Ask Chris #210: The Dark Teenage Rave That Is ‘Batman Beyond’
Q: Given all that could have gone wrong, what about the concept and execution makes Batman Beyond work so well? -- @caseyjustice
A: Something must be going around these days, because I've seen a lot of conversations about Warner Bros. Animation's 1990s hit Batman Beyond popping up recently. I even got into a little discussion with Jordans Gibson and Witt about a few places where -- at least in my opinion -- the flaws in the show, which I otherwise love, became too big to ignore. That's actually one of the things that made me want to answer this question for this week's column. The other was how you phrased it.
See, I've never considered the premise of Batman Beyond to be something that could've easily gone wrong, but you're absolutely right in classifying it as such. To me, it's always been more about how they built that show by taking the two best ideas in superhero comics and putting them together.
The thing is, that should've been a pretty difficult marriage -- and most of those flaws that I was talking about show up for that exact reason.
The big trick about Batman Beyond is that it's a very simple mash-up. It's What If Batman Was Spider-Man, and they're not exactly subtle about showing that influence at every chance they get. It's really easy to draw the comparison to Spider-Man for virtually any teenage superhero, since Spidey provides the template that almost all of them are built on, but Batman Beyond goes, well, beyond just building on the standard idea. And really, that's not a complaint. Like I said, those are the two best ideas in comics history, and the episodes I tend to like best -- like the amazingly titled "Terry's Friend Dates A Robot" and "Eggbaby," for example" are the ones that tend to skew pretty hard into that teenage superhero formula.
That's the first thing that really makes it work, and it's the same thing that really works about Robin solo stories when they're good, and what made Nightwing one of the better Batman family titles in the '90s, an era when the books about Batman himself were getting mired in these increasingly dour crossovers. They take what works about those stories, particularly the setting and the themes, and provide an entirely different, younger perspective.
There area a lot of things you can do just by altering that, and one of the most important is that it changes how dialogue is written. Readers (or viewers, in this case) might not want Batman to be particularly quippy and since that guy's only in love with one woman (Justice) he doesn't lend himself particularly well to love triangles. Put some high-schooler with super-arched eyebrows in the role, though, and you get to have all that stuff and still keep it in an oppressively gothic city full of criminally murderous clowns and disgruntled cryogenic scientists. In the future.
But getting back to that Spider-Man influence for a moment, it is blatant. Even if you just look at the villains who show up to cause trouble in Neo New Gotham 2099, they tend to line up pretty well with their counterparts from the House of Ideas. Stalker is a stand-in for Kraven the Hunter, Shriek for the Shocker (though, oddly enough, not for Shriek), and Blight is about as close as you can get to the Green Goblin without paying royalties. While they aren't quite one-for-one analogues, Inque draws pretty heavily from Venom's character design, and Ten from the Royal Flush Gang owes a lot to the Black Cat, too. Heck, they even have the Fantastic Four show up under a veil so thin that it's barely even there.
But when you get right down to it, that's one of the things that actually does make the show work really well. Even if they're drawing from an established pool to create their villains, the end result is something that doesn't feel like they're treading over familiar ground, for one simple reason. With the exceptions of a few episodes, like the one where Talia returns and Bruce gets all grumpy about being too feeble to change a flat tire (and one other major project that I'll get to in a minute), the show generally stayed away from the one place that you'd expect they'd go to at every opportunity: Batman villains.
It's pretty hard to argue that Batman doesn't have the single best roster of well-developed and engaging enemies in comics, and they've certainly proven that they're marketable, so I have to imagine that the temptation was there to do "Riddler... in the future!" or "Two-Face... in the future!" every week. That they managed to resist doing it as much as they did is a testament to how committed they were to making Terry into his own character and not just a weird offshoot of Bruce. Even more, it meant that when they did do stories about the old villains, like the fake-out with Bane in "The Winning Edge" or Mr. Freeze's appearance in "Meltdown," it felt like a big deal.
