Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Animation Observation: Batman: The Animated Series-On Leather Wings

    In September of 1992, I was preparing to enter the first grade. That June I had turned six years old and the one thing I probably asked my parents for the most was their permission to go see one of the biggest movies of the year: Batman Returns

    I was pretty Batman crazy as a kid. The first Halloween I can remember, I went as Batman. For my fifth birthday I got two Batman videos on tape (One being the 1989 film and the other being the 1966 movie starring Adam West and Burt Ward) and some Batman toys. However even though I had gotten colouring books, action figures and story books based on the movie I wanted to see, my parents were steadfast in their denial. What made it worse was that at the time, all over my bedroom I had newspaper clippings about the movie all over my room despite the fact I didn't know how to read them.

    But...there was hope. On the local FOX station, their weekday afternoon line-up showed commercials for a new animated series starring none other than Batman. I knew that while my parents wouldn't let me see Keaton, Pffeifer and DeVito, there was no way that they would deny me the chance to see the greatest hero of all time on TV. NO WAY!!!

    Around Labour Day we were visiting my Tante Kim in Toronto. We were watching TV in her apartment when my dad announced that it was time to go. All of a sudden, a cartoon I hadn't seen before had started it's opening theme.
I knew what I was watching and suddenly realized that I could not miss out on this opportunity.
"We have to stay!" I insisted to my folks. 
Looking at the adorable six year old in front of them, they both shrugged and relented.
"But only for a half-hour," my father told me. "Is this a half-hour?"
"Yeah, yeah!" I said, even though I had no idea how to tell time. 
The episode we watched was On Leather Wings.

    The episode opens with a police blimp making it's patrol over Gotham City when all of a sudden something appears on the radar and quickly vanishes. That was a notorious design-flaw with Police blimps, the radar never worked as well as it should have.
Something flies past the cockpit and the pilot insists it looked like "Bat wings". However if there was anything, it's gone now.

    The actual truth is-and I didn't find this out until recently-Police blimps never existed. That's a shame because they look like they would be real fun to ride around in. Kind of pointless considering that helicopters are used but still...they look fun.

    As the camera pans across the skyscrapers we see the shadow of a winged creature fly through the night towards the Phoenix Pharmaceutical company. What could it be? Is this our Batman? Inside Phoenix, a guard is practicing his Howard Stern impression on a tape recorder when the winged creature sneaks up behind him and tosses him out a window into a ravine below.

    The next day in the Mayor's office, we see a newspaper headline announcing the police's efforts to capture Batman after the assault on the guard. Commissioner Gordon is pissed that Detective Harvey Bullock leaked their plans to the press because now Batman knows they're after him.

    Bullock demands his own tactical squad to get the job done but Gordon's not for it and also doesn't believe this is the work of Batman. But the Mayor relents and allows him to form his strike force. Bullock then turns to a man sitting in a chair flipping a coin and requests that the DA's office doesn't screw up like it seems to do with every other criminal in Gotham.

    What's great about this scene is that we see there's someone flipping a coin while all this talking goes on. This is District Attorney Harvey Dent. Those of you who know your comic book history or were among the entire population of Earth who saw The Dark Knight, you'll know what's going to happen to him eventually. What's even better is that we'll get to know Harvey a bit more as the show goes on and that's before his life goes to Hell.

    It also has a nice first episode vibe where people are still a bit uncertain about Batman. Obviously people are aware of him and as we'll later as the series goes on, he's been doing this for several years.

        Anyway, we've seen our villain, Commissioner Gordon, Harvey Dent, let's get to the real star of the series, Batman. And our first shot of one of the world's most iconic superheroes is...him sitting in a chair reading the newspaper while Alfred tops up his cup of coffee.

"Do I have to go fight crime? I just sat down, I'm already comfortable..."

    Batman believes someone is setting him up and pulls up data on other pharmaceutical robberies in the area. Nobody was hurt like last night but if there is a pattern, he'll have to rely on those famous detective skills of his. Just before he leaves, Alfred informs him that he'll cover bases for him when it comes to his personal life.

    Alfred: "I'll cancel Master Bruce's rendezvous with...Bambi, was it, sir?"

    Batman: "Yes, Alfred. Do that."

You know shit's real when Batman turns down watching his favorite Disney movie to solve a mystery.

