The New Batman Adventures – “Legends of the Dark Knight”

legends of the dark knightEpisode Number:  19 (104)

Original Air Date:  October 10, 1998

Directed by:  Dan Riba

Written by:  Robert Goodman, Bruce Timm

First Appearance:  Carrie

Over the years there has been a lot of Batman and a lot of Batmen. It might seem odd on the surface as to why there would be numerous versions of Batman, but one only needs to think about it briefly to realize why. Batman is a cultural touchstone, a character owned by DC and Warner Bros. but one that essentially belongs to all. Anyone who is tasked with writing and drawing an official Batman story inherits quite a responsibility, and since this character is so popular and so special they’re also limited in some capacity. Batman, for instance, is far too profitable to ever die. Sure, it can be teased here and there and made to even seem happen, but it’s not something that will ever stick. The same is basically true of any popular comic book character and is why characters like Superman and Captain America never stay dead. You don’t kill the golden goose.

As a way to work around those limitations, many writers over the years have done stories outside the normal Batman continuity. This very show is basically one such version. Sure these characters bare many similarities to what came before, but they also exist in their own bubble. Had Bruce Timm and Paul Dini wished to end the series with the death of Batman and a passing of the torch, they might have been allowed to do so (spoiler alert, that’s not the direction they’ll go). The movies basically all exist on their own, which is why Christopher Nolan was able to end his Batman movie trilogy with what is essentially Batman’s retirement.

Of all the stories in the comic books though to essentially feature an alternate universe Batman, by far the most popular is The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller. That Batman was one of the main influences for Tim Burton’s take on the character and was hugely popular in the 1980s. He was a violent, no compromises, sort of take on the character who after decades of doing things mostly by the book has had enough. It wouldn’t make sense for that sort of character to appear in this show, but “Legends of the Dark Knight” is going to try.

the three kids

Meet our story tellers for today’s episode: Nick, Carrie, and Matt.

This episode is essentially a love letter to Batman in all of his forms. It’s basically an anthology episode with the framing device being children sharing tales about their perception of Batman. And since Batman is a mysterious individual, their takes are going to exaggerate the character which is how we’ll get a taste of other versions of Batman from throughout history. It’s a fun concept for an episode, but what of the execution?

The episode begins on a newspaper kiosk. It seems there’s an arsonist on the loose in Gotham, which can only mean one suspect. Three kids approach the kiosk and take note that Batman is barely visible in the image on the front page shooting across the sky. This excites them as Batman isn’t as photogenic as Spider-Man. They appear to be a trio of Bat-enthusiasts, which I guess explains why they’re out and about at night which doesn’t seem like the safest of activities for kids their age. Nick (Jeremy Foley) is thrilled by the image and starts fantasizing about what Batman is really like, hypothesizing he’s more beast than man. The perhaps leader of this trio, Carrie (Anndi McAfee), sees Batman as just a really tough guy. Our third kid, Matt (Ryan O’Donohue), claims to have a secondhand account of what Batman is really like.

50s joker

Michael McKean gets to provide his take on a golden age Joker and knocks it out of the park.

Matt’s story takes us to the 1950s when his uncle was a security guard at some music exhibit for really large instruments. The guard (Charles Rocket) is seated at his desk when a voice comes over a loudspeaker which belongs to the Joker (Michael McKean in a brilliant piece of casting). The art design, dialogue, and even delivery of the lines are all very 1950s. The blue of the guard’s suit is especially reminiscent of the shade found in old comics and pulp magazines. Nick and Carrie even call Matt out on the corny dialogue he attributes to the characters, but he just claims that’s how his uncle tells the story.

A Joker-in-the-box is soon deposited at the feet of the guard which explodes with knock-out gas. The Joker then saunters in with two henchman and he looks like a spot-on interpretation of Dick Sprang’s version of the character. He makes corny jokes as he walks around the exhibit, pausing to glare at his henchmen when they don’t react favorably to his jokes forcing them to laugh and clap. Before long, Batman (Gary Owens) and Robin (Brianne Siddall) arrive and they too look ripped from a 1950s comic, or even the opening title of Batman the TV show. Batman is barrel-chested and sporting his blue, gray, and yellow ensemble while Robin has his classic threads on as well. They have that halted, dramatic, delivery to their lines like they did on old episodes of Superfriends and they immediately go after the Joker’s henchmen.

piano trap

A dastardly trap is laid, how will the Dynamic Duo escape this time?!

As the Dynamic Duo tangle with Joker’s lackeys, Robin is especially prone to puns which really is not all that different from the show’s regular depiction of Robin and Nightwing. As the bad guys get beat up, Joker cowers in relative safety reacting physically to the pain being inflicted upon his men. Eventually, Robin is undone by his own hubris as Joker is able to drop an oversized French horn on him. Batman goes to help him, but gets walloped from behind by Joker’s goon with a massive tuning fork. This sets up Joker to address the camera directly with another pun, a nice way to head to commercial.

