Never let it be said that the Dark Knight’s latest animated series didn’t come with a fair warning.
This Saturday, a long-in-development new chapter of Batman’s cartoon history debuts when “Beware The Batman” airs its premier episode as part of Cartoon Network’s DC Nation block. The series marks a number of firsts for Batman on TV — his first CGI show, the first animated appearance of villains including Professor Pyg, Anarky and Magpie, the first sidekick from beyond the traditional Bat Family (Outsider member Katana) and more. But to hear producers Glen Murakami and Mitch Watson tell it, being different wasn’t nearly as important to them as being stylish and mysterious.
Murakami has years of experience with Batman and the DCU, having served as character designer on everything from “Batman: The Animated Series” to “Justice League” to “Teen Titans.” Watson may be new to DC, but he certainly has experience with deeply woven pop culture worlds thanks to his work as producer and writer for the popular “Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated” series. Both men say they’re stretching out the boundaries of what’s been done with Batman in “Beware.”
To test the title’s warning, CBR News spoke with the pair for our latest installment of THE BAT SIGNAL — our ongoing exploration of Batman and his world. Murakami and Watson explain how their show grew not out of a need to break Batman tradition but to go back to his roots, what new relationships obscure villains offer the series, how a police procedural vibe will and won’t match the stylized visuals of the CG and their decision to craft a series with long-form character arcs.
CBR News: Gentlemen, I’ll admit that when I saw the initial promos for “Beware The Batman,” my first thought was to the later episode of “Batman: The Brave & The Bold” where Bat-Mite is trying to force the series to reboot so he can get a darker Batman cartoon. But then, when he does get a dark, CGI cartoon, it’s a Batgirl show! I felt it was interesting that that episode came before both a more serious-looking take on the Dark Knight for TV and a CGI one. Was this series in development when that gag was written into “The Brave & The Bold,” and do you agree with that general take that it’s time for Batman cartoons to swing in a different direction after the last one was more fun-loving?
Mitch Watson: That’s a two-part question, and on the first part I’ll say that the answer is no. When that CG footage was created for “Brave & The Bold” I don’t think they were even talking about another Batman show. For the second part, when “Brave & The Bold” went off the air, I don’t think there was any talk of, “We’re going to do this kind of show next!” I can tell you that from experience, because we worked on the development of this show for a long time. I’ve been working on this show for three years, and Glen’s been working on it for two. It took us a full year just to come up with the version you’ll see on the air this weekend. I think it was when Glen came on board with the idea that we do a new sort of rogues gallery that we discovered the version that finally made it into production for us to expand on.
There are have been a number of Batman shows before this, regardless of the one the came directly before — Glen, I know you’ve worked on a number of those. For each of you, what was the thing where you said, “This is what we have to do in our show to make it feel different and stand out”?
Watson: For me, it came when Glen and I hooked up. Right off the bat, we found we had similar sensibilities. We both like the same kinds of movies, and we’re both big fans of the late ’60s/early ’70s. So we said, “Let’s go way back and look at the really early Batman stuff.” And in all those early appearances, Batman was really a detective. That’s what I found most exciting and grabbed onto. He was a serious gumshoe. I wanted to look at that aspect of him, as well as the psychological aspect of a man who, because his parents were killed, has dedicated his life to solving crimes and protecting the city he loves. For me, that was what spoke to me as a direction to go into.
Glen Murakami: While we were developing the show, I think we focused on different aspect of the character that hadn’t been the main focus before. I don’t think we’re saying, we don’t like what came before. We just wanted a different way of approaching it. I went and looked at the Batman comics and said, “What can we do differently?” So many people just want to go, “Here’s Joker. Here’s Harley. Here’s Two-Face. Here’s Penguin.” There’s been a lot of that, so why not focus on different aspects of the character and his world?
Visually, we’re doing CGI for the first time. What does that let us do differently about this character? I think the feel was a little more contemporary because of that. It’s not art deco or gothic. We also said, “Why do this photo realistically? What’s the point of making it animated if you can’t add some quality that’s fun or visually interesting?” We just tried to approach all of that in a different direction.
Another thing Mitch and I talked about was making this more like a police procedural. What’s funny is, we were talking about that direction, but it wasn’t until it all came together visually that we realized it doesn’t actually feel 100% like that. The mechanics of the stories feel that way, but the show is much bigger than we talked about at the start. It kept getting bigger and bigger in some ways.
One of the things people have really picked up on is the supporting cast, from Katana playing a central role to Batman squaring off against villains like Professor Pyg. Was that casting a matter of looking for players who better fit that detective/procedural idea of a Batman show?
