“On Leather Wings”
Written by Kevin Altieri
Directed by Mitch Brian
Long before the critically derided Batman & Robin that nearly killed the franchise, well before he began again in Christopher Nolan’s realistic take on the character, and significantly before he became the generally seen and accepted “G*dd**n Batman” in the eye of the general public (Thanks, Frank Miller), The Dark Knight was something a little more raw. He was just a man, yet he was vengeance incarnate, he was the Knight, … he was just the Batman. And this was his animated series.
Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski gave many viewers, adults and children alike, a timeless portrait of Batman that has endured and left an undeniable imprint on so many. Their animated series, which ran on FOX from ’92 to ’95, is so popular that collectibles are still being made. Just see what DC Collectibles and Diamond Select Toys are doing with the license. The series, highly successful, received several nominations over its original running period, and went on to win Outstanding Animated Program.
Batman: The Animated Series “On Leather Wings” was not the first episode to air, but is the first episode of the DVD sets; the other episodes are in the order they were originally intended to be viewed, not in the order of air date. It’s no secret that Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski of Tiny Toons were inspired by the Max Fleischer Superman shorts and their work on Batman: The Animated Series is quite evident of that. While Superman offered a brighter take on heroics, there were several darker episodes within that series of theatrical shorts. This is primarily where Batman: The Animated Series takes place and it’s amazing to re-watch, especially considering how so much of the content would never be produced now for network television.
The first episode isn’t a standard pilot episode in the slightest. After a rousing opening set to the music of Danny Elfman and establishing “dark deco”, a combination of noir imagery and art deco, we are introduced to Gotham City. Part Detroit/New York City, Timm and Radomski’s depiction borrows the darker elements audiences were familiar with through the Tim Burton films while being its own thing. At Phoenix Pharmaceuticals, we witness a break in and are given a setup that introduces us to Detective Bullock, Mayor Hill, Commissioner Gordon, and D.A. Harvey Dent. Batman, apparently, has already long been at work in the city, despite having the police force hunt him because of his vigilante actions. Mayor Hill authorizes a strike force for Batman and we see them wrongfully target him while he investigates a greater threat – Man-Bat!
The usage of Man-Bat is equally as interesting as the choice not to deliver an origin story for Batman: The Animated Series. I remember when I had first seen the episode, many years ago, I thought something was missing, but I’ve soon realized that the direct approach to the story is a far better creative decision than to retool his origin. At this point in time, it was very safe to understand that most people knew Batman and were familiar with his origin. Audiences had the comic books, the 60’s television series, and two popular films within the span of three years. Timm and Radomski, along with Warner Bros. and DC’s decision to unofficially and essentially pick up where the film left off was a terrific decision. While “On Leather Wings” is not the strongest episode of the series, it is an engaging and highly entertaining Batman story and episode. Man-Bat makes for an intriguing villain to start the series off with, especially how at this time, he was not one of the more well-known of Batman’s rogues gallery. Timm has said that he felt Man-Bat was the perfect villain as no one had any preconceived notions over how he should be portrayed and allowed the story to dwell on moodier and more detective based content.
Batman is easily more of a Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, Dennis O’ Neil version than any other incarnations. He’s strong, agile, and very much a detective. While we do see him outside of the cape and cowl, it never feels as if it’s marking time before we see him return as the Caped Crusader. “On Leather Wings” also services fans through the smart usage of the Batcave, the Batcomputer, and the Batmobile which only help flesh out this version of Batman. As Batman investigates the strange situation at Phoenix Pharmaceuticals, we get more of a feel for how much the production was pushing the edge on the series. “On Leather Wings” is shocking in just how adult the episode is, especially thematically and content wise. We have a moment of an adult situation revolving an employee staying late at night at the office with a female colleague, along with the usage of guns, and a bloody, bruised, and scratched Batman/Bruce Wayne.
After the revelation that Man-Bat is Dr. Kirk Langstrom, we’re given a highly sophisticated animation of his transformation into Man-Bat. It’s the first of many stylish camera techniques that set the episode and series apart from any other animated program at the time. (Spider-Man on FOX might be a close second for it’s usage of computer effects for NYC) Batman and Man-Bat take to the streets, and mostly skies, of Gotham City and battle past skyscrapers and an unforgettable blimp. Think of the final battle at the end of Disney’s The Rocketeer. Ultimately, Batman defeats Man-Bat and makes a surprising decision that still stands out after all these years – he cures Kirk and does not turn him in. The closing moments find Batman carrying Kirk to his wife, Francine, and tell her that he’s been cured. The camera focuses on Batman carrying the scientist into the laboratory and provides a moment to reflect on our hero’s action. He set him free! He didn’t turn him in!! Batman will still be hunted by the GCPD!!! It’s another edgy creative move by the team, notably for episode writer Mitch Brian. Imagine watching as a child and seeing Batman not give up nor turn a terrifying creature in. There must be something said for that. For this fan, I loved it as it depicted the honor and sense of justice Batman believes in. Here he recognizes that Kirk Langstrom, as misguided as he was, is not the kind of villain he’d normally battle with. In the following episode, “Christmas With The Joker”, it’s established that the two have already fought many times before so it’s evident that Batman knows what true evil is.
Batman, as depicted in the animated series and “On Leather Wings”, is seemingly the closest we’ve ever gotten to an accurate Batman on screen. While there are elements of the Burton/Schumacher/Nolan series that got it right, arguably Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski’s Batman is the most definitive. It’s no surprise that Zack Snyder has borrowed elements from this series, along with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. With 253 days to go until Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, it should be fun revisiting the timeless animated series that Timm gave us for Batman and Superman.
- Rene Auberjonois voices Dr. March, the first scientist we believe to be Man-Bat (for those that did not know the comics.) He also appears in the 1995 film, Batman Forever.
- This marks the first of three episodes that featured Clive Revill as the voice of Alfred Pennyworth, not series regular, the late Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.
- There’s a fleeting mention of Bambi, a love interest for Bruce Wayne. While she doesn’t appear in another episode of the series, we do meet her in Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.
Stay tuned for more Batman: The Animated Series reviews.