Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Celebrating Batman: The Animated Series 20 years later: As a parent, my least-favorite episodes became more valuable..

This week will be the 20th anniversary of the premiere of Batman: The Animated Series. In its weird way, the show actually had three 'premieres'. The first episode, "The Cat and the Claw part I", debuted on Saturday morning, September 5th, as a quasi-sneak preview of sorts. The next day saw the official premiere, in primetime no less (Sunday night at 7pm) where Fox debuted the official pilot episode, "On Leather Wings". Then came the first official weekday episode, Monday afternoon at 4:30pm, which was no less than "Heart of Ice", which to this day stands as not only one of the best episodes of the series run, but a shining testament to all that Batman: The Animated Series did right both in terms of the Batman mythos and the entire medium of childrens' action shows. This will be the third in a series of essays detailing the long-term legacy of the Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski's groundbreaking animated saga. Today we discuss the show as something I can share with my children, specifically my five-year old daughter.  I actually waited quite awhile to show her this series, purely because I wanted to absolutely make sure she was old enough to actually enjoy it.  The irony is that some of the very things and very episodes I didn't like when I was twelve years old are the things I now appreciate as a father.

Batman: The Animated Series was not her introduction to Batman.  She was born about nine months before the premiere of Batman: The Brave and the Bold.  At that point she wasn't so much watching television as playing with me while I had something on in the background or on as I rocked her to sleep at night.  Just before she was two years old, she walked up to the TV and exclaimed "the Batman".  So yeah, she quickly noticed that daddy was a Batman junkie.  She eventually got into Superfriends, which gave me a new appreciation of that iconic 70s toon (it may be silly, but it's not dumb and it's not boring).  After that, it was the 1960s Batman show, which happened to be running on the Hub network.  She watched her first episode of Batman: The Animated Series sometime last year.  What's arguably noteworthy is that I find myself showing her the very episodes that I thought least of when they originally aired.  I was twelve when they aired and my daughter was four last year.  I find myself grateful for the 'kiddie' episodes.  The very episodes that I felt were too juvenile and not 'mature' enough when I was a kid are now the perfect introductory adventures.

My daughter doesn't care that "I've Got Batman In My Basement" is silly, she just enjoys watching The Penguin getting his butt kicked by two kids just a little older than her.  She doesn't mind that "The Last Laugh" is basically plotless, she enjoys the silly jokes, Captain Clown, and Joker telling Batman he's going to fry like a grilled cheese sandwich.  "The Cat and the Claw" may have subpar animation in the second half and a pretty atrocious  final act (let's blow up the compound and hope that the flames kill the deadly virus), she sees it as a fun Batman/Catwoman adventure with a female villain to boot.  Speaking of females, I was never thrilled as a kid by how many of the New Batman Adventures featured Batgirl, preferring the solo Batman episodes.  But now I'm glad to have a crapload of Batgirl episodes to choose from.  Episodes like "Batgirl Returns" and "Girl's Night Out" may be lacking in substance, but tell that to the four year old thrilled to watch Batgirl and Supergirl teaming up to kick the respective asses of Livewire, Harley Quinn, and Poison Ivy. Some of these episodes are better than the others, but none are boring and all offer the show's inherent thrills without having to deal with some pretty adult subject matter.  

I can wait until she's a little older before explaining why the invisible man is kidnapping his own daughter, why The Joker is threatening  to murder Charlie's family, or why in the world The Riddler is trying to kill his old boss.  You try explaining patent law, work-for-hire contracts, non-competitive clauses, and royalties to a five year old.  It's not a matter of some episodes being too violent or dark so much as certain episodes being far too complicated for a very young child to understand ("Why did Batman spear that guy's car with his Batwing and threaten to drop him?").  And since Allison has never been one to accept anything at face value (I always thought Star Wars: A New Hope was a simple story... lesson learned!), it's a matter of allowing her to enjoy the show without having to explain the characters' oft-complicated motivations.  For the moment I've realized how important those lighter, kid-friendly episodes really were, to say nothing of the heavy female presence.  In an era when heavy female presence in action cartoons is almost non-existent (She-Ra: Princess of Power would be almost subversive today), I'd argue the consistent rooster of three-dimensional female characters (Poison Ivy, Renee Montoya, Leslie Thompkins, Catwoman, Harley Quinn, Talia Al Ghul, Batgirl, etc.) is a big reason, if certainly not the only reason, why the show has maintained such a strong female fan base over the last two decades.

It is no small irony that the very episodes I appreciated the least when I was growing up are now among the ones I'm most thankful to have.  If Allison wants to keep watching, she can get to stuff like "I Am the Night" or "Over the Edge" when she's just a little older.  There's no rush nor really any urgency to get her as addicted to the show as I was back in the day.  I've tried to balance her periodic televised entertainment, mixing older stuff like She-Ra and Jem (which is indeed 'truly outrageous') with new shows like Doc McStuffins and Jake and the Neverland Pirates (which is basically Lost told from the point-of-view of The Others).  But when she has a jones for DC superheroes, I'm darn glad to have age-appropriate adventures to choose from.  And if she can watch Batgirl kick the crap out of Two-Face or The Joker without being overtly sexualized, then all the better.      

Next time, we'll take a look at some of my personal favorite episodes.

Scott Mendelson


Diana B. said...

I was a little girl when the TAS premiered, and it (along with Batman Returns) were my introduction to Batman. I loved the series then and I love it now, and I have sought out Batman in other media (comics, film, tv) ever since. I love the comics, I love the Burton films, I love the Nolan films. I'm glad there's a new generation of little girls like yours who will also love Batman. I hate it when people think it's a boy thing.

Rick said...

I think the more kiddie episodes of the show are just the creators taking a breather and remembering that even though they deal with a lot of mature subject matter, they're still making a kids show and have the right to take a breather and just have fun every once in a while. Interesting to see how your perspective changes over the years though.

Speaking of, when I was a kid I liked that all the female characters (hero or villain) could kick ass; now, I appreciate that show treats the competence of its female characters as a matter of course and doesn't explicitly point out that the women are "just as good as the boys."


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