Why don’t I have a shotgun-wielding butler?

If you think there are too many superhero movies these days, just try keeping track of all the superhero animated series that have been coming and going on cable in recent years. This is especially true of Batman. As soon as one of his animated shows ends, another one begins. From the anime-inspired The Batman to the kid-friendly Batman: The Brave and the Bold to his supporting role in Young Justice, it seems like there are more cartoons with Batman than without him. Now we’ve got Beware the Batman, a CGI-animated take on the character that mixes classic Bat action with some newer twists.

Billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne (Anthony Ruivivar, Third Watch) is secretly Batman, the masked crimefighter who protects Gotham City. He’s aided in his efforts by his bodyguard Alfred Pennyworth (J.B. Blanc, R.O.D. The Series) and new trainee Katana (Sumalee Montano, Transformers Prime). This trio faces some of the biggest crimes and conspiracies to face Gotham, including schemes from the League of Assassins, and from violent social activist Anarky (Wallace Langham, CSI).

Another day, another animated take on Batman. Beware the Batman would appear to take place in Batman’s younger days, with him still learning his way around what it takes to be a Dark Knight, but experienced enough so that he can appropriately lurk in shadows and brood on rooftops. He has his gadgets and his souped-up Batmobile, but things are just grounded enough so that he receives punches as well as dishing them out, occasionally getting smacked around pretty good by some villains before eventually winning the day.

The show’s biggest surprise, and what sets it apart from other bat-adaptations, is its take on Alfred. Instead of Bruce Wayne’s butler, Alfred is Bruce Wayne’s bodyguard, merely posing as his butler. While most versions of Batman hint at Alfred’s colorful past as a spy, mercenary, or othertype man of action, this Alfred is right there alongside Batty-boy, throwing punches and firing rocket launchers. Beware the Batman stirred some minor controversy when it debuted with ads featuring Alfred wielding a gun. He does use guns a few times in the actual series, but in a nonviolent way. His past as a spy — with MI6 mentioned specifically — is front and center, and several plot points have to do with his espionage days.

The other new introduction is Katana in the sidekick/trainee role. At first, she’s introduced as the slick martial artist, but as we get to know her, we discover that she’s got a sly sense of humor and even gets to romance a nerdy scientist. I suppose that with Batman being the hero, and Alfred being the tough guy, it falls on Katana to balance things out by being the funny one. This makes her something of an audience surrogate, though, as she’s the newcomer into Batman’s world.

Another bonus for the show is how it treats the villains. The goal has clearly been to spotlight some of the newer and/or lesser known Bat-baddies. There’s no Joker, no Penguin, no Catwoman. Instead we have c-listers like Professor Pyg, Magpie, and Humpty Dumpty. Some might balk at not seeing the iconic villains, but the show’s writers have done quite a lot to make the obscure ones interesting. Pyg and his sidekick Mr. Toad speak in an overly formal pseudo-Victorian manner, which makes them darkly comedic. Magpie at first appears to be merely a Harley Quinn ripoff, but by her second appearance, she’s managed an identity of her own. She’s both likable and tragic in her insane evil. The same can be said for Humpty Dumpty, who is not played as a buffoon. Instead, he’s portrayed with the classic “tragic Batman villain” trope, where he’s creepy at first, then you feel bad for him, and then he gets creepy again. There are two “big bads” competing for the top spot in long arcs. Anarky makes a constant nuisance of himself throughout the season, and the League of Assassins, led by the unbeatable Lady Shiva (Finola Hughes, General Hospital), who has ties to both Alfred’s and Katana’s pasts.

The made-for-TV CGI can’t compete with the likes of Pixar — or, if you prefer, the likes of Batman: Arkham City — but it does the job. It’s true that Gotham often seems devoid of people, and the characters come off as stiff when just walking and talking. The animation excels, however, when the action kicks in. The hand-to-hand combat, of which there is a lot, is quick, flashy, and occasionally brutal. The Batmobile and other Bat-vehicles get in on the action as well, so expect plenty of high-octane chases as well.

I’m not sure what to make of Anthony Ruivivar’s voice work as Batman. He seems to be going for a balance between the classic Batman and the youthful Batman. Whether he’s successful is open for discussion. JB Blanc does a heavy Cockney accent for the toughened up Alfred, and Sumalee Montano does a nice deadpan delivery as Katana. Some well-known actors show up in guest spots, including Adam Baldwin (Firefly), Kurtwood Smith (That ’70s Show), and cult movie legend Udo Kier (Andy Warhol’s Dracula). Animation fans will also recognize voice acting regulars Grey Delisle (Teen Titans), Tara Strong (Ben 10) and Dee Bradley Baker (Avatar: The Last Airbender).

This single disc contains the show’s first 13 episodes, presented in 1.85:1/1080p HD widescreen. The visuals are sharp and clear, as expected for recently-made CGI. There are a few times when the sound effects and music drown out the actors’ voices, but other than that the DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio track is similarly clean and defect-free. Not only are there no extras, but the disc is so low-frills that there isn’t even so much as an animated menu.

Ratings were dismal for Beware the Batman, so this and the upcoming Volume 2 disc are likely all we’ll ever see of the show. For what it is, though, it’s a fun, action-packed superhero romp. It might be different from what Bat-fans are used to, but there’s a lot to enjoy as well.

verdict

Cape? Cowl? Not guilty.

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