Sun
Sep 16 2012 12:00pm

Batman: The Animated Series Rewatch: “On Leather Wings”

Batman: The Animated Series Rewatch on Tor.com: On Leather Wings

“On Leather Wings”
Written by Mitch Brian
Directed by Kevin Altieri
Episode #001
Music by Shirley Walker
Animation Services by Spectrum Animation Studio
Original Airdate: September 6th, 1992

Plot: When a man-sized bat commits a series of robberies, Harvey Bullock and the GCPD declare all out war against Batman. Now Batman must find the real culprit to clear his name.

So, here we are at the first episode of Batman, and the first question we have to ask ourselves is why start with Man-Bat? Of all of Batman’s established villains, why start with one of his most boring? I see the logic in not featuring the Joker, Penguin, or Catwoman, as they had just starred in the Burton movies, but then why not open with the Riddler, as Batman ’66 had, or with the less used Poison Ivy or the Scarecrow?

Everything about Man-Bat, from his name to his design, to his origin, seems like the least creative thing you could do with the concept, like DC Comics editor Julie Schwartz got bored half-way through Man-Bat creator Frank Robbins’ pitch meeting:

ROBBINS: So, I’m just spit-balling here, but let’s say there was someone who was the opposite of Batman, a “Man-Bat” if you will—

SCHWARTZ: Perfect, Man-Bat, go with that.

ROBBINS: But, that’s just—

SCHWARTZ: No, you’re done. The kids will love Man-Bat. He’ll sell a million copies.

Every Man-Bat appearance is basically the same, including this one. Kirk Langstrom temporarily turns himself into Man-Bat, but then the beast takes over and it’s all “Can’t fight it. It’s got me!” Then Batman shows up and beats him up until he’s cured again.

This episode makes a feeble attempt to throw suspicion on Langstrom’s mentor, Dr. Marsh, played by Rene (Odo) Auberjonois, but the red herring doesn’t really change anything. And besides, being played by Marc (Beastmaster) Singer, not reacting to hearing the screams of the Man-Bat, and his wickedly pointed eyebrows give Langstrom away almost immediately.

So, if Man-Bat is not inherently interesting, why start with him?

As far as I can tell, four reasons:

First, by having the first villain be a Batman-imposter, and a less complicated one to boot, it allows the show to establish early the adversarial relationship between Batman and the authorities of Gotham. Mayor Hamilton Hill, District Attorney Harvey Dent, and Detective Bullock are all on board with arresting Batman on the least cause, and Commissioner James Gordon is a half-hearted defender of Batman at best. Batman and the cops do not work together, there is no bat-signal or bat-phone. They are rivals at best, enemies at worst. Batman captures Man-Bat to prove his innocences and get the GCPD off his back. Actually curing Langstrom is more of an after-thought.

It’s Bullock who serves as the main antagonist for the episode, and he’ll be a constant thorn in Batman’s side going forward (he’s in more episodes than the Joker), so now’s probably a good time to get into his character. Played by veteran actor Robert Costanzo with a heavy Gotham (read Brooklyn) accent, Bullock’s boorish manners and sloppy appearance hide his sharp wit and keen detective skills. In this episode, he openly undermines Commissioner Gordon and Gordon, in turn, is on the edge of firing Bullock. That inter-police antagonism goes away, and by the time we get to “Vendetta,” we’ll see they are fiercely loyal to each other, but Bullock’s antagonism towards Batman is constant. 

The story bible says that Bullock’s dislike of Batman stems from resentment, that Bullock feels beating up suspects is his job and no one else’s, but we’ll see that Bullock’s stated motives in this episode are actually sincere. He believes Batman is a dangerous, uncontrollable nut who interferes with real police work. And, this is key, Bullock isn’t wrong. In this episode alone, Batman knocks out a cop and steals evidence from a crime scene. Yes, Batman goes out of his way to save a cop from Bullock’s own over-zealous SWAT team, but all of this could have been avoided if Batman had worked with them from the beginning. Gordon objects to Bullock’s swat team because he doesn’t want a “vigilante force” on his streets, but what is Batman if not a vigilante force?

The question of the morality and practicallity of Batman is an ongoing theme for the series, and this episode sets off that argument on a strong note.

The second reason to start with Man-Bat is that he is literally what many Batman villains are going to be metaphorically, a dark reflection of Batman himself. As we’ll see, most of Batman’s villains are people who resort to extra-legal means of finding justice. It’s just that their sense of justice is horribly twisted in some way and that’s when Batman steps in, sometimes deeply conflicted, sometimes not so much.

