Children of today can probably hardly imagine a world in which super heroes aren’t dominating the pop culture landscape. We’re in an era where even the Fantastic Four have received three chances at making a successful movie and less popular characters like Antman and Dr. Strange have either become mainstream or soon will. That wasn’t the case before 1990. Prior to that, only Batman and Superman had ever made a buck at the box office while The Incredible Hulk had a semi-successful television series for Marvel. When it came to cartoons, there was basically the many variations on the Super Friends and the Marvel Action Hour. The quality for these cartoons was something less than satisfactory.
When Tim Burton and Michael Keaton helped to make Batman popular once again, the powers that be at DC and Warner Bros. decided to give television another go with the caped crusader. Instead of another colorful super hero mash-up they opted to adapt the more current iteration of Batman. The resulting “Batman” (often subtitled “The Animated Series)” returned Batman to the night from which he was born. Developed chiefly by Eric Radomski, Bruce Timm and Paul Dini, the show embodied much of the recent films as well as the tone of the current comics. Robin was there, but only in a handful of episodes initially and he no longer dressed like Tinker Bell’s older brother. Villains that were popular on the older 60’s television program returned, but with a more serious take. Joining them were the more grounded villains like Roland Dagget and Rupert Thorne, mobsters who waged war from the comfort of their homes. Adding even more of a sense of realism to the program was the fact that the villains (and cops) carried and fired realistic weaponry as opposed to cartoonish laser guns that are always conveniently set to stun.
The Batman present in the animated series was not the ever-present optimist from the 60’s with the serious, but often cheerful, demeanor. This Batman, voiced exceptionally well by Kevin Conroy, was a moody, no nonsense, hero who truly embodied the term The Dark Knight. He’s driven by a quiet anger, it’s root cause being the murder of his parents he bore witness to as a child. Batman is fiercely driven and consumed by his urge to avenge his parents by cleaning up the streets of Gotham, a seemingly never ending task. His alter-ego Bruce Wayne exists only as a cover for Batman. This Batman has a lot in common with Frank Miller’s, only the delivery isn’t so heavy-handed and extreme. As usual, Batman has allies around him. By his side is his butler, Alfred Pennyworth, who is more of a sidekick in the series as opposed to a moral arbiter. That role falls to Dr. Leslie Tompkins who often counsels Batman away from his life of crime-fighting. Commissioner Gordon heads the Gotham police department and relies on Batman probably more than he should while Detective Bullock is Gordon’s foil and often mistrusts the Batman. Robin is also around with an equally tragic backstory and Batgirl eventually comes into the fold during the second “season.”
Batman has no shortage of allies but he’d be nothing without his rogue’s gallery. The usual suspects are present such as The Joker (voiced by Mark Hamill) and Penguin. They’re presented well, but the show is best remembered for its fresh approach when adapting the lesser villains. Two-Face is introduced slowly as district attorney Harvey Dent before his eventual transformation. His character is handled with care and his sympathetic nature is sort of a calling card for the series. The villain most often cited as coming out of the show for the better is Mr. Freeze. Once a fairly corny player in the comics, the depiction of Freeze in the animated series is that of a vindictive killer. Juxtaposing his cold demeanor is the origins for his madness over his wife’s apparent murder. His debut episode, “Heart of Ice,” is often mentioned among the show’s best. The show doesn’t always rely on its villain of the week (day, actually, since the program aired week days originally) as illustrated in “Beware the Grey Ghost.” In this episode, the show runners have some fun by pairing Batman with an out of work actor typecast for his work as a super hero in an old television show. His voice actor? None other than Adam West.
The artwork in the show is heavily based off of the set designs of Eric Radomski and the character designs of Bruce Timm. If you are not familiar with Timm’s work, it’s a low-detail approach with lots of angular lines. Lots of pointy-chinned females and square-headed males populate the show. His take on the various villains is often influenced by both classic works and the Burton films. Joker and Penguin are obviously takes on Jack Nicholson’s Joker and Danny DeVito’s more monstrous Penguin. Catwoman too resembles her look from Batman Returns but with the S&M aspect toned down. There’s a minimalist approach to the details with lots of flat, muted colors. Backgrounds were even done on black paper, most noticeably the opening title sequence, with light colors painted over them. This technique is credited to Radomski and often referred to as “Dark-Deco.” The show’s biggest contribution to the world of Batman though is easily the character of Harley Quinn, who first originated on television before making the leap to comics.
Whether you like the look of the show or not is a matter of opinion. It certainly needed to grow on me, but I appreciated the style of the show. Like the Burton films, Gotham is a modern city rooted in the stylings of the 30s and 40s. Batman possesses some pretty advanced technology but for some reason also watches a black and white television half the time. The low detail approach for the show’s look is a benefit to the animation itself. Rather than the somewhat stiff X-Men, Batman animates rather smoothly. The later series, The New Batman Adventures, who further reduce the detail to boost the animation but some would suggest they went too far as certain characters came across as too cartoonish.
Batman The Animated Series is truly one of the great achievements in kid’s programming. Its serious approach to the character of Batman and his many villains really enhanced the product above what is typically expected of children’s programming. The only thing holding it back is the show’s consistency. It was originally ordered as one season of 65 episodes which is a pretty daunting task to come up with 65 well-executed episodes. The show is often one of those programs where the good episodes are really special but there’s a lot of filler to work around. The show becomes more watered-down when the short second season is added to the mix as well as The New Adventures which surfaced years later. That run produced maybe 2 or 3 worthy episodes with the rest being kid stuff, sadly.
Even so, the good produced by Batman The Animated Series is worthy enough to place it at fifth on my top ten list for animated television programs. The show also spawned some feature films, though only one was released theatrically, the fantastic Mask of the Phantasm. When the films jumped the shark with Batman Forever and Batman and Robin, it was the animated series that kept Batman relevant. It’s unlikely another super hero show could ever surpass it.