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Batman: Keeping Up the Good Fight

Fred Patten ventures to place the new direct-to-video Mystery of Batwoman feature into the pantheon of past Dark Knight outings.

The character of Batwoman has been reinvented for this direct-to-video release. All images © Warner Bros.

The character of Batwoman has been reinvented for this direct-to-video release. All images © Warner Bros.

Its almost like a parallel-earth sci-fi series. There are these two Batman movie and TV worlds, one live-action and one animated. The live-action world is best known for silly comedy, deliberate and otherwise. This reputation was started with the 1966-68 comedic Batman TV series with Adam West and Burt Ward. Although the first two theatrical features (Batman, 1989; Batman Returns, 1992) went a long way to restoring the image of the Dark Knight as a seriously dramatic hero (thank you, Tim Burton!), the third and fourth (Batman Forever, 1995; Batman & Robin, 1997) dragged the franchise back down into the gutter of campy humor that embarrassed all real Batman fans.

The animated world has always been true to the original suspense melodrama nature of Batman as conceived by Bob Kane and Bill Finger in 1939. DC Comics, the publisher of Batmans comic-book adventures, had to struggle to maintain this image from the mid-1950s through the early 1980s due to the strictures of censorship to keep comic books safe for children. The TV cartoon versions of Batman and Robin by Filmation in the 1960s and 70s may have had quality problems, but at least they tried to treat the characters seriously. The juvenile public image created by the campy 60s TV series evolved back to the somber vigilante thanks to Frank Millers well-publicized The Dark Knight Returns graphic novel in 1986.

By 1990 Warner Bros. (the new owner of DC Comics and Batman) had revitalized its TV animation studio with Steven Spielbergs Tiny Toon Adventures and was looking for new TV animation concepts that would capture an audience ranging from kids to teens and adults something with the look of the rediscovered (thanks to home video) Fleischer Studio Superman cartoons of the early 1940s and the newly popular anime style.

Batman: The Animated Series debuted on the Fox network in September 1992. Its trademark Dark Deco look and mood made it so popular that it ran for 85 episodes until September 1995, with one episode winning an Emmy Award in 1993. It was followed on the small screen by Batman: Gotham Knights from 1997 to 1999, and by both The New Batman/Superman Adventures from 1997 to 2000 and the futuristic Batman Beyond from 1999 to 2001.

Warner Bros. Animation president Sander Schwartz decided to greenlight this new installment of the Batman series.

Warner Bros. Animation president Sander Schwartz decided to greenlight this new installment of the Batman series.

On what once would have been the big screen, it was also followed by the theatrically released movie Batman: Mask of the Phantasm in December 1993 as well as two direct-to-video feature-length Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero in March 1998, and Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker in December 2000. Now there is a fourth: Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman, released this October 21, 2003. Mystery of the Batwoman was previewed on a theatrical-sized screen at the Comic-Con International in July and at several later publicity previews around Hollywood such as the September monthly Los Angeles Comic Book Convention, to enthusiastic response from the fans.

Each Batman movie focuses upon one or more of the well-known cast of villains and sidekicks, plus introducing some new characters. In Batwoman it is a team-up of costumed villains The Penguin and Bane with traditional crime bosses Rupert Thorne and Carleton Duquesne. Batwoman is both old and new. Batman had a Batwoman partner in the comic books in the 1950s and 60s, but the character has been completely reinvented for this movie.

Gotham City has a new masked vigilante crimefighter who calls herself Batwoman. But she is more callous about avoiding injury to bystanders, and she uses deadlier scientific gimmicks than Batman does. Because of the similarity of their names and costumes, the public assumes that Batman and Batwoman are partners and that Batman condones her brutal violence. The Dark Knight and the four villains find themselves fighting each other as they all seek to unmask their female foe, whom they (and the audience) are led to suspect is one of three young daredevil women: Duquesnes disaffected daughter Kathy; technical researcher Dr. Roxanne (Rocky) Ballantine; and Police Detective Harvey Bullocks new partner, Sonia Alcana.

