Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
After the live-action Batman films gave the franchise restored prominence in the late Eighties and early Nineties, the powers that be decided to expand the Bat-influence. Less than three months after Batman Returns hit movie screens, Batman: The Animated Series debuted on TV. Although many now respect it, Returns received a fairly poor reception, and it caused the film series’ producers to back away from Tim Burton’s darkness for future live-action movies.
As I recall, Animated, on the other hand, enjoyed a positive reception from day one. When it hit the air in September 1992, it garnered positive reviews and did well with audiences. Though this original series ceased production a few years back, its siblings continue to prosper; shows like Justice League and Batman Beyond remain active.
We’ve seen a number of DVD releases related to these programs, but most have concentrated on feature-length specials or actual theatrical issues such as Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. As far as I can tell, only one DVD offered a collection of TV episodes: Batman Beyond, which compiled a few of that series’ programs.
Until now, that is. The Legend Begins presents the first five episodes of Batman: The Animated Series. Note that these are the first five episodes produced, and they don’t even remotely approximate the broadcast order. For the series’ first season, they created 65 programs. Most of these five showed up early in the run, but not all of them. I’ll review these episodes in production order and will also mention at what point they actually hit the air.
On Leather Wings(broadcast 2nd, 9/6/92) features a second winged weirdo in the skies above Gotham City. Naturally, people confuse the two, and Batman (voiced by Kevin Conroy) receives the blame for crimes committed by the second character. He spends the episode in search of this new menace named Man-Bat (Marc Singer).
This episode suffered from an excessively basic storyline. It seemed fairly predictable and lacked much depth. However, it did set up the series well. The fairly dark tone came through nicely, so despite the absence much extended plot, the show worked well to start things.
Christmas With the Joker (broadcast 38th, 11/13/92) finds Gotham during the holiday season, and the Joker (Mark Hamill) is up to his usual tricks. He kidnaps Commissioner Gordon (Bob Hastings), Detective Bullock (Robert Costanzo), and TV newscaster Summer Gleason (Mari Devon) and holds them hostage to lure the Bats into a series of traps.
Although this one also offered a simplistic plot, but it made up for this with clever antics. The show nicely combined action and intrigue, and Batman and Robin needed to use their vaunted detective skills to get through the events. In addition, Joker got good usage. Overall, the episode seemed strong.
The oddest aspect of the show came from the use of Robin. He didn’t appear in any of the other four episodes on this DVD. I don’t know if he was always supposed there for the others but he just didn’t appear, or if one of the later programs brought him into the mix. Anyway, it seemed odd for Robin to pop up out of the blue here, even though I know the continuity may make sense as broadcast.
Nothing to Fear (broadcast 10th, 9/15/92) introduces a new villain named the Scarecrow (Henry Polic). He seeks to destroy the local university in a variety of ways, and he uses a fear-inducing gas to achieve his ends. This eventually affects Batman, who faces his greatest concern: the disapproval of his dead father.
While I didn’t care for the Scarecrow much, I liked this episode. The Scarecrow was too simplistic and obvious, but the show offered good depth via the exploration of Bruce Wayne’s past. It was interesting to see how the figurative ghost of his parents haunted him, and this added substance to a program that otherwise might have been less than stellar.
The Last Laugh (broadcast 15th, 9/22/92) brings back the Joker for more fun. He uses a gas to turn the citizens of Gotham into laughing idiots. Batman escapes this, but it gets to his butler Alfred (Efram Zimbalist). That wouldn’t seem to be a big deal, but extended exposure to the gas leads to madness, so Batman needs to stop the Joker before it’s too late.
While a decent show in its own right, this one suffered somewhat from its proximity to “Christmas”. Of course, that wasn’t an issue as broadcast, since “Laugh” aired almost two months prior to Christmas, but here it became a moderate issue. The two programs seemed fairly similar, so while “Laugh” was entertaining and offered a nice look at Alfred, it came across as less than terrific.
Pretty Poison (broadcast 9th, 9/14/92) brings in another new villain. Wayne’s best friend, District Attorney Harvey Dent (Richard Moll) starts to date sexy botanist Pamela Isley (Diane Pershing) and plans to marry her. However, he comes down with a quick-acting ailment and goes into a coma. Wayne suspects Isley had something to do with this, and he soon discovers she leads a double life as plant-loving Poison Ivy. She seeks her revenge against Dent for his acts that caused some roses to go extinct, so Batman needs to stop her and also get the antidote for Dent’s illness.
I thought “Poison” offered the best show of the first five. Ivy is a rich villain, and the show gave her a level of depth that we didn’t find for Man-Bat or the Scarecrow. Overall, the show provided a lot of action and intrigue, and it demonstrated a high caliber of material across the board.