    Batman leaps into the Batmobile and drives off in a scene that Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski admit in the commentary for this episode you probably wouldn't see in any other episode other than the pilot. All that happens is you see the Batmobile exit the Batcave and head towards Gotham. It doesn't add anything to the story and if this were a regular episode, it would most likely be shortened or simply cut but I love it because it adds a whole new level of atmosphere and appreciation. It's very similar to 'Descent Into Mystery' from the 1989 film.

    The same goes for when Batman gets into Phoenix Pharmaceuticals by shooting his grappling hook and riding a zip-line between buildings. Kudos to Shirley Walker, who composed the music for this series.

        Batman manages to get in but is spotted by two scientists who snuck off in an empty room to play 'Hide The Test Tube'. Bullock is quickly informed and calls for his squad to meet him.
That awkward moment when you're caught having sex in the workplace...

    Upon entering the crime scene, he finds the tape recording the guard was making while he was attacked and also some hairs which don't look like they come from a human. I'm kind of surprised that the cops missed the tape recorder considering it's just under a desk but at the same time...it's Gotham.

    Before he can continue with his investigation, half the police force show up with a helicopter circling above-kinda what my neighborhood's like on an everyday afternoon. After the strike team enters the building, Commissioner Gordon shows up. Turns out that there's been another pharmaceutical robbery across town and Bullock's sent his team after the wrong man.

        Batman's able to evade some of the guards but when he reaches another floor he's chased by another squad who open fire. They split up to try and find him and one officer is quickly disarmed and told not to make any noise.
"I DON'T want to talk about Ben Affleck!"

    The other members of the strike force are outside the room and decide that they get Batman to exit by tossing in a tear gas cannister. However it goes off near some combustible cans and takes out two floors of the building a second after Batman escapes with the officer. Don't know why someone would leave stuff like gasoline cans on the floor, especially in a dark room but Alex Jones will argue it's just another reason not to trust the pharmaceutical companies.

    During the fall Batman is able to throw a Bat-rope across a tree, swing to safety like George of the Jungle, drop off the guard and escapes without anyone firing a shot at him. Because he's Batman.

    I've watched this episode a few times and I didn't notice it until now but Batman doesn't say a word while all this is going on in Phoenix Pharmaceuticals. In today's day of animation, when the police are shooting at Batman, he'd probably try to explain that he's on their side or explain what he found when he searched the crime scene.

    The next day at the Gotham Zoo, we get our first glimpse of billionaire Bruce Wayne, making his way towards the bat exhibit. There are two things the viewer will note about Bruce Wayne:
1) His voice is completely different from Batman's (A choice made by voice actor Kevin Conroy).
2) For a rich guy, he sure does love wearing the same set of clothes day after day.
"Don't I look smug in my brown jacket and piss-yellow shirt?"

    Bruce is actually meeting with Dr. March, having called earlier about a "bat problem". March is a crochety, suspicious scientist played by Rene Auberjonois and-wait, did this turn into my Young Justice review? What is up with this guy playing a grumpy scientist?

    Anyway Bruce's story is that he think he has bat's in his chimney because he keeps hearing squeaks. However just as March begins a tirade about how awesome bats are, he is interrupted by his daughter Francine and her husband, Kirk Langstrom. Bruce gives the hair sample to March and plays the audio tape of the screeches from the creature to Kirk and Francine.

    Later in the Batcave, Batman is still trying to figure out what those screeching sounds were. Dr. March calls and we actually get an interesting sight: Batman, speaking in Bruce Wayne's voice. It's a bit of a weird sight but it works in reminding the audience that our hero puts some actual effort into concealing his secret identity.
According to March, the sounds are starlings and brown bats, most likely fighting over a nest.

    However Batman checked those hair fibers against every animal known to man and only sought their help at the lab because they might know something he didn't. And when a computer analysis confirms that the sound is neither starlings or brown bats, Batman knows that March is lying and plans to find out why.

"This is my grumpy face!"

    Back at the lab we see someone has destroyed the hair sample and the tape recording. We also see someone chugging chemicals from the pharmaceutical companies like they were Five Hour energy drinks and quickly leaves.

    Batman enters the lab through a window and finds the stolen chemicals when Dr. Langstrom enters the lab. It seems that it was him, not March behind the robberies.
"I knew we found a formula to create a totally new species," he explains. "Neither man nor bat. And once I started taking it, I couldn't stop. I tried to stop but...it took over!"

