5 Reasons Why 'Batman Beyond' Has Endured All These Years
On December 18, 2001, the last episode of Batman Beyond aired. But out of fear of being sued for false advertising, the series took its name to heart and refused to end there, living on in comic book form and also in the minds of fans around the world. It's now considered one of the greatest animated shows to grace a TV screen. Still, you have to wonder: Was it really that good, or did it just exceed our insanely low expectations for a cartoon about a teenage Batman wearing Iron Man's Halloween armor? Let's look back at the series and dig into what worked in it and what didn't …
Bruce's Reason For Stepping Down As Batman Is Perfect
In order to allow high-school delinquent Terry McGinnis to take up the mantle of Batman in the year 2039, the show first had to make Bruce Wayne give up not just his superhero persona but really his entire identity. Because lest we forget, Bruce Wayne is the costume, while Batman is the real person beneath it. It's why you never see Bruce go trick-or-treating. People just wouldn't get it. Anyway, there were a few ways the show could've taken the character off the board, but only one correct one.
Batman Beyond could have had Bruce simply walk where Danny Glover just talked and retire after realizing that he really was too old for this s**t. And that would be fine … if you completely don't get who Batman is. He's like a guy missing the entire Q section of his dictionary; he doesn't know the meaning of "quit." He also calls quiches "salty egg pies" and thinks a female monarch is called a "Kingtress." Hell, Batman has gone up to Darkseid, the physical manifestation of the idea of evil, and tried to karate him in the face ON MULTIPLE OCCASSIONS. Old age would never stop him. Nor would accidentally killing someone.
The thing is, despite Batman's famous no-kill code, the best Batman stories understood that the urge to make things easier for himself and possibly save hundreds of people down the line by permanently ending his villains is always inside Bruce. If he ended up taking a life, chances are he would let go and keep being Batman without the code.
It would take something much bigger to make Batman abandon his mission. It would take him feeling shame. And that's precisely what Batman Beyond did with the character.
Within the first three minutes of the first episode, "Rebirth," we see an older Bruce in his futuristic Batsuit trying to save a kidnapping victim, but almost being killed by some random criminal while suffering a heart attack. And in his moment of desperation, he commits the ultimate sin: he grabs a gun to scare off his opponent. He never fires it, and his action helped save a life, but that didn't matter to him.
By resorting to the one thing that he despises most in the world, not unlike Spider-Man instinctively using someone's uncle as a human shield, Bruce realizes that he's lost himself. After throwing the weapon away in fear and disgust, all of which is conveyed by beautiful animation and no dialogue, Bruce mothballs the Batcave and turns off the lights with a simple "Never again." Perfect. No notes. But, hey, speaking of Spider-Man …
Terry McGinnis Seems To Take More Than A Few Cues From A Future Spider-Man
Batman Beyond wasn't the first to reinvent a popular superpowered character in a futuristic setting. Neither was Spider-Man 2099, a 1992 comic book series about Spider-Man in the year -squints- 2099. If you want to get technical, the whole thing probably goes back to the 1953 Duck Dodgers cartoon, and if you think Daffy Duck doesn't count as a superpowered character, YOU try surviving numerous shotgun blasts to the face. (LEGAL DEPT. NOTE: Dude … No.)
All that being said, there do seem to be a few similarities between Batman Beyond and Spider-Man 2099. The latter told the story of a mutated geneticist in a dystopian future with powers that could maybe be described as "spider-like" in a dark room from behind tinted glass and after a few glasses of prison toilet wine, like the character having claws. Technically most spiders have claws, but they are about as representative of spider anatomy as some whales' "anal syrup" sacs. You may remember the 2099 character recreating that Spider-Man pointing meme at the end of Into The Spider-Verse.
But(t), hey, you know what other legacy superhero in the future had claws that aren't really synonymous with the animal that forms the basis of their entire shtick? Terry McGinnis' Batman. And his claws aren't some rarely-used gimmick. They are an integral part of the character, featuring prominently in the intro and the show itself, where they have saved Terry's life on numerous occasions.
