|In Short:||Batman: The Next Generation|
|BLIGHT:||[being stalked from the shadows by Batman] Who are you?!|
|BATMAN:||You really want to know?|
|BATMAN:||You killed my father.|
|BLIGHT:||Do you have the slightest idea how little that narrows it down?!|
|BATMAN:||Too bad. That's all you'll ever get.|
|-- "Ascension " (01.13)|
Spoilers, of course.
In 1992, Warner Brothers Animation took a big chance with Batman: The Animated Series, a dark and edgy cartoon series that briefly aired in prime time before making its way to the Saturday morning time slot. Airing until 1995 and then (after a retool) starting again in 1997, the show took chances with complex characters and story lines. It never shied away from things that could be considered too adult for kids: people got shot, and the villains were not harmless. The success of this series led to shows like Superman: The Animated Series and, one of the most un-Disney like animated shows, Gargoyles.
And then the executives decided that they wanted a Batman in High School show to appeal to the Buffy audience type people. Why the regular Batman series wasn’t considered appealing to the Buffy audience, I’ll never know. The result, however, was Batman Beyond.
Taking place about sixty odd years after Batman: The Animated series, the show follows Terry McGinnis, the new Batman, and his mentor Bruce Wayne. The world is different, but familiar elements from the original series remain. Here the Joker is dead but his legacy lives on with street gangs called the Jokerz, Terry goes to Hamilton Hill high school -- Hamilton Hill being the mayor during Batman: The Animated Series -- and Batgirl, Barbara Gordon, is now the police commissioner.
The writers of the series were careful not to re-tread the past, using new gimmicky incarnations of old villains. There was no Penguin Jr. or a Riddler knock-off. Instead they gave Terry his own rogues gallery: Derk Powers (the man who set Terry onto the path of becoming Batman when he had Terry’s father killed), started out as a corrupt business man who ran Wayne-Powers but then turned into the radioactive Blight; Inque, a saboteur femme fatale who was able to turn into an inky black liquid, fitting through any crack, and who was the one villain who came the closest to killing the new Batman; the Royal Flush Gang, an old school DC Comics villainous group, but not one that appeared in the Animated Series; and a one shot villain, Mad Stan, whose motto, “Blow it all up!” became a fan favorite.
With his own bunch of villains in place, the writers were able to also bring back some of the original Batman villains, but in new ways. Mr. Freeze was given a chance at redemption and tried to make a new life for himself. Ra's al Ghul makes his own appearance in a strange and rather disturbing way in his one episode (a way that you wouldn’t think would get past the parenting boards). Even Superman and the Justice League show up in a third season two-part episode.
The one thing that carries this show, however, is the relationship between Terry and Bruce. While it is a relationship of mentor and protégé, it is not the same as the one between Batman and Robin. Instead, both men are Batman, and both of them see how to be Batman in different ways. Sometimes it seems like Bruce is trying to use Terry as an avatar for himself to relive his old days as Batman. Terry constantly chafes as this and it leads to plenty of conflict. As the show progresses, you can see the two of them learn to create a working medium that allows for Terry’s learning curve and Bruce’s experience, even if he can no longer wear the suit.
Perhaps one of the bigger problems with the series is the fact that Terry is in high school and so there are a lot of standard plots that seem to have to happen when your main character is in high school.The fact that Terry can’t tell his girlfriend that he’s Batman, so is constantly missing or being late to their dates, is one example. And then there are a few plots that deal with students that just happen to go to Terry’s school, as opposed to some other high school that is in Gotham City. This may just be one of the faults of the genre itself, though.
In fact, the series’ one Emmy-winning episode dealt with a typical high school plot. “Egg Baby” involved Terry needing to take care of an ‘egg’ for his Family Studies class (which Buffy also did in “Bad Eggs” [02.12]). The electronic egg ends up getting bounced around with Terry since Bruce refuses to watch it for him. At one point it even gets ‘egg-napped’ by the episode’s villains by accident. The writers did this on purpose to appeal to the jury’s idea of what a proper cartoon should be like.
However, the show was usually much darker than that. The best example of this would be the Batman Beyond animated movie, Return of the Joker. Brainwashing and torture, murder and the Joker at his mad best are all to be found in this movie. The Joker has returned and he knows Bruce Wayne’s secrets. He makes use of the secrets to terrifying degrees, including breaking into the Batcave and nearly killing Bruce. At times nearly horrifying, it makes you wonder how this movie got labeled for kids, but also makes you sincerely glad it exists.
Terry as Batman ended up crossing over into other DC Animated Universe series, such as Justice League Unlimited (which included a hilarious scene between the young Bruce Wayne version of Batman and his older self trying to get information out of a Joker), Static Shock, when young Static got thrown to the future by accident, and Batman Beyond even had a spin-off show, The Zeta Project, which involved an assassin robot who could mimic the looks of anyone and developed a ‘soul’ or a consciousness, desiring to become more than its own programming.
The biggest problem I had with this show, or at least with the mythology of it, happened not in an actual Batman Beyond episode but instead in a JLU episode titled “Epilogue” which is considered the final Batman Beyond episode. In it we learn that Terry and his brother Matt are in fact Bruce Wayne’s sons. While it does bring about the question of Nature vs. Nurture (would Terry have been inclined to become Batman if it wasn’t for Bruce’s DNA in him?), it takes away the idea that Terry is his own man and decided to become Batman for the same reasons as Bruce, not because of a genetic hand-me-down. He didn’t need to be related to Bruce Wayne to be Batman. (The recent story line in the Batman comics, where Bruce is apparently franchising out the Batman identity, seems to lend credence to this idea; on the other hand, seeing how much Wayne gets around as a playboy as he travels the world...) However, since this revelation didn’t occur until after the actual series was finished, I’m quite free to ignore its existence.
What I did and do love about this series is the way the writers and voice actors take everything seriously; this is an art form for them, not a joke, like perhaps Super Friends could be called. They created their own slang for Terry and his friends, they gave humor when it’s needed, seriousness when not and kept continuity with the previous animated series, even with just drabs and hints that flash by on screen.
Bruce is still always crazy prepared. Meanwhile, Terry has the foibles of youth, but learns as the series progresses, and his fighting style improves as well as his detective work. The fact that he improves is important because it helps make us, as well as his own fictional world, believe that he really can be Batman and not just some kid in a suit. Villains once again learn to fear the night, as a superstitious and cowardly lot. (Also, one mustn’t forget the magnificence that is Batman: The Musical, seen in the Season 3 episode “Out of the Past”)
The entire series, Seasons 1-3 plus the movie, Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker, are all currently available on DVD, and an ongoing DC Comics book series, continuing Terry's adventures where they ended on TV, begins this March.