Batman: The Animated Series: Even Better (and More Important) Than You Remember


By: Brandon Crnkovic (@BCrnk)

Batman: The Animated Series premiered on September 5th, 1992. Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, Alan Burnett, and Eric Radomski produced the series for Warner Brothers Television. It would go on to spawn two feature-length films, video games, spin-off comics, and multiple sequel animated series. The show received almost universal acclaim and even won many awards including Emmys. Timm and Radomski, the creators, showed far more thoughtfulness and respect for the characters and the intended audience than a usual children’s show, and this allowed for a smart, gripping, and more adult cartoon than anyone expected. A powerful score, visceral action sequences, and a heavy dose of tragic storytelling combined with unique artistic vision, dynamic voice acting, and creators who knew when to lean on the source material and when to make the story their own gave us one of the most well-regarded television properties of all time. In retrospect, it is even better – not to mention more important – than you might remember.

The first four seasons (85 episodes) appeared on Fox but two more seasons (25 episodes) were later added by Warner Brothers and combined with the originals to run alongside episodes of Superman: The Animated Series, another Timm project in a shared universe, as part of The New Batman Superman Adventures block of programming on the WB network. The new episodes were rendered in a more streamlined, artistic style to match the Superman series and the character designs were revised significantly. However, as a continuation of the older episodes, the fictional history, musical themes, and most of the voice actors remained consistent with the originals. For marketing purposes, both the original and new episodes were advertised by multiple names including Batman: The Animated Series, The Adventures of Batman and Robin, and The New Batman Adventures. For the purposes of this article, both sets of episodes will be collectively referred to as Batman: The Animated Series or BTAS for short.

Like the Tim Burton Batman films, the animators wanted to establish a sense of timelessness. Stylistically, there are many visual and storytelling elements which harken back to the great film noir detective stories of old but with modern and often futuristic notions of technology thrown in for good measure. The animation was visually dark. Art-deco inspired architecture and other mid-century aesthetics set BTAS apart from its contemporaries but wireless technology, auto pilot, GPS, and more helped create a world that felt familiar and lived in but also impossible to pin down or predict. Moreover, the animators painted light colors on black backgrounds to create the distinctive look, the opposite of common practice at the time.

One of the things that stood out at the time and does so even more today is the musical score. Inspired by the iconic Fleischer Studios Superman shorts of the 1940s as well as other classic cartoons, BTAS used musical cues recorded by a live orchestra. Many characters were given their own theme and the music accentuated both the actions and emotions on screen. The early part of the series uses themes from Danny Elfman’s legendary scoring of the Burton films and even shares the title theme. Shirley Walker, the lead composer on the series, had worked with Elfman on the film and seamlessly integrated his work with new pieces in the same vein. Walker also often borrowed from classics in the public domain. For example, a memorable sequence in the episode “Christmas with the Joker” was set to a medley of themes from Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” suite.

BTAS was a smart series and included homages to classic works of film and literature as well as direct references. Music, poetry, Kubrick films, and more made their way into the show and even Frank Capra’s classic It’s a Wonderful Life makes an appearance. The episode “Beware the Gray Ghost” holds particular significance as 1960’s Batman actor Adam West guest starred as the voice of Batman’s childhood hero: the fictional Gray Ghost. This character also strongly resembles The Shadow, another influence on Batman and many other crimefighting characters from the 30s and 40s. Upon re-watching as an adult, the realization hits that details like television or radio broadcasts, newspaper headlines, and various advertisements point to other Warner Brothers properties, current events, and classic news stories.

