To celebrate the release of Man of Steel this month, we’re going Superman mad. Check back daily for Superman-related reviews.
Batman and Superman. It’s a great combination, like cookies and cream or spaghetti and meatballs or… feel free to insert your own analogy here. The two characters are two of the oldest and most enduring superheroes, both owned by the same company. They also both embody two very different ideals. Batman is a pulp action hero in a silly outfit with gothic trappings, while Superman is an alien from another world dressed in primary colours. Pairing the two up to compare and contrast is great fun.
Battle of the Superheroes focuses on Batman and Superman as friends and colleagues, a portrayal which seems somewhat dated. After all, ever since Frank Miller wrote The Dark Knight Returns, the tendency has been to treat the pair as grudging allies rather than bosom buddies. Still, the Silver Age aesthetic of The Brave and the Bold suits this approach well, and it’s hard not to get swept up in the wry enthusiasm of it all.
One of the great things about superheroes is the fact that they can be constantly reimagined and recontextualised and reworked. They are capable of being many contradictory things, a flexible modern American mythology which can be anything that people might need it to be, and more besides. After all, most major comic book characters have undergone a long evolution, to the point where their current incarnation is markedly different from the one popular a decade or two ago.
When people think of animated superhero shows, the mind immediately wanders to Bruce Timm’s Batman: The Animated Series and its associated spin-offs. It’s easy to see why. The show proved that you could use these timeless characters and mine their history to tell relevant and intelligent stories. I honestly don’t think we’d have the current generation of more thoughtful superhero films without Timm’s work in the nineties.
However, there’s a lot to recommend Batman: The Brave and the Bold, the bright sixties-style throwback team-up television show which didn’t aim to tweak or update its characters. Just the opposite, it revelled in an approach to superheroes that has largely fallen by the wayside in recent years. It’s a show that never found the same popular appeal as Timm’s DC animated universe, and it’s hard to not to suspect that the tone played a major part.
The Brave and the Bold is meant to be fun. It’s never entirely serious, even in its darkest hours. Batman: The Animated Series gave its characters credibility by treating them seriously – developing them as real multi-faceted characters living inside a world that wasn’t too far from our own. It was grounded and generally quite serious, which was a novelty at the time when films like Batman Forever and Batman & Robin were being released.
The pendulum has swung back the other direction. Superhero blockbusters have, broadly speaking, begun to take their characters seriously. There’s a sense of weight and substance and nuance to many of the big-budget films released starring these icons. Comics themselves have taken a turn in that direction, featuring a lot more gritty realism and cynicism than they used to, perhaps emulating the success of those grounded films.
Batman: The Brave and the Bold seems to be a reaction against this, and I suspect that’s why it had difficulty finding favour with the same cult audience which embraced shows like Justice League and Justice League Unlimited. It’s quite easy to like something which is relatively mature in its handling of iconic characters, their history and their stories. On the other hand, it’s a lot tougher to stand up and defend something which revels in silliness, which feels immature and more than a little simplistic.
However, this does The Brave and the Bold a disservice. After all, “silly” and “dumb” are two very different things. The Brave and the Bold is sharp and witty and intelligent, despite the silliness of it all. It’s written in the style of a Silver Age comic, but in a delightfully self-aware manner. Confronting a version of King Tut – a forgotten villain from Adam West’s Batman! – dressed as mummies, Robin warns him, “Our wrappings are coated in butter milk, the one thing that reflects Pharaoh Rays!”
It’s the kind of cheeky, overly-elaborate and insistent exposition of the Silver Age, dialogue which rather wilfully points out just how ridiculous all this brightly-coloured superhero adventuring really is. “It’s Batman and Robin,” Vicky Vale gasps as two mummies swing on to the scene. “But why are they wearing those mummy costumes?” Because it’s a great image, and the kind of eye-catching splash page you could easily imagine adorning a 1960’s Batman comic book.
Indeed, Battle of the Superheroes has a great deal of fun throwing those sorts of nods and references. Using Superman as a guest-star, the episode makes all sorts of none-too-subtle references to “superdickery”, the trend of Silver Age Superman to act like a malicious sociopath in order to increase comic sales. It even gets a shout out in the episode, in a delightfully family-friendly moment of self-awareness. Asked to explain what’s happening, Jimmy offers, “He’s turned into a real di–“ Lois cuts him off, “… different person!”
So we get all manner of fun with the concept of Silver Age Superman doing Silver Age Superman’s idea of mean things. One of the best gags in the episode sees Superman putting a kitten up the tree. “You should have seen what he did to the present I gave him!” Jimmy laments, as we flash back to a familiar set-up. Later on, Superman storms Metropolis and crowns himself “King Superman!“, complete with pretty nifty crown.
The wonderful thing about these references and shout-outs is that they are completely accessible. To somebody without any knowledge of the covers or the comics, this is just the crazy stuff that Superman put up with. The framework is rather obvious between the bright colour scheme, the animation style and even the appearance of an Adam West villain. This is a call-back to the “anything goes” hyper-craziness of the sixties, the sort of “how could they not be on drugs?” mentality.
