Batman, TV, Comics

Batman: The Animated Series – 25 Years Later

This originally ran in 2017 for the 25th anniversary of Batman: The Animated Series.

Twenty-five years ago today, Batman: The Animated Series premiered with both a Saturday morning episode and a different episode in primetime on FOX. It ran for 109 episodes and a theatrical movie, launched three spinoff series, and influenced the design of DC animated projects to this day. For many, Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill are the definitive voices of Batman and the Joker, still providing their voices for video games and other projects. It introduced Harley Quinn and Renee Montoya, both of whom are now mainstays in the comics, games, and live action. And it’s my favorite version of Batman.

At the time, superhero animation was in a dire state. DC had a couple of blink-and-you-missed-them projects with Ruby-Spears in the mid-Eighties but had otherwise disappeared from the scene. Marvel’s X-Men was doing well but its over-rendered art, clunky animation, and clumsy writing made it a tough watch. And then, producers Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski burst onto the scene with this gorgeous style with streamlined character designs and an Art Deco aesthetic. Dropping all the unnecessary rendering made the animation smoother and this Batman moved the way Batman should. Once it aired, it was impossible to imagine doing Batman any differently.

For context, the Batman comics of the time were in the middle of a long-running storyline where Bane broke his back and Azrael replaced Bruce Wayne as Batman before becoming a sociopath. With the story complete, it’s clear now that Knightfall and its follow-ups were meant as a commentary on the over-the-top heroes of the nineties. But reading the comics month to month at the time sure felt like just another over-the-top hero of the nineties. That same year, Batman Returns hit theaters and while I have some affection for that movie, it isn’t a Batman movie. It’s a Tim Burton movie that borrows Batman trappings. So, and this is hard to believe in 2017, we were hard up for Batman stuff.

And man, it was unlike anything anybody was doing at the time or even now. The show was dark. I don’t mean “grim”, though it did lend itself to more adult themes and sometimes realistic violence. It was dark. The backgrounds were created using light colors on black paper rather than dark colors on white paper, and though that’s a little hard to picture, just watch a few minutes of the show and you’ll see a clear visual difference between B:TAS and most other animation. Every episode opened with a fully-painted, individual title card. This practice went away as the show went on but it lends those first sixty-five or so episodes some extra class.

The voice talent was stellar – as I mentioned, Kevin Conroy is the definitive Batman for many. He used different voices for Bruce Wayne and Batman in a way that the movies have tried to replicate without success ever since. Mark Hamill (a last-minute replacement for Tim Curry), gave the Joker a manic energy that bounced from silly to terrifying. The show was populated with character actors like Ron Perlman, Bob Hastings, John Glover, and Paul Williams (as Clayface, Commissioner Gordon, Riddler, and Penguin, respectively), and it sounds amazing. These are vocal performances, not celebrity cameos. All credit there goes to Casting Director Andrea Romano, who went on to fill that role on virtually every DC animated project until her recent retirement. I can’t stress enough how different the voice acting was than anything else at the time. Yes, Hamill’s Joker is broad but it’s supposed to be. People like John Vernon and Adrienne Barbeau gave these wonderful, subtle performances. There isn’t this need to convey everything through sound in case the animation screws up because the animation didn’t screw up. Changes in emotion could be small and quiet. Having done some recent rewatching, I’m struck again by how terrifying Richard Moll’s Two-Face performance is. It’s not big and broad but especially when contrasted with Moll’s Harvey Dent, it’s a voice that’s tapping new reservoirs of hate.

And the writing. Oh man, the writing. Watching it now, it’s crazy to see how deliberate the pacing could be. People walk across a room to get something, which you never see anymore. The writing felt more like the best of Batman comics rather than something that was going to run in syndication. Early on there were many adaptations of classic Batman stories, sometimes adapted by the original writer. Comic writers like Len Wein, Martin Pasko, and Joe R. Lansdale contributed scripts and helped set the tone. Alan Burnett, the first writer ever to show Batman’s origin outside of comics (in an episode of Super Friends, of all things), was there as a writer and producer. And there was this guy who had spent years plugging away on licensed projects named Paul Dini.

Dini is probably best known as the co-creator (with Bruce Timm) of Harley Quinn. And he wrote most of the Joker episodes of the show (including the classic “The Joker’s Favor”). But what can’t be overlooked is that he was the first person, thirty-three years after the character was introduced, to give Mr. Freeze an origin. And the unexpectedly tragic backstory he created for Victor Fries in “Heart of Ice”, the episode that made it clear something special was happening on this show, has become the standard for every version of Freeze. The comics adopted the sad story of the terminally ill Nora Fries and made it central to the oft-forgotten character. It’s the origin in Batman and Robin, the Arkham games, Gotham, and every other Mr. Freeze who’s appeared since then. B:TAS and Paul Dini in particular, resurrected Mr. Freeze from obscurity in the same way that Batman ’66 and Frank Gorshin restored the Riddler decades before.

The series resurrected and refocused other classic villains. The modern versions of Mad Hatter and Clayface owe a lot to their portrayal here. I think you could make the case that Poison Ivy is significantly more prominent today because B:TAS found so many ways to make stories about plant control interesting. If not for this show, I think both Ivy and Freeze would have been shelved for a while after the disastrous Batman and Robin. It cemented Lucius Fox as a major part of the Batman mythos and it was the first appearance outside comics for modern mainstays like Ra’s al Ghul and Killer Croc. By taking the best of Batman up to that point and distilling it to a single perfect portrayal, Batman: The Animated Series shaped all subsequent Batman across all media.

