The New Batman Adventures “Critters” (part 1 of 2)
The early ‘90s saw a pretty big boom in televised cartoons. Whereas the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s had seen the format watered down by preachy grandstanding (though to be fair, that has its own cheesy charm), the ‘90s ushered in the notion that not all kids are drooling halfwits who need to have mommy around at all times to make sure they don’t accidentally try to eat the bowl after all the cereal is gone.
One of the boldest moves in animation was the reinvention of Batman with Batman: The Animated Series. Using the Tim Burton films and the darker, more edgy comics as a starting point, the series was a gorgeous piece of animation with striking production design, a top notch team of animators and voice actors, and a tone that was dark but not so dark as to turn off younger viewers.
It ran steadily on FOX from 1992 to 1995, and in 1997 it was revived and renamed The New Batman Adventures, and moved to the WB where it ran until 1999. The new show was basically the same as the old show, apart from design changes, and a general lightening in tone.
This lightening paved the way for our episode today, “Critters”, which is a goofy as hell riff on those cheesy monster movies we all know and love. It’s a little like the old Batman TV series, which is probably why most Batman fans today hate it with a passion. I, however, loved the Adam West version, and I love this version too.
As somebody capable of watching a character in different versions and appreciating them for their individual merits, I don’t have a problem with this goofball oddity at all. Hell, given how odd and surreal it gets, I can actually confess to loving it a little.
It’s very odd to have the usual dark opening and main title theme play before this episode, given the tone. This goes from odd to downright surreal when you factor in how goofy and bizarre the episode itself is.
After the opening, we cut to an agricultural expo in Gotham City, where Farmer Brown (voiced by Peter Breck) is making a presentation in a way I’m sure would make any self-respecting carnie beam with pride. I should also note that the story is from Howard the Duck creator Steve Gerber, and was written by Joe R. Lansdale, a very good horror/western author. This also goes a long way in explaining why the story is so goddamn insane.
Brown is assisted by his daughter Emmylou (voiced by Dina Sherman) as they unveil the result of their latest batch of growth hormone research, a gigantic cow in a cage. Well, I’m sure there’s a lot of meat, but can you imagine the cow pies that thing must leave? I shudder just thinking of it.
Actually, the thing looks more like a mutated sheep than a cow.
The flashbulbs from the cameras spook the beast and it goes berserk, crashing through the cage and running amuck. As the people flee, we notice Commissioner Gordon (Bob Hastings) and Bruce Wayne (Kevin Conroy) amongst them. While Brown tries to calm the beast, Bruce grabs a red curtain, pulling it down on the cow’s head, causing it to slam into a wall. So ends the rampage.
Brown and Emmylou sedate the beast, and Gordon congratulates Bruce, which leads to this exchange.
Bruce: Actually, I was trying to escape through the window.
Later, Brown and Emmylou have been hauled into court (as one would expect to happen, since their mutant Cowzilla thing ran amuck in a crowded auditorium), where they’re ordered by the judge to cease and desist their research, and to get all of their “experiments” out of Gotham.
Brown protests, but the judge won’t hear it. We get the obligatory angry stare into the camera as he swears revenge. Next thing we know, it’s one year later.
Bruce is having dinner with a young woman at an outdoor café and making an ass of himself, forgetting her name.
We take a break from Bruce’s social embarrassment, and go over to a lady who’s complaining about a bug. As luck would have it, the bug is not in her salad, but rather on the street behind the waiter.
It’s a big, giant praying mantis, roughly the size of a bus. Two, actually, who somehow managed to sneak up on the café. Who knows, maybe they’re ninjas.
They tear the place apart, making sure to scare the crap out of an exterminator spraying for bugs. Heh, heh. In the melee, Bruce runs off, and as one of the bugs is about to make a snack out of a cop, Batman makes his appearance, almost a quarter of the way into the episode. Well, you certainly can’t say they didn’t set up the story enough!
Batman stands on the exterminator’s truck (yeah, guys, we got the joke the first time. Freaking Letterman fans) as the two bugs rampage, and then more join in. Batman calls for them to come and get him, firing the bug spray the exterminator dropped at the advancing menacing mantises. When that fails, he falls back on the old “throw the weapon at the threat” maneuver, which also doesn’t work. One mantis jabs at Batman, getting stuck in the truck.
Our hero kicks the bug in the thorax, knocking it back and shearing off its arms. The rest of them advance on Batman, but suddenly stop and fall apart, with Batman catching one of their severed heads. Ah, good clean fun for the entire family.
Still, I’ll take this any day over Christian Bale delivering his lines like a man who is either desperately trying not to shit in his pants, or so bound up he wishes he could. I thought the two Nolan Batman films were alright, but you’d hear the same noises Bale makes as Batman in the bathroom during a cheese festival in Green Bay. Not a good thing.
Later in the Batcave, Batman examines the DNA of one of the bugs while Robin (Matthew Valencia) and Batgirl (Tara Charendoff) observe. For some reason, the animators blocked it so that while Robin is standing next to Batman, Batgirl is behind the chair peering over the top.
Batman exposits that the bug’s DNA has been altered so they would be immune to poison, and they were also programmed to self-destruct. You know, I’m down with the whole “immune to poison” thing, but if I was a supervillain, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t program my horrible killing machines to blow up at any time for no reason. I get the sense that Farmer Brown won’t be threatening Joker for the spot of top dog in Arkham once Batman nails his ass to a wall.