When we return, Batman and Robin are bound to the chords of a giant grand piano. This is also quite in-line with comics of the era as these oversized contraptions were a popular gimmick of Batman co-creator Bill Finger, who along with Sprang and Frank Miller received an acknowledgement in the opening credits for the episode. With Batman and Robin tied down, this allows Joker to jump on the keys causing the giant hammers inside to strike a chord. Once he hits the right key, Batman and Robin will receive one hell of a headache. As Joker takes his sweet time playing a happy tune, Batman works on his restraints with what looks like a tiny chainsaw. Eventually, Joker finishes his melody and an off sounding note seems to herald the end of Batman and Robin. He takes a bow, but the unmistakable sound of skull on Batarang causes him to turn around in shock as his lackeys flee. Batman and Robin stand triumphantly from atop the piano, fists on hips. After another well-placed pun, they jump from above knocking the key-cover on top of Joker.

old chums

Old chums, now and forever.

The heroes are able to corral the fleeing lackeys when Robin hops onto a giant violin bow that Batman fires like an arrow. Why Robin decided to ride it, I don’t know, as it strikes and pins the goons to the wall. Joker uses this time to run, but Batman gives chase. Utilizing a giant saxophone, he captures Joker and then blows on the instrument to send the clown crashing into a giant harp in which he becomes entangled in the strings. Batman informs the security guard he can call the proper authorities for a pick-up and then turning to Robin he congratulates him on a job well done while mixing in an “old chum,” for good measure.

Nick and Carrie find this depiction of Batman by their friend Matt preposterous. They refuse to believe he’d speak in such a fashion or would come across like such a stiff. This prompts Carrie to tell her own story. While she doesn’t have a first or secondhand account to reference, this does allow her some dramatic license weave her own tale. And if you’re familiar with The Dark Knight Returns, then you’ve likely noticed that Carrie is the only one of our three kids modeled after an existing character from the comics which is a dead giveaway how her story will go.

carrie robin

Carrie takes some obvious creative liberties with her story.

For starters, Carrie informs her friends that Batman is actually much older than they perceive, in his 50s she assumes. Robin is also not a Boy Wonder, but a girl, and in her story Robin is clearly her in disguise (though I don’t think this is to be construed as her trying to claim she’s Robin to her friends). The art style once again changes as we go to a very dark place. The sky is an even brighter shade of red than we’re accustomed to seeing, and almost all of the setting and characters are done in black. Robin is after some mutants, and Batman drops in to help. He’s now voiced by Michael Ironside, another delightful bit of casting, and is depicted as much bigger than before. He’s a dead-ringer for Frank Miller’s take on the character, and he wants information from the guy he just pounced on.

The setting shifts to the wastelands where the leader of the mutants (Kevin Michael Richardson) is riling up his followers. The mutants cheering him on are all black save for the red goggles they wear. Two mutants providing some comic relief have their names in white on their shirt, Rob (Charles Rocket) and Don (Mark Rolston, doing a Tommy Chong impression by the sound of it) and those two will provide some occasional commentary. The mutant leader seems to think only Batman can prevent him from taking over Gotham, or what’s left of it, and he’s eager for a showdown.

batman tank

The interior of Batman’s tank is quite red.

Not one to disappoint, Batman arrives in style. He’s more than prepared for an army of mutants as he rolls in with a tank. Robin is with him, and as he rolls along he opens fire on the mutants. They drop like flies, and if you think this level of violence is inappropriate for such a cartoon then apparently you’re in agreement with the censors at The WB. Batman remarks to Robin that they’re rubber bullets, but he then odds an, “Honestly,” which sounds a bit sarcastic leaving his words open to interpretation, a nice little way to skirt around the censors. Robin leaves the confines of the tank to adorably go after the mutants herself armed with a slingshot. It’s a rather ridiculous course of action, but she’s also the one telling the story.

img_0236

Batman’s foe: Old Pointy Nips.

Batman eventually leaves the safety of the tank himself when challenged by the mutant leader. Batman is so damn huge that he’s the size of this mutated being he’s standing across from. The two grapple, and the mutant leader eventually gains the upper hand as they stumble into a pit of mud. The leader gets Batman under the mud and appears to suffocate him. Robin, seeing her mentor in trouble, fires off some ball-bearings from her slingshot which agitate the mutant leader. He turns to identify the source of the projectiles, which allows Batman to rise from the mud like he’s the Undertaker. He soon gains the upper hand on his foe, and delivers this little gem, “This isn’t a trash heap. It’s an operating table. And I’m the surgeon!” The camera pans to the sky briefly so we can hear the snapping of bones, before returning to a satisfied Robin.

img_0237

Batman is not one to cower in a tank.

Carrie’s friends are pretty captivated by her story and she has a look of smug satisfaction on her face. They then see something streak across the sky. It looks like Batman, but the being was clearly flying. They chase after it and wind up in a dilapidated looking theater. There they see a figure on the stage setting up something and it’s pretty clear this isn’t Batman. He steps into the light and the kids recognize him as the villain Firefly (Rolston). He’s clearly setting up for another arson job and the kids try to summon Batman with Matt’s store-bought Bat Signal flashlight. There’s a sizable hole on the roof of this building for such a tactic, but unfortunately for the kids the batteries die almost immediately. Worse, their chatter alerts Firefly to their presence and he tosses a flash grenade in their general direction for confirmation.

img_0239.jpg

The real villain of the episode.

