After the successes of both the Batman and Superman animated series, Bruce Timm and company decided to mix it up a little. The new series, tentatively entitled Batman Tomorrow, would feature a new Batman set in a near future cyberpunk setting. The Batman would be a young inexperienced punk from the streets, not the a socialite like Wayne. The aged Caped Crusader would be retired and coach the new kid from a radio link.
Like many fans at the time, I was not pleased to hear any of this. I liked Batman the way he was, I wasn’t interested in some hip ‘edgy’ take on such an iconic character. When the premier movie aired on the WB, I watched with crossed arms and a frown on my face. By the second episode, I was hooked.
The series introduces viewers to an aged Batman using a cybernetically-empowered super suit to continue fighting his war on crime well past his limit. In the middle of a case, he suffers an acute heart attack and pulls a gun on a crook to get the upper hand and save his hash. Traumatized by his own behavior, Bruce Wayne shuts down the Batcave, vowing never to be Batman again. The program jumps forward 20 years to a mad future world with skyscrapers built high into the strangely purple night sky. Gangs of Jokerz terrorize the citizens of Gotham City and an aged and bitter Bruce Wayne sits in his stately manor with only his dog Ace for company. That all changes one night when a moment of violence directs another young man to take up the mantle of the Bat and the war continues, this time with a new soldier at the front.
It’s no secret to any viewer of the Justice League cartoons that Timm, Tucker, Dini, Burnett and all the creators of the DC Animated projects are frustrated Marvel Comics fans. Astute viewers would easily catch sly nods to Marvel from the Defenders-like episode of Justice League where a Namor-like Aquaman, Dr Strange-like Dr Fate and very Hulk-like Solomon Grundy travel to the netherworld to many other stories that mirror the comics from the House of Ideas far more strongly than the original material they were adapting.
So it should come as no surprise that this new Batman is very much like Spider-Man. Terry McGuinnes (Batman Beyond) is a 17 year old high schooler with worries about his mom finding his costume or his girlfriend dumping him because he skipped out on her to fight a radioactive businessman. The weird part is not the constant homages to classic Spider-Man moments, but in the fact that they work so well. In one episode, Batman fights off a faux-Fantastic Four team of freaks who all end up dying horrifically (so it’s not always a love letter to Marvel).
In any case, the series is a wonderful success. It takes the Batman mythos and pulls it forward into a vision of the future. The villains (aside from the odd one) are all brand new which is a very impressive decision on the part of the production team. It must have occurred to them to simply re-invent the Penguin, Riddler, etc into a new sci-fi future model, but they shied away from that temptation in order to introduce all new villains like Shriek, the Golum, Curare, Stalker and many more. It’s also a real treat to see a cranky old Bruce Wayne still kicking and stubborn as a mule in his old age (something never even attempted in the comic book series aside from the Dark Knight Returns).
The series ran for three years and saw the stunning direct to DVD film ‘Return of the Joker’ released as well. In the film, threads from the previous Batman series connected into Batman Beyond to weave an amazing story that remains one of the all time best in the annals of Batman tales. It also is the only DC Animated film to date to be released in a vastly different ‘unrated’ version. The movie also gives Terry the opportunity to square off against the big daddy of all Batman villains, the Joker, where we find out just how different this new Batman is from the old one.
A sequel featuring an aged Selina Kyle (The Catwoman) was planned but shelved, only to have large portion of the plot mixed into the Justice League Unlimited episode Eulogy, which reveals secrets behind who Terry McGuiness really was all along.
The team was very careful to pay homage to the Batman mythology and legend in much the same ways that they had with their Batman The Animated Series in the 1990′s. It’s this reverence and respect for the material along with a seemingly bottomless amount of skill and talent that makes Batman Beyond such an incredible animated series.
The series was so successful that in 2000 Warner Bros. planned a live action film based on Batman Beyond with a screenplay provided by Paul Dini, Alan Burnett and acclaimed science fiction author Neal Stephenson consulting the duo. In the end, the studio favored the Batman Begins film pitch and shelved the project… but just imagine what a motion picture version would have been like?
You’re right, it would have sucked. But what we got is perhaps the best of the DC Animated series produced… though I’d love to see them top it!
Batman Beyond – Season One (DC Comics Classic Collection)
Batman Beyond – Season Two (DC Comics Classic Collection)
Batman Beyond – Season Three (DC Comics Classic Collection)
Batman Beyond – Return of the Joker (The Original Uncut Version)