We’ve enjoyed Christopher Nolan’s monster hit Batman movies as much as anybody – okay, anybody over 30 who doesn’t still live with his mom – but public acceptance of Christian Bale’s angst-ridden Drano-gargling version of the Caped Crusader doesn’t mean it’s impossible to enjoy a lighter take as long as it’s well done.

Cartoon Network’s animated series Batman: The Brave and the Bold has been very well done this year, and more entertaining than half of the stuff we’re currently being offered by the major broadcast networks.

This is a team-up show that pairs Batman with a different unlikely partner each week, earning laughs through the contrast of personalities with second-string characters like Plastic Man and Blue Beetle. It not only works in time-honored buddy movie fashion, it also allows some fresh air into what’s become an increasingly constricted and constipated franchise by making it possible to laugh at Batman again. Produced by DC Comics’ parent Warner Brothers, the series doesn’t go so far as to question the goofiness of the whole capes-and-masks thing that pays the bills, but it does have occasional fun with the grim self-righteousness that’s come to encase the Batman character like a straitjacket in recent years.

The show works best when it adds a touch of retro charm to the fun. A good example is the two-parter beginning Friday (8 p.m. ET/7 p.m. CT) with the episode “Deep Cover for Batman.” This is a walk into the parallel-worlds concept that gets a lot of play in DC Comics these days, in this case a world where the good guys we’re familiar with have evil counterparts and the customary villains are beleaguered heroes.

552a019Batman counterpart Owlman is head of the parallel-world Injustice Syndicate, a group whose depredations are barely held in check by a handful of heroes spearheaded by the mysterious Red Hood. When the Syndicate learns the existence of other worlds like theirs, they plan to descend on our Earth like Vikings on a long weekend. Fortunately, Batman gets the drop on Owlman and infiltrates the gang disguised as his own…uh…bad self.

It’s an entertaining episode, and a good setup for next week’s conclusion that sees Owlman turning the tables and doing some serious public relations damage to Batman by terrorizing Gotham City in a bat-suit, setting the law and our hero’s friends against him.

Pursued on all sides, Batman reluctantly makes a devil’s deal with the Joker, who’s miffed at having been deprived of his ongoing game for mastery of Gotham. In some of the series’ most cleverly scripted exchanges, they set out to counter Owlman’s war on our Earth while struggling with their instinctive desires to betray each other in the process.

Here’s where the retro stuff is most effective. Fanboys will enjoy the 553b009episode’s brief tour of the Batcave and its old-school souvenirs. The big-time batfans will surely give themselves points for noting that Owlman’s version of the bat-suit is the same one that Batman wore in his 1939 debut. And best of all – at least for boomer parents – is the design work on the Joker, a deliberate throwback to the highly stylized work of beloved 1950s comics artist Dick Sprang.

Yes, it’s another superhero cartoon series, but one that’s imaginatively produced and written with the whole family in mind. It’s sure to stay around in reruns, and has already gotten the nod for a full season. Even those who prefer their Batman hardboiled like the current big-screen incarnation will find it a refreshing palate cleanser among the superguys who are following The Dark Knight’s lead into adventures that are increasingly gritty and decreasingly fun.

February 27, 2009 · Posted in Family TV