“Beware the Batman,” which debuted July 13 on Cartoon Network under the DC Nation umbrella, is a new direction for the iconic character in more ways than one. Not only is it the first CGI incarnation of the classic character, it also eskews Batman’s traditional rogue’s gallery, opting instead to showcase lesser-known characters like Professor Pyg, Magpie and Anarky. In speaking to the press at Comic-Con International in San Diego, the excitement of the show’s producers Glen Murakami and Mitch Watson, and the voices of Batman and Alfred, Anthony Ruivivar and J.B. Blanc, respectively, was noticeable.
“I looked at a lot of the older ‘Batman’ comics and the one thing I noticed was, it felt like the same villains over and over,” Murikami said in response to a question about jettisoning Batman’s familiar rogues gallery in favor of a new line-up of villains. “Joker, Harley, Two-Face, Penguin. It just seemed like it was the same. Everything we had seen before and everything had been covered on ‘Batman: The Animated Series.’ I felt like it had all been done — if we wanted to do something different, we had to go in a different direction.
“What’s been good about using the new villains is, it changes it to an aspect of Batman you haven’t seen before,” Murakami continued. “We talked about what are iconic things about Batman villains and how can we bring that to these new villains. Like a lot of people have asked how we’re going to approach Professor Pyg, and it’s not like we’re trying to change it, but we only have 22 minutes to tell that story. You have to figure out how to make Professor Pyg iconic and narrow him down. We don’t have a 12-issue story-arc. We don’t have a year to develop that character, we only have 22 minutes.” Using new villains also encourages the creators involved to take risks with characters they otherwise wouldn’t have. “There are things we couldn’t do with Two-Face and things we couldn’t do with Catwoman, so that’s why it’s nice to use new villains.”
“One of the interesting things about Batman is that there’s been so many different permutations of him, that it’s virtually impossible to say what’s canon and what’s not,” Watson said. “Even going back to the whole gun thing. If you go back to the original comic books, Batman had a gun.”
Of course, one of the first things fans took notice of when the show was announced is that this is a decidedly different look for the caped hero. “In the beginning, the characters were a little bit more animated,” said Murakami, explaining that the look evolved quite a bit over the course of the show’s development. “It looked more lively, but it didn’t fit for Batman. You don’t realize that until you start working on it. You’re so used to CG animation being real bouncy and full, but when you have Batman like that, it doesn’t look right.
“I don’t think people realize how challenging it is,” he continued. “Cloth is very difficult and hair is very difficult, and we were trying to do that on a TV budget. I think people are so used to seeing feature-quality CGI stuff, so trying to do that in a TV show was challenging… The difficult thing is, you’re proofing the animation, but you’re lighting it last, and so much of Batman comes together in the lighting. So you’re looking at all this footage and guessing what it’ll look like. You can paint a concept, but it changes. I don’t think people realize we’re looking at it [during production] in gray or some color and without effects. It’s raw and you don’t know what you’re gonna get back. In some ways it’s terrifying, different than looking at pencil animation. You see it evolve.”
Another thing fans pointed out early on is the cartoony look of the criminal’s guns in the first episode, something Murakami says is quite intentional. “Everything that’s going on [with gun violence,] we have to be responsible about that. I’m a little uncomfortable about the portrayal of that, but guns are so much a part of that world and what Batman’s about. You have to responsible about that, that’s all I can say. You are making this and you are portraying those kind of images. You can see how it affects people.”
“We got a lot of heat because Alfred had guns [in the first promotional image,]” Watson said. “We had to explain that Alfred wasn’t running alongside Batman with guns in the show. That never happens. But there are instances in the comic books where Alfred has a shotgun. He is a guy that has used guns in the past.”
Alfred’s past is another thing, like Batman’s look, that has evolved for this take on the classic character, taking aspects of his history that have long existed but giving them new emphasis. “When we looked at Alfred, we found out a lot about his past that I didn’t know existed and I don’t think had been talked about in any of the TV shows or any of the movies. His MI6 background, what he was like. He had always been portrayed as an upper-crust man, but he if he was an MI6 guy, lets make him a little bit more street. What if Alfred came from a more working class background? What if he was more street smart? What if he was Sean Connery from ‘The Untouchables?'”
While Alfred has been reimagined for the show, it’s not as far off as some fans think. J.B Blanc, for one, says fans need be concerned about this incarnation wandering too far afield from the character they know and love. “I think people are worried that it’s a departure from Alfred, but if you’re taking Batman younger, it makes sense to take Alfred younger, too.
“I think they’ve given him a bit harder background, a military background, the MI6 thing, but what is still true and remains true is that the fundamental relationship between Alfred and Bruce is the same,” Blanc continued. “It is the same. He’s there to support, to nurture, to honor the promise he made to Bruce’s parents, and I think we’ve really stayed true to that… We’ve kept the compassion, we’ve kept the fatherly relationship, we’ve kept the humor, the acerbic wit. That’s why there’s a British character in this thing, to set that up. And I think we’ve honored all of that. A good example is how Alfred is constantly trying to get Bruce to eat a decent meal and all Bruce wants to have is a protein shake or a green tea. I think there’s still that slight vying of control between the two of them. Who dictates whose life? That’s a very rich vein to tap for these two characters.
