Whatever happened to Batman: The Brave and the Bold? That’s the question that series writer Paul Dini jokingly wants you to ask while watching “Mitefall,” tonight’s final episode of the short-lived but much-loved team-up cartoon show. I say “much-loved” but unfortunately, I mean that within the context of the geek community. Outside of that deceptively large niche, there’s a whole world of non-comic book-loving adults, parents and children that never gave a flying fart about the cartoon.
It’s not hard to see why: as an homage to the anything goes ethos of comics’ Silver Age, Batman: The Brave and the Bold embraced the flamboyance and years of over-lapping mythologies that surround DC’s characters. That more light-hearted approach didn’t necessarily make it impossible for newcomers to drop in and enjoy the show without knowing who B’Wana Beast or Mister Miracle are. But it did make enticing new fans an uphill struggle.
With “Mitefall,” Dini, one of the head architects of the Emmy award-winning Batman: The Animated Series, contributes his third Brave and the Bold episode featuring Batmite, a trouble-making magical imp from the Mite Dimension. The episode is a sweet but pointedly and even defensively slight send-off. In his attempt to give fans what they want and by now expect from Batman: The Brave and the Bold, Dini tries too hard to flatter already established viewers. “Mitefall” is not a bad episode but it’s kind of distracting to watch an episode about jumping the shark that jumps the shark as exuberantly as this one does.
Voiced by Paul “Pee Wee” Reubens, Batmite only jumps into “Mitefall” after the show’s brief cold opening A-narrative. I got a big kick out of this preliminary segment, in which Batman teams up with Abraham Lincoln to defeat John Wilkes Booth, now clad in a steam-powered battle suit and calling himself “John Wilkes Doom.”
Here, the care-free out-there-ness of the show’s bifurcated team-up narrative really serves Dini, an accomplished and ultra-popular TV writer. Unfortunately, as funny as it may be to hear Batman yell, “Halt, you insidious Secessionist” at a cyborg with gatling guns for arms or to watch Lincoln sucker-punch his famous assassin in slow-motion (Note: it’s actually really fun), these are ancillary gags in search of a narrative. They’re free-standing grace notes for an imaginary story that Dini knows he doesn’t have to fully develop because, well, that’s the established format of the show. And there’s the rub for a show like Batman: The Brave and the Bold: it’s designed to give a certain kind of viewer exactly what they want. Too bad there weren’t more of that kind of viewer…
The episode’s B-narrative is similarly full of satisfying inside jokes and clever asides but it’s a little too needy for its own good. Batmite has grown restless with watching Batman team-up with Aquaman for the Nth team to fight Gorilla Grodd, the talking psychic gorilla from Gorilla City. Batmite likes the goofy antics of the show-within-the-show version of Batman: The Brave and the Bold that he’s watching. But the fact that this plot has been recycled so many times bothers him. He tells us that he longs for a “new, more dramatic” Batman. He hatches a plan to make Batman: The Brave and the Bold so bad that viewers will tune out, the show will be cancelled and a new, darker cartoon will take its place.
Batmite accomplishes this by making Batman’s character jump the shark in several ways. First, he gives him a daughter named Kiki (“Please, Kiki: Daddy is trying to work!”). Then he gives Batman an action figure-friendly accessory: the Neon-talking Super-Street Bat Luge, complete with its own catch phrase (“Let’s get low and let’s gooooo!”). And they change the voice of Aquaman to Ted McGinley, who famously played Jefferson D’Arcy on Married with Children, a character that’s now synonymous with the concept of jumping the shark. All of this makes viewers watching the show-within-the-show’s version of Batman: The Brave and the Bold confused and bored. So they start tuning out. The only hope that the show-within-the-show has of surviving is Ambush Bug, a magical gad-flyish meta-hero that is much loved by…diehard nerds. Like me. I love Ambush Bug!
So Ambush Bug tries to set Batman and Aquaman straight in order to save the show-within-the-show and prevent further hilarious shark-vaulting.
The meta-commentary at the heart of “Mitefall” is distractingly shallow but phrased in such a bouncy way that that doesn’t really matter. Watching Batman traipse around in his Alpine Ice-Climber outfit easily makes up for the fact that Dini is clumsily defending the merits of Batman: The Brave and the Bold’s silly style to his already receptive audience. He’s actively phrasing the last episode of the show in such a way that, while you’re watching Gotham City’s citizens get turned into giant bananas by Grodd’s Banana Beam, you think to yourself, “This is why this show was so unique and great!” It’s a distractingly ostentatious and moot defense but again, it works for the most part. Because yes, I do love Ambush Bug and I am a fan at heart. So “Mitefall” worked for me on that level.
Besides, Dini did a commendable job of not being too cutesy in his meta-commentary. There’s no nods to Batman Begins or The Dark Knight anywhere in the episode, for which I am very grateful. Dramatic or comedic, deciding what kind of Batman you like isn’t a matter of pitting Christopher Nolan’s Bat-movies vs. Batman: Brave and the Bold’s Batman. Nobody has ever known how seriously mass audiences want to take Batman. That’s an issue that the character has always carried around with him and probably always will.
Beyond comics, the tone of Batman TV shows and movies has shifted from goofy to serious and back again several times, from the campy Adam West TV show to the brooding Tim Burton movies to the dark-by-cartoon-standards Bruce Timm-assembled Batman: The Animated Series to the neo-campy Joel Schumacher films to Christopher Nolan’s operatic Bat-films to Batman: The Brave and the Bold. The show has had a good run and “Mitefall” is pretty entertaining. One can only hope that, regardless of the tone the next Bat-property employs, a modicum of intelligence and wit will be applied to it, too.