Thursday, February 19, 2009

Batman: The Brave and the Bold

Mrs. Speculator recently suggested that I review this show, new to the Cartoon Network this season. I realized I haven't written much about TV recently, and agreed that this is well worth talking about.

Batman: The Brave and the Bold comes from an impressive tradition of DC animated TV shows, from the spectacular early run of Batman: The Animated Series to the whimsical Teen Titans to the powerful Justice League and Justice League Unlimited. At Comic-con this past summer, the show's creators talked about trying to come out of that tradition with something fresh and yet feeling the pressure of all the acclaim those earlier shows rightfully earned. They decided to return to a more fun Batman, one who is less dark and willing to work with partners, and thus find the hook to pull viewers in. The art style is much more Dick Sprang, with blocky bodies and faces almost always decorated with grins. This Batman (voiced by Diedrich Bader) splits his time fighting evil and helping to train a wide range of partners, from the new Blue Beetle to Kamandi. Just choosing Bader was a risk, since moving away from what has become the iconic voice of Batman for nearly two decades, Kevin Conroy, could easily cause potential viewers to decide that this is not the "real" Batman. But Bader is a good choice, just adding some panache to the expected dark voice, lightening the mood considerably. In some episodes, Batman needs help and thus calls the more experienced heroes to his side, such as Green Arrow, thus making him less omnipotent and more accessible. In other episodes he works with heroes with less experience fighting crime, such as Plastic Man and the aforementioned Blue Beetle/Jaime Reyes, teaching them what it means to be a hero.

The episodes are generally brightly colored and filled with action. As yet we have not seen the Batcave, forcing Batman into the light of day, and making him a happier character by implication. Batman has also fought beneath the sea and on other planets, so the stories have moved beyond the marauding vigilante that The Animated Series relied on (not that there is anything wrong with that version of Batman—it was just hyper-focused on a single aspect of a character with a huge history). And the creators are well aware of their DC History; I really like that Batman and Green Arrow have an ongoing competition about who is the better crimefighter. Batman even remarks to Green Arrow that he has stolen pretty much every good idea he has from Batman: an Arrowplane, an Arrowcare, even a kid sidekick—"I bet you even have an Arrowcave." But the connoisseur of continuity may grow uneasy with some of the changes for the sake of storytelling. For instance, the Outsiders are a teen gang that Wildcat takes under his wing. And Batman has a wide array of implements in his utility belt made of nth metal…the better to fight magical foes (he even has a sword in his utility belt, but he has to take the belt off to get to the hidden sheath). But these are really minor quibbles from a viewer outside the primary audience. These shows are meant to be kid-friendly and –accessible, introducing them to the characters as though for the first time, perhaps in an attempt to get them to start reading the comics. Of course, if they picked up the current Batman titles, they would be completely lost, but that's another post.

But not everything that the creators have changed works well. One trait that this new Batman shows that is really annoying is a propensity for internal monologue—we get to hear his thoughts on a variety of subjects. This is generally outside the structure of current American animation, and if it is used, it is generally only for effect, but this show seems to rely on it. What's worse, it's not handled well, feeling horribly clunky and even condescending to the viewer, not really disguising that it is a crutch for a story where the characters actions can't be shown so much as explained. It also assumes the viewer can't figure out what's happening without the aid, which is not an admission a good storyteller should ever want to make. In some ways, it would have made more sense for The Animated Series to use the monologue, since Batman is most often alone in that series. But especially in this case, where he is almost always on screen with a partner, the internal monologue is just a distraction.

The other weakness is distressing, given it is one of the main points of continuity between this show and the ones that went before. Animated DC shows have had brilliant voice casting, led by voice director Andrea Romano. It was she who picked Kevin Conroy for Batman and Clancy Brown for Lex Luthor. And her selections over the years have been nearly flawless; I honestly can't remember a voice that just did not feel appropriate for the character being portrayed…I mean Efrem Zimbalist as Alfred is just brilliant. But The Brave and the Bold isn't nearly so good mostly because the voices aren't as distinctive. For isntance, Aquaman is just horrible. Arguably, the writing of Aquaman is pretty bad as well and Romano is just finding a voice to match the persona that the creators asked for. As he is written in the show, Aquaman is a pompous blowhard, not interested in doing good for the sake of good but rather for the adventure associated with the fight…and the legends that will follow. He is not very smart—on the verge of being stupid. The sad part is that the brilliant John Di Maggio plays Aquaman and plays him even more over the top. Again, this may be the choice of the creators, but it makes the episodes with Aquaman decidedly hard to watch. And Di Maggio is a bright star in animation right now, up there with Billy West. Another example is using Will Friedle as Blue Beetle. Again, Friedle has a lot of experience, giving the Terry McGiniss in Batman Beyond a voice that can be remembered outside the TV show. But Jaime Reyes is so whitebread it's easy to imagine he isn't Hispanic at all, which goes against everything t he character is supposed to be about. Even Tom Kenny, the voice of SpongeBob Squarepoints, falls short as Plastic Man.

One saving grace for the show is the use of a wide range of characters. Already we've seen Gentleman Ghost, Despero and Chemo as villains, and heroes such as B'wana Beast, Dr. Fate and Elongated Man. That alone is pretty much worth the price of admission. I'll definitely be looking forward to the second season, but I really hope that the voices get better, or that the creators allow the actors to play a bigger part in making the characters to stand out.

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