Does this mean that more Batman animated features can be expected? Batwomans creators, at a publicity panel at the Comic-Con and in interviews since, just grin and say, Who knows? Not us!

Curt Geda, Batwomans producer/director, says that because the Batman animated features are movies, the public tends to assume that they are made in the manner of theatrical animated features which are usually publicized as being in production for three or four years, carefully crafted over a long period by a team of several writers and hundreds of animators collaborating closely together, and so forth. Actually, says Geda, a straight-to-video production like the Batman movies is more similar to a TV production. Warner Bros. Animation today is primarily a TV production studio, and its straight-to-video features are considered an offshoot of its TV productions. They are often done in down time, to keep a crew together between TV series.

The Penguin, Bane, Rupert Thorne and Carleton Duquesne all team up against Batman in Mystery of Batwoman.

The Penguin, Bane, Rupert Thorne and Carleton Duquesne all team up against Batman in Mystery of Batwoman.

The ultimate creators of a straight-to-video feature are less the writers and animators than the management of Warner Bros. Animation and Warner Home Video. Warner Home Video is part of the TV production, Geda continues. WHV tries to involve itself with all WB animation properties, which includes Hanna-Barbera characters these days. There have also been Scooby-Doo and Tweety direct-to-videos. This production could have been one of those as much as a Batman movie. Presumably it was Sander Schwartzs idea to do a new Batman movie. We are not working on any Batman TV series currently, so Alan Burnett who was very involved with the previous series but is working on Static Shock and Ozzy & Drix today was probably the first Batman holdover who was available.

Supervising producer Burnett told the audience at the Comic-Con, My boss, [WBA president] Sander Schwartz, walked into my office and said were going to do a Batman home video. Burnett expanded on this for Animation World Magazine. When I say Im the last to know, the management people here at Warners Animation are the ones who continuously ascertain home videos needs and try to figure out what we can sell them. We try to keep ahead of the game, though. My boss, Sander Schwartz, wanted two Batman scripts, to give home video a choice. Batwoman was the one they preferred at the time. Once Warners Home Video and Warners Animation approved the concept, we were off and running. Our one enemy was the deadline. We had to have a script finished in five weeks (and that included coming up with the concept.)

Supervising producer Alan Burnetts long standing professional relationship with writer Michael Reaves helped streamline the writing process for this project.

Supervising producer Alan Burnetts long standing professional relationship with writer Michael Reaves helped streamline the writing process for this project.

The Batman TV animation creators are familiar with the 60-year-old comic-book canon, but do not consider themselves bound to follow tradition. Burnett says, I wanted to do a Batwoman, but a more mysterious Batwoman than what Kathy Kane of the 60s offered. The costume was also going to be completely revamped. (Do you remember Kathy Kanes original outfit? Oy.) This was going to be a Batwoman for now, not then. Even so, I have an affection for the old Kathy Kane, and managed to get her name in the show, sort of.

Burnett has been with WBA since Batman started in 1992. To write Batwoman, he called in Michael Reaves, the story editor of the first animated series. The Batwoman project came as a surprise, Reaves says. I had left WB Animation after working on the 85 episodes of Batman: The Animated Series. My contract expired, and I left just as they had their screening of the first cut of the Mask of the Phantasm feature. I went to Disney to work on Gargoyles [as producer and story editor], and then to DreamWorks [he was producer of the Invasion America animated TV series]. Alan and I kept in touch, and one day he phoned out of the blue and asked me to write this new Batman direct-to-video feature. I said yes actually, I jumped at it. I was happy to get back to Gotham City and hang out there again for awhile.