This idea of his villains being dark reflections applies to Bullock as well. After all, he’s an ally of Jim Gordon who occasionally uses rough interrogation tactics to get results. As he’ll point out to Batman in a later episode, the biggest difference between them is that Bullock has a badge (and plus-sized pants). 

The third reason to start with Man-Bat is that Man-Bat flies, which allows a new series to show off how amazing their animation can be. From the shadow of a bat gliding along the buildings at the beginning to the climactic chase over blimps and through construction sites at the end, the scenes of flight have fluidity and motion that is breathtaking, even twenty years later. This episode is animated by the Japanese studio Spectrum, and the Hayao Miyazaki-esque image of a blimp bursting through clouds (as well as the Katsuhiro Otomo-esque transformation of Langstrom into the Man-Bat) demonstrates the subtle influence of anime on the series. 

The animation will still be refined from here. This episode is a lot more rubber-y than later episodes, and the use of shadow is sometimes too much. But there are still fantastically well storyboarded moments, from Bullock’s gleeful expressions while snarking at Gordon, to Langstrom’s “crazyface” when seen through beakers. As a pilot, this episode spends some time just featuring how the cave works, how the car works, the tech and the style of Batman’s operation, and it’s mostly animated gorgeously.

And, finally, the reason to start with Man-Bat is to show that Batman: The Animated Series is a show that can have Man-Bat in it. Batman does not have the special effects constraints Batman ’66 had, or the need for realism the Burton Batman movies had (though Batman Returns does end with an army of rocket penguins, so who knows where that series might have gone had it continued). 

But the creators of this series were not going to let a little thing like plausibility get in the way of storytelling. If a giant bat that can actually fly is necessary for Batman to be smacked face first into a blimp, then giant bats can fly. If a man can completely transform into a monster is needed to have Batman hunted down like a dog, then a man can do that. The point is that Batman: The Animated Series does not take place in the real world, or even a remotely plausible one. They could have started with the Riddler and fights on giant typewriters, but the audience could dismiss that by saying “Oh, he’s a supervillain. They can do those things.” But starting with Kirk Langstrom, scientist, shows that in Gotham, this Gotham, anyone could have a monsters inside them. 

Some additional notes:

The first time we hear Batman, he’s joking with Alfred, which is sharp contrast to the humorless crusader he’s usually portrayed as. Similarly, we get to hear the full range of Conroy’s voice, as he gets to play both Bruce and Batman, and be serious, funny, flirty, clueless, and threatening throughout the episode. The episode also demonstrates how different Batman’s two voices are, because when he speaks in Bruce’s voice while still wearing his mask, the effect is jarring. It’s also a little jarring to hear Clive Revill’s dour Alfred voice, since he’ll be replaced by Efrem Zimbalist Jr., in a couple episodes, who has a much drier reading and maybe the coolest name ever. 

I should also mention the score. Shirley Walker gets a lot of deserved praise for the music for the series, and even here at the beginning, it is mighty impressive. On top of the lush sound of a full orchestra, clever moments, like referencing In The Hall of the Mountain King during Langstrom’s transformation, masking the rising police sirens with the “I’m doing detective work” score, and the repeated use of horns to announce Batman’s arrival, give the show a timeless and epic quality.

All in all, not the best episode, but a strong start that establishes the quality of the animation, the dark mood of the series, sets up most of the main characters and ongoing conflicts, and we got to see Batman fly. It’s promising, and it makes me excited to watch the rest of the series.


Steven Padnick is a freelance writer and editor. By day. You can find more of his writing and funny pictures at padnick.tumblr.com.

20 comments
Christopher Bennett
1. ChristopherLBennett
I do think Man-Bat was chosen mainly because he would allow for a visually striking story. "On Leather Wings" is an atypical episode for B:TAS, since the animation is really fantastic (which wasn't reliably the case with the series that followed, since they farmed out the animation to so many studios with differing skill levels, from Spectrum and TMS at the top to Akom at the bottom) but the writing was fairly unsophisticated. I suppose that early focus on art over story is understandable, since the series' co-creators, Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski, both came from an art background. Fortunately for the series proper they had Alan Burnett, Michael Reaves, and eventually Paul Dini on staff as a solid core of writer-producers. (Too many fans out there attribute the DC Animated Universe solely to Timm and Dini, or even to Dini alone, while vital contributors like Radomski and Burnett tend to be overlooked.)
RobinM
2. RobinM
This is one of my favorite cartoons ever. I liked the flying in this episode. I always was really impressed by the voice work on this show from the main cast and the guest stars. Kevin Conroy will always be one of the best Batman's ever and he made Bruce Wayne very distinct too.
Mahesh Banavar
3. maheshkb
Any thoughts/information on whose idea it was to have this Bruce Wayne/Batman voice dichotomy? Was it always being done, in previous series and movies, or is this the first set of people to do it?
RobinM
4. TTN
"realism the Burton Batman moves had" should be "movies."

