The first episode of Batman: The Animated Series makes a lot of unexpected choices: chief amongst them is the decision to kick things off with Man-Bat. The character is sort-of well known amongst general Batman fans, but he’s not exactly the household name that Joker, Riddler, or Poison Ivy offer. He’s also usually not an outright villain in my experience – his origin usually pans out over three very familiar beats.
- Scientist Kirk Langstrom and his wife Francine are working on a revolutionary experimental project to help cure deafness.
- Kirk, unable to secure funding/get things off the ground, decides to inject himself as the first test subject as a show of good faith.
- The serum turns him into Man-Bat, and he takes to the skies, his human mind lost until Batman can take him down.
Batman: TAS skips the second step though, and it changes things entirely. At the climax of the episode, which is a slightly half-hearted mystery with one red herring, Kirk gleefully reveals himself as the Man-Bat to Batman. He walks through his lab, his face distorted as he steps in front of the various bottles and glasses set up on the table. We see literally that his science has changed his physical nature, deforming him – and then he takes the completed serum in front of Batman and manifests.
It changes the character from a sympathetic one into a wonderfully-eyebrowed villain, switching him from being a beleaguered scientist who wants to help people into a man who does everything he does because he’s addicted to the serum. He doesn’t have a reason to want to become a bat, but instead takes the serum simply because he craves it. I don’t know enough about the Bruce Wayne in the series yet to know if that’s a deliberate point of comparison the creative team are attempting to make between the two, but you could certainly look at it that way. Why does Bruce choose to be Batman? Well, why does Kirk choose to be Man-Bat?
The episode sets things up as a mystery, where a giant bat is loose in the skies of Gotham and stealing pharmaceuticals. The Gotham police force think this is Batman, but obviously learn in the end that Batman’s actually the one trying to stop the creature. As a result of all this, we actually get to learn a lot about the way things run in Gotham, despite this not being a particularly ‘pilot-y’ episode. We don’t see Batman’s origins, or see him as a rookie. We don’t have a Bat-signal, or any Robins. What we have here is a Batman who is already slightly established in Gotham city, and nobody knows what to make of him yet.
It’s a really smart episode one placement for the character, because it gives him an enigmatic quality which makes us have to view things from a ground-level, blank slate perspective. We’re already all aware that Batman is the hero here, but we don’t get that breathing space with the character that you’d expect in a pilot episode. There are snippets of him with Alfred; speaking to employees as Bruce Wayne; and on patrol as Batman. But really, he’s an unknown quality. He smiles, and he uses a grappling hook. His Batmobile looks a bit like the one from the Tim Burton films. But considering the wide range of interpretations of Batman we’ve seen over the years, the cartoon doesn’t yet hint at what kind of a person their take will be.
Coming into things a little while after they’ve kicked off is an approach which we saw in the Tim Burton film, which seems like a main influence on the series so far. There’s far more of a pulp sensibility here than in other Batman stories, reflected best in the dashing police capes worn by Gordon and Bullock. Their dynamic gets fleshed out completely here, their differing approaches to Batman signalling to us who we should root for. Their directly antagonistic relationship was another surprise for me here, because I’m used to them being shown as the only two uncorrupted cops on the force.
The Man-Bat stuff really is the most interesting stuff in the episode. Kirk Langstrom’s got no reason to want to be Man-Bat, and Batman calls him a “monster”. It feels like this is an allegory for drug addiction, the “demon in a bottle” conceit whereby normal people change because of their addiction, to the point where it feels like they’re haunted by some kind of monster which comes out whenever they get high. Francine’s reaction to him is interesting – she usually becomes a She-Bat herself in comics, so I watched with one eye to that. She seems shocked by him, and alarmed when she hears Batman play a recording of Man-Bat earlier in the episode. I’d have to assume that means we’re meant to see her as being unaware of Kirk’s experiments.
The third scientist in the lab is her father, played by Rene Auberjonois. He’s a really weird character, especially as he’s played as the red herring for the central mystery. We’re meant to think he’s the alter-ago of Man-Bat, but as he isn’t, it means his character says some really bizarre stuff without any reasoning or explanation. Maybe he’ll come up again in a future episode instead, and we’ll find out more. I’m fairly certain Dr Marsh isn’t a character from the comics, though.
Together, the three scientists ask more questions than the show answers, and it was surprising that Batman takes Kirk – who willingly took the formula, seemed to retain his mind when Man-Bat, and committed GBH to a security guard – back to the lab, without arrest. Again, a curious choice, but this version of Batman seems more charitable than any I’ve come across before. Kirk seems to be unrepentant through the episode, so why did Batman let him go?
As a pilot episode, this was unusually self-aware and fast-paced. It didn’t try to explain what the characters were, but instead showed them on a typical day, dealing with incidents that have already become a daily occurrence. I enjoyed it for that – and for the choice to start things off with an unexpected choice of opponent for Batman. If the show continues to take the path least expected, this could well prove to be a really entertaining and fresh-feeling take on the Batman.