The Batwoman plot had already been approved by the time Burnett called Reaves. The obvious reason for using Batwoman, Reaves says, is that instant interest in the movie is generated with the name. Its a no-brainer we wanted to use a character from the Batman family, and, since Batgirl had already been done and we already had a Robin, there werent a whole lot of characters left. Batwoman had the added advantage of some legitimacy in that there had been a Batwoman character in the comics earlier years. But there was no pressure to use the original Kathy Kane version. (We did use a version of the name.) We wanted to re-invent her just as wed re-invented Batman 10 years ago.

Reaves credits Burnett with the story. Alan created all the major twists. At first he would send me pages of the story, and we would go back and forth on it over the phone, so I may have had a little input on it at that stage. Earlier drafts included things like an electromagnetic pulse cannon, waterspouts in Gotham Bay all jetsam that we eventually tossed to make the story lean and tight. But then we started to get behind on the deadline, and we didnt have time to discuss the plot. Alan told me to start writing what we had already decided on, and he would finish the story. From then on I just scripted what he sent me. It worked out fine.

Burnetts view of this was, The story is the treatment a prose telling of the entire film. The script is the script, breaking everything down into shots and action and dialogue. I was e-mailing the story to Michael as I was writing it. We both discussed it at length in the beginning, so we both knew the major character arcs and where the whole story was going. I was a half-dozen scenes or so ahead of him as we were writing. Michael is very good and very fast, which was important because of our deadline. He writes with great clarity, and since we worked for so many years together on Batman: The Animated Series, we could talk to each other in shorthand.

I dont know how long the treatment was, since I was sending it to him in chunks, but I tried to be as detailed as I could for both our sakes. After all, this was a mystery where we had to make sure we tied up all the loose ends. We were on the phone almost daily with changes and comments. Its not the greatest system, but it worked for us.

Batman suspects three different Gotham City women of being the daredevil Batwoman.

Batman suspects three different Gotham City women of being the daredevil Batwoman.

Geda said that it is standard for WBA to ask DC Comics for its feedback on comics-character stories to make sure they are not too far off course. In this case, the Kathy Kane Batwoman was so far in the past that everyone felt it was okay to do something fresh. Geda had known that a new Batman feature was coming, but his first involvement was when he was handed the finished script. I had worked together with Alan and Michael for years on the TV series [Geda started at WBA as a storyboard artist on Batman: The Animated Series]. We all trusted each other.

Geda repeats that a straight-to-video feature is treated more like a longer-than-usual TV episode than a theatrical feature. We had a pretty tight production schedule. By the time I got the script, there was little time to do anything but produce it just as it was written. TV animation schedules have so many deadlines and must go so fast compared to theatrical features that the attitude is just get it done. We started in August 2002. Our pre-production package was ready to go overseas by Thanksgiving, and we started getting the first animation back after three months. The animation was completed by nine months [May 2003], and the post-production was finished in time to show it at the Comic-Con in July. Im very proud of it!

Is there any chance that the second Batman story concept by Burnett will also be produced? Michael Reaves professional guess is that, Many, many scripts are written on assignment for movies that never get made. I heard the percentage pegged once as 500 to 1 (500 assignments for every one film produced) and I can believe it. If anything, Id say its a little optimistic. It basically comes down to, the more money the movie makes, the more likely WHV is to make more of them.

Burnett agrees, not regarding his second Batman idea specifically but about any more straight-to-video productions featuring WB animated costumed heroes such as the Teen Titans. If Batwoman is a big success, it can only help with other superhero home videos.

Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman from Warner Home Video; approx. 78 minutes; ISBN: 0-7907-6704-X; SRP: $24.98 (DVD), $14.94 (VHS); DVD features biographies, documentary, featurette and interviews.

Fred Patten has written on anime for fan and professional magazines since the late 1970s. He wrote the liner notes for Rhino Entertainments The Best of Anime music CD (1998), and was a contributor to The World Encyclopedia of Cartoons, 2nd Edition, ed. by Maurice Horn (1999) and Animation in Asia and the Pacific, ed. by John A. Lent (2001).