I like the choice to not give a 0-10 score.
Keith DeCandido
5. krad
maheshkb: I suspect it was at least in part inspired by the way the late great Bud Collyer did Superman and Clark Kent on the old Superman radio show, the Fleisher films, and The New Adventures of Superman. Like Conroy, Collyer had a high-pitched voice for the civilian identity and a significantly deeper voice for the hero. (Amusingly, in both cases, the hero voice -- which seems to be the "put on" voice -- is much closer to the actor's natural speech pattern than the civilian ID one.)

---Keith R.A. DeCandido
Christopher Bennett
6. ChristopherLBennett
There's also the difference between Christopher Reeve's Clark and Superman voices, and no doubt some other examples in the history of superhero radio, film, and TV. Heck, even Adam West differentiated Bruce's voice from Batman's. They were in the same register, but West's Bruce had a more naturalistic, understated, laid-back delivery while his Batman was ultra-serious, intense, and exaggeratedly melodramatic.
RobinM
7. Cat
In Batman Beyond, Terry has a different voice, slightly deeper, when he's being Batman.

It's similar to modern audiobook narrators which are very good at creating characters that are distinct from each by creating a different voice for each character when they voice narration.

I'm listening to Alan Garner's Boneland which I'm reviewing and it's amazing how good he is at creating emotional content in each character.
matt
8. graftonio
And then of course we have the great Christian Bale Batman voice which by the end of 3 movies and everyone except Gordon knowing who he is he still used.
Mahesh Banavar
9. maheshkb
Thanks all. It seems I have a LOT of homework to do...
RobinM
11. Cain S. Latrani
Another aspect of the show they introduced with this episode was the softly prevading sense of pulp fiction that runs through out the entire series.

After all, mad scientists and human mutation. Juciy stuff that many people have grown too cynical to really enjoy these days. Too heavy with the hows and whys, instead of just enjoying the story for what it is.

A story.
RobinM
12. BenjaminJB
Excellent review and analysis. I would add that one thing that set this first episode apart from other iterations is that it doesn't start with Batman's origin story, but with the simple origin story ("I took drugs") of a pretty simple villain.

Another issue I would add is some of the unusual cinematography here, like the introduction of Harvey Dent: first we see a hand flipping a coin, then we see a full-figure shot of him from a low angle foregrounding his feet and legs. I don't know if this was just fun for them, or if the strangeness was meant as a signal to us to pay attention.
RobinM
13. Rootboy
This show skipped Batman's origin for generally the same reason it was officially just called "Batman" and the show's title isn't even in the opening - it trades on the idea that everyone knows who Batman is, so you don't need to explain it.

I love this episode for the great animation and the way it covers a lot of Batman doing Batman stuff - detective work as both Batman and Bruce, running from the cops, fighting a monster. Excellent introduction to the show.
Igor Toffie
14. toffie
Well the animation (although it certainly is inspired by mentioned anime authors) is still being worked on in the first episode and is not so tight yet.

The Man-bat is I think the process of the show finding it's atmosphere - here it is Frankenstein meets film noir. Between the superhero stories, the series kept on mixing old sf/horror stories with film noir (Silicon soul and such, all have that vibe in them). Here the whole episode is a crime drama, you clearly know who the bad guy is, although there is a bit of mystery.

Batman is a CSI/detective as much as he is action hero (the flight scenes), no need to show his origin, his actions show what he's supposed to be in this episode. As far as I remember, Joker doesn't get any intro either (although he gets it in Mask of Phantasm), but the "revived" villians get their origins when they modified them for the series (like Mr. Freeze).

