For any Batman fan of a certain age, Terry McGinnis is as true a Dark Knight as the best of them—and the best has always been Bruce Wayne. This is in no small part thanks to Will Friedle’s dryly counterintuitive performance as a teenage superhero. In different hands, it could be as irreverent as Peter Parker, but Friedle acutely underplays the youthfulness, which brings out something darker and harder even even when he’s being “schway.” Yet the casting of Friedle in the star role of Batman Beyond had everything to do the actor’s other beloved millennial touchstone role… as the idiot savant Eric Matthews on Boy Meets World.
This was one of several amusing surprises at this past weekend’s San Diego Comic-Con where Batman Beyond marked its 20th anniversary. In addition to revealing that the animated sequel to Batman: The Animated Series would finally be getting a high-definition transfer to Blu-Ray later this year, the panel was full of anecdotes, including Friedle learning he needs to send the Bruce Timm household a nice bottle of wine.
“It was my wife,” says Bruce Timm, producer and co-creator of Batman Beyond. “My wife and I would watch TGIF. We liked the Sabrina show and Boy Meets World, and my wife said, ‘First of all that guy’s really good-looking.’ And I went, ‘Yeah, he’s pretty good-looking, I guess.’ And she says, ‘He’s got a really great voice.’ And a couple of weeks into it, we’re like, ‘Yeah, he really is a very good actor,’ and it just stuck in my head. When Batman Beyond came up to [needing] to cast the part, my wife mentioned him again. She’s like, ‘You know who would be any good?’”
Friedle then noted (after some faux-distress at Timm listing Sabrina before Boy Meets World) that “I seriously would not be sitting here if your wife wasn’t a fan of the show. That’s awesome.”
For his part, Friedle still seems genuinely thankful that Batman Beyond was his first voice acting role, which opened up a whole new career path for him. It also was a hell of a way to begin with folks like Timm and Kevin Conroy in the sound booth, the latter reprising his iconic performance as Bruce Wayne. In fact, Conroy and Friedle were almost always able to record together in the booth so as to bring pop to Bruce and Terry’s central relationship.
“I’m sitting next to Kevin Conroy and it’s like ‘okay, go,’” Friedle recalls of his first recording. “And at first, I had no idea what to do, sitting literally slouched in front of the microphone. And Kevin’s going, ‘Alright, roll your shoulders back.’ He mentored me in the voiceover world like Bruce Wayne.”
The series itself felt like an unusual stroke of luck and creative kismet, as a questionable corporate order imposed on Bruce Timm and company to produce a “teenage Batman” show—while they were still in the midst of producing The New Batman Adventures and Superman: The Animated Series—resulted in a subversive and creative gem that acted as perfect companion piece to Batman: The Animated Series, as opposed to a soulless reboot of it. (That came later.)
“Everyone’s kind of sitting there like deer in the headlights,” Timm says of when the idea was first suggested. “Uh is this happening? And I started riffing, like, ‘Well, if we don’t want to throw out all this continuity we’ve built into it, why don’t we set the show in the future, and maybe Bruce Wayne is too old to be Batman? He has to pass the torch on to a younger guy.’” With it literally greenlit in the same conversation, Timm and producer Glen Murakami used it as an opportunity to push boundaries even further than they had on Batman: The Animated Series in crafting a children’s show, as well as taking a sharp right turn away from that series’ already iconic imagery.
“We were trying to [go against] what we were getting typecast for,” Murakami says. “Dark deco, film noir, and stuff like that. We were like, let’s show everybody what we can do. We can do this sort of more anime stuff, and we can do a different style of editing and a different style of music. We were just kind of getting branded as old-fashioned, probably because of Superman.”
Murakami then notes that Batman Beyond became, ironically, more serialized and about satirizing corporate greed at Wayne Enterprises, making it arguably more sophisticated than their earlier superhero shows despite having a teenage hero.
“Also there was often a level of violence too,” Timm says. “With that pilot, everyone was just like, ‘Whaaat?’”
Murakami adds, “We just took everything we were told to do and subverted it and made the show we wanted.”
This also amusingly led to a struggle in getting the industry on board with what the new series became.
Says Timm, “A lot of freelance writers pitched us stories that basically sounded like the old Batman: The Animated Series in the future. They didn’t really seem to embrace this is a whole new show. We needed to keep certain familiar elements, but at the same time, we wanted to say this show is really about the two characters, it’s not about one guy. So these guys are yammering at each other throughout the whole show, which we never had before on Batman: The Animated Series.”
The result is an animated series that not only proved to be a worthy successor to Batman: The Animated Series, but is 20 years later getting a sparkly new Blu-ray release, also announced at SDCC. As still the epilogue of the DC Animated Universe from the 1990s and 2000s, some would argue it remains the best “Batman ending” to date. Schway, indeed.