Revisiting Batman, The Animated Series: ‘On Leather Wings’

Revisiting Batman, The Animated Series: ‘On Leather Wings’

The cartoon's drama, dry wit and detective stories played as well with adults on Sunday night as kids on Saturday morning.
Warren Henry
By

Warning: This post contains major spoilers.

“Batman: The Animated Series” (1992-95) arguably provides the definitive version of the Caped Crusader for people of a certain age. As the live-action Bat-films of that era descended into camp, the cartoon’s drama, dry wit and detective stories played as well with adults on Sunday night as kids on Saturday morning.

When Warner Bros. Animation announced the project, artist and series co-creator Bruce Timm quickly provided a Batman design based partly on comics legend Alex Toth’s Space Ghost, with a chin sharper than Dick Tracy’s. Timm’s angular, stylized minimalism lends itself to fluid action over the clunky reproduction of comics panels often seen in earlier superhero cartoons.

Painter and co-creator Eric Radomski simultaneously offered a “dark deco” vision of Gotham City influenced by Hugh Ferriss and Fritz Lang, its caricatured architecture emerging from black backgrounds. Timm and Radomski further considered Max Fleischer’s classic Superman cartoons a benchmark for the style and types of tales they wished to tell.

Veteran animation writers Alan Burnett and Paul Dini became key members of the creative team but over time, comics veterans like Marv Wolfman and Len Wein also contributed stories. B:TAS reinvented villains and introduced others – most notably Harley Quinn – that would find their ways back into the larger DC Universe.

Broadway actor Kevin Conroy became the first to voice Bruce Wayne differently from Batman; he considered the former to be a mask worn by the latter. Conroy’s subtle characterization – and the overall quality of the project – would attract a swath of Hollywood talent to the recording booth.

Our revisiting of this landmark series will generally follow the episodes’ production order, as they are now presented for the home market. Exceptions may be made to accommodate two-part episodes smoothly.

‘On Leather Wings’

Each episode opens with a version of Timm and Radmoski’s demo reel for the project. Batman is sufficiently iconic to go unnamed in this “title” sequence. (Indeed, the series skips Batman’s familiar origin story.)

The music for the opening – and this pilot episode – is composed by Shirley Walker, who orchestrated Danny Elfman’s work for the 1989 film and scored CBS’s short-lived adaptation of The Flash. Warner’s animation studio, stretching back to Bugs Bunny, recognized the value of original scores.

“On Leather Wings” is a statement episode on several levels. It announces Batman will often work alone, outside the system, applying his own standards of justice. Batman’s detective skills will be featured, but there will also be spectacular set pieces.

The use of Man-Bat – a Jekyll and Hyde figure introduced in the comics circa 1970 – shows Batman’s opponents may come from beyond the best-known of his rogues gallery, with motives beyond two-dimensional villainy. Also, the show does not shy away from mystery and horror elements, pushing the boundaries of network censorship.

The pilot opens when a police blimp patrolling Gotham sights but loses a large figure with bat wings; its silhouette can be seen as it navigates the cavernous city.

At Phoenix Pharmaceuticals, a nightwatchman amuses himself by recording a radio ad for a side job. Hearing a disturbance, the nervous guard is relieved to discover nothing … until the giant shadow of a bat eclipses him. A screeching monster attacks, ultimately throwing the guard through a broken widow to the river below.

The next day, the political fallout from the incident is debated in the office of Mayor Hill (Lloyd Bochner, of Dynasty). Police Commissioner James Gordon (Bob Hastings) berates Det. Harvey Bullock (Robert Costanzo) for telling the media that the police plan a war on Batman. Gordon is unconvinced Batman is responsible for the attack.

Yet Bullock’s track record of results convinces the mayor to assign him a tactical squad to capture the masked vigilante. (The mayor’s praise suggests Bullock may be less corrupt than in the comics). Also present is coin-flipping District Attorney Harvey Dent (Richard Moll, of Night Court), who promises to convict Batman if caught. Though Dent has a mere cameo here, we will see him again.

In the Batcave, Batman declares he is being set up. While serving coffee, Alfred (Clive Revill) sarcastically asks, “You mean it wasn’t you throwing that guard through the window last night?” Batman retorts: “I only toss butlers, Alfred.”

Batman believes the Phoenix attack is part of a pattern of pharmaceutical robberies. Instructing Alfred to cancel Bruce Wayne’s date with “Bambi,” he drives the Batmobile (imagined here as a turbine-powered 1940s-style roadster) to Gotham and uses his grappling gun to zipline into the Phoenix factory. He is spotted entering by scientists engaged in an after-hours rendezvous.

Batman collects a hair sample and the guard’s cassette recording before Bullock’s squad swarms the facility. Gordon arrives to warn Bullock another pharmaceutical robbery has just occurred across town, but the squad is already searching the building. Batman escapes using the elevator shaft, even rescuing one of the police after their recklessly-thrown tear gas canister ignites chemicals stored on site.

Bruce Wayne, claiming a bat problem at Wayne Manor, takes the evidence to Gotham Zoo chiropterologist Dr. March (René Auberjonois, of MASH and The Little Mermaid) for analysis. The zoo’s bat exhibit recalls a batcave.

In an adjoining laboratory, March is annoyed by Wayne’s imposition as a wealthy benefactor, lecturing that bats will survive the next evolutionary cataclysm, not humans. March’s daughter, Dr. Francine Langstrom (Meredith MacRae, of Petticoat Junction) introduces herself to calm the conversation. But when Wayne – maintaining his playboy facade – asks about Francine’s marital status, her husband Dr. Kirk Langstrom (Marc Singer, of The Beastmaster) quickly appears. Langstrom apologizes for March, who has stormed off.

Dr. March later telephones Wayne to tell him the hair and recorded sounds are those of brown bats. Wayne knows this report is false based on his own computer analysis; he now wants to know why March lied.

Meanwhile, a man obscured by darkness is burning the evidence at the zoo. The man then suffers some sort of an attack and takes pills from Phoenix to stop it, declaring “I can’t fight it.”

Batman arrives at the zoo, discovering Phoenix bottles in the lab as Langstrom reenters. Langstrom confesses he and March had worked on creating a super-species, neither man nor bat. March abandoned the dangerous experiments, but Langstrom used himself as a test subject, becoming addicted to the drugs in the process.

Consuming the final chemical, Langstrom transforms into Man-Bat. The fearsome beast swoops down upon the Dark Knight, slashing his chest and pinning him with a desk before Francine intervenes. Ashamed, Man-Bat crashes through a window to escape.

Batman fires his grappling gear at the creature’s ankles and is towed behind in a vertiginous airborne pursuit. The pair collides with the police blimp, alerting Gordon and Bullock to board a helicopter in pursuit (though not without a brief turf dispute).

Man-Bat sails over the blimp and dives through a skyscraper under construction. Batman uses a girder to briefly halt Man-Bat and place him in a headlock. Man-Bat takes off again as Batman punches the beast repeatedly. The pair slams into a parking garage, knocking the creature unconscious.

Batman, battered and bloody, nevertheless takes pity on Langstrom. He carries Man-Bat into the garage, away from the searchlights of the police helicopter and the view of Gordon and Bullock.

Returning to the Batcave, Batman uses his computer to analyze the stolen chemicals and reverse Man-Bat’s transformation. He returns the unconscious Langstrom to Francine, stating that “it’s over … for now.”

Warren Henry is the nom de plume of an attorney practicing in the State of Illinois.

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