May 6th, 2010

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Batman Beyond? More Like Bat to the Future!

When Batman Beyond first premiered, I thought it was a stupid kiddie version of Batman with laser guns and rocketships. Then I discovered that it was, in fact, pretty dark and not kiddie at all, which piqued my interest.

Batman Beyond takes place decades in the future, when Gotham City no longer looks like itself and instead looks like a typical futuristic city with flying vehicles and cops with laser guns. People use "credits" for money and talk in futuristic slang—because that's how you know it's the future, they have different slang—and get mugged by Jokerz, punk gangs emulating the Clown Prince of Crime. Bruce Wayne is old and cranky and I swear to God in the pilot he almost literally tells kids to get off his lawn. He has long since retired from crimefighting, but then he encounters Terry McGinnis, a high school kid who convinces him to let him take the mantle.

So what we get is an interesting origin story. We get to see a kid become Batman, accept the responsibility to protect Gotham. Now, let's get one thing straight: Terry McGinnis is no Bruce Wayne. They are very different characters, but that's the fun of it. The show is sort of like Peter Parker-as-Batman in that Terry is much talkier and wisecrackier than Bruce ever was, and he has to juggle his secret identity with his life in high school, which includes his girlfriend, Dana, who has to deal with Terry's missing, like, 90% of their dates because of crimefighting. Plus, this Batman has an awesome high-tech Batsuit with all sorts of gadgets built in. HE HAS ROCKET BOOTS! It's a very different show from Batman: The Animated Series, and it takes some getting used to. Batman with a rock music soundtrack, what?

Most of the time, Bruce is holed up in the Batcave playing Oracle as his protégé goes out and fights crime. He does all the things you expect him to do, like give Terry a hard time, be disappointed in him, encourage him to sacrifice his personal know, typical Batman stuff. But it's rather fascinating to see the perspective of an aged superhero reflecting on his past, playing the mentor to a boy who's setting out to make all the same mistakes he did, take all the same chances, face all the same horrors. Unsurprisingly, the best and meatiest moments are scenes between Bruce and Terry. Their relationship is what makes the show worth watching. All the rest is a dude in a Batsuit beating people up.

And oh, the people he beats up! Since we're in the future, the majority of Batman's foes are dead and gone (or so old as to not pose a threat). So the show develops its own Rogues Gallery of recurring villains, one of my favorites being Mad Stan, voiced by—of all people—Henry Rollins, who loves blowing things up. I also liked Inque, who's like Clayface made of black oil; Spellbinder, who can create virtual realities; and the Royal Flush Gang, whose Ten is weirdly sexy. There are, of course, various one-shot villains and their henchmen. Some of whom die. Like for reals. And sometimes Bruce doesn't even care. He'll even make a joke. It's kind of scary how hardened he's become.

Terry does have allies as well, such as an awesome friend who totally figures out his secret identity and helps him out by being awesome. And Commissioner Barbara Gordon. Yeah. Although she, too, is old and cranky and isn't happy that Bruce is endangering this kid's life with superhero shenanigans.

After the strong continuity of Superman: The Animated Series, I was disappointed that Batman Beyond went back to the stand-alone format, with a few small plot arcs but not a strong sense that each episode was adding something to the overall story. There were many things I wanted to see explored more, like the public's reaction to a new Batman after so many years. I felt like there were many interesting stories left untold, especially since few had the impact of the great movie, Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker.

Even though a sci-fi, futuristic take on Batman starring a teenager sounds like a terrible idea, Batman Beyond really works. It's fun and exciting and has connections to the rest of the DCAU. It's more mature than you'd expect, and it doesn't try to simplify the complexities of superherodom, including the psychological issues. Terry is a likable character, and he has a decent Rogues Gallery putting Gotham in peril on a regular basis. So what if a lot of them are robots or mutants or clones or whatever? It's the future! These things happen.