On Leather Wings

  Batman tangles with a Jekyll-and-Hyde man-bat creature.
  Original Airdate: September 6, 1992
  Episode # 1
  Rating: * * * 1/2

Credits Cast

Written by Mitch Brian
Directed by Kevin Altieri
Music by Shirley Walker
Animation by Spectrum

Kevin Conroy as Bruce Wayne
Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. as Alfred
Bob Hastings as Commissioner Gordon
Robert Constanzo as Bullock
Richard Moll as Harvey Dent

Lloyd Bochner as Mayor Hill
Rene Auberjonois as Dr. March
Meredith Macrae as Francine
Pat Musick as Lab Technician
Marc Singer as Langstrom

This is the one that showed us something new, that convinced us that The Animated Series was not going to be just another animated series.

Start with the dark and smoky visuals. Batman is a creature of the urban night, and it's always been disorienting—even slightly comical—to see him running around in the daytime. So to see him in a story that takes place almost entirely after dusk immediately told us that the producers understood the character and how to make him look good. No one outside the comics had done that (excepting the inspirational 1989 Burton film) in forty years of trying.

But the trick they pull off here is more than a matter of framing the hero inside a black spotlight. In BTAS (instantly so, in this episode) the darkness is made palpable, pressing in from the corners of the frame to swallow the picture. The characters do not just inhabit the dark: they swim in it. Even in the daylight they stand in the shade, or turn their backs to the light so that their faces remain opaque. This is a story in which the shadows come alive.

It's the story also of men and their shadows, of men overshadowed when their shadow-selves come to life. Kirk Langstrom is a scientist obsessed with bats, and who has succeeded in turning himself into one, to the ruin of his life. There's a comparison to be made to his adversary, Batman, a fellow mortal who has similarly succeeded in turning himself into a new kind of creature. Surprisingly, there is no real attempt made to develop this contrast within the scope of this episode. But in retrospect perhaps one can find in the story of Langstrom—the man who loses himself in another, constructed identity—a forward-looking, cautionary lesson for our hero. In "On Leather Wings" Batman has little of the psychological darkness or reticence we've grown used to; he smiles and jokes even when in costume. Yet the entire series, through its culminating TNBA episodes (where even as Bruce Wayne, billionaire playboy, he has grown cold and severe), can be seen as gradually putting Batman through the same transformation as Langstrom. Would the Bruce Wayne of "On Leather Wings" be proud or appalled to meet the Batman of "You Scratch My Back" (let alone the age-obsessed codger of "Out of the Past")?

All on its own, the episode works superbly as a monster movie. If the action sequences were surpassed by later episodes, they still remain taut and thrilling. But this, almost uniquely, also has a compelling political tinge. Though it is not clear what Batman's relationship is to Gordon, precisely, you can definitely see that his is not a welcome presence in Gotham. An air of paranoia and double-dealing pervades the story: In Mayor Hill we sense a weak and gutless politician, and in the impatient Bullock and the armored policemen the menace of incipient fascism. More shadows in the daylight.

There are places where you feel the series has not quite discovered itself: a score that relies too heavily on motifs by Elfman; some excessively "wild" body language by a few characters; and Conroy here hasn't yet quite found the right balance of energy and gravitas. And yet to look at it again is to be struck at how nearly fully-formed the series emerged, in its look and it tone and its bravura story-telling. Few, if any, series that I know of have ever differed so radically from what came before and yet were so instantly and unchangeably right. Which is yet another mark of what a great success the series was.

Production Notes
Bruce Timm on Batman: "He's actually pretty chatty in that episode, strangely enough. We still hadn't quite nailed down his personality yet. I mean, he's joking with Alfred in the Batcave and stuff. He wasn't quite the Batman that we really wanted him to be, but we were playing around with things and trying to see what things would work."

Related Episodes
   * Terror in the Sky
   * Tyger Tyger
   * Moon of the Wolf
   * Critters
   * Splicers
   * A Bullet for Bullock
   * Vendetta

What Others Are Saying ...
"... showcases the sensibilities of Altieri at his best, abandoning dialogue (did you want to talk the big bat-thing to death?) for the exceptional flight sequences. There may not be as much wit in the script as in later scripts, usually Dini's, but it's an easy sacrifice."Alex Weitzman, The Big Cartoon Database

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