It is hard not to feel bad for The Batman, the animated series which premiered on the WB Kids Network on September 11th, 2004. Despite a successful five-year run, The Batman had the misfortune to be the first animated Batman series to break from the successful Bruce Timm produced Batman: The Animated Series, which pretty much doomed it with unfair expectations. Worse, The Batman would later be replaced by Batman: The Brave and the Bold, a program which has (deservedly) earned a firm place in the hearts of fans young and old with its cheerful, tongue-in-cheek take on the DC Universe. These highly regarded successes have pretty much resulted in The Batman being more or less forgotten.
Created and initially produced by Duane Capizzi and Michael Goguen and featuring designs by designs by Japanese-American artist Jeff Matsuda (Jackie Chan Adventures), The Batman ditched Batman: The Animated Series‘ Classical Hollywood influenced style and storytelling for a more youthful action/adventure take on the Caped Crusader. Set three years into Bruce Wayne’s (Rino Romano, Spider-Man Unlimited) mission, the series finds Batman an outlaw in Gotham, hunted by Detectives Ellen Yin (Ming-Na, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), who has no tolerance for vigilantism, and Ethan Bennett (Steve Harris, The Practice), who is open to the idea of having a vigilante operating in Gotham. The only real ally Bruce has at this point is, of course, faithful and sardonic butler Alfred Pennyworth (Alastair Duncan, The Hound of the Baskervilles).
While The Batman‘s fall into relative obscurity within the history of the character is understandable, it is also unfortunate. Even in its earliest and most flawed incarnation, The Batman is a surprisingly bold venture with a long existing character, one which would evolve and strengthen over the course of its five seasons (and one DTV film). With that, join me in taking a look back at the first episode of The Batman, “The Bat in the Belfry.”
The Bat in the Belfry (Episode One, Season One)
“The Bat in the Belfry” begins with a cold open in which Batman takes down mob boss Rupert Thorne, and it is a sequence which sets the tone for the rest of the series, clearly establishing just how this new Batman series will differ from what has come before. Unlike Batman: The Animated Series, The Batman takes its cues from latter-day crime dramas such as Brian De Palma’s Scarface, presenting Thorne is an overweight, sweaty gangster, complete with a soul patch, stylish club clothes, and gold medallion. The red nighttime skies of Batman: The Animated Series are replaced with a distinctive and eerie green colouring, though the red coloured sky will make its return later in the episode.
This minute-and-a-half sequence is not merely an exciting action beat to open the series with, however. This swift beat down of Thorne also serves as a metatextual acknowledgement that The Batman will stay away from the organized crime stories which were a key part of Batman: The Animated Series. Indeed, after this cold open, Thorne never reappears in the show, aside from background cameos. This version of Batman is, first and foremost, a superhero, combating crazed super-villains Gotham P.D. cannot handle. Given the show’s youthful target audience, the shift makes sense: colourful super-villains are likely more appealing to the younger set, particularly when it comes to toys. Who wants a Rupert Throne action figure as a kid? Well, beside my seven-year-old-self.
Anyways, following the cold open, the show segues into the series’ opening theme, written and performed by The Edge of U2 fame. While fairly low key and appropriately moody, the guitar heavy theme serves to reinforce the idea that this Batman series is rooted firmly within contemporary popular culture. This theme would later be replaced in the third season as part of a series of changes made to the program, but I’ll get to that in a future Saturday Morning Flashback.
Following the commercial break, the episode follows Batman as he returns to the Batcave and Wayne Manor which, in one of the smartest changes made for the series, are not located outside of Gotham, but in the hub of the city. While it is a small point, the idea of Batman being obsessed with protecting his city while living apart from is peculiar, and plays into some of the class/privilege issues surrounding the character. By living within the city, these issues are downplayed, at least to an extent. More on this in a paragraph or two.