The beauty of The Brave and the Bold is the affection with which it plays this sort of craziness, this classic camp. It isn’t done in a cynical way. Instead, the scripts acknowledge and play into the absurdity of these sorts of set-ups. It’s hard not to laugh at Superman’s confrontation with a giant turtle Jimmy Olsen. “Jimmy, I warned you not to experiment with that growth ray,” Superman advises his friend. “It’s turned you into a super-menace and now I must remove you from the Earth.”
It’s all played completely earnest, with music sting and all. Playing the absurdity straight becomes a gag of itself, laughing with these old comic books, rather than at them. Battle of the Superheroes is arguably a lot sharper and better constructed than many of the stories it is affectionately riffing off, but part of the fun is the way that it emulates the writing style of these old comic books. While you’d probably have difficulty finding a story as shrewdly-constructed as this, the prose feels dead-on.
(As does the somewhat sinister subtext. The relationship between Superman and his supporting cast in the Silver Age was never quite wholesome, and Battle of the Superheroes relishes playing with just how creepy some of those dynamics were. Jimmy fakes a fatal illness to guilt Superman into confessing his secret identity. Lois discovers Superman with another girl on the beach, prompting Superman to chastise her for all those attempts to blackmail him into marrying her.)
As Batman investigates Superman’s sudden di– different behaviour, he raises the sort of questions you’d find plastered across a splash page of Superman’s strange conduct. “Who could have duped Lois and Jimmy into getting it close to Superman? And for what sinister purpose? And how can I help my old friend Superman before he ruins his reputation?” The voice casting is perfect. Kevin Conroy is still the definitive voice-over Batman, but Diedrich Bader is just perfectly suited to this deadpan delivery.
Still, Battle of the Superheroes is about Superman. It stars a distinctly Silver Age version of Superman, one not too far removed from the idealised Christopher Reeve or Richard Donner version. He even gets to use “super ventriloquism!” There’s no irony as the character jumps out a window shouting “up, up and away!” I’ll confess that I have an abiding fondness for this version of Superman, the relatively innocent Man of Tomorrow, before it became so passé to think of him in those terms.
While a version of Superman so powerful that he’s practically immortal might not lend himself to the most powerful character drama, Battle of the Superheroes zones in the appeal of his Silver Age persona. This is a man who can do anything. So it’s fun to see him confronted by threats that aren’t physical – like Mr. Myxlplyx, exactly the kind of innocent character who needs to reimagined or reworked to fit as part of a “modern” Superman story. (Indeed, thanks to Alan Moore’s Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, Myxplyx might as well be the living embodiment of Superman’s Silver Age.)
Battle of the Superheroes also offers an affectionately nostalgic look at the relationship between Superman and Batman. In recent years, the dynamic has been portrayed as somewhat suspicious and untrusting. However, this is a call back to those classic comics where the two hung out together because they enjoyed each others’ company. (Indeed, one of the things I like about Geoff Johns’ rather middling Justice League run is the return of that Superman-Batman genuine let’s-hang-out friendship.)
Batman visits Metropolis to investigate some sinister thefts. He and Superman crack the case. Superman genuinely invites him to stay over in Metropolis. “Why don’t you stick around? It’d be fun to work together again!” There’s no begrudging each other, no sniping, no snide remarks. There’s no ego or no posturing. They are just two guys who enjoy each other’s company and doing cool stuff together. It’s really quite nice to watch after decades of watching the duo grudgingly tolerate each other.
Indeed, Battle of the Superheroes offers a delightfully ironic twist on the dynamic when Superman is exposed to behaviour-altering red kryptonite. Batman finds himself having to step up and play the role of good friend. “Something’s amiss with you,” he advises his ally. “Overnight you’ve turned into a rude, selfish, sadistic creep.” It’s a delightfully ironic role-reversal, as many would argue that Batman turned into a “rude, selfish, sadistic creep” with The Dark Knight Returns and that this soured the dynamic between the pair.
It’s a nice way of acknowledging The Dark Knight Returns, which is really one of the defining moments for the relationship between the two icons. Bonus points for featuring Batman’s distinctive bad-ass armour from the film (and even borrowing several iconic poses during the fight scene). It’s a nice way of acknowledging that particularly important piece of comic book history, but also disarming it slightly. Here Batman and Superman aren’t fighting because they are political opponents who really only tolerated each other, they are fighting because they are friends.
Battle of the Superheroes is a fun celebration of Silver Age Superman, and a pretty solid demonstration of what The Brave and the Bold is capable of when it sets its mind to things. It’s an intelligent and thoughtful trip down memory lane, an attempt to demonstrate that superheroes don’t have to be grim and gritty in order to be compelling. Sometimes it’s enough to be fun.
Filed under: Television | Tagged: adam west, batman, Batman & Robin (film), batman: the animated series, dark knight returns, dc animated universe, dc comics, Jimmy Olsen, justice league, man of steel, metropolis, Pharaoh, robin, Smallville, Steel, superman |