There's never been a better time to be a Batman fan.
Alongside the work of director Christopher Nolan, who has brought Batman to life on the big screen for the last seven years all culminating with this week's The Dark Knight Rises, lives another equally impressive incarnation of the Caped Crusader. Evolving from their successful run with Batman: The Animated Series from the early '90s, DC's animation branch has spun off the small screen storytelling into a mature interpretation of the character's many stories. The straight-to-DVD market has opened the floodgates for creative storytelling; whereas Batman theatrical movies have to play to wide audiences, the small screen movies can dive right in.
Comic book arcs rely on the foundation of every other book. Knowing X, Y, and Z, writers can explore specific characteristics of a character or conjure up "what if" scenarios that complicate the established backstories. DC Animation does the same thing with their films, often times adapting specific books that take a limited knowledge to truly appreciate. Hollywood blockbusters rarely drop you straight into the action — think The Amazing Spider-Man, a film that opted to retell the origin with a new cast over building upon the originals. Assuming anyone who watches a comic book animated film knows their basic Batman mythology, DC Animated films can brush off the laborious setup and get to the good stuff. They're pure Batman.
Proving that mass audiences may not be ready for one-off theatrical experiences was the animated Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, which hit screens in 1993. Riding the high from Tim Burton's Batman and Batman Returns, along with the pervading artistry on display in Batman: The Animated Series, the jump for cartoon Batman made perfect sense. Unfortunately, for a theatrical endeavor, the movie flew under necessary profits, only raking in $5.6 million at the box office. Quality wasn't a factor — Mask of the Phantasm is one of Batman's best outings, live-action or animated — but the presentation and story didn't have the same appeal. "Who the heck is The Phantasm anyway!?" cried many a casual Bat-fan.
After reinventing the animated brand with comic adaptations in the TV cartoon series Justice League, DC Animation found themselves directly tapped into the fandom vein. The Direct-to-DVD movies quickly spun out of it. Suddenly, the studio was producing the stories they wanted to tell, in the style they wanted to tell them, all while making the money work (the consistent Blu-ray sales amount to about half of the entire Mask of the Phantasm gross). Sharing most of the slate with his alien counterpart Superman, Batman's cartoon ventures have brought some of his most famous ventures to life with top-notch production value. In 2008, the Dark Knight appeared in Justice League: The New Frontier, a 1950s spin on the supergroup that features Jeremy Sisto voicing Bruce Wayne. New Frontier is exactly the type of material that would never be adapted as a live-action movie. Perfect for comic books, but too weird, too high concept for casual fans. Later that same year, piggybacking off of Nolan's The Dark Knight, DCA released Batman: Gotham Knight, an anthology film in the vein of The Matrix spin-off The Animatrix. The push on the animation side of DC is to always reinvent, and with Gotham Knight, Batman finally received an anime makeover courtesy of Japan's top animators.
Surprisingly, Batman's Direct-to-DVD adventures aren't just excuses to see the character kicking ass in various landscapes. Those movies certainly pop every once in awhile (2009's Superman/Batman: Public Enemies and its follow-up, 2010's Superman/Batman: Apocalypse, are really just the World's Finest duo pounding away at famous villains), but the success of their early work has afforded DC Animation to push the envelope even further and craft emotional stories that would require too much explanation in big screen form. 2010's Batman: Under the Red Hood stars Bruce Greenwood (Star Trek) and tells the story of Jason Todd, Batman's youngest Robin, who was brutally murdered by The Joker. Batman is forced to confront the devastating incident years later when a new villain, the Red Hood, arrives to town. Clues reveal that Red Hood may in fact be the deceased Todd. Child murder and revenge — anyone still think cartoons are for kids?
DC Animation's future continues to look bright, especially when it comes to Batman. The studio recently adapted another famed comic, Frank Miller's Batman: Year One, a gritty, reworked origin story that's cited as a strong influence in the current Batman theatrical films. The talent pool is growing too — Year One was brought to life courtesy of Bryan Cranston, Katee Sackhoff, and Eliza Dushku. Down the road, DCA aims to adapt another heavy hitter, The Dark Knight Returns, another Frank Miller book that tackles politics in a superheroic parable form. Edgy is an understatement.
While Nolan's Batman trilogy comes to a close, anyone looking for more Bat-entertainment doesn't have to look to far for quality. Risk-taking is limited in big budget Hollywood blockbusters, but it's the foundation of DC Animation and the most important factor in keeping a 73-year-old character alive.
Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches
[Photo Credit: DC Animation]