CREDITS: Written by Mitch Brian (who wrote the series bible with Timm and Dini); directed by Kevin Altieri.
REVIEW: As this is the first episode of the Batman Animated Series produced (though not aired), let's talk about constants first introduced here before we talk about the story itself. First of all, that amazing, amazing, AMAZING opening sequence. From the WB logo turning into the Owl Ship--I mean, a Gotham City police blimp (police blimps? how awesome is that!?) to the fact that the series really doesn't have an on-screen title (it's Batman, folks, you know who he is, BATMAN!), it's a great achievement marrying film noir visuals and Elfman's great Batman theme. Just gorgeous. I've already praised the look of the show, and while this episode sometimes seems a bit murky, I generally enjoy the shadowy filter that makes the edges of the screen disappear, and the lighting effects are well done. When Batman fires his grappling hook, for example, there's a quick flash of light on his face. The batmobile is definitely pulled from Burton's film, perhaps even more extreme, and it looks good in animation.
The episode also introduces a few key characters and voices, none more iconic than Kevin Conroy as Batman (and pitched higher, as Bruce Wayne), the man whose voice I hear when I read Batman comics today (I hear the Super-Friends' Olan Soule when reading Silver Age stories, but that's different). Conroy has played Batman more than any other actor ever, in animation and video games, and it always takes some getting used to when someone else does it. He's great. The episode also gives voice to grouchy Commissioner Gordon, and introduces a pretty big chunk of the cast - the unflappable, snooty Alfred Pennyworth; the antagonistic Detective Bullock; and not-yet-Two-Face D.A. Harvey Dent! Mayor Hamilton Hill will also appear in a number of episodes. That's all in addition to the episode's guest stars, of course. What the episode DOESN'T do (nor does any episode aired before it) is tell Batman's origin. As with the lack of a proper title, the show starts from the premise that everyone knows who Batman is. This is clearly early in his career, since most of his villains haven't been established and the GCPD considers him a dangerous vigilante, but everything is in place and need not be retread.
On Leather Wings - and the title card is right out of silent film - shows Batman's many facets. A vigilante on the run from the law, an action hero capable of fighting normal crooks and enhanced monsters, a detective with lots of cool tech, and a millionaire playboy with lots of money, connections, and a sense of fun. All of this is efficiently told. In fact, the show is very good at drawing characters with immediate personality (pun intended). Even "day players" with few lines are differentiated. Instead of generic night watchmen, we have one with ambitions of becoming a radio personality, and another a woman who passes the time reading novels. You glimpse office romances among lab technicians, and meet policemen with opinions.
Unfortunately, the villain falls short of that standard. We're introduced to the Langstrom family, but we don't spend enough time with them to get invested. Francine's father is one of those crazy scientists who thinks his study topic is inherently superior to humanity, in this case, bats, which is tepid sort of red herring, especially for people who know Man-Bat from the comics. Francine herself is a cipher, and the terribly barrel-chested Kurt is two-dimensional in his transformative glee (though I quite like how his face is distorted by lab equipment). We don't know what drives him, and in the end, he's just a monster for Batman to defeat. And though "monsters" are definitely up Batman's alley (Killer Croc and Clayface being other prime examples), this one feels a little light to be the Bat's first antagonist. Additionally, there's just no room in the 22-minute episode for a proper resolution, and mere seconds go by between Batman knocking the creature out and his returning Kurt cured of his condition to Francine. It feels like the episode just ran out of time, which is really too bad.
IN THE COMICS: Man-Bat first appeared in Detective Comics #400 (June 1970) and was created by Frank Robbins and Neal Adams. He had a better motivation in the comics, developing a bat serum to cure his impending deafness (yes, very much the Lizard of the DC Universe), with tragic results. His wife Francine would eventually fall prey to the serum as well, though her father Dr. March is the show's invention. Bullock is credited only as "Detective Bullock", perhaps to avoid having two characters named Harvey in scenes together. He first appeared Detective Comics #441 (June 1974) as a crooked police detective under instructions from Gotham City's Mayor Hamilton Hill to sabotage Commissioner Gordon's career. The Mayor here IS Hill, but since Bullock was enventually redeemed, that may not be where they're going with it this time.
SOUNDS LIKE: Kevin Conroy's next most famous role is perhaps as the company commander on Tour of Duty. Commissioner Gordon is played by Bob Hastings of McHale's Navy fame. Harvey Dent is Richard Moll, which you remember as Bull on Night Court, very weird casting when you think about it. Mayor Hill is Lloyd Buchner, the scheming Cecil Colby on Dynasty. Bullock is played by Robert Costanzo, a very recognizable character actor; look him up. Alfred is played by Clive Revill, but only for three episodes. Marc Singer is Kurt Langstrom/Man-Bat; genre fans will best remember him as the lead of the 80s V series, Mike Donovan. Dr. March is played by Odo himself, Rene Auberjonois; he'll return to these pages often in other guises. And Francine Langstrom is played by Meredith MacRae, Pettycoat Junction's Billie Jo.
REWATCHABILITY: Medium - Visually exciting and with plenty of introductions, but let's face it, Man-Bat isn't the most interesting of opponents, and the plot runs out the clock and ends abruptly.