Batman is a character we’ve seen reiterated time and again, always adapting to his latest case, whether that’s becoming a samurai, hunting Jack the Ripper, or transforming into a mutant in RWBY. Yet there’s one exception we rarely see — a Batman without a Joker to duel. More than most iterations of DC’s Caped Crusader, Beware the Batman understands that, in order to show new sides to Bruce Wayne, he needs a different mirror to hold up. So, it tosses out most of the familiar foes for Batman’s most obscure villains, save for Waylon “Killer Croc” Jones, Harvey Dent, and Deathstroke. To top things off, rather than another Robin, we have Katana as a proper equal partner to Batman.
It really speaks to how restrained the franchise has become over the years that this seemingly simple change does so much. Suddenly, you don’t know what each villain is instantly about or what they can do. Take for instance Jeff Bennett’s Simon Stagg. Stagg initially appears as a victim but becomes a hybrid of the Penguin and Lex Luthor, presenting a corporate cruelty to contrast against Bruce’s more noble endeavors. In just a few episodes, Stagg comes to represent how subtly evil can spread under the moral grays of the law, just out of reach.
Beware the Batman doubles down on this with Harvey Dent’s more restrained role as a crooked politician wielding the police like a cudgel, showing how, even with the costumed menaces arrested, there’s far more work to be done. Though Dent’s shift into Two-Face was clearly being established for a second season, the more reserved and callous portrayal by Christopher McDonald is plenty menacing without the scars. He’s almost enough to make you agree with the violent vigilante antics of Professor Pyg, Anarky, and Humphry Dumpler.
Where Poison Ivy, Riddler, and Joker have become fairly static characters over the years, their replacements here are a breath of fresh air. Pyg doesn’t simply protest pollution, but also the fur industry, by any means necessary. His new role in the creation of Manbat, and the iteration of Manbat as an ally in Batman’s quest to safeguard Gotham, is a welcome wrinkle that adds to the story. Normally, Pyg is clearly unhinged, but with Biran George assuming a demented Sherlockian affect paired beautifully with Udo Kier’s Bob Cratchit-esque Mr. Toad, we see his hypocrisy. It’s a side to his character that could’ve gone interesting places had the series run for more than one season. Yet nowhere are improvements more obvious than with Anarky.
Despite his own cackling with glee and pale redesign, Wallace Langham’s Anarky is a delightful alternative to Joker thanks to, of all things, his humility. As Harley Quinn’s writers put it, Joker is just a textbook narcissist with a parasympathetic deficiency. Anarky is a joyous troll, happy whether he wins or loses. He’s somehow even harder for Batman to truly top, because unlike Joker, there is no endgame for Anarky. He sees the corruption of Gotham, the twisted nature of its villains and heroes, and embraces it. He can’t change it, but boy can he have fun with it, whether that’s helping street punks become menacing, weaponized performance artists or helping the League of Shadows unleash their vengeance upon Gotham. It’s not a joke to him; it’s a playground. He’s just on the verge of total self-awareness of this world.
Rounding the main Beware the Batman supervillain trio out is the surprisingly unsettling Humpty Dumpty. Matt Jones’ delivery is as twisted as his dialogue, equal parts childish yet distinctly adult, warbling with a rasp that’s so uncanny it grabs your attention. Much like with Anarky, he has a distinct motivation that elevates him beyond a simple Riddler stand-in. He turned on the mob, but GCPD failed to protect the sharp-witted accountant.
The resulting turmoil shattered who he was, and his quest for revenge against those in power who hurt innocents caught in the crossfire is excellent. A supervillain based on Humpty Dumpty simply shouldn’t be this well written. He’s like a kid-friendly take on Saw’s Jigsaw — something I never thought I’d see, let alone done well.
Mind you, this isn’t to say that everyone’s a winner. Magpie might try to be Catwoman, but she lacks any real chemistry with Batman, resulting in a flatter character. A plot about clones, tying into a surprisingly deep-cut DC character, goes relatively nowhere. Silver Monkey is just a fake-out for the introduction of Lady Shiva. Killer Croc and Tobias Whale are well performed and written but are clearly meant to have payoff in a second season that never comes.
And then there’s Deathstroke. Slade Wilson is a solid character, but the Beware the Batman version is oddly immature. With so many brilliantly reinterpreted villains, he’s not that interesting by comparison to them. Robin Atkin Downes even struggles with the role despite giving several other strong performances in the show. Where the majority of the show is campy, yet serious, Deathstroke verges into pure soap opera.
Thankfully this is offset by the heroes that surround Batman. Sumalee Montano’s Tatsu “Katana” Yamashiro is a perfect foil for Batman, embodying the aspiring crime fighting energy of Dick Grayson alongside her CIA experience capturing the energy of The Batman’s Detective Ellen Yin. A buffer, tougher Alfred Pennyworth, voiced by J.B. Blanc, perfectly complements Katana’s graceful swordsmanship. His bare-knuckled brawling and sharp aim with a shotgun evokes Batman: Earth One’s rough ex-military background, yet he carries the sympathetic concern necessary to bring warmth to scenes in the Batcave.
Most unexpected though are two outsiders to the Bat Family, Metamorpho and the aforementioned Manbat. Metamorpho legitimately steals the spotlight whenever present, featuring an uncompromised portrayal of the troubled polymorphic hero. All the pain of his powers and emotional turmoil is there, belied by a heartfelt delivery from Firefly’s Adam Baldwin. It doesn’t hurt that Metamorpho’s introductory episode was written by the razor-sharp Greg Weisman of Young Justice.
Combine all this with a younger, leaner, meaner Batman, and you’ve got quite the cocktail. Though Kurtwood Smith’s Jim Gordon and Tara Strong’s Barbara Gordon bring a bit of that old-school Bruce Timm flavor, there’s no denying that Anthony Ruivivarr’s Batman isn’t a Kevin Conroy wannabe. Being so early in his journey, Bruce is still trying to find a balance in his life, regularly shunning companionship for the sake of his quest. Instead of it being a depressing spiral downwards, Beware the Batman takes the opposite route, with Batman learning, building relationships, and making new allies. In a world where the crooks work on both sides of the law, it’s up to the Outsiders to bring light back to Gotham.
I’d argue that’s Beware the Batman’s enduring legacy. For however many loose ends its single season is left with, the closing thesis is remarkably strong, as striking as the show’s art direction. The show never tries to copy, only drawing inspiration to form its own mythos for Batman. It’s a blissfully distinct timeline where a well-trodden formula finally gets to harness the sort of characters who might only get one episode a piece in a typical Batman series. Admittedly, I was among those fans who missed out at the time, but with the benefit of hindsight, I regret it. Beware the Batman is a bold experiment worth revisiting now that the whole series has been added to HBO Max. It might take some getting used to, but it’s absolutely worth a watch.