    Langstrom's voice starts to change and very quickly his body begins to transform as well.    He turns into the Man-Bat and starts throwing stuff at Batman and knocking him around. Just when it looks like he's about to maul his face off, Francine comes in shocked that her husband has transformed. He flies out the window but Batman shoots a grappling hook around Man-Bat's ankle and is taken along for the ride.
That's the wonderful and interesting thing about the grappling hook: It always knows when it needs to latch onto something or wrap around a body part instead or piercing it.

My cat used to make the same face when I would catch him crapping on my bed

    We cut to the blimp pilots from earlier in the episode. Once again the young pilot sees something on the radar but the older cop is having his doubts. I'm not sure why, considering that the radar is right in front of him but again-he's a Gotham cop and about 90% of Gotham Police consists of morons.
However before anything else can happen the Man-Bat flies past the cockpit and slams Batman's face into the windows. The sound of the impact still manages to get a reaction out of Bruce Timm on the commentary because even for a cartoon it sounds like it hurts. As the flight around town continues, the pilots inform HQ that they've sighted the Batman.

And I'm sorry but the scene of Batman tethered to Man-Bat as they fly throughout the city has just some awesomely stellar animation.

At Police headquarters, Bullock is getting ready to board a helicopter in pursuit but it seems that the pilot can't take off.
Pilot: "I just got word not to let you up without the Commissioner."
Bullock: "Who told you that?"
Pilot: "The Commissioner!"
Gordon insists that he's coming along because after what happened at Phoenix, he doesn't want any more fiascos.

"This scene doesn't have enough crotchetiness in it!"

Batman is still being towed by the Man-Bat, who decides that to shake his pursuer loose, he'll fly them through a skyscraper that's under construction smacking him against several metal beams before Batman is able to get a footing and temporarily halt Man-Bat. This only causes Man-Bat to fly right at him, tackling them and sending them both into a free-fall. Batman wraps a headlock around Man-Bat so tightly that you can actually hear bones cracking.

Man-Bat flies them towards the helicopter where Gordon and Bullock discover the Man-Bat and realize they've been chasing the wrong person. Batman suddenly realizes there's not a lot of time left in the episode and tries to subdue Man-Bat by repeatedly punching him in the head in the while in flight. When that doesn't work, he simply puts his hand over Man-Bat's eyes. Now, this tactic is absurd since bats use echo-location to navigate and can fly pretty well with their eyes closed, if what I heard on The Magic School Bus is correct, so I don't-


Man-Bat is out cold and Batman is injured and trying to get steady (When Abraham Lincoln came back with a machete), the light from the police helicopter shines on him and in one of the few times in this series, we see Batman bleeding. He grabs Man-Bat and makes his way back to the Batcave.
Timm and Radomski admit they had to fight really hard to show our hero bleeding from the nose and mouth but I'm glad they prevailed. It showed that Batman could be injured and could be killed and it also showed that the creators of this show took their audience seriously.

Later the Batmobile pulls up to the lab where Francine Langstrom is waiting. Batman is carrying a body, wrapped in his cape. It's not Man-Bat but Kurt Langstrom. It turns out that he was able to reverse the mutation and get the formula out of his system completely.
"It's over," Batman tells her. "For now."


Best Bit of Dialogue: 
Batman: Somebody's setting me up.
Alfred: My heavens. You mean it wasn't you tossing guards out of windows last night.
Batman: I only toss butlers, Alfred.

Verdict: As promised, we did leave once the episode was done and all the way home from Toronto I was thinking about the episode and what future adventures Batman would have. Watching this episode is like being that boy of six again and really is a great episode to start the series with.

Final score for On Leather Wings is 10/10. Like I said, a great episode and one of my personal favorites. If you get the chance, watch this episode with the commentary from Timm and Radomski and you'll notice stuff you didn't before, like how dark this show is in terms of color. When Batman drives towards Gotham in the beginning of the episode, you can barely see the city. Even Timm is a bit amazed at how close they came in terms of the legal amount of black you can have on TV.

This wasn't the first episode to air, but it was the first one I saw and it has remained a special to me. Like other episodes that would air during it's run, it would resonate with viewers, future comic writers and artists over the next 30 years and will continue to do so for probably the next 30 as well.

"Hi, I'm Batman. Are any of my teeth missing?"

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