TV

Op-Ed: How WB Toning Down the Gun Violence in ‘Beware the Batman’ Doesn’t Matter (And That’s Okay)

A Variety report over the weekend revealed that Warner Brothers was considering toning down the gun violence in the upcoming animated series Beware the Batman. Set to debut sometime in 2013, the Cartoon Network series is being produced by WB Animation executive VP Sam Register, who called for a review of the use of guns and weapons in the series in light of the The Dark Knight Rises shooting rampage in Aurora, CO. According to the Variety report, Register initiated these changes without any outside probing from Warner Brothers.

First off, let me say Warner Brothers has been doing a stand-up job of responding to the shooting in a way that, up to this point, has been fairly sensitive (maybe hyper-sensitive, but more on that later) without putting the studio front and center in the ongoing narrative.

And I’m not too worried about Sam Register and company’s decision to square the round gun barrels in the series or to change the guns themselves into more sci-fi style weapons. In the great scheme of things, we’re still going to get the show that WB Animation set out to make in part because they’ve already, you know, actually produced some of the show at this point, and in large part because Beware the Bat serves an important function for the studio between Batman films.

First, though, let’s talk about the other Batman cartoon, the one that arguably changed it all thanks to the movies that preceded it, and then how The Dark Knight Rises could mean that Beware the Batman will pretty much remain the same show, albeit with tweaks.

The September 5, 1992 premiere episode of Batman: The Animated Series was the first part of the two-parter, “The Cat and the Claw.” Not really one of my favorites–I never really dug Claw as a heavy and I was still really high on Michelle Pfeiffer’s take on Catwoman in the movies, but as a kid, one thing caught my attention about a third of the way into the episode: around the eight minute mark (I checked) I heard the sounds of gunfire in a cartoon. Not the “pew pew” of a laser or some other kind of fantasy stand-in, but instead the honest-to-goodness staccato thump of automatic gunfire.

And with that, FOX and series producers Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski didn’t just nudge the needle for what could be shown on kids TV–they simply started using a new meter. In the first season, BTAS portrayed more menace, more peril, more tension, and yes, more violence than much of the domestic animated stuff that came before. This wasn’t He-Man swinging his sword ineffectually at Beast Man or Wolverine reserving his claws for robots.* Batman was shot at, stabbed, punched, kicked, nearly run down, and almost killed any number of times in the first few episodes alone.

And the most interesting thing about BTAS is that it almost felt made for me, a kid of the 80’s who’d grown up watching the more toothless animated programming of that era. Wait, don’t get me wrong, G.I. Joe, Transformers, the whole Hasbro action figure-industrial complex was great for me as a kid, but BTAS has the feel of something that was aging with me as a viewer. Before the ratings cratered, FOX was even broadcasting it during primetime Sunday nights, because this was very important stuff.

The gun violence in previous animated series was sanitized to the point of comedy in most daytime programming thanks to some unwritten yet still agreed-upon rule among domestic animators. Seriously, look it up: I can find no FCC rules or mandates about the depictions of violence in kids programming relating specifically to the portrayal of violence. Rules dictating how ratings should be handled and the balance of educations content and marketing, but nothing related to the almost Hays Code-style takes on violence in animation.

Nothing draws as stark a contrast between Batman: The Animated Series and another show which aired the same year, Conan The Adventurer, which took the decided R-rated action of the pulp source material and reduced it to the titular hero bonking bad guys on the head with his sword before they vanished into another dimension (and gave the notoriously gruff Cimmerian a talking pet bird). Or 1988’s Robocop or Rambo and the Freedom Force back in 1986.

Along with John Kricfalusi’s Ren and Stimpy (which premiered back in August of ’91), Timm and Radowski were going off-script in terms of what was appropriate for kid’s television. And BTAS begat dark fantasy of Gargoyles(’94), and the off-kilter, funny for kids and adults comedy of Freakazoid! (’95, still as subversive and weird now as it was then) and Pinky and the Brain (’94–ditto), and Superman: The Animated Series (’96, and there’s no need to trace the route of the animated DCU from here), and I’m not going to go on about how it legitimized animation for adults, allowing (in a way) for both the late-night debuts of Spawn and South Park.

Now let’s look at the animated incarnations of Batman that have been around since BTAS went off the air (and keep in mind, that show was a somewhat direct extension of the Burton films): arguably when the film franchise was at its silliest, we got Batman Beyond in ’99 which grimmed things up really good and dark, culminating in the direct-to-video feature Return of the Joker which had its violence toned down upon initial release**. Next, 2004 brought us The Batman, featuring a more colorful, youthful incarnation of the Caped Crusader, followed by 2008’s Silver Age-y The Brave and the Bold, which featured musical episodes and Batman hanging with his buddy, Aquaman.

Now we’re back at a noirish take on the Bat with Beware the Batman, with the show’s producers talking at length about the tortured psychological complexity of Batman/Bruce and his working man tough valet, Alfred. The Internet practically burst a blood vessel when promotional images showed Alfred (who we now know is former MI6) packing heat. How much of that will make it into a series that also features such grotesque creations as Mister Pyg and sword-wielding allies like Katana remains to be seen.

Now before we go on, there’s a healthy argument to be had about the wisdom in changing film and television imagery in the wake of a terrible act of violence. Most of you are probably old enough to remember (or at least be aware of) the nips, tucks, and changes that films released in the wake of September 11th went through including cuts, reshoots, and release date bounces. Similarly, Warner Brothers is talking cuts and a release date shuffle for their own Gangster Squad, whose current trailer features gunmen shooting directly into a crowded movie theater. Like I said, there’s a healthy argument to be made, but it’s not the one I’m going to get into here (although I will say that in my experience, quarantining off this content simply makes people more curious about it).

Anyway, as with BTAS the focus of Beware the Batman seems to be on the psychological complexity (and problems) of being Batman, and I don’t think that the edits to the series’ CG gun barrels and gun shapes will necessarily change that. Now the Variety report didn’t say anything about scripts being rewritten for those same episodes, but as with the many trims and edits to Return of the Joker, I’m guessing the show will be getting additional massaging between now and its release next year. The big question is what direction does the show take after that? If even for the first season, Beware the Batman has been irrevocably altered?

Pretty much where it was going before, I imagine.

Batman: The Animated Series was shaped as much by the Burton films as The Brave and the Bold was shaped as a direct counter-reaction to the Nolan-verse take on Batman, a sentiment echoed somewhat in this interview with that series’ producer James Tucker last year. Beware the Batman will exist in a landscape where WB will be trying to figure out what to do with the Bat-film franchise.

I suspect that in the absence of more Nolan Batman, Beware the Batman was supposed to stand in as that type of Batman in the interim between reboots. If anything, I imagine Beware the Batman will serve the same function that BTAS and Batman Beyond did during their runs, staying the course for “serious” Batman stories until we get a new film franchise out of it, at which time we can talk again about the inevitable new animated series that will spring up in its wake.

So after all this, WB will probably expect the series to more or less stay the course, to keep Batman serious on TV until they can figure out how serious to make the next Batman on the big screen (and then, maybe we’ll get more Bat-mite when the whole reboot/sequel/whatever loop is ultimately closed).

So what do you think? Is the changes being made to the show right now as I type this going to keep you from checking it out? Or is this just a blip, not even on your radar? Let us know via our Twitter feed.

*I know, X-Men made its debut a month later, but since it was in production at the same time as BTAS, I’m qualifying that as part of the “before” period.

**This piece provides a great scene-by-scene breakdown of how the uncut and edited versions of the film played out.