“On Leather Wings”
Written by Mitch Brian
Directed by Kevin Altieri
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.