Arriving in the cave, Bruce is surprised by Alfred with a cake to celebrate the third anniversary of Bruce taking up his crime-fighting persona. In a nice little moment, Bruce wordlessly wishes his parents could be there, a point Alfred picks up on. This short scene quickly establishes both the father/son dynamics between Alfred and Bruce and the personality of this incarnation of Bruce Wayne. While clearly driven as Batman, this Bruce Wayne is far more easy-going and chummy, trading good-natured barbs with Alfred.
These character traits are expanded upon in the scene which follows, with Bruce, watching the news and munching on a bowl of cereal for breakfast while Alfred prompts him to take the night off and go to a basketball game. Beyond underscoring the youthfulness of Bruce and making him more identifiable for the show’s target audience of children, these small moments also take more of the edge off of the class dynamics which are inherent in the Batman premise. Yes, this Bruce is a billionaire, but he is hardly old money in terms of his personality; he would rather hang out and shoot hoops with his friends and dress casually than wander about town in the back of a limo in a three piece suit (at least when he is not busy with his crime-fighting activities).
With the Bruce/Alfred dynamic roughly established, the episode turns its attention to the key supporting players during the show’s first two seasons: Detectives Yin and Bennett. Now, before I go any further with this scene, I want to make clear that Yin and Bennett are emblematic of both the strengths of The Batman early in its run, as well as a major point of weakness. Given the program’s focus on Batman’s early career, the producers chose to withhold featuring many of the supporting players from the comics, including Robin, Batgirl, and Commissioner Gordon, amongst others. The showrunners wisely took the absence of these classic characters to diversify the cast of the show. Indeed, there is a real effort on the part of the creators of The Batman to reflect the real cultural and ethnic diversity of major American cities early in its run, and one of the shames of the latter seasons of the program is that much of this diversity was lost as more traditional elements of the Batman mythos became part of the series.
That said, the scenes with Bennett and Yin in this episode (and in many of the episodes to follow) underscore of just how weak some of the writing in the first season of The Batman is. The characters are fairly one-note, and many scenes with these characters amount to little more than a riff on the same conversation: Yin thinks Batman’s vigilante tactics are a problem, and Bennett sees them as a plus. That is it. Bennett comes off somewhat better than Yin due to his friendship with Bruce Wayne at least suggesting that he has something of a life outside of catching Batman, but it isn’t until a major event at the end of the first season that either one of the pair starts to become well-rounded characters.
As for the scene which introduces the characters, in this episode, it is fine, if perfunctory. Bennett is in charge of the Batman case, but due to his lack of results, is assigned Yin as a partner. We learn that Yin is newly transferred from the Metropolis P.D. and, well, that is about it. The pair shake hands and the episode moves on.
It is the scene following the introduction of Yin and Bennett, though, which introduces the most frustrating element of the series’ first two seasons: the use of technology to solve nearly every problem Batman encounters. In nearly every episode of these seasons, Bruce and/or Alfred invent some piece of toyetic technology to solve their problems, whether it is a giant suit of armour to take down Bane or an anti-freeze suit to tackle Mr. Freeze. I understand that part of the purpose of a show like The Batman is to promote a ton of toys, but the rather lazy way in which every episode relies on the plot point of “Bruce invents crap” means that the early episodes of the show feel repetitive.
Admittedly, “The Bat in the Belfry” handles the New Tech of the Episode (forever known from this point out as NTE) plot point better than most, with Alfred assuring Bruce that it is okay to go to the basketball game by introducing him to “the Batwave”, which is pretty much a cellphone app that alerts Bruce to emergencies requiring the attention of the Batman. It’s a decent idea which makes more sense than, say, the Bat-Signal, but for some odd reason whenever the Batwave is triggered, a large bat symbol pops up on his phone. For the sake of secrecy, Alfred could have programmed in something more subtle than that. Also, when did Alfred learn to code?