“If [Alfred] suddenly becomes Batman’s sidekick, well I wouldn’t watch. I think there’s concern that that’s what’s happening, [but] that’s not at all what’s happening. That is not Alfred’s role in this. It’s just a younger reimagining of him, and therefore he’s just beginning to realize he’s slowing up and he’s not the guy he once was. He wants to provide support. I think that’s an interesting part of the story to delve in to.”
Another fan-favorite character who will have a recurring role is Barbara Gordon, the future Batgirl — maybe. “She’s introduced in the second episode, and her part in the show gets bigger and bigger and bigger. We’re leading up to something with her. I’ve seen the guessing online and it’s not what’s happening.”
Other upcoming characters include Lady Shiva, Humpty Dumpty, Anarky, Silver Monkey and the cult-favorite element man, Metamorpho. “He caused the most terror among the animators,” Watson said with a grin. “I don’t think I’m giving anything away when I say Metamorpho will be appearing in the show at some point. He’s a tough character. Anytime you have characters that can morph in CGI, it’s very difficult. Glen figured out a way to do it. It’s pretty cool.”
No matter how much they put their own stamp on characters like Alfred or Metamorpho, however, Watson said the creative team “continually lives in the shadow of Bruce Timm’s original show, which is awesome. It’s always a matter of how to do something that pays homage to that but is also it’s unique beast. I think we got that here.”
As for the Dark Knight himself, Anthony Ruivivar, who is best known as FDNY paramedic Carlos Nieto on NBC’s “Third Watch,”Â said he “won the lottery” when he landed the role.
“When I got it, I got home — I have a ten year old boy — and I said, ‘I’m Batman!’ And he looks at me and goes, ‘I’m Batman.’ I said I was the voice of Batman, and he said, ‘Right. I’m Batman.’ Then a month or two later, I got home and he had two Batman t-shirts and he said we were both Batman.”
Ruivivar is passionate about the character, saying he is “a huge Batman fan. I grew up with Saturday morning cartoons. I’d wake up and go downstairs and my dad had a Beta Max so I’d set it to record ‘Super-Friends’ and all that stuff. That’s what I grew up with and then when I got older I dove into the comics. I wouldn’t say I’m hugely versed in the Batman universe, but I’m a huge fan.”
Ruivivar, who readily admits he doesn’t imbue his Dark Knight with a “deep, deep, gravely voice, has, nonetheless, developed distinct takes for each of Bruce Wayne’s three personas. “We came up with three different voices. Not entirely different, but slight variants on them. We have a public Bruce Wayne whose a playboy billionaire, the faÃ§ade he shows Gotham. Then we have private Bruce Wayne who’s much more introspective and honest and quiet and brooding with Alfred. And then we’ve got Batman, when he puts on his suit of armor and goes out to kick ass.
“This season will explore the toll that [having three personas] takes,” he continued. “Without giving too much away, he’ll have to spend time more as one persona then the other and it starts taking its toll because Batman and Bruce Wayne are yin and yang. They almost have to co-exist for it to be OK. If you don’t have that release, if Bruce Wayne doesn’t have the release as Batman, if Batman doesn’t have the release as Bruce Wayne, what happens? We play with some of that stuff.”
As for Blanc, the actor stuck to his instincts when it came to developing Alfred’s voice. “It was clear when I saw the image that there was something different going on. That definitely influenced the voice. I think the image is the strongest indicator you get of where you’re gonna go with a voice and it wasn’t a million miles away from my own voice, so I felt comfortable I could tell the story in that.
“Initially you just go with your instincts according to the brief you’ve been given,” he continued. “Your job is to serve the character and the story as best as possible. I’ve been doing this a long time and I’ve learned over the years to trust my instincts a bit more. I tried not to have too many preconceptions because then I might suddenly start talking like Michael Cane and I didn’t want to do that.”
At the end of the day, Ruivivar, like the show’s producers, wants to put his own spin on the character, a challenge he looks forward to, even if he does find it “terrifying. Absolutely terrifying but exciting. We honor everything that came before it. But its also our chance to, not change it, but put our little stamp on it. Not getting crazy with it but just looking at a point in time in the Batman universe. We’re dealing with Batman in his 30s, pre-Robin. Dealing with the Batman that’s still grappling with the Rubik’s Cube that is Bruce Wayne and Batman and how he navigates those two personalities, a Batman that sometimes goes out there half-cocked. He finds himself in bad situations or gets hurt. He’s not the hardened, grizzled, indestructible Batman like in his later years.
“It’s an exciting, fun place to be.”
“Beware the Batman” airs Saturdays on Cartoon Network.