By Ken Tucker
Updated January 15, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

Since 1995, film director Joel Schumacher and his minions have turned the big-screen Batman franchise into a site of dour, cluttered camp decadence. It may sound silly to say about a comic-book creation, but Batman needed his dignity back, and during this same period, he got it from writer-producers Paul Dini, Bruce Timm, and Alan Burnett’s daily afternoon TV cartoon, Batman: The Animated Series, which debuted on Fox in ’92 (and whose episodes are currently folded into The WB’s The New Batman/Superman Adventures). Harking back to the serene, chiaroscuro style of the cult-favorite Superman cartoons that the Fleischer brothers produced in the ’40s (as well as the broody Tim Burton-directed Batman flicks), Dini, Timm, and Burnett proffered the grave, hard-boiled Batman that hardcore fans craved, that jaded kids would find hip, and that adults could latch onto with nostalgic force.

Now Dini and company have gone one step further, audaciously reinventing the character by literally taking Batman into the future. The result is Batman Beyond, the new Kids’ WB! animated series and a remarkable step forward in the Batman mythos.

Well into the next millennium, Bruce Wayne is about 80 years old, a gray-haired husk of his former self; in order to approximate his standard Batman derring-do, he’s designed a bulletproof costume with retractable wings that enable him to soar over Gotham City. But his bones creak; his reflexes are jittery. He’s living in semiretirement, alone (butler Alfred is dead) and grumpy. It takes all of billionaire-businessman Wayne’s declining energy to stave off the constant hostile takeover attempts of his unwanted Wayne Industries partner, Derek Powers.

Enter Terry McGinnis, a prickly, ambitious teenager who persuades Wayne to let him become the new Batman — to don the magic suit and fight crime. The hour-long premiere of Batman Beyond sets up a satisfyingly wary mentor-disciple relationship. It’s familiar, but it works, because the artwork is alternately menacing and flashy, and the voice performances (Kevin Conroy is, as always, Wayne/Batman; Will Friedle — Eric on Boy Meets World — is Terry) are convincingly earnest and low-key.

Watching Batman Beyond, you can pick out the writers’ influences — there’s a bunch of young lawless thugs, the Jokerz gang, who’ll remind grownups of the Droogs in A Clockwork Orange, for example — but that sense of pop-culture history only adds to the series’ allure. Where Schumacher’s cinematic stumbles (such as the Arnold Schwarzeneggered Mr. Freeze) left most viewers cold, the new, black-winged, red-blooded Batman on display Saturday mornings will have you pouring a steaming mug of coffee and shouldering aside any nearby children to catch all the fresh fun and action. A-

Batman Beyond

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