Batman sticks out like a sore thumb in the world of costumed crimefighters. When people think of superheroes, they think of Superman, Batman, and Spider-man. Beyond those big three, other names come up such as Wonder Woman, Iron Man, the X-men, the Incredible Hulk, the Green Lantern, and Captain America. The comic book superfans can come up with more, but for most people on the street, that’s about the limit.
What makes Batman remarkable in the group is the lack of superhuman powers. Batman’s mix of physical training, agility, and cool gadgets will only get him so far. Batman must survive using his wits and his cunning. Most Superheroes have to do some detective work. Batman has far more detective work involved in his case than most. After all, Batman’s the guy with his the top underground crime lab in the DC Universe and began doing his thing at Detective Comics.
To list Batman as a “sleuth” requires some qualification. There have been numerous spins on Batman. So, there are many interpretations of Batman I’m not thinking of. The intentionally campy 1966 TV series is definitely not what I’m thinking of (though I like that on its own merits), nor the recent movie adaptations which center on Batman as a complex action hero or some of the more recent cartoon adaptations which are basically Jackie Chan Adventures with a cape and cowl.
For me, when I think of Batman as a detective, I think of the 1990s Batman: The Animated Series. The series was beautifully animated in Art Decco with fantastically retro buildings and cars, giving the series a very moody Noirish feeling. Voice acting was solid with Kevin Conroy providing the finest Batman voice ever and Mark Hamill, a veteran super villain actor, brought his talents to the role of the Joker in fifteen episodes.
In the series, most episodes have an element of mystery Even, Heart of Ice, the origin episode for Mr. Freeze had Batman doing serious detective work to uncover the identity of Mr. Freeze. Batman had plenty of episodes where he was trying to find out who did it, but sometimes finding out why was just as important for Batman. There was a reason that Ra’s al Ghul called Batman “detective.”
The noir mystery quality of Batman: The Animated Series was never better illustrated than when it came to the big screen with a brilliantly written and produced feature length story, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. Mask of the Phantasm features Batman on the trail of a vigilante who is killing off gangster. The film is a fascinating with a very human portrayal of Batman, superb villains and a huge twist ending. The 1993 film suffered from poor promotion efforts by Warner Brothers, so I’m revealing a well-kept secret here.
The series and the movie was in so many ways, a throwback to the Noir movies of the late 30s through the 1950s. Batman was the two fisted defender of righteousness, the night in tarnished armor in the words of Raymond Chandler. It was slower-paced and cleverly written when compared to today’s cartons. On a commentary track on one of the DVD releases, one of the writers commented, “We wouldn’t be able to get away with this today.”
Batman stopped getting away with it after a few years. The original Animated Series went off the air in 1995, but Batman wasn’t gone for long. It relaunched in 1997 as , The New Batman Adventures along with a new Superman series. The new show had the same cast, but lacked the same magic. For one, it was a downgrade in animation. The focus shifted away from Batman to other characters and consequently, the well-told mysteries of The Animated Series disappeared from the Batman series with the exception of the fascinating “Judgment Day” story. The shows sped up with more action and like any series featuring a popular comic book hero began to work in less successful and well-known characters (it’s all about the comic book cross-sell) for guest shots. The series left the air in 1999. Of course, Batman has remained in the public imagination with two television series, motion pictures, and direct to video movies. For my money though, no Batman venture since has ever approached the brilliance of Batman: The Animated Series in portraying Batman as a detective.
Twenty episodes of Batman: The Animated Series are available to watch for free online at the WB.
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