Batman: The Animated Series
Batman Beyond
The Dark Knight done right--even reinvented
Batman: The Animated Series
Batman Beyond
Warner Bros.
Sixty years ago, Bob Kane had a brilliant idea, elegant in its simplicity: the young Bruce Wayne sees his wealthy parents gunned down before his eyes, and so dedicates his life to fighting evil. After training his body to perfection and mastering criminology, he searches for a disguise to strike terror into the hearts of criminals, who are a superstitious and cowardly lot. As he ponders this one night, a bat flies into his open window. "It's an omen!" he declares. "I shall become... a bat!"

And there you have Batman, in his simplest and purest form. Kane had found the meeting point between the brooding melodrama of pulp novels and the barely-nascent world of long-john-wearing superheroes, and the idea still resonates now, 60 years after the Dark Knight's first appearance in National Comics' Detective Comics #27. (National is now DC Comics.)

Like most comic-book heroes from before this decade, Batman has seen his share of change. At first, his opponents tended to meet grisly ends, for which he had no remorse: in his first appearance, his only words for a criminal who has fallen into a vat of acid are, "A fitting ending for his kind!" Sometimes the grisly end was by his own hands: in another early story, he killed a Frankenstein-monster-like creature by hanging him. For a little while, he even carried a gun.

Also like most comic-book heroes, Batman became kinder and gentler from the 1950s to 1960s, but by the time the 1970s rolled around, he was back in his familiar dark surroundings, paving the way for Frank Miller's groundbreaking Dark Knight mini-series and Tim Burton's unsmiling Batman movie.

The return to Batman's grim roots came at a cost: the Dark Knight became complicated. The original Robin left, the second one died, and the third one came in only when Batman seemed poised to go insane with guilt. The supervillain Bane came along and broke Batman's spine, forcing him to enlist two replacements and undergo extensive physical and mental retraining. Of course, one of the replacements was unstable himself. Most recently, Batman's been fighting to restore order to a Gotham city broken by a devastating earthquake, having come right on the heels of other major disasters.

Some days, it seemed as if the young boy seeking justice was forgotten.

The cause wasn't lost. In 1992, Batman returned to simplicity and elegance with the launch of Batman: The Animated Series. Visually, Batman became a clean, minimalist, easy-to-animate creature of the night. The stories, too, became crisper--tailored to fit the half-hour format--while keeping us focused on the fact that Batman, Robin, and most of the villains were born of tragedy, real or perceived.

Of course, the depiction of these tragedies had to be skirted to some degree, as Fox (the original home of the series, before its move to the WB network) had limitations on kids' programming. In general, the writers turned that weakness into a strength, giving some scenes more power because they couldn't explicitly depict, say, the Waynes' murder.

Batman: The Animated Series has, since its inception, been enormously popular among comic-book fans, and that's largely because many of the people behind it are comic-book fans themselves. The net result has been sort of a feedback loop: the intelligent handling of the stories has brought popular and critical acclaim (the series and its creators have won numerous awards), which has translated into good ratings, which has in turn led to a continuing level of creative freedom generally unheard of in TV animation. That creative freedom has led to a Superman series, a darker, harder-edged Batman for the WB, and Batman Beyond, which premiered to phenomenal ratings in January 1999.

Batman Beyond was something of a surprise to fans, as rumors of a series based on Jack Kirby's New Gods or the Justice League of America had been circulating for some time--hardly surprising, since the Superman series saw the Flash, Green Lantern, and Aquaman making guest appearances, and New Gods stories sprinkled through 8 of its 52 episodes.

Rather than revisit more of DC's classic characters, the Batman team decided instead to create something new. Well, almost new. Batman Beyond is set a few decades in the future, in a Gotham City immediately recognizable to fans of Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, and any other cyberpunk story you'd care to name. With Bruce Wayne too old to continue wearing the suit, the young Terry McGinnis has donned the cowl (no cape; the Batsuit is now a high-tech marvel, with stealth modes, remote control, and flight capability) under his tutelage. Barbara Gordon, formerly Batgirl, is now police commissioner; notwithstanding appearances by Mr. Freeze, Bane, and a street gang called The Jokerz, there's barely any trace of the past.

Batman Beyond's teen focus--Terry is 17, and much of the action takes place near his high school--is without a doubt the product of the current obsession with marketing toward adolescents. It's in keeping with the history of the previous shows: Batman: The Animated Series was created in response to the increased Bat-hoopla after the first movie, and the direct-to-video Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero movie was to tie in to the Batman & Robin movie (perhaps unsurprisingly, SubZero got much better reviews). True to form, Batman Beyond's creators have used this near-blank slate as a springboard, fleshing out a cohesive, high-tech near-future society and using it as a backdrop not only for new criminals, but new crimes.

SF fans will immediately recognize some of the plots and their elements: downloading personalities into computers, genetic tinkering as a popular fad, addictive virtual reality, corrupt corporations. But the noir elements that have always made up Batman's world are still there, with hits ordered on state witnesses, desperate people doing desperate things, and the usual mix of fear, lust, jealousy, and greed.

It's rare that a series (or in this case, a series of series) can survive for so long and maintain its edge and its popularity. This hasn't been lost on others, either: other animated series like Gargoyles and Invasion: America--also designed to appeal to kids and adults--would never have been made had Batman: The Animated Series not paved the way. Furthermore, these animated series are influencing the comics that spawned them: the Batman, Superman, and Batman Beyond series have all led to comics based on the shows' look and feel, as well as an Adventures of the DC Universe title, which features a variety of established DC heroes in the same style. Harley Quinn, the Joker's sidekick/love interest (of sorts) created by Paul Dini for the animated series, has been introduced to the comic-book Batman universe. Also, Batman himself is getting a redesign for 2000, and his new look (and new car, and new gadgets...) are clearly based on the animated series' look. It's a wonderful testament to a wonderful series, which one hopes will have a life as long and exciting as that of the Dark Knight himself.

Originally printed in Parsec (Spring 2000)