic relief. The Joker is sold as a psychopath, and yet I halfway expect him to have giant oversized props in his next episode. The Penguin is played for laughs, up until he's revealed to be a kung-fu master. Scarface is depicted as both a punchline and a deadly threat, and in about equal doses throughout the episode. The Riddler looks like an emaciated Goth. However, I do have to give them credit for playing up the goofiness factor for Cluemaster. If they followed that example in future episodes, they'd have something unique on their hands.

And he drives around under a green sky. How does this fit with my night/day point above? I honestly don't know what time of day is supposed to be represented by a green sky. Even by aesthetic choice, the creators still manage not to commit to either version of the character.

(The creators also seem to have trouble settling on exactly how experienced this Batman is. It's established at the start that he's been at this for three years, and his gadgets and technological know-how certainly back this up. But they also want to make use of a newbie Batman, as evidenced by the repeated subplots of Alfred encouraging Bruce to pursue a normal life. In episode one, Batman was an urban legend that not even the cops really believed in after three years. How he pulled off that secrecy for so long is a mystery to me, since he's had so many run-ins with the cops in these eight episodes. In short, they want the competence of a third-year Batman, but the conflicts of a first-year Batman.)

That's what makes "The Batman" bland, in my opinion. It's trying to take from both types of Batman, and the resulting amalgam is inferior to either. If they want to do a brooding Batman, then they should drop the silly stuff. If they want a funny Batman, then they should downplay the vengeful 'Dark Knight' aspect. But trying to do both just results in a watered-down product.


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