Who’d have thought that the Fox network’s classiest series would prove to be an afternoon cartoon show? After an evening premiere, this new version of Batman moves to daytime schedules on Sept. 7 — check your local listings and don’t miss it, because it’s an exhilaratingly imaginative effort.
No comic-book superhero seems open to as many interpretations as Batman. When artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger created the character in 1939, Batman was essentially a hard-boiled detective in a bat suit, prowling the mean streets of Gotham City for bad guys ranging from common thugs to surreal evildoers like the Joker. In 1966, the Batman TV show turned the hero into a campy figure of fun. Two decades later, seeking to reinvest Batman with some of Kane’s original air of operatic tragedy surrounding the character, artist Frank Miller reimagined Batman as the Dark Knight, a vengeful fellow whose crime fighting had turned him into a bleak bully. Then came director Tim Burton’s variations in Batman and Batman Returns, art-ful mixtures of all the Batmans who’d gone before.
This new cartoon version, developed by producers Bruce W. Timm and Eric Radomski, is wonderfully faithful to Batman lore — expect Bat battles with the Joker, the Penguin, and cult faves like Two-Face and the Clock King. But the cartoon series also presents an original take on the character; this Batman is a sly adventurer, drawn in a lushly stylized manner, with a V-shaped body and blank, slitted eyes. The animation is first-rate, moving Batman across gray cotton clouds and against a backdrop of teetering Art Deco-style sky-scrapers. If the art in these cartoons has any precedent, it’s the striking Superman cartoons that the Max Fleischer animation studios produced in the ’40s.
The debut Batman episode involves the title character’s search for a funny, scary villain who’s like a Batman turned inside out: Man-bat. In contrast to both the ’60s show or Burton’s movies, the new Batman features plots that actually make sense and an occasional bit of clever dialogue that never curdles into camp. Parents should be warned that this Batman is so well done that its bad guys are truly menacing — little kids might be frightened. But for anyone else interested in animation and intrigued by Batman’s past, this is a very cool show.