To say that Batman is one of the most popular character in pop culture would be a massive understatement. With the character celebrating his 80th anniversary this year, there’s quite a lot of reason to celebrate, but interestingly enough, it wasn’t Bruce Wayne that had the biggest Bat presence at NYCC. No, it went to Terry McGinnis and his series, Batman Beyond.
Originally airing from 1999 to 2001, the 52 episode series struck a chord with DC Comics fans to the point where people will fall head over heels for the franchise at the slightest mention. I bonded with one of my old college roommates over our shared love of Batman Beyond and the impact it had for us. There was just something so cool and edgy about the series, yet it didn’t fall victim to any of the tropes of the genre. Terry was a teenager, sure, but he wasn’t angsty or emo as most teenage protagonists would become in pop culture, set in a Gotham City that both felt familiar, yet was entirely different. Even to this day, Batman Beyond stands out from the rest of the Bat franchise, with fans gleefully lapping up any and all callbacks to the series.
With the show celebrating its 20th anniversary with a neat blu-ray set that remasters most of the series, I was able to catch up with most of the creative team of the show to ask them about the enduring power of the series.
One of the most striking things about the series that most fans can agree on is its aesthetic and general sense of style. When asked about the inception of the series, producer Alan Burnett said that the show was a risky prospect from the very beginning. “We took a chance on it. The network wanted to do a young Batman and for a few minutes we talked about doing a young Bruce Wayne… We were careful with it because we knew we had a legacy to come up to. The network wanted to do a young Batman show because they wanted to get to a 6-11 year old audience. The original Batman show had a 14 year old audience… and strangely, [Batman Beyond] got kind of darker and the group who was working on it couldn’t just do a 6-11 year old group.”
This push for a 6-11 demographic was both a blessing and a curse for the series according to Burnett, who said that they played ball because they had to please the executives at the time, but they did it their own way. Bruce Timm took the direction given to him by his superiors and gave them exactly what they wanted, a series starring a teenage Batman. What he didn’t tell them was that he would also make it more in line with a teenage sensibility that a kid one, which worked wonders for the show critically, but pissed off executives to no end. Will Friedle, the voice of Terry, said that he remembered two Warner Bros. executives storming out of the room when they were shown the first two episodes of the series, upset that they didn’t get their 6-11 demographic Batman show. Unfortunately that direction would be the show’s undoing, being cancelled after three seasons because it wasn’t hitting that target demographic that WB wanted.
Interestingly enough, the show never had a series bible for directors to reference with the only bible being the outline for the first two episodes that Burnett drafted. The only constant that Timm and James Tucker, current head of the DCAU and director of several episode including the Emmy winning episode Eggbaby, wanted was that the series would always be 50 years in the future. It would always be 50 years after 1999 and 50 years after 2019. But one of the most essential parts of the show had nothing to do with the production design, which Tucker said was greatly influenced by Blade Runner and anime, but finding the right actor to play Terry McGinnis, aka Batman Beyond. Friedle’s casting as the lead was actually a stroke of luck for the actor.
Andrea Romano, the voice director for the series, was intent of casting someone that could match Kevin Conroy’s Bruce Wayne, but Friedle was only recommended to audition for the show thanks to his time on Boy Meets World. “To cast anyone with less acting talent than Kevin Conroy would be uneven. So Bruce Timm’s wife had been watching Boy Meets World and said ‘there’s an actor on there that you really need to listen to’. I probably listened to at least 250 auditions for young Terry and maybe called back 50 people and Will came and I said ‘he could REALLY do it.'” What eventually solidified the choice to cast him as Terry was having a final audition opposite Conroy where the two began to banter and bicker like a father and son with the rest being history.
The process of actually recording the show was also different from how most animated shows record their dialogue. “We recorded it like a radio play and worked off of each other. A lot of shows will bring you in one at a time, but you can’t recreate what happens with two people [that way],” said Lauren Tom, the voice of Dana, Terry’s girlfriend. Each episode was recorded with the full cast in the booth, which allowed them to more naturally bounce off each other and talk as if they were talking with one another, rather than just to a microphone.
While most of the cast had varying ideas on why the show wormed its way into the hearts of DC fans across the globe, Friedle thought that kids and teens at the time could easily relate to Terry. In his mind, Terry didn’t need a billion dollar to be awesome. He was a kid in school that just got the cowl. He was still a punk, which Friedle thought was best embodied in his fight against the Joker in Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker. Batman plays fair, but Terry isn’t Batman. He’s Batman Beyond. He’ll kick the Joker in the balls and mock him cause that’s just how Terry rolls. Most importantly, “He’s not Bruce, and that along is a pretty cool quality.”
As for Conroy, who’s played Batman for over 25 years, his approach to playing an older Bruce wasn’t just to be Batman but grumpier, but to be a Batman that failed. One of his favorite moments from the series came in the first episode where Batman nearly killed a person with a gun, to which Conroy shouted “Batman doesn’t use guns!” That in turn showed Bruce that he couldn’t be Batman anymore out of principle, which greatly influenced his take on older Bruce.
“The key to playing old Bruce,” said Conroy, “is that he’s got all of the passions of young Bruce, all the will, all the desire, all the needs, but his body won’t let him do it anymore. It’s just holding him back. And all of that frustration, what does that frustration turn into, what does it do to you? Does it embitter you? Does it anger you? Does it make you wanna do even more good, or does it push you to evil? And all of those questions have to be answered.”
And yet, all good things must come to an end. WB cancelled the series for failing to reach the 6-11 demographic and left the show as a distant memory. The Batman Beyond universe still appeared occasionally in other DC animated shows, though most of the production team doesn’t acknowledge them. Most notably, the entire cast, with the exception of Friedle, disregard the Justice League Unlimited episode “Epilogue,” which tangentially served as a series finale for Batman Beyond. However, Tucker was adamant in saying that the episode was Bruce Timm’s idea and while they respectfully disagree on it, Tucker and most of the cast regard it as non-canon.
But 20 years later, the series still holds a soft spot in the hearts of everyone involved with it. Tucker explained it best by saying that Batman Beyond “was our Batman show. It didn’t owe anything to the comics and it wasn’t an adaptation… It wasn’t retreading Crime Alley and it wasn’t saying ‘this was the first Joker story’… and there hasn’t being anything since then that’s been like that. Everything since that has gone back to referring to the original source material. It stands alone in its own pocket universe of Batman.”
While the future of the show may not be over just yet, regardless of what may come, it’s clear that Batman Beyond holds a special place in DC’s library. It was a completely original take on the character that wasn’t afraid to take risks, almost spiting the editorial mandates thrust upon it. It shouldn’t have been as awesome as it was, yet it has endured for 20 years. It still stands among the best animated series not just of the 90’s and 2000’s, but in my opinion, of the past 20 years of animation. If this is your first time hearing about the show, give it a watch. You won’t be disappointed.