Batman: The Animated Series was true to the source material in that it skewed towards darker subject matter more often than not. Victims were murdered, guns were realistic, and, though the violence never felt gratuitous, both good guys and bad were punched, kicked, flipped, and (once) even shot. Careful attention was paid to the trauma of Bruce Wayne’s childhood as well as the unfortunate origins and mental illnesses of Batman’s colorful Rogue’s Gallery. Two Face’s origin episode in particular spent quite a bit of time on the realities of Dissociative Identity Disorder even before Harvey Dent became the villain we know today. Perhaps the most poignant aspect of the show was how character driven it was. Batman achingly sacrificed pieces of his soul to remain vigilant at the cost of estranging friends or even rejecting chances at love. On the other side, tragic villains like Mr. Freeze were updated to show deeply personal motivations for their actions and criminal tendencies.

Mr. Freeze’s comic book portrayal was altered to match the well-received adaptation of the cartoon and this wasn’t the only updated character to impact the comics. The animated versions of Clayface, Clock King, Killer Croc, and more became the definitive versions of those characters while new names like Harley Quinn and Detective Renee Montoya were added to DC Comics continuity after finding fame on the small screen. When the second batch of episodes was created to run on the WB network, the animators moved the show forward a few years in time and Dick Grayson was shown in his Nightwing persona for the first time outside of the comic books while Tim Drake, the third and current Robin in print, became Batman’s new partner and ward on screen.

The series obtained a high level of exposure. There was a lot of merchandizing and the timing of the 90s Batman films only helped to keep the character at the forefront of popular culture. The action figure line from this series is extensive and still highly sought after by collectors. After the first 65 episodes, the show went into syndication and stayed that way on and off for years. Say what you will about West, Keaton, Kilmer, Clooney, Bale, and Affleck, but for many fans, Kevin Conroy’s voicework is the definitive Batman and Mark Hamill of Luke Skywalker fame holds the same significance as the definitive voice of the Joker. Unlike other animated programs at the time, BTAS voice recordings were done with multiple actors in the studio simultaneously. The voices were recorded at the same time just like they would have been on a live action show. The quality of the work combined with the fact that many of us listened to these voices every day after school cemented them into our minds and hearts forever.

Finally, Batman’s world always felt big. When dealing with foes like Ra’s al Ghul, Batman traveled to exotic places and flashback sequences showed a young Bruce Wayne training all over the world. Once the series was established, DC characters from outside the Batman mythos began to appear like Jonah Hex and Zatanna. Later, after the Superman series was created in the same fictional universe, crossovers and cameos became more prevalent and the universe blossomed to also include the series Batman Beyond, Static Shock, The Zeta Project, Justice League, and Justice League Unlimited. This was the first time outside of comic books that multiple properties coexisted with this level codependence or this much success. From the original broadcasts of the BTAS pilot to the JLU finale, 14 years elapsed which encompassed eight series, four feature films, and many short films, video games, and tie-in comics.

This series holds up because is an artisanal and painstakingly crafted love letter to the stories and characters that have inspired fans since Bob Kane and Bill Finger introduced us to the world of Batman in 1939. You can tell the cast and crew feel the despair and longing of the solitary hero, the thrill of soaring over the city, and the satisfaction of helping others which means you can’t help but feel it as well. Episodes like “Beware the Gray Ghost,” “Over the Edge,” “Showdown,” “Heart of Ice,” “The Demon’s Quest,” “Two-Face,” and the Emmy award-winning “Robin’s Reckoning” represent the gold standard in televised storytelling and are a great entry point into the medium for those that would prefer to sample the series instead of consuming all 110 episodes. However, I would recommend starting at episode one, “On Leather Wings,” and pushing on through the remainder of the episodes as well as the rest of the DC Animated Universe. You will be glad you did.

For those of us already initiated into this world, Bruce Timm stands tall among other greats in the industry. One could easily argue that Timm is this generation’s Stan Lee. Creators are either blessed or cursed to be known for their creations and visionaries like Stan Lee, Geoff Johns, Alan Moore, Jim Lee, Frank Miller, Brian Michael Bendis, and, yes, Bruce Timm are very blessed indeed though not so blessed as those of us who got to grow up enjoying the fruits of their labor. Thank you, Bruce.

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