Firefly clearly doesn’t feel threatened by kids and simply remarks “Tough break,” as he sets off the explosives he’s planted around the place. As the building goes up in flame, he flies out of the hole in the roof. This is when Batman makes his entrance as he knocks Firefly to the stage below. He then starts monologuing, explaining Firefly’s plan to him and seemingly for the benefit of his audience. Firefly is obviously agitated, and the two begin their dance. Wanting to hasten things along, Firefly pulls out his flame-saber, but Batman extinguishes it with a little can that’s basically just a fire extinguisher. He quickly takes the clown out, and then notices the kids. As they try to flee, fire blocks their way so Batman tosses an explosive Batarang at the wall to create a new exit. He orders the kids out, and they do as they’re told, with only Nick pausing to watch as Batman scoops up Firefly and leaves via the ceiling.

img_0241

Not one of Batman’s most exciting gadgets, but effective nonetheless.

Outside the burning building, the Gotham Police arrive and Detective Bullock takes note of the “present” Batman left behind – a dangling Firefly. He ponders who phoned in the 911, but apparently doesn’t care enough to turn around and see three kids standing beside a pay phone. As the trio walk off, they discuss with excitement what they just witnessed. Basically, all three are convinced what they just saw confirms their own belief of what Batman is with Matt seeing the gadgets as confirmation for his uncle’s account, Carrie focusing on the way he took out Firefly as proof of hers, and Nick thinks he simply flew away thus confirming he’s not human. The camera pans to the sky as their chattering continues to usher in the credits.

img_0242

So what if the place is burning, it’s not every day you get to see Batman in action. Sometimes the risks are worth taking.

This is a clever way to celebrate different aspects of Batman from the ages. It’s so good that I wish it had been a one-off television special so it could have been a little longer as it feels like it’s one act short. Supposedly, the showrunners wanted to include an homage to the 70s Batman popularized by Neal Adams and Denny O’Neil, but it just couldn’t happen. Settling on the 50s Batman popularized by Dick Sprang and Bill Finger was a wise move. And while I liked Gary Owens in the role as Batman for that segment, I do wish they could have brought Adam West back. The closing with the two shaking hands is an obvious tribute to the opening title sequence of the 66 television show. Mark Hamill will likely always be my favorite Joker, but bringing in Michael McKean to do a different take was a most excellent choice. His laugh is a perfect depiction of Joker from this era. The segment could be described as parody, but it’s so earnest in its portrayal of these golden age characters that it works on a celebratory level as opposed to a mocking one.

img_0243

The kids get to walk away from this one satisfied, a sentiment I can s

The Dark Knight Returns portion is also equally amusing. There’s some dry humor on display via Batman as this version is capable of puns as well and it’s interesting to see that the kids all seem to universally expect Batman to possess at least some form of a sense of humor. Right from the start, Carrie was clearly a dead-ringer for the Robin from that tale so it was no surprise to see where her story went. And even though this is essentially a kid’s show, the writers and artists did a really admirable job of adapting Miller’s work for this format, right down to the mutant leader’s pointy nipples.

Throughout the episode, there are also numerous Easter eggs further adding to the celebratory nature of the episode. In between stories, a kid named Joel (Phillip Van Dyke) pops in briefly to claim Batman wears a rubber suit and drives up walls. He’s standing outside a shoe store called Shoemaker, an obvious nod to Joel Schumacher and his version of Batman from Batman Forever and Batman & Robin. Is this reference mocking? Perhaps, though it feels like it’s in good fun. The music exhibit Joker hits in the 50s segment is named The Walker Music Center which is clearly named after series composer Shirley Walker. And the framing for this story is also quite similar to Batman #250 where Bruce Wayne takes some kids camping who all share stories about their perception of Batman (Bruce Timm claims this was coincidence though). Even Kevin Michael Richardson, brought on to voice the mutant leader, was a huge fan of The Dark Knight Returns and it’s no surprise the show would seek out fans of Batman for such an episode.

snap

The animators really nail the visual styles they were seeking to emulate.

Visually, this is one of the most interesting and fun episodes of the series to watch. It’s a Dong Yang production, and the studio should be commended for adapting the different art styles for each segment. It couldn’t have been easy, and further credit should go to James Tucker who handled the story boards for the episode. The 50s segment in particular is done so well that one could likely show a still from it to someone and convince them it’s from a different show.

“Legends of the Dark Knight” ends up being one of the more fun episodes of The New Batman Adventures and even Batman: The Animated Series. As a more kid-focused episode, it’s much better than the more juvenile “I’ve Got Batman in my Basement” from season one. It’s a clever way to explore the character of Batman, enough so that it was basically done before and has been done since. It’s a strong enough concept that it could easily be adapted for film as DC’s version of Into the Spider-Verse for Batman. I don’t think such a thing is likely, but it’s worth exploring. Especially because so many other versions of Batman are worth exploring. Even if such a production never does take place, at least we’ll always have this one.


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