Where better to start with ‘Batman the Animated Series‘ that with the original pilot episode ‘On Leather Wings‘. Although the episode appears on home video releases of the series as the first episode it was screen as the second episode, the first aired being ‘The Cat and the Claw pt1‘ which was bumped up from episode 15 due to the popularity of the Catwoman character portrayed by Michelle Pfeiffer in Tim Burton‘s ‘Batman Returns‘ released a mere 11 weeks before the episode aired.
Whilst the films of Tim Burton were rated 12 in UK ‘BtAS‘ shutting out the younger audience to the darkly gothic take on the franchise the TV series offered younger audiences a chance to emerge themselves in an equally dark but animated version of Gotham.
‘On Leather Wings‘ took a bold move in setting up Man-Bat as the first villain for the cartoon series rather than diving in with one of A-list villains which would so obviously appeal to young audiences with a knowledge of Batman’s most famous villains. The choice of villain sets up the excellent opening sequence which brilliantly deceives the audience by introducing the villain rather than right away bringing the titular hero to the screen.
The opening sequence also brings out all of the best aspects of the show one after the other from the outstanding dark deco style to the completely unparalleled score which takes more than a little inspiration from the work of Danny Elfman on both Burton movies in the ‘Batman‘ franchise.
The visual style of ‘BtAS‘ is one of the many aspects which set the show apart from everything else on TV at the time with the art team taking a huge leap-of-faith in deciding to paint many of the shows backgrounds on black paper in stark contrast to the usual white. The decision instantly gave the show the much darker appearance that the creative team were looking for and set them on track to defining the style of an entire generation of cartoons.
In ‘On Leather Wings‘ it is most notable that there are no scenes set during daylight hours despite the Bruce Wayne character making several appearances. In later episodes the show would venture out to see Gotham during the daylight but in enhancing the Jekyll and Hyde atmosphere of the episode the script was written to reflect the darkness of the subject matter.
Running to approx. 15mins 30secs the episode sets up the urban legend that is Batman whilst also introducing most of the shows supporting cast including Commissioner Gordon, Detective Bullock, the Mayor and of course Alfred Pennyworth. There are glimpses of the Batcave and Batmobile and all the while Batman has time to flex his detective muscles.
One day we’ll hopefully get to glimpse these episodes in high-definition but for now the episodes hold-up well via individual and complete season box sets all available via Amazon. The animation style even now holds up well in comparison to the CGI animated styles of many of todays cartoon series, there are a few pops and crackles here and there but those aside this show is as stunning to watch today as the day it first aired.
The script for ‘On Leather Wings‘ was provided by Mitch Brian who would go on to write 1994 episode ‘Bane‘. There’s a good mix of dialogue and action and sets the tone well for the ongoing series. What ‘BtAS‘ does so well over any other series it not treat the audience as children, ironic for a series marketed to them in the first place. ‘BtAS‘ knew that it would be watched by Bat-fans old and young and caters to all of them in spades by not dumbing itself down.
‘On Leather Wings‘ might not roll out the pomp-and-ceremony of The Joker for it’s opening episode but what is does bring is buckets of character and style and it will forever remain and an episode that I jump back to when I feel a craving to watch the series.
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