Claws are equally important to the Spider-Man of the almost-22nd century, Miguel O'Hara, who, oh would you look at that, happens to have a Gaelic surname, just like McGinnis. True, Terry's future wasn't exactly dystopian like the one in Spider-Man 2099, but it was still crapsack-adjacent enough to keep the kid busy for 52 episodes. Also, one of the Neo-Gotham buildings frequently seen on the show has a giant kanji for "evil" on it, which …
There's more, like how both characters like to move around by gliding through the air. Or how Spider-Man 2099's entire premise was based on gene-splicing, which was also the basis of one of the most memorable episodes of Batman Beyond about people combining their DNA with that of various animals. Again, the idea was definitely not invented by future Spider-Man, but when taken together with everything else, you have to start wondering if The Futuristic Bat Adventures of Terry McGinnis didn't look beyond Batman comics for their inspiration.
Batman Beyond Has the Best Mr. Freeze Story Ever Told
Mr. Freeze is the story of an unfunny joke being continuously improved upon on TV, not unlike Friends in reverse. In the comics, the character started out as your run-of-the-mill mad scientist named Mr. Zero, which alluded to how many craps people gave about him back then. He was later renamed "Mr. Freeze" in the Adam West Batman show and given a tragic backstory featuring his terminally ill wife in Batman: The Animated Series. But the McGinnis Batman show took Mr. Freeze even further. I mean completely above the super high standard set by B:TAS. Just totally outside the scope of what we already considered a great character. Yonder? (SYNONYM DEPT. NOTE: Stop …)
In the Season 1 episode "Meltdown," we find out that Mr. Freeze is one of the last surviving original Batman villains because, thanks to his Elsa biology, his cells are incapable of letting go, making him effectively immortal. Although, by 2039, he's been reduced to just a talking head inside a glass jar. In a weird coincidence, "Meltdown" premiered a month before the first episode of Futurama.
What makes "Meltdown" so great is that it doesn't retcon or reimagine what BTAS did with the character. It adds to it, expanding our understanding of Mr. Freeze. In the episode, a scientist clones Freeze a new, non-popsicle body and transfers his mind to it, giving him a chance at a new life. Back to being Victor Fries, he enjoys simple pleasures like being able to touch people, falls in love, and creates a foundation to make up for all his years as a villain. But his body soon begins to fail and snowmanize all over again, which is when the episode hits its stride.
Victor's original transformation in B:TAS was fast and sudden, but here it's sloooow, giving us a chance to see him panic over turning back into Freeze. Then the scientist who cured him, the one Vic fell in love with, turns out to only want him for his body. Literally. She tries to kill him so she can study his corpse and find out what went wrong with the cloning process.
Freeze lost someone he loved before, but here it's made all the more tragic because their love turned out to be a lie. The episode essentially forced him to relive the absolute worst moments of his life, only with twice as much emotional pain this time. So when Fries reverts back to his Mr. Freeze persona (in a mega-awesome new suit), you see his icy, emotionless exterior for what it truly is: the result of unbearable psychological torture that shattered his humanity/sanity. We always knew that that's what happened with the character. But in Batman Beyond, we got to see it, and it was glorious.
Batman Beyond Made Bruce Look Like a Total Creep
In the episode "A Touch of Curaré," it turns out that Barbara Gordon, who used to be Batgirl and is now Neo-Gotham's Police Commissioner, was also Bruce's lover at one point. This is disturbing for a few reasons. One: Huh. So she just happens to land the same job as her old man, huh? Smells an awful lot like future-nepotism, which is like regular nepotism, only in the future. Second: ick.
Even ignoring the age difference between Barbara and Bruce, a romantic relationship between the two is just incredibly iffy. Bruce mentored Barbara in the art of crimefighting, putting her in many dangerous spots and saving her life more than a few times. Situations like that are extremely emotionally-charged and it's so easy for anyone, but especially a young person, to confuse that mix of gratitude, awe, and a chemical storm in the brain for real love. It's why doctors aren't allowed to date their patients. (The same goes for veterinarians, but for a different reason.) The thing is -- the show sort of raises that same point.