Anyways, the plot of the episode proper kicks in immediately before the next commercial break when a Jeff Spicoli-like Arkham Asylum orderly discovers someone in a cell which is supposed to be empty. Just who has seemingly broken into the Asylum? It is none other than the Joker, voiced here by Kevin Michael Richardson (Teen Titans, The Cleveland Show), who sounds like a deeper voiced version of Mark Hamill’s take on the role.
While more about the Joker’s personality will be established later in the episode, it is worth addressing the look of the character at this point, which deviates heavily from the traditional Joker look. This Joker is a barefoot maniac in a designer straight jacket, complete with wild hair and red eyes. This far more aggressive look for the character stems from the effort on the part of the series’ creators to transform everyone of Batman’s villains into credible physical threats who seemingly all possess martial arts skills. In the case of the Joker, the shift more or less works; when the show tries to do the same thing with the Penguin, the results are fairly terrible. Much like the NTE trope, this element of the series is dialled down somewhat from season three onward.
Following a commercial break, Bennett and Yin are forwarded an alert that all of the inmates at the Asylum have been released; they head to the scene of the crime, convinced the news will bring out the Batman. Sure enough, Bruce himself learns of the break out via the Batwave and bolts from the game to head towards the Asylum. With the police cut off from the Asylum due to the Joker blowing up the connecting bridge via a Jack-in-the-Box, Batman is able to confront the Joker without interference (though Yin and Bennett decide to swim to Arkham rather than wait). It is at this point that the Joker’s kung fu skills are first displayed. Credit where credit is due: the action scenes in the show are well executed, with fluid animation and innovative choreography. Less successful are the puns and one-liners Batman and the Joker trade, which will likely only be found funny by very small children and Dru Jeffries.
The Joker escapes, and Batman takes off with the drugged orderly in order to study the effects of the gas; naturally, Yin and Bennett arrive just as Batman is leaving. Following a brief scene of Alfred and Bruce discussing whether they can help the orderly, the episode shifts to the following morning, with Bruce pondering where the Joker could be in the living room of Wayne Manor. Just as we reach yet another commercial break, Alfred walks into the room, announcing that the police are here to see him!
Of course, it turns out that it is just Bennett, who wants to talk to Bruce about his feelings towards the Batman and his own role as the officer in charge of bringing him in. While the scene offers a nice bit of insight into the character of Bennett, the episode never dives into Bruce’s feelings towards being the object of Bennett’s investigation, or the toll of straight up lying to his closest friend. This sort of character development would have been at the forefront of Batman: The Animated Series, and likely would have received greater attention later in The Batman‘s run. At this point, it is little more than a wasted opportunity.
From here on out, the episode moves into adventure series’ autopilot, with Batman tracking the Joker down to a warehouse and discovering that the crazed clown is planning to burst a hot air balloon full of Joker gas above the city. Along with some requisite midair fisticuffs, the episode manages to sneak the Batboat into the action in order to advertise a toy, feature Yin and Bennett ineffectually chasing Batman, and conclude with Batman making a lame pun. The episode ends at Arkham, where the drugged orderly from earlier is making his rounds and finds the Joker locked away where he should be. The Joker does get the last word in the episode, however, seemingly breaking the fourth wall to ask the viewer to blame his madness on “the bats in his belfry,” a line which will likely not be understood by the bulk of the children watching.
As far as pilot episodes go, “The Bat in the Belfry” is serviceable, if undistinguished. Characters are established, an easily copied episode formula is set down, and thrills and chills safe for the younger are delivered. Unfortunately, the bulk of the remaining twelve episodes of the first season pretty much offer viewers more of the same, with only the two part season final breaking from the episode formula to in order to radically shift the dynamic of the program for its second season. Were “The Bat and the Belfry” (or any other season one offering) the only episode one were to watch, one could be forgiven for ignoring the rest of the series.
The good news is that starting with the season three premiere, “Batgirl Begins: Part One,” The Batman would undergo a massive overhaul and become a program worth watching. So stay tuned for the next Saturday Morning Flashback when we dive into that episode in depth!