There was a balance to it that the show hit in a truly beautiful way. They skewed away from the villains (and I don't think we ever get to see a weird Blade Runner version of Arkham Asylum on the show), but they still left enough of Batman's legacy laying around that it still feels like a Batman story. Barbara Gordon showing up as the Commissioner of the NNGC2099PD is a really great touch that feels like a logical extension of the world that was set up in Batman: The Animated Series, but t the more prominent example is probably the one that shows up in the very first episode: The Jokerz.
And, for me at least, that's also the start of the problems.
It goes without saying that Batman Beyond is dark. That is, after all, one of the primary selling points of the show that it spins off from, but Batman Beyond has a different kind of darkness that's ingrained into the premise, and once you notice it, there's no amount of teenage future hijinx that can really take it out of the story: Batman Beyond is, by its very nature, set in a world where Batman fails.
Again, I want to point out that I really like Batman Beyond, and to their credit, Alan Burnett, Paul Dini and Curt Geda do a really good job of mitigating this point in the first episode. I actually love how they set up the premise by showing us exactly what it would take for Batman to quit. He doesn't quit just because he gets old, he makes the choice to quit because he can no longer be Batman while living up to his principles.
That's a really cool idea, and there's a point that comes a little later that's often overlooked, when Bruce shuts down the Batcave, and we see how much the trophy room has expanded:
The implication there is that even though Batman has to quit due to his own failings rather than retiring in triumph, he's at least managed to outlast most, if not all, of his major foes. That Gotham City's even standing 20 years later is a testament to that, but there's obviously still crime to be fought (because there always is), and when we rejoin the story with Terry, Gotham's still kind of terrible. There's all that stuff that's rattled off in that truly hilarious title sequence, like APATHY and GREED and CORRUPTION, but there's also just straight up supervillains. Terry's own father gets murdered, and that's the one crime that Batman's stated mission is to eliminate. And, most telling, are the Jokerz.
This is an obvious point, but at the start of Batman Beyond, there's no Batman, which means there's no Batman Legacy for twenty years. And yet, there are dozens of face-painted hoodlums making trouble and referring to themselves as the Jokerz.
In the world of Batman Beyond, Joker's legacy outlasts Batman's. How depressing is that?
Now, the argument could be made that this is all just necessary table setting to get us to the point where we do get a Batman legacy, and that Terry's heroics prove that the idea of Batman can outlast and hopefully continue this neverending fight, and if all there was was the show, I'd agree. I'd still think that there's a lot of darkness under the surface, but it would hang together thematically pretty well. But then there's Return of the Joker.
If you've ever wondered how dark a Batman story has to get before it's right off the rails, then look no further than this one. I think a lot of that comes from the fact that they had to do the opposite of what made Batman Beyond work in the first place, but at the same time, this is a story that they couldn't not do. The Joker almost had to be involved in this story, and it was going to be the biggest possible event that it could, with the biggest possible implications for not just the characters, but the entire idea of the legacy that Batman Beyond was based on.
Looking at it that way, it makes a lot of sense that they'd end up doing the kind of story that they did, but man, you want to talk about depressing stories of Batman failing, there is no failure more complete than the one at the heart of this story, and it just doesn't work. Terry McGinnis is built on that Spider-Man template, and tragedy and loss are certainly at the heart of that, but having thirteen year-old Tim Drake tortured for days on end and then murdering the Joker and bursting into tears kind of takes the fun out of things.
Which, I imagine, was the point. It's intentionally horrific and it's meant to be shocking and disturbing (to the point where pieces were edited out of the original release), and it's certainly effective. It's not even done poorly -- it's been a while since I've seen it, but I remember it being a really good piece of the story in how it's structured and presented. At the same time, as good as it might be, it also gets pretty ruinous for the premise. It's tearing something down to build up its replacement rather than standing on its shoulders to build the legacy, and while that can certainly be every bit as effective as a storytelling technique, it breaks too much here and makes heroism seem a little too futile.
It's one of the things that I don't count, along with that weird coda on Justice League Unlimited about how Terry is half-cloned from Batman's DNA and his parents almost got killed by the Phantasm. That could not feel more like fanfic if all the characters involved had "the Hedgehog" added to the ends of their names.