The Batman on display here is taciturn, but not above an occasional joke.  He’s a skilled fighter but not Dark Knight Returns-brutal.  He’s stern and compassionate – we often saw Bruce Wayne help the genuinely penitent get back on their feet, a story point that continues in the comics to this day.  No matter what version of Batman you grew up with, this Batman channeled and refined it.

After its initial run in syndication, new episodes moved to Saturday mornings. The title was unofficially changed to The Adventures of Batman and Robin as both Robin and Batgirl became regulars. (Up to that point, a college-age Dick Grayson appeared only sporadically.) The painted title cards went away and the beautifully abstract opening sequence gave way to a Mr. Freeze battle scene. But other than those cosmetic changes, it was largely the same show. The big change came in 1997, almost two years after the last new episode had aired.

Batman was relaunched as a companion to the new Superman: The Animated Series. Superman came from the same producers and used Batman‘s art style, though Metropolis was not nearly as dark and more retro-futurist than art deco. The shows were set in the same universe and crossed over on several occasions. And in the process, Batman and his world were redesigned. It wasn’t anything radical, though it seemed so at the time. If anything, the designs were streamlined even further. Batman lost the yellow oval in his chest symbol and all the blue in his costume gave way to black. The villains looked weirder, though still clearly the people they had been before. Joker had light blue skin and black eyes. Scarecrow had been redesigned to look more ghoulish. Freeze was even more gaunt and inhuman (a change that had story reasons – the reveal made me, twenty-two years old at the time, actually scream while watching the episode). The pace was more frenetic than the early episodes with a bigger focus on superhero action.

There are fans who absolutely hate this change, but I still love The New Batman Adventures. In-universe, crimelord Rupert Thorne stepped down and sought redemption so the lack of normal human criminals as antagonists made sense. There were some brilliant episodes in the mix, including “Mad Love”, which everybody loves but then has to ignore in order to still romanticize Harley and the Joker. This last run of episodes introduced the Creeper, gave the Ventriloquist some closure, turned Dick Grayson into Nightwing, and brought in Tim Drake as the new (tiny) Robin. It gave us the Christmas episode “Holiday Knights”, brought Firefly to television, and thankfully redesigned the Penguin. See, since Batman Returns was right at the same time as the original series, they ended up using a Burton-esque Penguin design. Not full on sewer mutant, but still deformed. The revamped series restored him to his classic design and cast him in his “legitimate businessman” role (heavy sarcasm on “legitimate”).

Batman eventually wrapped but gave way to Batman Beyond from largely the same creative team, set in the far future where an elderly Bruce Wayne mentored young Terry McGinnis as the new Batman. It featured a mostly new cast, though Mr. Freeze and Ra’s al Ghul showed up for farewell appearances and it spawned the home video release Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker which tells the story of the last time Batman fought the Joker and how he returned from the grave. It’s excellent and chilling.

In 2001, the established versions of Batman and Superman went on to a new Justice League series from the same producers. Several Batman villains turned up in the early years, including Joker and Clayface, and in what was intended to be the series finale (though it got one more renewal), Paul Dini wrapped up his version of the Joker and set up the connective tissue for Batman Beyond in the stunning “Epilogue”. It has one of my favorite Batman scenes in any medium where Batman simply sits on the swings with a massively powerful but terminally ill child. He sits there with her as she dies and his presence and love keep her calm and happy, so the psychic backlash doesn’t destroy the city. It’s a perfect statement on Batman.

Since then, most DC animated projects have used the basic design of B:TAS. There have been tweaks like the chunkier, kid-friendly Brave and the Bold designs or the more anime-influenced Young Justice, but the basic approach of streamlining design so the characters look and move better remains in place. Bruce Timm and Alan Burnett are still making direct-to-DVD animated videos, many of which still use the B:TAS style and some of which still star Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill. Conroy voices Batman on the current Justice League Action. Harley Quinn (admittedly unrecognizable) is in a live-action movie. Victor Fries, with the Dini-created backstory, has a recurring role on Gotham as do some previously-forgotten characters revitalized by B:TAS like the Mad Hatter and Hugo Strange. It casts a long shadow and Batman as a character is stronger because of Batman: The Animated Series.

The complete series is streaming on Amazon Prime (Five years later update – HBO Max!) and the theatrical Batman: Mask of the Phantasm just hit Blu-Ray for the first time. Check out Phantasm. Or if you want to check out some episodes, try “Heart of Ice”, “Beware the Gray Ghost” (guest-starring Adam West!), “Feat of Clay”, “Joker’s Favor”, “Appointment in Crime Alley”, “The Laughing Fish”, “I Am the Night”, “Harley and Ivy”, “The Man Who Killed Batman”, “Almost Got ‘im”, “Harelequinade”, “Bane”, “Read My Lips”, “Showdown”, “Holiday Knights”, “Cold Comfort”, “Mad Love”, or “Legends of the Dark Knight”. Take a look at the “World’s Finest” three-parter (technically part of Superman: The Animated Series but it’s a full crossover). There are so many fantastic episodes and some of my all-time favorite Batman stories. Twenty-five years and B:TAS feels like something that should be on the air today. It’s the best of Batman, and I say that as a guy who really likes Batman.

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