The Hidden S in Phone Booth

Editor's note: Thanks to Mark for the excellent primer of Batman: Brave and the Bold, because on Friday I'll have interviews with Diedrich Bader (voice of Batman) and Will Friedle (voice of Blue Beetle) in addition to a review of the first episode of the series. The Dark Knight Lite-Batman: Brave and the Bold is great subversive fun... With the success of the six major Batman films of the last 20 years it is easy to overlook the very fine Batman cartoons which have covered roughly the same time period. The Paul Dini/Bruce Timm version from the early to mid 90s with Kevin Conroy as a gritty, sly animated Batman/Bruce Wayne lent gravity and pathos to the cartoon Caped Crusader. The Batman animated series from 2004-2006 was mostly lightweight stuff, but it had a strong level of craftsmanship and interesting design elements that made it enjoyable to watch. Now we have Batman: Brave and the Bold on Cartoon Network, which is the most interesting portrayal (but not perfect) characterization of Batman that I have ever seen. Interestingly enough, Batman is voiced by Deidrich Bader, an actor known for his supporting comic turns in series such as The Drew Carey Show. Bader's voice has the gravity and doom of Conroy but with a dryness and comic timing that humanizes the Dark Knight in a way that is extremely appealing and rarely seen. Batman's voice is a crucial element in the portrayal of the celluloid Dark Knight and that is why I think that Christian Bale's performance leaves something to be desired. Bale's voice doesn't resonate or sound plausible and despite his impressive physicality and sleekness he falls short on some level as the Dark Knight (I know I am in the minority here). Bader's voice is the secret weapon in Batman: The Brave and the Bold. His bone dry line readings are scene stealers and often combine pathos and humor in the same moment. This is especially true with a recent episode guest starring Plastic Man where Batman took Plastic Man's harangue about how it was his (Batman's) fault he became the freakish Plastic Man (in this version Batman inadvertently caused criminal Eel O'Brien to morph into Plastic Man). Batman patiently waits for Plastic Man to run out of steam and replies "There are no happy endings in a life of crime. You made your decision, it's up to you to live with it." This kind of dialog is written for a throwaway, yet Bader's line reading makes it resonate and we feel the sting of shame that O'Brien/Plastic Man feels when Batman levels with him. The fun of the series is the way Batman's temporary partners interact with him. For the most part, Batman plays the straight man for a partner who is outrageous in one way or another. Aquaman is an out of touch monarch who is introduced to us as he is dictating his memoirs to an assistant. Plastic Man is a mostly reformed criminal who is at constant war with his old, unscrupulous self. Red Tornado is an android whose dream is the unattainable idea of feeling human emotion. These characters help define Batman by their differences with the Dark Knight (something usually done by using the villains in the series to contrast with Batman). Again, this combination of humor and pathos are what drives Batman: Brave and the Bold. In the most recent episode co-starring Red Tornado, the Tornado gives Batman a present that he awkwardly unwraps. In the package is a cup that is stamped "World's Greatest Detective." This moment-far from being corny-is flooded with feeling as Batman flashes back to a happy moment in his childhood when his parents were still alive and his analytical mind was already developing as he analyzed his wrapped presents to ascertain their contents. The series is also pleasantly retro in design. The Batman here is a close kin to the jovial Dick Sprang Batman who romped through the pages of DC Comics in the 50's. The animation seems to be a self-conscious throwback to the sixties and seventies animated Batman work of great craftsmen like Alex Toth, who drew characters in a simple, clean way. Indeed, the crisp, simple artwork creates a nice tension with the complicated relationships between Batman and his co-star de jour. A final interesting and even subversive aspect of this series is it cuts against the grain of the current Batman Bible in that for over twenty years the Batman that fans prefer is the grim, dark avenger (which resembles the initial incarnation of Batman from the 30s who fought vampires and monsters) in the hugely influential Frank Miller series'. This obsessed, mentally ill Batman is the template for most major interpretations of the character at present. When this template is interfered with (notoriously so in the film Batman and Robin), the fans often have a problem with it. Batman: Brave and the Bold admires the idea of a single-minded, monolithic Batman while making fun of the absurdity of this single-mindedness by pairing him with characters who the audience can more easily relate to. Future guest stars include Wildcat, Kamandi (an obscure Jack Kirby creation) and Dr. Fate. With many hundreds of characters in the DC Universe, it is safe to say that the sky is the limit with regard to the possibilities for Batman: Brave and the Bold. Brave and the Bold