If you’ve yet to watch it, I highly recommend DC’s newest animated series BEWARE THE BATMAN. It’s certainly filled with rough edges – though I admire the focus on lesser known characters, many of the villains are cast as little more than replacements of the well-known faces they replace – Magpie is a flirtatious jewel thief, Anarky a, well, anarchist obsessed with chaos and undermining Batman’s semi-fascist desire for control of Gotham City. The fight scenes are often poorly staged and the characters revert into a dead and soulless state when they aren’t moving, a problem I feel with a lot of 3D animated fare. This all being said, there are some fascinating things going on for Batman fans – particularly the series’ exploration of the Batman/Bruce Wayne identity.
BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES defined Batman so perfectly across many different forms of media that I think it’s fair to say it was just as influential as Frank Miller’s THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS in terms of influencing the way people think about Batman. One of the biggest of these developments came from Kevin Conroy’s voice work as both Bruce Wayne and the Caped Crusader – as Batman, he had a low and ominous tremor, a tone of bone chilling nightmare terror, a performance that perfectly encapsulated striking fear into the hearts of criminals. As memorable as his work on Batman was, it was the way Conroy played Bruce as a gentle and good-humoured philanthropist that changed the way many thought about the character. He played Bruce as jovial, a guy with a rye sense of humour, with a world-weary but ultimately hopeful outlook. It was a portrayal we hadn’t really seen before – Adam West played Bruce as a self-entitled playboy in BATMAN ’66, Keaton portrayed Bruce as a figure as tragic and complicated as Batman in BATMAN ’89. It was Conroy that cemented the idea of Wayne being a mask – of Batman being the real person, the little boy lost, the Bruce Wayne character a sort of naive and childlike idea of what an adult is.
But really, does that make any kind of sense? BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES was so unbelievably influential (and rightly so – it really is an amazing series) that he idea of the Bruce Wayne mask was explored in comics time and time again, from Brian Azzarrelo to Jeph Loeb devoting scenes, issues or even entire story arcs exploring the idea. However, like any idea that sounds clever on the first listen, we lost something great about the character the more and more we focused on it. Batman was still struggling to get out from under the shadow of Miller, to be portrayed as something more than a growling creature of the night, and the idea that Batman was his real self hurt the emotional realism that his pre-Crisis stories often contained.
When Grant Morrison started his run on BATMAN in 2006, one of the very first things he did was ask just where Bruce Wayne had been the last few years. Alfred and Robin had to remind the Dark Knight what it was to be human – literally even, in a darkly humorous scene where the two must train the Batman growl out of Bruce’s voice. Morrison’s BATMAN run may be the most influential in decades, and his central message that Bruce Wayne was more than just a mask brought up all new questions about the Caped Crusader’s identity.
I’m generalizing extremely here, but there seems to be about three camps people fall into when talking about superhero identities – the dual-identity described by Conroy, the idea that the superhero is who the character is, that the secret identity is the mask, a la the infamous monologue that closes out KILL BILL. The second describes three sides to the superhero – the identity used to hide their secret, the superhero used to instill terror/hope/acceptance/etc., and the person they really are, bottled all up inside.
That’s the way things were portrayed in BATMAN: THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD, a 2008 animated series that focused on the superhero side of Batman; indeed, Bruce Wayne rarely made an appearance, instead focusing on the wacky superhero adventures of Batman’s Silver Age. But just like those classic stories, BRAVE AND THE BOLD often revealed much more about the character than stories that took themselves more ‘seriously’ – in the episode ‘A Batman Divided!’, Batman finds himself split into three physical representations of his psyche – one is a highly calculated strategist and technological genius, the other a brutish and angry fighter bent on revenge, the last an adolescent stoner/slacker type.
This seems to be closer to the idea of just what makes up Batman than the ‘Bruce Wayne is the mask’ idea; Batman is a constant struggle between a child and an adult. The calculated Batman is a clear representation of just what Bruce Wayne is capable of; he’s a man of supreme intelligence, the inventor of countless technological innovations, the head of a huge financial empire. However, he can’t quite put any of his skills to saving Gotham in any real way, because he’s still an angry kid lashing out – the id of Batman, played here as a parody of the character that appeared from Miller’s shadow, a mad dog barking orders and craving a fight at all times. But both of these masks are really just guards for what’s left when you strip social construct away – a little boy who wants to find peace in his life but lacks the resolve to fight for it. This may sound ridiculous, but it is possible to imagine a Bruce Wayne that acts like the BILL & TED version of the third Batman – a guy who hangs onto adolescence in fear of the real world, who hides behind apathy and aloofness.
If there is a third camp in my very generalized superhero identity grouping, I’d say it’s this – that there’s more to any human being that one or two or three identities, that we all wear an infinite amount of masks every day, and that our superheroes feel more real if we portray them the same way we know ourselves to be. BEWARE THE BATMAN seems to be the first show to explore this. There are multiple roles for Batman/Bruce Wayne to fulfill in the series – the polite guest he plays for his new bodyguard Katana, the broken boy he can reveal himself to be when alone, a voice of fear, the adolescent filled with resentment when taking orders from Alfred, a calm figure of law, or even a superhero having fun punching out the badguy. Voice actor Anthony Ruivivar says it very well;
I really spent time thinking about who this human being is. As Public Bruce Wayne, what’s he trying to accomplish? As Private Bruce Wayne, instantly, what is he dealing with or grappling with? The same thing with Batman.
I think it’s true – Batman is far more than two identities. He’s billions – he’s public Bruce Wayne and public Batman, he’s private Bruce Wayne and sad Batman, tired Batman or flirtatious Bruce Wayne. He’s a human being, and like all of us, his ability to feel is incomprehensible. It’s often argued that Batman is the hero most like us, a superhero without superpowers, so why are we so intent of pinning him down with cartoon logic, limiting him to a story of dualist struggle between a false and true identity? BEWARE THE BATMAN has presented us a Batman that has limitless false identities and limitless real ones – like us, Batman isn’t just one person, he’s the sum of a history’s worth of experience and influence, and I hope this portrayal informs people about just how complicated the character is just as much as earlier animated series have.