Watson: Yes. We didn’t just sort of randomly pick villains from the lunch cart, as it were. We specifically wanted villains who were going to be able to highlight different aspects of Batman’s personality. We didn’t just want to tell stories where we went, “This dude is robbing a bank or hijacking a plane” or whatever. We didn’t want to tell those stories at all. It’s all about these villains and how they affect a different dynamic with Batman. It really works because you’ve seen so many shows and so many comics that focus on Catwoman’s relationship with Batman or the Joker and Penguin’s relationship with Batman. It’s hard to tell anything new or see any new nuances with those stories. But when you stick a character in there like Professor Pyg or Magpie or Anarky, suddenly the relationship completely changes. These aren’t characters you’re used to see Batman playing against, so we get to see different aspects of Batman’s personality while also exploring aspects of the new characters’ personalities. It gives the characters a new vibe and really opens the show up.
Murakami: Another thing is, if we’re going to do the show in CG, do we want to see guys in regular suits or street clothes fighting Batman? That was a thing for us. We needed to pick characters who looked visually interesting in 3D or showed something you hadn’t seen before. We wanted the villains to have a strong look or a theme or even something you haven’t seen Batman fight because it provides more fun in three dimensions. Like, they don’t do reactive lighting very well in 2D. You can kind of fake it, but in this show, we can take an all-black Batman and put him in an all-black room and let light and shadows play around him. We felt like that’s something people hadn’t seen before.
How are you developing this show over the course of the season? I feel like there’s been a movement for a lot of superhero shows to go not only light in tone but also go very episodic, where you just watch any episode in any order, and they’re all easily understood.On the other hand, Warner Bros. has had some DC shows that are more continuity heavy across each season. How do you approach the storytelling challenge of doing cool one-off episodes while also possibly building a longer arc?
Watson: That’s pretty much how we approached things. I’ve been doing this job a while, so you have to come at it from two perspectives. You have to keep in mind the perspective of the network and the way these shows are going to air, where you never know when they’ll be on. In syndication, they may be shown out of order. That said, you can also seed in a bigger story. The way that this show works, I don’t think I’m telling too many tales out of school when I say it’s broken into two halves. There’s a particular story we’re telling in the first half, and a particular story we’re telling in the second half. You can still watch all the shows completely out of order, and they’ll still make sense. But for those who want to follow along in order, a lot of what we’re doing is not so much, “Here’s a clue!” as it is watching the characters change. You’ll see how Batman changes over the show as well as characters like Barbara Gordon or Lt. Gordon or Katana or Alfred. Every one of those characters will change, or this just becomes “Law & Order.”
Murakami: The characters drive the story — the character development and their own stories. It’s not just Batman and Bruce Wayne but the whole cast. There is an arc for each of them. You have to have that, or there’s no drama or tension.
How does the pilot airing this Saturday work not only to introduce the tone and themes of the show but also start those character arcs rolling towards bigger things?
Watson: Pilots are always a tricky thing because you’ve got to lay a lot of pipe and get stuff established pretty quickly. One of the things we discovered when we got the pilot back and saw it fully lit was that, visually, it did a lot of the work for us. Right off the bat, the visuals and the great music by Frederik Wiedmann get the tone set. In terms of how we set up the characters, you’ll see in the pilot that we accomplish it all in the first three scenes. Those scenes are designed to say, “This is our show. These are our villains. These are our relationships.” It’s just boom, boom, boom. The goal was in the first act of the show to establish those ideas, and I know we did that. There’s no question that when you go to the first commercial break, you’ll know what kind of show you’re watching, and you’ll know that it’s like nothing else you’ve ever seen.
Murakami: That question is a little harder for me to answer because the CG was challenging, and I think we were learning how it works for a while. People keep asking me what my favorite episode is, and I can’t pick one because the whole show is one thing for me. We’re continuing to develop it and grow in it. We were happy to see the first episode because so many things we were trying to do were there in a way where we said, “Okay, that’s working.” So many things we wanted we’ve never seen done in CG. It was a challenge for us, and I think in the first episode, we pulled it off. But you also want to keep improving on it and making it better.
Another thing when I first came on was that I was a little skeptical until I started to see some of the stuff they were doing on “Green Lantern.” Then I was like, “Wow, that’s amazing!” In some ways, I didn’t realize how far CG had come, and “Beware The Batman” was a matter of how we could take that an push it even further. It’s a different beast, CG animation. In some ways it’s more like live action, and there are maybe more rules. We tried to figure out how to break them because we wanted things that hadn’t been done before — just things like cloth and his cape. Most studios said we weren’t going to get that to work, but we really pushed to do it right. You can’t cheat as much as you do in 2D. You’re building things. People don’t realize that before you animate anything, you have to build it all first. And we almost built everything in Gotham City like a movie set before we filmed it, and that’s why you’ve been hearing about the show for so long.
“Beware The Batman” debuts Saturday, July 13, at 10:00 AM Eastern and Pacific on Cartoon Network.