Batman Beyond Retro Review – Episodes 1×01 and 1×02

For those of us that were around when Batman Beyond hit the airwaves in January 1999, the responses seemed to go one of two ways: excitement for more Batman or disdain for what looked like an Extreme-ified version of what was a genuinely classy show in Batman: The Animated Series. I was in the second group, and that meant that I missed out on Batman Beyond for years before realizing that the first group was right: Batman Beyond is rad as hell. But I wasn’t exactly wrong, either; even years later, it can take a lot of effort to make it past some of the silliness that the late 1990s. But it’s unquestionably worth it.

Batman Beyond: Rebirth Part 1 & 2

The two opening sequences of the show–the theme song and the first scene–show us exactly why both parts are true.

The theme song is, truly, the absolute worst of the Extreme ’90s. It has everything you could (not) want: primitive CGI of a character rotating, images heavily distorted by white noise, the flickering text of cool words like “apathy” and “corruption” in case you didn’t know that Batman fights, and, of course, people dancing in a club for some reason.

But that gives way to a Batman we’ve never seen before, clad in all black with a red emblem on his chest. He drops in on some goons and does what Batman does best–drops them all. Then he clutches his chest and falls to the ground. In a moment of desperation, Batman reaches for a handgun. If you’re a Batman fan, you know just how shocking this is; the only gun our core Batman ever wields is a grapple gun. This is Batman at his absolute lowest, and soon he’s putting his suit in storage permanently.

This is a very different image of an aged Batman than we’re used to. Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns is the standard for this stage of Bats’ life, and Miller’s Batman is a brutal bruiser in a strange alternate world. This is Batman showing weakness from age, Batman needing help. Of course, being Batman, instead of asking for help he isolates himself for 20 dang years until some punk kid stumbles onto his property fighting a gang of Jokerz (there’s that Extreme ’90s influence again!).

A New Face

That brings us to the show’s protagonist, Terry McGinnis. One of the biggest hurdles Batman Beyond had to clear was giving us a protagonist that could stand up to Bruce Wayne in just about any way. Of course, that’s impossible. Bruce Wayne is one of the best-known characters in the entirety of modern popular culture. People who don’t bother with comic books, comic book movies, or anything close to that know who Bruce Wayne is and why he does what he does. You can’t capture that kind of lightning in a bottle twice.

Instead, Terry is easy to sympathize with and, perhaps more importantly, annoys the crap out of Bruce. He’s a natural gymnast with a hero’s heart who steps in even when the situation is against him. He’s rash and abrasive instead of methodical and quiet, and ready to offer a quip whenever he can.

A Different Dynamic Duo

This creates a fun dynamic between Bruce and Terry similar to something you’d expect between Bruce and Dick Grayson around the time he’d begin transitioning to being Nightwing. Terry isn’t a sidekick, but he isn’t independent, either. He’s inexperienced, but he’s too big, strong, and willful to be ignored. He’s something that Bruce can’t control, but can work with. For the viewer, he’s also a Batman who we can easily get behind following the murder of his father, but also someone that we can expect to mess up enough to keep things interesting.

The producers had a similar task ahead of them with Gotham. Before 1989, Gotham was just a city, but more crime-y. Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman The Animated Series painted pictures for us that still inform our images of the city today. Bruce Wayne’s Gotham is a place out of time where gothic architecture and art deco styling live on long past their cultural expiration dates in the real world. It’s all stone, concrete, and shadows.

Batman for the new millennium

But this show is set at least 40 years after the events of Batman: The Animated Series, and things needed to change. The city we get is a hybrid of Gotham and the mental image we have of every cyberpunk city we’ve seen, from real-world places like Beijing to fictional ones like Blade Runner’s 2019 Los Angeles. The buildings are still gargantuan, but the shadows are as often made by the harshness of neon as they are by the darkness of night.

All of these things would seem to shake the core of what made Batman: The Animated Series work. And Batman Beyond is a different show to be sure, but it still feels like Batman. The late Kevin Conroy brings all of the calm and steely determination of Batman, and when we first meet Bruce he’s stopped worrying about his Bruce voice altogether. It’s not until he shows up at Terry’s to hire him as an assistant that the old man bothers to pull out his buttery-smooth dealmaker voice. Will Friedle finds the right mix of light and dark to make Terry feel different from Bruce, but to also help them seem like birds of a feather as well.

The new batsuit looks different enough to set it apart from the original–the jet-black silhouette and bright red bat symbol are doing a lot of heavy lifting on this show–but it still manages to look like an evolution of the suit we’re used to, right down to all of the built-in gadgets that seem to work well right up until the story needs them to malfunction. This does make it feel a bit more kid-focused at times, but not so much that it takes away from the show in a meaningful way.

Moving Batman Forward

This episode does a great job of establishing the stakes in the earliest scenes, bringing us up to speed on Bruce and introducing us to Terry, giving us an ensemble cast that doesn’t feel like a cool superhero and a young kid who exists purely as someone for viewers to imagine themselves as. Terry is young and brash, but he feels like a person you’d want to get to know–as well as someone persistent enough to soften Bruce’s icy demeanor.

This isn’t my first time watching Batman Beyond, but there’s no question that I was quite late to the party. If you haven’t tuned in yet, the HD remaster on HBO Max is more than worth your time. Just get used to skipping that theme song. Oof.