Terry asks Barbara if she was Bruce's girlfriend, to which she just smiles softly, implying that there was more to it. But then she immediately contradicts herself, saying that to Bruce, there was only ever the mission and the streets. Decades later, a part of her still believes that what the two of them had was deep and magical when it was clearly anything BUT love to Bruce. At least not like how Barbara imagines it.
You can try and argue that Bruce didn't know how Barbara was amplifying their relationship in her head, but, again, only if you completely don't understand who Batman is. His entire thing is that he is superhuman-level smart and great at reading people. And he still went ahead and boinked his best friend's daughter. Dick move. Because his … well, you get the idea.
Speaking of Dicks, in that same conversation, we find out that Barbara also once dated Dick Grayson, who Bruce 100% views as his son. When he left to do his own thing, Barbara decided to stay in Gotham and rebounded straight onto Batman's bat-pole, banging what was essentially her ex's father … Who was also sort of like her surrogate father … Which would make Dick kind of like her brother … ? Okay, this is getting way too uncomfortable. Let's talk about something more pleasant, like nightmarish body horror.
Related: Hey, Give Us More 'Batman Beyond'
At Times, Batman Beyond Went into Straight-Up Horror Territory
Batman's entire persona is based around fear, but so far, only the Tim Burton Batman movies were, well, scary. And that's mainly because they were made by a man who constantly hears a Victorian-era child slowly chanting Singin' in the Rain over the sounds of a broken music box in his head. Batman: The Animated Series had a brief fling with horror during the origin episode of Clayface, which ended with a man being deformed into sentient soft-serve ice cream and, upon seeing what he's become, screaming into a mirror in a way that probably sold a lot of nightlights after that episode aired.
The entire scene is shot with a lot of shadows because cartoons weren't really allowed to get too graphic back then. But by 1999, the world had decided that kids could use the occasional fear-induced sanity enema. This was about a year after Furby came out. The two events may or may definitely be related. Anyway, now free to get a little more intense, Batman Beyond pushed the limits of a kids cartoon straight into Cronenbergian territory. Between episodes like "The Winning Edge" or "Splicers," Batman Beyond featured more pulsating veins, melting skin, and bubbling flesh than a microwaved dick tumor. (CURRENTLY EATING DEPT. NOTE: We hate you so much …)
The series' most disturbing episode was probably "Disappearing Inque" about a worker in a cryogenic containment plant who looks after a frozen supervillainess shapeshifter. He's also in love with her for no other reason than her being unable to move made her probably the only woman who didn't walked away within 5 minutes of meeting him. There is a real quiet sadness to Aaron, a guy who never really hurt anyone but kept getting treated by everyone around him as if he went around tattooing stray cats with swastikas in his spare time.
After getting fired from his job for kissing the block of ice that Inque was trapped in, Aaron helps free her, later asking for one thing in return: power like hers. So Inque agrees to inject him with the same chemicals that turned her into a lethal pool of shapeshifting Marmite. Buuuut because she was a villain, she only gave Aaron half the required dose, turning him into a disturbing half-melted Pudding Man who'd probably kill to be as pleasant looking as Clayface in B:TAS.
Unable to talk or move, Aaron is eventually captured and kept in an unlocked fish tank because he's about as dangerous and mobile as a boneless chicken wing. And that's how he will spend the rest of his life. A semi-puddle that's fed mashed goo through a funnel, possibly not even fully sentient anymore on account of his brain being the consistency of chunky diarrhea.
So, what's the final verdict? Well, Batman Beyond might have taken some inspiration from other sources and made a great case for putting Bruce on some kind of list. But it ultimately was always trying out new ideas, trying to forge its own identity so that it wouldn't feel like a rehash of Batman: The Animated Series. That alone makes the series worth a watch while its focus on its characters' psychology, the occasional creative worldbuilding, and lack of qualms about giving kids nightmares more than earns it a shot at the title of one of the best cartoons ever made. After more than two decades, it not only still holds up – it may have gotten better.
Follow Cezary on Twitter.