About the Batman voice, that's kind of what I think is wrong with Bale's voice - in both cases they show how "Bruce" is actually the alter ego (like Kent is an alter ego of Superman), so the fact that Batman's is his natural voice (the one he uses in the cave when his mask is off), while the Bruce persona has a more lighthearted voice, it's perfect. Bale's Batman used his usual voice for Bruce and that gravel chewing as his Batman voice, which might be more "realistic", but just sends of a wrong character point to me.
Christopher Bennett
15. ChristopherLBennett
I think there are two main reasons they didn't cover the origin. One, perhaps, is that the series was seen as something of an adjunct to the Burton movies, despite not actually being in continuity with it (which is why they had to use Burton's designs for Penguin and Catwoman against their preference), and the first movie had covered the origin story, so there might've been a desire to avoid overlap. (This is similar to why the FOX Spider-Man series from around the same time didn't begin with an origin story: because James Cameron was working on a feature film version around that time and the producers didn't want the show to cover the same ground as the film. Once it became clear the film project was dead, they went ahead and did the origin in flashback.)

The other, more definite reason is that FOX Kids had strict censorship toward violence at the time, and depictions of death were off-limits. So they literally couldn't show the origin story; the closest they could ever come was showing the occasional suggestive dream/hallucination or news clipping. I was surprised that they didn't cover the origin story even when they did Mask of the Phantasm, since they weren't under network censorship restrictions there and were able to show a number of people being killed.

Interestingly, the first screen adaptation of Batman's origin (i.e. the murder of the Waynes) was written by Alan Burnett for the final season of Superfriends, or as it was known at the time, The Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians, in 1985. The episode, "The Fear," was atypically dark for that show, even for its final season, which had taken the show in a relatively smarter and more serious direction thanks to Burnett's story editing (along with another future DCAU contributor, Rich Fogel). In a lot of ways it was a prototype or backdoor pilot for a serious Batman show and may have paved the way for B:TAS. They couldn't show or acknowledge the murders overtly either, but they managed to convey them by cutting away to lightning flashes during the gunshots and then focusing on the expression on young Bruce's face, which told us all we needed to know about what had happened. Still, they got away with far more on ABC Saturday morning than B:TAS was able to get away with on FOX Kids, or even FOX primetime, 7-10 years later. Different networks, different red lines from the censors. (The later DCAU shows on Kids' WB and Cartoon Network were freer to depict and acknowledge death.)
RobinM
16. laura.musich
@BenjaminJB: Low angle shots often have the effect of placing the subject in a position of superiority/power—so the viewer has the sense of "looking up to" the character. It could also be threatening or ominous. Now that you point that out I want to go back and see if they do something similar when he makes his first appearance as Two Face.
RobinM
17. RunningBull
Seriously, it's been 20 years since this first aired?!? I still remember watching it for the first time in my bedroom, big Batman: The Animated Series poster on the wall, following my last day at work before starting my final year of high school.

I enjoyed this episode most explicitly because it didn't feature any of the top tier Batman villians and therefore could focus more on establishing the world that these charcters inhabit.

This was the first of the "cartoons" that I felt were made for a broader adult audience without alienating children or just thinly veiled 30 minute commercials promoting a toyline, though of course there was a toyline, and that likely had an impact in the staying power of this program. DC comics has done an excellent job in this regard and I believe it is because they aren't driven primarily by a toy company (Hasbro) need to push action figures and playsets as a justification for the expense of producing the program but as a media company keeping its products relevant to multiple generations and creating touchpoints for the various books, movies, and assorted licensed merchandise associated with the characters.
RobinM
18. Hammerlock
The one scene that sticks out for me is when Bruce is playing the tape for the scientists. Their lack of reaction coupled with how just plain shifty Bruce looks is just hilarious.
Jack Flynn
19. JackofMidworld
My kids were born in 96 & 97 and I weaned them on the reruns of this on the WB. Well, they may've been too young to actually watch it but, at the time, it was so much easier to explain why a 24+ year-old man was watching cartoons (and yeah, I still watch. I'm just much more confident with what what I'm watching now ).

I remember reading somewhere about the kudos that Kevin Conroy received for doing the voice; one of the big things was that, when Bale or Keaton or whoever did a Batman voice, they had a physical trigger - they put on the mask, so they 'felt' different. Conroy did it without that little segue, which made it more of a feat than otherwise.
RobinM
20. Wizard Clip
Don't overlook those lovingly rendered title cards
RobinM
21. Court
I was 11 when this first aired, and my god, did Man-Bat scare the bejesus out of me. I was immediately hooked.

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